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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter VI. At the Glasgow Academy


It was in the autumn of 1857 that a brother and I were first entered at the Glasgow Academy in Elmbank Street, which had not yet developed into a thoroughfare, much less into a busy tramway route. The academic walls comprised the central block and two side wings of the present High School, but were unadorned by the statues which now look down upon the traffic below. Nearly opposite the gateway a broken wall and stump of a tree blocked the entrance to Elmbank Crescent, then only partly built. The large intervening space between the Academy and Blythswood Square was entirely vacant and went by the name of "The Orchards," evidently an echo of still earlier days. In frost, after snow, there were magnificent slides down this slope, which were eagerly taken advantage of. Beyond this the great chimney of Townsend was being slowly reared, as was also Renfield Church, with its fine lantern tower and rose window, admired by Ruskin, just behind the northern boundary.

The enterprise seemed somewhat hazardous at our tender years. Not only was a forty minutes' walk involved night and morning from Paisley Road West, but there was the added drawback of the ferry, then worked by row boats frequently overloaded to the water's edge by the roughest type of passenger. Only a few years later, it may be remembered, one of these very boats was actually swamped with great loss of life. This was not, however, the direct result of overcrowding, but was attributed rather to the unusually heavy swish from the paddles of a powerful passing steamer. The community was greatly moved, and a letter from Father in next morning's paper had some share in the prompt adoption of the enlarged steam ferry boat which has since been in use. Our alternative routes on the north side lay by Clyde Street and North Street or by Washington Street and Bishop Street, and both were about as sordid and unsavoury as could be imagined. The lower sections abounded in "keelies" who periodically made assaults on the "gentry" with stones and other missiles. There was in particular one close, at the foot of Washington Street, with a second outlet upon Broomielaw, which had a very evil reputation and where we had always to be specially on guard, sometimes even carrying home- made arms for self-protection.

These risks, of course, weighed more with our parents than with ourselves; for had we not compensations, dear to the boyish heart ? It was not very long before we got to know all that was worth knowing about the various steamers that plied up and down the river, as well as about the larger vessels—channel or ocean going, which moored along the wharves—their names, their funnels, their figureheads, their destinations and their freights. How instinctively we admired the bold sweeping lines of the "Panther," "Leopard" and "Princess Royal," and gauged the severity of the storm through which they had passed on the previous night by the depth of white brine adhering to their funnels! How we loathed the filthy condition of the "Rose," "Thistle" and "Shamrock" after discharging a cargo of Irish cattle! How snug seemed the broad stern of the "Clansman," with open port- holes, on the eve of departure for the Hebrides! How weirdly did the bow of the "Druid" loom through the fog from Campbeltown ! How exhilarating was the chance of being caught in the back-wash of the "Kelpie" or the "Spunkie," or the "Eagle" or the "Emperor," as we crossed the river in their wake! How we chafed at detention by the "Firefly " with its attendant train of mud-rafts! How we revelled in emulation of M'Clintock as, with difficulty, we crunched through the solid ieedrifts! Then, on the south side were berthed the great American liners fragrant with the scent of apples, and close in their rear lay such sailing ships as the "Chrysolite" from Australia or the "Wooloomooloo" from New Zealand— colonies then in their infancy. Besides, there were the great sheds with their cranes and cordage, their barrels and bales, and the daily finds of resin, sulphur, maize, nuts or scented wood, valuable in barter and acceptable as peace offerings when opportunely produced from a bulging pocket.

For the present I do not refer to the teaching staff, but seek rather to recall the everyday life of the school. The session began in the sultry days of early August, and the hours of actual attendance were from ten to four, two more being required for home preparation. Out of this long spell there were only allowed two quarters of an hour for lunch and play combined, half the School getting the quarters before twelve and two, and the other half the quarters after these hours. Even these wretchedly short intervals were liable to be encroached upon by an inconsiderate master, and occasionally a poor fellow would be "kept in" by way of toning him up for the rest of the day. June and July were the holiday months, besides which we had a week at Christmas, four quarter days (for the more convenient reception of fees!) and a long week-end at the spring and autumn communion seasons, though these last hardly counted, seeing they were almost entirely occupied with church services.

The class-rooms, it must be said, were large and well ventilated, particularly the writing room in the centre of the building with its double line of windows. There was an adequate playground with covered shed at one end for rainy days, and there were several dead gables suitable for racquets. "Creish a,'" crossing, and prisoners' base were favourite games. At the side of the janitor's house was a little shop, open at "the quarters " for the sale of scones, cookies, chester-cakes, parleys and milk. Several of the masters were seen to enter by the front door for a more substantial repast. Other arrangements were less satisfactory. There was not anywhere an open-fireplace, in sight of which one could stand for a few minutes when wet or shivery, and at times we suffered in consequence from rheumatism in the knees and chill. Two spring-button taps stood outside where one might wash his hands as best he could, without soap or towel; or he might refresh himself at the same source with pure Loch Katrine by means of an iron mug dangling from a chain. Here, however, I slightly anticipate as regards the quality of water, for it was not till my third year that we got a holiday while Queen Victoria turned on the supply from that great Highland reservoir.

A certain mystery always attached to two small rooms on the ground floor. One of these was known as the "masters' room," where, it was understood, there were occasional meetings to discuss unruly boys or to enjoy fragrant coffee which was sometimes observed to be carried in. It served also for an office on the quarter days. The other was the "janny's room," entrance to which was streng verboten. From it Smeaton, the worthy janitor, solemnly emerged with key in hand to ring the great bell hung high in the out- side corridor; through it he descended to lower regions where, it was understood, he stoked subterranean fires; and in its recesses he stored the class footballs and shelved the school library. Its windows were used for exposing on wet days a detested "No Football" board, when, for a time, Smeaton forfeited our goodwill; for displaying the "Academy Rules," regarded by ingenuous youth as both needless and arbitrary; and for sticking up scrappy catalogues of books in the library, which were occasionally scanned on the off-chance , of some welcome novelty. The library was not subsidised by any Carnegie, and could be joined by any one who chose to subscribe a discarded volume from the home slock, so that it was easy to secure a reading of such classics as "The Swiss Family Robinson," "The Young Marooners" or good old " Robinson Crusoe," with only a few pages awanting, as frequently as desired. The Academy Rules referred to were not supposed to be binding beyond a single session, until formally read in each class by the college of masters, after which we were held to have due notice of rigid enforcement.

There were in all about five hundred boys in attendance, and the classes were often so large as to be taught in several divisions. Individuals with strong characteristics are well remembered, and have proved, in numerous instances, that the "boy is father of the man." Many live in their nick-names which were not without clever allusion to some peculiarity of habit or dress. Of such are Spider-monkey, Zebra, Putty Ribs, Trundlebed, Flamingo, Jelly Bones, Fusilier and Grub.

The greater number have already passed from this earthly scene; yet, in the jubilee year of our class six stalwart representatives discussed old times together, while three others, one of whom was an M.P., were unable to be with us. Amusing answers would now and then be given in class. One day I remember a boy being asked what meal among ourselves corresponded with the Latin "Coena," when, accepting too readily a whispered prompting, he replied, "Porridge." Another paraphrased a well-known passage in Horace as "Socrates standing up to his knees in snow," recalling the classic case of phonetic translation :—

'Caesar'—Caesar, 'venit'—cawe,
' In Hispaniam'—into Spain,
'Summa diligentia'—on the top of the diligenee,
' Omnibus copiis'—the 'bus being full.

Again a boy was asked when the mariner's compass was invented. Hedging a bit, he answered cautiously, "Sometime before the birth of Christ." On being informed that it was not till the twelfth century, he was, however, equal to the occasion and referred the teacher to the account of Paul's voyage as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles where we read that they "fetched a compass." I remember being myself asked in a similar examination where in the Bible the Sabeans are spoken of. I promptly replied, "About the middle of Isaiah." This was at once set down to pure guesswork, for which I got short shrift and was referred to the first chapter of Job, which was running in the teacher's mind. Next day, however, I produced chapter and verse, and insisted on getting my mark. We had been reading the prophecies of Isaiah at family prayers and the unusual name had not escaped attention.

Then, as now, the holidays were looked forward to from afar, and the very days were counted :—

Three more weeks and where shall we be
But out of the clutches of old McB !
No more Latin and no more Greek
And no more tawse to make us squeak;
No more English and no more French
And no more sitting on the hard old bench!

About the closing week there always hung a pleasing sensation as of waking dreamland, a mild foretaste of the joys that were shortly to be ours. Ten days earlier the prize-lists had been given out and we knew exactly how we stood. The steam had been shut off, and we were nearing the terminus. Yet, there still remained the ordeal of public examination spread over two days, to be followed by the prize-giving. The examination days had a charm all their own, arising from a great variety of causes. In the first place the hours of necessary attendance were reduced by one-half, giving a sense of unwonted freedom; then the "Rules" were so far in abeyance that we might venture on a turn beyond the "Bounds" ;besides, having donned our Sunday garb, we were conscious of looking our best; there were also congratulatory meetings with beaming parents and friends, and the chance of a special lunch. There was, moreover, opportunity for ourselves looking in upon class-rooms other than our own, taking stock of strange masters whom we might one day have to encounter, while noting also how their present scholars comported themselves; and, lastly, there was the glorious prospect of limitless holiday with entrancing dreams of coast or country.

The prize-giving took place in the Merchants' Hall, which was always packed to overflowing—the boys being well to the front, and the parents, for once, relegated to back seats. The chairman of directors, who might sometimes be a Lord Provost—I specially remember Andrew Galbraith's fine head and snow white locks—presided, and handed out the calf-bound volumes from the long row before him. These were not always as modern or entertaining as they might have been ; but half a dozen made quite a respectable armful to carry home, and the gilt - lettering on the outside surrounded by a laurel wreath was always impressive:—

The distribution over, a closing address followed from some city clergyman. Out of six occasions when I must have been present, I can distinctly recall five of the speakers, viz., Dr. Robertson of the Cathedral, Rev. Henry Batchelor of Adelaide Place, Rev. George Philip of Union Church, Rev. Alexander MacEwen of Claremont, and Rev. Alexander Cumming of Gorbals. The sixth, if I mistake not. was Rev. Henry Calderwood of Greyfriars, afterwards Professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh University. The speakers were well chosen and so blended humour with counsel as to hold our attention; but final adieus always ended on the top note, "Opere peracto ludemus." An untoward incident at the close of my first session led me into a painful experience, while bringing me into unwilling contact with two medical men of note. On the day after the prize-giving, we had gone for a sail down the Clyde, when a speck of cinder from the funnel lodged in my right eye, and set up severe inflammation. Day after day I was taken by the good mother to Dr. Mackenzie, the celebrated oculist with consulting room in Bath Street, and I well remember how the keen little old man used to drop a caustic red lotion into the affected eye from the end of a camel-hair brush—an operation which sent me home blind for hours. Little improvement followed, and as I was evidently much run down, it was wisely decided that I should be sent to the country to recuperate. Here the ailment increased, involving the other eye until I had to be led about in total darkness, an opportunity for amusement at my expense which was not lost upon my brothers. At this juncture Dr. Thomas Keith, the afterwards famous Edinburgh surgeon, happened to come on a visit. He strongly urged the burning out of the inflammation by bathing both eyes in whisky and water as strong as it could be borne. By and by this drastic treatment had the desired effect. I soon got the length of seeing "men as trees walking." A blur of black type began to appear in the centre of a printed page; gradually the lines separated, till at last words and letters came to be distinguished. Having been then advised to rinse the eyes daily in cold or tepid water, this practice has been continued ever since with best results.


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