The Coming of the People’s School (Part three of ‘In the Path of Knowledge’)

Around the turn of the 19th. century there was growing unrest among the female population, who wanted wider education for girls – even Jane Welsh demanded to be taught Latin, ‘just like the boys’. Haddington born Jane later married Thomas Carlyle, the famous essayist and historian.

The girls’ day would come but it wasn’t until 1822 when the first parochial school, in Lodge Street, opened, offering education to the wider population, including the girls. The first master at Lodge Street was James Johnstone. There was a Catholic school by 1870 and, thanks to the efforts of parish priest, William Grady, this moved to new premises near St. Mary’s in 1871.

In 1843, Rev. William Whyte was appointed Rector of the Grammar, a decision which proved disastrous as that cruel man dismantled everything the school stood for – there was even reports of a pupil dying at the hands of the evil minister. Slowly but surely, parents were removing their children from the school and sending them to one of the many adventure schools which were springing up all over the parish with Paterson Academy the most prominent. By 1873 there were no pupils left at the once great grammar school and the end of an era was at hand; the Town Council had much to do, and quickly, as the school buildings were being sold.

The ‘New’ Grammar School boasted among its pupils, men such as the Rev. John and Dr. Samuel Brown, son and grandson of the inimitable John Brown, former minister at St. Mary’s, William Purves, Moderator of the General Assembly of the church in New South Wales and co-founder of St. Andrew’s College in Sydney and Samuel Smiles, author of the Self Help books. Another pupil was George Harley the surgeon, medical scientist and author. John Vert, the philanthropist who founded the Vert Memorial Hospital was also born and educated in the town before emigrating to America.

For some years the Parish Council had been searching every avenue in an effort to find the solution of building a fitting memorial to honour the town’s greatest son, John Knox. The timing of a new Education Act in 1872, for the provision of primary education, could hardly have been better, the problem was solved. The opportunity had arisen to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by building a new school and dedicating it to a man who held free education close to his heart. The newly formed school board wasted no time in putting the plan in to action.

Knox Statue on Knox InstituteThe eminent architect John Starforth was appointed to design and build the new school. The end result was a magnificent building in the Gothic style with an imposing central clock tower highlighting a spectacular, life size statue of John Knox wearing his Geneva gown and cap, created by renowned sculptor, David Watson Stevenson. The cost of the statue was met by the Trail sisters from Aberlady as a gift to the people of Haddington.

The school opened in 1879 but wasn’t formally opened until January 1880 when Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl Balfour of Whittinghame, a future prime minister, carried out the official opening, naming the new building ‘The Knox Memorial Institute’. The school was built by public subscription and large crowds attended the opening of the ‘People’s School’.

The first rector at the ‘Knox’ was Mr.J.C. Graham MA who joined from Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. An extension was built to the Institute in 1909, designed by Mr J. Carfrae. The school’s most prominent pupils included Sir William Gillies (1898-1973) a world renowned artist who became Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art and Norman Porteous, who died in 2003, aged 104. Norman was a distinguished scholar of the Old Testament, minister of the United Free Kirk and ultimately, Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University.

The school rolls grew over the years and the day would come when the school would no longer be adequate. That day arrived in 1938 when a new school was built at Rosehall to take the secondary section away from the Institute and, in 1946, the new school was officially named ‘The Knox Academy’. The old school carried on but, in 1970, a primary school was built spelling the end for the Institute as a school – the building is now a retirement home.

The new primary, King’s Meadow, and St. Mary’s are feeder schools for Knox while the independent Compass Primary School has flourished for over 40 years; nursery and infant schools complete the scene.

The Knox Academy, substantially enlarged in 2005, is co-educational and non denominational and has achieved much academic and sporting success. In 1979 a service was held in St. Mary’s to celebrate 600 hundred years of the school since the first mention of the original Franciscan grammar school.

Many doubt that John Knox himself would appreciate the lineage from the old schools. They believe he would see the schools, named after him, as a new beginning, a fresh start, education freely available to all the children of the parish and beyond. The only consistent, apart from providing the highest education in the parish, is the teaching of Latin of which Knox Academy is one of a diminishing number in Scotland still teaching that subject.

Today’s students carry the weight of a great heritage on their shoulders, they have so much to be proud of, and even more to achieve. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found here.

Knox Academy

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