Shawnigan Lake School was founded in 1916 by Christopher Windley Lonsdale (1886-1952). A clergyman's son, Lonsdale was born in the county of Cumberland in England and was educated at Westminster School in London. Founded in 1540, Westminster was one of Britain's most prestigious public schools.
C. W. Londsdale immigrated to British Columbia in 1907. Two years later, having worked at a variety of jobs on the lower Mainland and northern Vancouver Island, he settled in the town of Duncan, where he operated a dairy business.
During the Edwardian years, the area around Duncan attracted many genteel settlers from the United Kingdom, Eastern Canada, and the overseas empire. Many of these immigrants were alumni of British public schools and understandably they wished to provide a similar education for their sons. Appreciating this fact, Lonsdale gave up his milk route in 1915 and opened a small day school near Shawnigan Lake, south of Duncan. Despite its limited facilities, "Mr. Lonsdale's School" proved to be a successful venture -- so successful, in fact, that Lonsdale was encouraged to open a large, purpose-built boarding school. Located on 140 acres of heavily-wooded, lake-side property, Lonsdale's "Shawnigan Lake Preparatory School for Boys" was launched in 1916.
Shawnigan Lake School (SLS) was modelled on Westminster School. SLS was divided into "houses", each under the supervision of a housemaster and student prefects. The school colours of Westminster -- black and red -- were adopted, as were many of its rituals and traditions. Spiritually, the school adhered to the tenets of the Church of England. Academically, it emphasized classical studies, liberal arts, and applied sciences. Like Westminster and its counterparts throughout the British Empire, SLS also promoted sports and organized games as a means of developing boys' character.
Shawnigan Lake School opened with an enrolment of less than a dozen students, but within a decade, it boasted almost a hundred pupils, a well-equipped gymnasium, and a growing reputation for scholarly excellence.
In December 1926 Shawnigan Lake School was all but destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Lonsdale ensconced his boys in the Cadboro Beach Hotel in Victoria for the remainder of the term and set about raising funds for a new building programme. Thanks largely to the support he received from students' parents in the Cowichan area, he succeeded, and in 1927 the school re-opened.
On 17 February 1928, Shawnigan Lake School was incorporated as a non-profit foundation. The objects of the foundation, according to its charter, were to: "Maintain the school as a fabric founded to endure in all futuretime and ordered to the intent that it shall exercise a continuing influence upon the lives of the boys and so contribute towards the welfare of the Dominion of Canada..." [British Columbia Gazette (23 February 1928), p. 723]
Soon after, the school added a new chapel, playing fields, dormitories and laboratories. Enrolment increased to over two hundred --a number that included the sons of some of the most prominent families in western Canada.
The following years, however, were difficult for the school. The international financial crisis of 1929 made it impossible for the school to maintain its fee structure, while the threat of Japanese invasion in 1942 prompted many parents to remove their sons from the Pacific coast. Although the school survived both the Depression and the War, it was apparent by the early 1950s that SLS was on the decline. Enrolments fell and many of the school buildings were in great need of repair. The headmaster's health was also failing and in 1952 the SLS Board of Governors persuaded him to retire.
C. W. Lonsdale's successors -- Peter Kaye, a financier from Vancouver, and E. R. ("Ned") Larsen, an SLS Old Boy -- revitalized the school, modernized its facilities, philosophy, and curriculum, and placed it on a sound financial footing. Enrolments and endowments increased accordingly as the school regained its enviable scholastic and athletic reputation. The school now enrols girls as well as boys . Scholastically, it is one of the province's leading independent schools.
Historical records of Shawnigan Lake School are held by the British Columbia Archives, where they are catalogued as Add. MSS 1485 . The school also has its own well-organized archives and a lively and information web site. The Shawnigan Lake School website features many photographs and documents relating to the history of the school.