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Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Times
Chapter VI. Stiell's Charity School


FROM the benighted Past, with its monstrous superstitions and fiendish cruelties, its stupid wars and merciless oppressions, it is a relief to turn for a moment to the enlightened Present, with its philanthropic schemes for the elevation of the poor; and although it be foreign to the subject which I have chosen, and to which I ought to confine myself, I hope the indulgent reader will allow me, before bidding him good-bye, to give a small sketch of Stiell’s Charity School.

On the 30th of January 1812, George Stiell, who was a native of Tranent, and a blacksmith in Edinburgh, departed this life, leaving a trust deed and settlement, dated 27th January 1808, whereby he disponed the residue and remainder of his estate, heritable and moveable, for the establishment, endowment, and maintenance of a Hospital in the village of Tranent, or its immediate neighbourhood, for the aliment, clothing, and education of poor children for ever—children belonging to the parish of Tranent having the preference, and failing them, children belonging to the parishes of Prestonpans, Gladsmuir, and Pencaitland in succession.

The Hospital, a plain but spacious edifice, was erected in 1822 upon a low piece of ground to the north of Tranent, which must have been part of the morass that prevented the Highlanders from attacking Cope in their favourite way in 1745. The site may have been selected for other reasons; but at all events it is perfectly symbolical of the purpose for which the Hospital was built, namely, to act in a humble and unostentatious way as a nursing mother to the poor and lowly. The building has no neighbours except the poor, and it seems to say that it has no interest in any class but that.

For a time the mortification was conducted agreeably to the ‘pious imagination’ of the founder; but in 1850 the Rev. William Caesar was appointed Minister of the parish of Tranent, and became sole Governor and Director of the Hospital. No sooner had he got hold of the helm then he put about the ship, and shaped a course entirely opposite to that which Stiell had drawn upon the chart. The founder had clearly stated that he intended the funds to be devoted to the education of the poor; but the trustee resolved that they should on the contrary be spent in educating the well-to-do. The Hospital was built so to speak as a nest for little hedge-sparrows; but the minister jumped in like a cuckoo, and laid an egg, which he hoped in course of time would be hatched, and produce a bird that would grow in bulk and strength until it was able to elbow out the legitimate occupants. In plain language, children of well-to-do parents of the middle-class were admitted to the Charity School at a nominal fee. New branches of instruction were started; but these were only for the benefit of those who could afford to pay fees. The number of teachers was increased, the expense of whose board and maintenance was paid out of the trust-funds. Prior to 1870, the number of children residing in the Hospital was reduced to eight, and after that date these were also pushed out, and the establishment was turned into a day school. In 1872-73, of 126 children attending the school only sixty-six were free day scholars, the remaining sixty being children of well-to-do parents who had no right to be there, and who had kept out the same number of children for whom the charity was designed.

The gross annual income of the trust estate amounted to upwards of £800, and in return only sixty-six children received a free education, whereas 400 poor children it was calculated ought to have been educated for the sum. The Director then issued a circular, calling upon the respectable inhabitants to assist him in carrying out his darling plot for the diversion of the funds, with which he had been entrusted. Of his intromissions he never published any account, but it was conjectured that at least £5000 had been misapplied.

In 1874, a number of the parishioners who had an interest in the proper management of the charitable bequest, and whose children were entitled to the benefit of it, raised an Action of Declarator against the Rev. William Caesar and others, Governors and Directors of the Hospital, and the Court of Session in 1877 decided that ‘no part of the funds, property, and revenue of the said charity, can be legally employed for the education of persons who, being able to pay for their education, are not poor children within the meaning of the founder’s trust disposition and settlement, and there their Lordships should have stopped; but unfortunately they added a clause which neutralised the one quoted, and which, when cleared of its circumlocution and legal fog, means, that children who have no right to enter Stiell’s Charity School may do so if they pay large enough fees; but not to the exclusion of children who have a right to be there.

But the persevering Director fell upon a plan for obtaining a more radical innovation, and for securing accomplices to enable him to keep it when once it was got. By a Provisional Order, obtained by petition from the Secretary of State of the Beaconsfield Government under the Endowed Institutions (Scotland) Act of 1878, it was directed that a sum not less than one-fifth and not more than one-fourth of the free annual income of the trust shall be applied in payment of the fees of such children in attendance at the elementary classes in George Stiell's Institution, or in the public schools of the parishes of Tranent, Prestonpans, Gladsmuir, and Pencaitland, as are orphans, or are the children of parents who, not being on the poor’s roll, or receiving parochial relief, are yet in such necessitous circumstances as to require assistance in providing education for their children, it being always provided that a sum of not less than £60 shall be applied in favour of the children of such parents as have been resident in the parish of Tranent for a period of at least two years.’

Thus it is ordained by this Provisional Order that only ^60 of the annual income (now amounting as already stated to upwards of ^800), derived from the funds left by George Steill, for the aliment, clothing, and education of the poor children in the parish of Tranent, are to be spent in the way he directed—that those who have a preferential right to the whole income are only to benefit from it to the extent of a thirteenth. The School Rates, which amount to £750, prove that there are many poor children in the parish of Tranent who have a claim to assistance from the funds left by Stiell, and who receive none; but are robbed of their rights, and the cost of their education laid upon the public.

The poor children of Tranent were, according to the will of Stiell, to be first helped; but even when their preferential claim is set aside, and they are made to share and share alike with the children of Prestonpans, Gladsmuir, and Pencaitland, the amalgamated children are, by the Provisional Order, only to benefit to the extent of one-fifth, or one-fourth (at the discretion of the trustees), of the income left for their sole behoof by Stiell.

Power has been granted to the trustees to award bursaries to the poor pupils; but as the number of bursaries is indefinite, and as they can be given, withheld, or withdrawn at the discretion of the trustees, they cannot be taken into account in calculating the benefits to which the poor children are entitled under the Provisional Order.

Power has also been given to award scholarships by competitive examinations, which are to be open to all pupils who have attended the institution or the public schools in the said parishes for at least two years, which means that the well-to-do children are to have another chance of scrambling for the money that was left by Stiell to the poor alone. To stop a man upon the road, to pick his pockets, and offer the contents to any of the byestanders who can leap highest, permission being granted to the plundered man to join in the competition, would not be a more dishonest transaction than it is to award such scholarships out of the funds left by Stiell.

These bursaries and scholarships help to mistify the subject a little, but the fact nevertheless stands out in bold relief that the poor children of the parish of Tranent, on whom the whole income of the property left by George Stiell should have been expended, are only to benefit by it to the extent of a thirteenth.

The egg intruded with such audacity is hatched, and the young cuckoo (or paying scholar) has grown large and vigorous, and will soon push' the poor hedge-sparrows over the nest which was intended for them, and them alone. By that iniquitous Provisional Order, it is directed that the trustees shall have power to admit and receive into the institution such number of paying scholars as they may think fit, on payment of such fees as they may from time to time fix, it being always provided that the fees so fixed shall in no case be less than those exacted at the public schools of the said parishes for the same branches of instruction. The Provisional Order also grants power to the head master, with consent of the trustees, to receive children as boarders at such annual rate of payment for board and education as may be approved of by the trustees.

Not only has Stiell’s Hospital (or the man at the wheel) struggled hard and long to evade the duty which it was intended by the founder to perform, namely, the education of poor children, and to spend the funds bequeathed to it for that purpose in giving a superior education to children who require no charitable assistance; but it even forgets, and would fain make others forget, its humble, though benevolent, origin and purpose. It does not now call itself a Hospital or a Charity School (as it really is or ought to be) but an Endowed Institution. Like the frog in the fable who tried to emulate the ox, it fancies it will be able to blow itself up to the size of a College. It looks down on the Public Schools, and sends raw materials to them to be rough-dressed, and returned to the Institution to get the finishing touch. It not only affronts the public teachers (who even as a matter of policy ought to be treated with the utmost respect), but it disheartens them by taking away their most promising pupils just at the stage of cultivation when they would confer a credit on, and gain the Government Grant for, the school.

It may sometimes be necessary, in a world so subject to unlooked for vicissitudes as this, to alter the letter of a will; but reverential obedience should be paid to the spirit where the intention of the testator, if it were honestly and wisely carried out, would tend to the benefit and not to the injury of mankind. If the founder of a school, forgetful that fashions change, should direct that all the boys be dressed in blue gowns and yellow stockings, it would be preposterous to obey that order when the costume had become ridiculous. But the intention of the testator, which was that a decent dress be provided for the boys, should be remembered and obeyed. In like manner it may have been necessary to turn Stiell’s Hospital into a day school (although the trustees by now allowing the Rector to advertise for paying boarders, admit that a mistake was made when the free boarding system was abolished), or to make any other reasonable changes, but the intention of the founder (which was that the funds he bequeathed should be devoted to the education of the poor children of Tranent, and after them of the poor children of Prestonpans, Gladsmuir, and Pencaitland) should not be forgotten or contravened. Not a child who is able to pay a fee is entitled to enter Stiell's Charity School, or can do so without defrauding the poor. Although the fees charged for the admission of pupils who have no right to be there have been raised so that the Charity School may not appear to be underselling the public school, there can be no fair competition between them, for pupils may be sent to the former in the belief, right or wrong, that they will enjoy advantages arising from the funds which they will not obtain in the latter. The fixing of the fees for instruction at Stiell’s Charity School at not less than the fees exacted at the public school is only a little dust thrown in the eyes of the public.

But perhaps the cleverest stroke played by the parish minister was in getting a number of simple gentlemen (with himself at their head) appointed trustees by the Provisional Order to watch over the scheme to the accomplishment of which he had devoted nearly thirty years. He took care to keep the reins in his own hands, until he had driven the vehicle so far up the road that it was impossible to turn back, and then with a crafty appearance of fairness he says he does not want to do all the driving. Probably not one of the gentlemen he has now got on the box would have been induced to take the road the minister did at the start, but now they lay the ‘flattering unction to their souls’ that they will look after him, and see that he does not run into ditches and mud-holes or against fences. They try to forget that they are on the wrong road—a road they cannot pursue without trampling on the rights of the poor.

George Stiell’s intention, as expressed in his will, was that the funds he bequeathed should be spent in educating the poor for ever, and it seems right and proper that this* laudable intention should be carried out to the utmost, and as much education got for the money as possible. The Charity School ought (for the sake of economy as well as from the state of perversion into which it has sunk) to be abolished, and the income accruing from the funds left by George Stiell devoted to the payment of the fees of poor children at the public schools, who are at present a burden on the ratepayers. If well-to-do parents wish to get a better education for their children than can be obtained at the public school, they ought to start a select school and maintain it at their own expense. At present they say to the poor children, ‘You are vulgar and nasty and my children would be contaminated in your company, therefore I will take the money that was left by that stupid old blacksmith for your benefit and educate my children with it, and send you to the public school, and leave the public to pay for you.’

I have hitherto spoken as if the diversion of the funds left by George Stiell from the purpose he intended was a question which only concerned the poor; but in reality it is one which is of greater consequence to the rich. If trustees are permitted to disobey a Last Will and Settlement, and to spend the funds in a way that the testator never contemplated, who would be at the trouble to make a will? Who would toil and pinch for a lifetime to save funds to do some great good to the public or to private friends if a trustee had the liberty to say: ‘I see old Skinflint wishes me to expend £1000 of the money he left in purchasing a life-boat; but I think a yacht will be a better investment—a cruise next summer will do my family and me a world of good. He has left £250 for the support of his daughter; but I had better hand that over to the ‘Clergymen’s Grandmothers’ Fund' —his daughter can work for her living. He wants £20,000 to be spent in erecting a local museum and picture gallery—nonsense! I can get the church restored for that sum and a new manse built—and so on. Once allow that a Will can be broken at the pleasure of a trustee, or without some urgent reason maturely considered, and it will lead to a complete derangement of all human affairs.


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