Charles F. Allison monologue to celebrate Mount Allison’s 175th anniversary
This monologue was originally performed in the Motyer-Fancy Theatre on May 9, 2015, at the 175th Anniversary Dessert Gala in the Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts during Reunion Weekend.
Well, the old place does look good if I do say so myself, better than I could have imagined when I proposed building a school back in — well now I’m dating myself, aren’t I? — back in 1839.
But here, I’m starting in the middle of the story, instead of the beginning. My name is Charles Frederick Allison and 175 years ago I was a merchant here in Sackville.
My grandfather Joseph emigrated from Ireland about 70 years before that. It seems Grandfather had a little dispute with the local rent collector. The man was invited to dinner and repaid the hospitality by telling Grandfather that if he could afford silver spoons, he could afford to pay more rent.
Grandfather did not take particularly kindly to this. He said he would leave Ireland before he paid a penny more in rent and being a man of his word — or possibly just rather stubborn — that he did. He packed up the silver spoons and his family and took ship for Philadelphia. But travel then being what it was, the ship was wrecked off Sable Island and my family ended up in Nova Scotia instead. Which proved to be fortuitous indeed for Sackville, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
I grew up in Nova Scotia but came to Sackville in 1816 — nearly 200 years ago. I was only 21 at the time. My cousin, William Crane, had need of a partner so we joined together and built a business out of distributing local produce and imported goods. We did very well together, William and I.
I was born into the Anglican church. Back then your religious affiliation impacted your life in a lot of ways. It determined what schools you could go to and into what society you were accepted. It opened doors — and barred them. And normally what you were born to, you died to.
But I chose a different path. When I was 38 I abandoned the Anglican church and began exploring the Methodist faith. And in 1836 I converted during a revival meeting conducted by an itinerant preacher. If you have ever visited Tweedie Hall, you may have noticed this commemorated in Mr. Colville’s painting: the horse’s a--, ahem, the horse that you see represents the preacher who changed the course of my life.
The Methodists believed pursuing social goals, like providing people with a good education, was inseparable from saving souls.
It weighed on my mind that the Maritime provinces were lacking schools in which to educate our young citizens.
I began to think of ways I could help remedy this. I have always believed that in everything we do, we must help people to help themselves and I can think of no greater way of helping people help themselves than by providing them with a solid education.
In the book of Proverbs it says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he shall not depart from it.” This verse was uppermost in my mind in May 1839 when I attended the annual meeting of the Wesleyan Methodist ministers in Saint John.
I should explain to you before I go on that I am no great orator. Or at least that I do not enjoy speaking in front of crowds. About a decade on from the period of which we are speaking I was offered an appointment to the provincial legislative council of the day. This I respectfully declined, having no urge to add my wind to that which was, even then, blowing about the council chambers. It was with difficulty that I was induced to speak to you tonight, but I finally consented on the grounds that there will only be one 175th anniversary and I should likely not be compelled to speak again for at least a quarter century.
What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I do not enjoy drawing attention to myself, but the issue of a school was so pressing that I quelled my usual reserve and stood to make a proposal at the annual ministers’ meeting.
I spoke to the assembly of the benefits that could be derived from the establishment of a school in Sackville, where students could learn English, Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural philosophy, astronomy, and chemistry. A school that would be open to all students, regardless of religion — you have to understand, we were quite segregated back then, so this was a novel thought.
And I offered to purchase land in Sackville for the school, to pay for the expense of constructing the necessary buildings, and to provide an annual income of 100 pounds for the first 10 years of its existence.
My proposal was warmly welcomed by those in attendance, though to be sure there were some who suggested Saint John — pah! — would be a better location. I insisted on Sackville, however. I have heard our current President refer to Sackville as the “centre of the universe” and I wholeheartedly agree. If we were going to build a school, then it should serve all of the Maritime provinces, and Sackville was perfectly situated to do just that.
And so, that was the beginning.
I purchased a little over five acres of land in 1840. The land rose slightly where we decided to build the first academy building and so got the name “Mount Allison.” Over time it was the school rather than the land that came to be known as Mount Allison — an unlooked for honour on my part and somewhat amusing for an edifice built in the middle of a marsh.
I had the pleasure of laying the cornerstone on July 9, 1840 — just across the street from where we are now.
Ah, it was a thing of beauty that first academy building — four stories high, with accommodations for professors, a large lecture hall, two classrooms, a library, dining room, and kitchen, and 40 rooms that could accommodate up to 160 boarders.
But it was not an inexpensive proposition. I promised to spend 4,000 pounds on construction, but it cost nearly 8,000 pounds in the end, so other Maritimers and the governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick chipped in to help cover the costs.
Finally, after a number of delays — I won’t dredge up old disputes, but let’s just say certain people were not being overly co-operative — we finally welcomed our first students in January 1843.
We wanted to open our doors to students from all social backgrounds, not merely the well-to-do, so we set tuition rates low enough that anyone should be able to attend. That provided us with scarcely half the necessary income to run the school. But then, as now, Mount Allison had good friends who saw the value in helping our young people receive the best possible education and we muddled through those first years.
The first academy was only open to young men, but I felt that our young women also deserved the opportunity for an education, so five years after we welcomed the first young men to our school, I felt it important to put 1,000 pounds toward the construction of an academy for girls.
The very first Ladies College in Canada opened right here in Sackville in 1854. Lest you think that big cities are the only places that are progressive.
From five acres I have watched the campus grow to 77, from one building to 38. And from a boys’ academy to an institute of higher learning where we began offering undergraduate degrees more than 150 years ago.
Mount Allison has, in most respects, surpassed all of my expectations. Who would have thought my small project in Sackville, New Brunswick would not only stand for 175 years, but also become known as the best undergraduate university in a country that didn’t even exist until decades later? It is a reward far beyond my ambition.
I confess I am not particularly thrilled with some of the extracurricular activities students engage in these days, having been president of the Sackville Middle Village Temperance and Total Abstinence Society. And you alumni, some of your behaviour this weekend has been shocking.
However, I do not regret my part in the founding of this great University. It was a delight to watch my vision brought to fruition.
And what fruit it has borne! Every year I see nearly 2,400 students congregate on this campus to devote themselves to learning. Then they leave this place to go out and transform the world around them.
But they remain, always, a part of Mount Allison. They are you, dear friends, who return to meet old friends and celebrate at Reunion. They are the alumni who volunteer their time and offer their treasure so that a new generation of students can take the places they once dearly held. They are those who pass along the secret of Mount Allison — that once you come here, you will never be without family, that here is a home you can always come back to.
Yes, much has changed, but the main principles on which the academy was founded remain: a desire to develop youthful minds, an ambition to serve students from all backgrounds and from all parts of the Maritimes and beyond, and a spirit of philanthropy.
It is the fulfilment of my hope and a legacy I am proud to put my name to.
Originally performed by Ian McMullen ('15)
Ian McMullen has just graduated with a B.A. majoring in drama studies and minoring in philosophy. Throughout his four years at MtA he has acted in many theatrical productions, and spent many hours working backstage as a carpenter and set painter. This year, in his final year at MtA, Ian directed two productions in the inaugural Moyter-Fancy Theatre season as well as performed in Tintamarre's bilingual comedy DÉTOURS. Ian is very thankful for all the opportunities that were provided to him at MtA and looks forward to a bright future as an actor and a theatre maker.
Monologue written by Aloma Jardine, in consultation with the Alumni Office and University Archivist David Mawhinney.