Samuel N. Robertson
S. N. Robertson (1869-1937)
Samuel Napier Robertson was born 6 July 1869 to Isabella Carruthers and John Scottie Robertson in Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island. He had three siblings: Sophia Elizabeth (b. 1868), Thomas (b. 1872), & Sarah (b. 1876).
On 15 October 1876, Samuel’s 31 year old father, a ship’s captain, drowned off the coast of Newfoundland. He is buried at the Free Church of Scotland Cemetery in Cape Traverse. Samuel would have been seven years old when his father died.
Following this tragedy, Samuel’s mother sent her two oldest children, Sophia and Samuel to live with her brother, Thomas Carruthers, in Lot 25, North Bedeque, Prince Edward Island. Interestingly, Samuel is listed twice in the 1881 Census, once as living with his aunt, uncle, cousin George, and sister Sophia, and the second time he is living with his mother in Lot 28, Cape Traverse area. This may have been the transition of moving from one area to the other. Young Samuel did settle in North Bedeque and his early schooling was spent there.
In 1884, after Samuel’s early education in a rural school in North Bedeque, Samuel attended Prince of Wales College where he graduated with honours. At his graduation, Samuel was awarded a medal for best student of the year.
After graduating from Prince of Wales College, Samuel attended Dalhousie University. He majored in the Classics and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1892. Upon his graduation, Samuel set his prospects on attending Cornell University, but due to the lack of funds, he returned to Prince Edward Island and took position as Principal of Alberton High School.
In 1894, Samuel was appointed to staff at Prince of Wales College. He taught English, Greek, and Latin. He was so passionate about Latin that he was known to have thrown Latin textbooks at distracted students.
Samuel can be found in the 1901 Census, living as a boarder in the home of Wallace and Ella Leitch, along with their 16 year old son, Roy, of Charlottetown. Roy Leitch would become a celebrated soldier, humanitarian, newspaper publisher, and a professor of English composition at Dalhousie University. Samuel Robertson, no doubt, had an influence on this young man, who attained the academic status of Canadian Rhodes Scholar.
In 1902, Samuel was appointed as Prince of Wales College’s third principal. His time as principal is colloquially known as the “Robertson Reign”, which reflected Samuel’s character as a strict, conservative, yet beloved, disciplinary figure.
Helen MacDonald’s memoir of Samuel Robertson, or “Dr. Sammie” as she affectionately called him, describes Robertson as a “master educational authority…” and recalls when he would stand in the foyer of PWC and look at his gold watch as he chastised late students.
By 1921, Samuel, age 51, was living at 113 Upper Prince St., Charlottetown, with his housekeeper, Sarah Gay. The following year, on 26 June 1922, Samuel married Annie Laura McGrath in Essex, New York.
Annie Laura McGrath was a well-educated woman. She was an alumnus of both Prince of Wales College and Dalhousie University, and received high honours from both schools. Annie was also an educator at Prince of Wales College before their marriage. Samuel was a devout member of the Church of Scotland and Annie was a Catholic; their matrimony would have been viewed as rather controversial at the time. However, despite their differences, their marriage was described as a devout love affair and a meeting of great minds.
Samuel was an ardent promoter of education. The lack of educated adults on the Island was a great concern to him. As a result, he pushed for legislation that would call for children to remain in school until they were at least 16 years old. Samuel was also concerned about consolidating the 414 one-room schools on Prince Edward Island because he did not think that all the groups (Scottish, Catholic, Protestant, and French) would be able to coexist in one school system. Individual student attention and the quality of rural schools was also on his agenda of debate.
However, Samuel Robertson’s legacy revolved around his great passion for books and libraries. Of all his concerns about the education system on Prince Edward Island, his greatest was the fact that the majority of schools neglected to have a library. His enthusiasm of the subject was so great that he donated his own personal book collection to ensure that the Prince of Wales College had a well stocked academic library.
Unfortunately, in 1932, Prince of Wales College was devastated by a fire that eliminated Samuel’s library collection. Articles about that night tell of Samuel being so distraught that he had to be restrained from going into the fire to try and save at least one book.
Without a school building, the students at Prince of Wales College only missed one day because of the fire. Samuel had arranged with the Board of Education for half-days to go on in schools throughout Charlottetown, so the semester would not be disturbed.
During his time as president at Prince of Wales College, Samuel transformed the school into one of the best preparatory schools in Canada.
On 3 October 1937, Samuel Napier Robertson died. His death was, according to the Guardian, sudden. He had died of heart attack, under a condition that he had been aware of, but that had not been giving him any recent concerns. His funeral was one of the largest held on Prince Edward Island. It took place at the Prince of Wales College and was attended by approximately 500 students. Regardless of his strict demeanour, Samuel was a noble and well-liked educator.
In 1975, the University of Prince Edward Island constructed the Robertson Library which was named after Samuel Napier Robertson. As of 2016, the library contains over 700,000 books and digital databases. Within the library, the UPEI Provenance Collection includes two of Samuel Napier Robertson’s books, identified with his signature: Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics, which can be viewed on this website, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
1881 Census of Canada. Census Place: Lot 25, Prince, Prince Edward Island; Roll: C_13162; Page: 3; Family No: 11.
1901 Census of Canada.Census Place: Charlottetown (City/Cité), Queen's (west/ouest), Prince Edward Island; Page: 19; Family No: 189.
1921 Census of Canada. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 105; Census Place: Charlottetown (City), Queens, Prince Edward Island; Page Number: 13.
“A.P.W.C. Mileston” The Charlottetown Guardian, 12 June 1947 p. 4. Accessed through islandnewspapers.ca.
“Appointments to Education Board.” The Charlottetown Guardian, 26 April 1932, p.1. Accessed through Island Newspapers.
Marian C. Bruce, “ROBERTSON, SAMUEL NAPIER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 8, 2017.
Marriage Records. New York Marriages. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, UT. Film number: 001029749
Moments in Time and Other Memories : A Compilation of Stories by Island Centennial Scholars. University of Prince Edward Island Extension Department, n.d. (PEI PS 8235 .S4 M65 1989/90)
Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island Birth Records. Year: 1867. Record Book Number: 1. Book Page: 52.
Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island Birth Records. Year: 1869. Record Book Number: 1. Book Page: 58.
Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island Birth Records. Year: 1872. Record Book Number: 1. Book Page: 62.
Roy Leitch. Ancestral Trails Genealogy ~ Life in the Past Lane
Roy Leitch. Roy Leitch.
“Samuel Napier Robertson, B.A., M.A. LL.D., 1869-1937.” University of Prince Edward Island Robertson Library.
“Sudden Death Yesterday of Dr. Robertson.” The Charlottetown Guardian, 04 October 1932, p.1. Accessed through Island Newspapers.
Image credit: UPEI Archives