School history

Shawnigan Lake School was founded in 1916 by Christopher Windley Lonsdale in a then-secluded west coast rainforest on Vancouver Island.
Modeled after Westminster School (the Founder’s alma mater), Shawnigan’s inaugural class consisted of six students. It would rapidly expand in its early years, and by the end of its first decade boasted nearly one hundred boarders, a well-equipped gymnasium, and a growing reputation of academic excellence.
In 1926, most of the original buildings were destroyed by a fire, only to be rebuilt within months.
As the years passed, Shawnigan withstood two world wars, economic crises and changing approaches to education to forge a place as one of the country's leading boarding schools.
Shawnigan made the move to co-education in 1988, and now boasts nearly 500 students. Nine residences now dot the School’s campus, along with a re-invented Learning Commons, an ice rink and an observatory.

List of 9 items.

  • The Early Years

    Shawnigan Lake School was founded on April 27, 1916, in the middle of a secluded rain forest, with six students and four staff in a 60 square foot teaching space. Between this building and the lake was a marsh full of sunken logs. 

    Shawnigan's first decade saw rapid growth from six students in 1916 to 92 students in 1926. The original Main Building was built, along with a gymnasium — which later became the Assembly Hall and is now today the Hugh C. Wilkinson Theatre. The Chapel was built in 1928. Mr. Lonsdale brought his sister, Mabel, from England to help run the school, and she developed a strong music program. High academic standards were established, and strong sports were developed.
    Tragedy struck in 1926, when the Main Building burnt to the ground. There were no injuries, but Mr. Lonsdale's dream seemed to be over. Many would have walked away, but Lonsdale did not. Along with his own significant investment, the Governors secured financing and the current Main Building was rebuilt in only eight months.
  • The Depression Era

    Shawnigan could not be shielded from the Stock Market Crash of Oct. 1929 which resulted in a lost decade of global economic growth. Nevertheless, Lonsdale continued to grow enrollment even in these difficult times. He established in the School's culture the ideal of helping families in need, and in many cases offset fees for parents who were struggling. In fact, there was at least one instance in which he accepted a hide of beef in lieu of fees!

    Thane Rogers ’35 recounted that his mother once received a letter from the Founder that read, "I don't know anything about your financial situation, but you needn't worry about Thane. We'll take care of him; we'll see him through."

    There is no question that Lonsdale would be proud of Shawnigan's current scholarship and bursary program.
  • The War Years

    Shawnigan lost 44 alumni who served Canada, Britain and the United States in World War II. This loss of "his boys" took a toll on Lonsdale. The annual Remembrance Day Service at our Chapel is a poignant one for current and former students alike, who gather to honour "the fallen."

    During the war years, Shawnigan was home to a number of boys who were evacuated from England. Mary Ling, wife of Dr. Robin Ling ’44, OBE, has said that "Lonsdale almost became Robin's father."

    The end of the ’40s saw Lonsdale's health decline, a school in a tough financial position, and a community divided. Where would Shawnigan go from here?
  • Changing of the Guard

    In 1952 Lonsdale retired — he would die within 5 months. Shawnigan had been his life.

    The School by now was in a perilous financial situation. Then a savior appeared in the person of a Governor and parent, Peter Kaye.

    Peter was a graduate of Repton School in England, and was the CFO for the Yorkshire Trust Group in Vancouver. Most importantly, he understood the way a good school functioned. Peter agreed to become Shawnigan's second Headmaster.

    "If it were not for Peter Kaye, the School would likely have died," Jay Connolly ’80 said. 

    With the tireless dedication of now iconic teachers such as Chuck Curtis, Cy Craig, Derek Hyde-Lay, Graham Anderson and Ned Larsen, the ship was righted. Enrollment doubled, and Peter left to become the Chair of the Vancouver Foundation. The School was now ready for its next phase.
  • The Evolution Continues

    Shawnigan's third Headmaster was E.R. (Ned) Larsen ’42. He had been Head Boy under Lonsdale and was, in fact, the Founder's hand-picked successor.

    Ned was a graduate of UBC and of Oxford University. In 1952 this charismatic leader was deemed too young to succeed Lonsdale, so for a few years he went to Ottawa and became assistant to the Canadian Minister of Defence. In 1958, Mr. Larsen came back and took over as Shawnigan's Headmaster. During his tenure, Shawnigan's enrollment soared, as did the School's all-round reputation.

    However, the changing mores of the ’60s resulted in the first twinges of social change. Again, Shawnigan was not immune. The staff held the School together in what proved to be an uncertain period for the next decade.
  • Tumultuous Times

    Four Headmasters in ten years. Boarding schools, including Shawnigan, were often challenging places in the ’70s, due to changes in social norms. These waves were pushing against Shawnigan's traditional modes of conduct and discipline. Headmasters and staff held the line — but it was difficult work.

    At one point, the School was weeks away from folding. Hugh C. Wilkinson ’40, a Shawnigan Governor and professor at UBC, answered the call of his old school and became Headmaster. Wilkinson saw that in order to find boarders in this new era, Shawnigan had to go out into the market place to spread the word in order to find new students. Hugh became one of the first marketers of Canadian independent schools. The approach worked — and still works today.

    Shawnigan recovered, and got back on track. Headmaster Darrell Farrant built on Hugh's framework and the School was heading in the right direction once again.
  • A Radical Change

    Shawnigan considered co-education twice, in the ’70s and early ’80s. Strong voices resisted. After Derek Hyde-Lay's calm steadying of the helm as Acting Headmaster in 1983, Doug Campbell systematically built the case for co-education. 97.5% of the Shawnigan Society voted to change our charter under the BC Societies Act in order to become a school for both boys and girls.

    Renate Grass became the School's first and only female student in Sept. 1986, and a full class of girls would follow shortly after in Sept. 1988. Shawnigan had evolved into a complete school that would champion a complete education.
  • A Campus Evolves

    Under Headmaster Simon Bruce-Lockhart, Shawnigan embarked upon a sustained period of campus growth and facilities enhancement which continued under Headmaster David Robertson.

    Along with Simon, the Shawnigan Board of Governors realized that suburban development would soon encroach onto the close boundaries of our campus. In response, they made the bold move to purchase Hartl Farm, and negotiated a land swap with a developer in order to protect our borders. The result was that an already spacious 60 hectare campus became a magnificent — and protected — 109 hectare campus.
  • Museum

    Located in Marion Hall, the Shawnigan Lake School Museum takes visitors on a one hunded-year journey, from the School's humble beginnings to the Shawnigan of today.

    The Museum includes recreations of C.W. Lonsdale's office, a dorm room from 1972 and a Ford Model T.

    The Museum is open during all major school functions and also by appointment. Click here to learn more about our museum.
Christopher Windley Lonsdale was born on Feb. 1, 1886 at the Vicarage at Thornthwaite in the Lake District of England. C.W.'s father was a Canon in the Church of England and he enrolled his three sons at Westminster School in London, England.

While his two brothers followed their father into the church as ministers and engaged in missionary work abroad, C.W. struck out on his own path. He explored Canada and worked diverse jobs, from driving a taxi in Toronto to running a farm on Vancouver Island, and ultimately managing the Strathcona Hotel in Shawnigan Lake.

By 1912, Lonsdale turned to teaching and, at the behest of the many British expatriates living on the Island, began dreams of building a school in the tradition of his alma mater. After being rejected from the armed forces during the First World War due to a heart condition, Lonsdale purchased the original Shawnigan property from the Misses Ravenhill. The first register of Shawnigan Lake School is dated April 27, 1916.

From 1916 to 1952, through clarity of vision and strength of will, Mr. Lonsdale built Shawnigan into one of Canada's leading boarding schools. Soon after his retirement, the Founder died in Parksville, B.C. 
We acknowledge with respect the Coast Salish Peoples on whose traditional lands and waterways we live, learn and play. We are grateful for the opportunity to share in this beautiful region, and we aspire to healthy and respectful relationships with those who have lived on and cared for these lands for millennia.