It seems, at first sight, as if education was thriving in Greenock during the first half of the nineteenth century. In addition to the Grammar School, dating from the early eighteenth century, there were the Mathematical and English schools, two Charity schools, several private schools and, during the period of the Napoleonic War, many opportunities of tuition in French from refugees. It seems probable, too, that private lessons in German and Italian could be had more easily than at the present time. But this picture of a plethora of educational facilities is deceptive. Most of them were available only for the well-to-do. The roll in two of the three main schools never exceeded 100 and that of the Grammar School reached 150 only after the appointment of Mr. (later Dr) James Lockhart Brown. There was, too, an utter lack of coordination and a great wastage of time, for pupils took classes in various schools and probably, like their modern counterparts in their passage from room to room, dallied away the time. Theoretically, each of the three chief schools, as their names imply, was restricted to a limited range of subjects, but they poached on one another’s preserves from the beginning. In the 1760s Alexander Bradfute, of the Grammar School, was reprimanded for teaching English by the Town Council which feared that the English schoolmaster would, in his turn, teach Latin. Accusations and counter-accusations fly from school to school during the whole period. At the root of this was the eagerness of the teachers to seize any opportunity which would promise an addition, in the shape of more fees, to their scanty salaries.
The Need for an Academy
The need of centralisation was felt as early as 1780, when an attempt was made to unite the Grammar, English and Mathematical schools in one Academy. This plan soon fell through and a proposal to the same effect, made in the Town Council in 1805, had no better success. In 1810, however, when the Magistrates were promoting a new Town Bill in Parliament, they were petitioned in a Memorial, signed by 87 of the principal citizens, including John Galt, to build “an Academy or well organised seminary,” so that education in Greenock could compare favourably with that provided in other towns. The Memorial was approved by the Council but an accompanying suggestion that householders paying rents over £10 should be taxed to finance the project understandably met with a very different reception. This obnoxious clause was dropped when the proposals were incorporated in the Bill, critics having pointed out that in Perth and Dumfries the Academies had been raised by public subscription. Forty- five years, however, were to pass before the Academy was opened. Severe trade depressions, particularly during the catastrophic period of the 1840’s, and serious epidemics of cholera and smallpox, consequent upon appalling housing conditions, preoccupied public attention, and there survives from the same period a reference to dissatisfaction among the ratepayers that public funds should be used to subsidise a school for the children of the rich. There is no doubt, too, that it was difficult to raise the necessary money: indeed, as will be seen later, the Academy was in financial difficulties for the first forty years of its existence. It seems clear, also, that masters in schools which were not to be part of the new institution regarded the project with dismay as imperilling their own livelihood, and probably did their best to obstruct it. And in the end, when the decision was taken, very lengthy deliberations preceded its execution.
The long train was laid in 1847. On May 2nd of that year, on the proposal of Provost J. J. Grieve, a committee with powers to co-opt others, notably ministers of the town, was appointed “to consider the whole subject of education locally, to bring about improvements, and to concentrate all branches of education into a combined system under one roof, with a uniformity of hours and classes.’ The report of this committee, largely compiled from the returns made by Greenock’s thirty- five heads of schools, revealed a considerable decline in education in the burgh during the previous thirty years. In 1826 one-ninth of the population had attended school, in 1834 one-eleventh, and at the date of the Report the number was down to one-thirteenth. These figures applied to children under fifteen. Only sixteen boys altogether were learning mathematics in Greenock. In the Grammar School only fifty boys were learning the Latin language. In other schools Latin grammar was taught incidentally to forty-two boys, and only twelve young men were learning Greek. ‘At present,” stated the Report, “parents and guardians have no encouragement to retain their children in Greenock: and, seeing the educational institutions of other places to be much more advantageous, many families either remove altogether from the town or send away their children at great sacrifices of money and inclination.” It was proposed therefore, that ‘the two schools at present in connection with the Town Council, the Grammar School and the Mathematical School should be incorporated into a new academy to be built by public subscription, provided that an arrangement can be made with the masters. Both Dr Brown of the Grammar School and Mr. (afterwards Dr) Buchanan of the Mathematical School, agreed to transfer their services to the proposed Academy. Dr Brown died in 1847 and Mr. Buchanan was appointed Rector of the Academy-to-be.