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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter V. Early School Life


In mid-Victorian days there were few good schools for boys south of the Clyde, yet when a brother and I had reached the ages of seven and eight, some educational outlet had to be found. There was, indeed, Anderson's Academy in Carlton Place, whose principal was held in deserved repute, but it was too far off from Govan Road, while the Glasgow Academy and High School were still more remote and could not yet be thought of in view of the intervening river.

At this juncture a Mr. James Thomson came on the scene, with fair credentials, and commenced a scholastic venture at No. 16 Pollok Street, then only partially built, but notable as the widest street in the city, which gave it the supreme advantage of offering a convenient playground at zero cost. This was a merit which had not escaped earlier recognition, for only a little way further up on the same side was Scott's Academy, already well established. Thomson's introductions secured him a successful start, many of the better families in the neighbourhood sending their boys and girls for the same reasons which held in our case. A number of the former in after years attained to conspicuous positions, and one even to baronetcy after having served a term as Lord Provost of the City. Scott and Thomson themselves ultimately developed into useful ministers, both obtaining charges in the south-west of Scotland.

As I have already hinted, ours was a "mixed" school; and, as there was no infant department, we were practically divided into two sections only—senior and junior. My brother and I were, of course, placed in the younger division ; but as all were taught in the same room, we naturally assimilated much of what was, in the first instance, intended for others. A common practice, indeed, with Thomson, when baffled in getting a correct answer from the seniors, was to turn to the juniors and give them a chance. In grammar especially, I remember how we often put our elders to shame. Accustomed at home to accurate constructions, and, aided by a quick ear, we could intuitively solve a difficulty which appeared formidable to those who were hampered by rules learned by rote, but imperfectly understood. How we used to envy the senior class its elocutionary feasts from M'Culloch's "Course," as we overheard with rapture the "Address to a Mummy in Belzoni's Exhibition" or "The Burial of Sir John Moore!" In time we too attained to these things, but for the present we had to be content with his more prosaic "Series." M'Culloch was a real educational benefactor when he compiled this advanced "Course," than which a more attractive selection could hardly be imagined. A little Scottish history, the rudiments of geography—ancient and modern—and arithmetic, together with writing, filled up our school hours. The last was always regarded as a relaxation, if not a recreation; partly, no doubt, because it involved an adjournment to another room where the air was fresher and the windows less bedimmed. I can still see the row of desks as the door was thrown open. The copy books bore the monogram of Chambers and were bound in dark blue. They were marked "price sixpence," though to-day they could doubtless be produced at half that cost. The penholders scattered about were long in shape and of all colours. A regular stampede was made to secure a favourite shade, and, if possible, one not -too clammy in the stem, or too much chewed at the upper end.

We had, of course, the usual interval for play, when we were simply turned out into the street until such time as Thomson appeared on the doorsteps and shouted, "All in, all in!" As there was but little passing traffic, even such games as "rounders" could be freely indulged in; but there were two others that stand out in strong relief. The first of these was "Port the Helm," which was played by all joining hands in line, while the ring-leader, after running forward a certain distance, would sharply wheel round, dragging the tail after him. It followed that those near the circumference, having to run further and faster than those nearer the pivot, suffered severe wrenches even when they escaped being thrown on the ground to the damage of their clothing and the bruising of their shins. The other pastime was fraught with even greater excitement, and would delight the heart of a modern "Scout." The lower portion of Pollok Street abounded in entries, which not only led to lofty flights of stairs, but to sundry washing houses and back greens. The upper end of the street was then being built and tempting scaffoldings and plankings lay plentifully to hand, conducting to subterranean structures commonly known as "dunnies." We accordingly divided into two bands, one being given a certain start of the other. The object of the "hares" was to get safely back to cover of the school porch without being caught. For this purpose they scattered widely to the least accessible places, from which there was usually an alternative retreat. Risk of capture was by no means confined to the "hounds," for sometimes irascible householders would lie in ambush when they heard an unusual scuffle on their landing; at other times the masons might arbitrarily withdraw their gangways; and the "bobby" had always to be reckoned with. The broad pavements of Pollok Street also lent them- selves excellently well to peg tops and marbles. A large church was being erected just opposite the school as the most westerly outpost of Voluntaryism, and I think we regarded its unusual architecture with some suspicion, perhaps even doubting the orthodoxy of intending worshippers!

Only once do I remember getting a special holiday. It was on the occasion of Thomson's wedding. The fact was doubly impressed upon us by his appearing next morning resplendent in a brand new silk hat!

Towards the close of the session, he gave as a task to his senior division a short poem on the approaching holidays. Again, we juniors greatly envied such rare fun and were fain to send in competitive rhymes. My own attempt is before me now. At the close of the session I find I was awarded a prize "for general excellence " in the shape of Bishop Russell's volume on Palestine, then recently published and fairly stiff reading for a boy of nine! I am not sure that anything beyond the pictures was seriously examined until fifty years later in connection with an actual visit to the Holy Land. I still possess a roughly coloured map of Palestine, drawn as an exercise, which may possibly have suggested the form of the prize!

I don't think Thomson's Academy continued in existence for more than two or three years. Probably it was only a pot-boiler to help his own college course. At any rate when a younger brother was of proper age, another school had to be chosen for him. Such a one had just been opened in Kingston Place by a venerable dominie with a varied and honourable record behind him. He had suffered at the hands of provincial school managers on account of conscientious adherence to the Free Church, and always wore an antique white neckcloth wonderfully swathed into a front knot. He was learned and good, but lacked any touch of modernity. Unfortunately pupils were hard to find and rumour had it that his own son had to begin Latin afresh with each new comer so as to form a class quorum. By this happy arrangement a boy seldom found himself lower than second dux, which suited admirably. Yet in this small band there lurked incognito, under the sobriquet of "Coal Bunker," a gently nurtured spirit whose misdirected conscientiousness was destined to thrust him into unpleasing prominence in the great ecclesiastical upheaval of 1900; together with at least one other who made a name for himself in the larger world.

Of girls' schools the Misses Barlas in Maxwelton Place and the Misses Davidson (afterwards Mrs. Cross) in Kinning Place were held in high esteem for their painstaking tuition, while lesser lights, here and there, specialised in music and other subjects.


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