Mr. Neilson retired in 1893, to be succeeded by Mr. Alexander Gemmell who became Rector at the early age of twenty-eight and who occupied the post for thirty-seven years.
The first Prospectus of what might be called the Gemmell era is a much fuller, clearer, and more informative publication than its precursors. While omitting the lists of text-books, it gives more precise information on the curriculum, dilates on the value of the Leaving Certificate, devotes a page to the Special Prizes, sets forth the School timetables—and the teachers—and, for the first time, includes a number of School Regulations, among them an injunction that, “Idling about the Playground during School hours will not be permitted.” The School, its day now extended to 4 p.m., has become something of the complex unity with which we are familiar.
During this period also it took its present shape. The development of the school buildings is described in some detail elsewhere, but a very brief reference may be made here to the three large additions built during the Rectorship of Mr. Gemmell, the first, in 1894—95 adding to the original structure a Gymnasium, a Science Room, two Art Rooms and a Class-room, the second in 1909-10, being the present Primary building and the third, in 1928, consisting of a workshop, a new Science Lab., and a canteen.
From the full information available on the Staff of the school at this time it is clear that Mr. Gemmell had very able subordinates. Several of these taught in the Academy during almost the whole period. Notable among them was Miss McWilliam, Infant Mistress from 1896-1929. Many former pupils pay tribute to her enthusiasm, her kindness, and her understanding of small children. One reference to her as “rather forbidding to a child of five’ is followed by the revealing, “But I was not afraid of her as I was of some teachers.” Another teacher in the Infant Department who still takes a great interest in the school and visits it frequently, Miss J. Allison MacGillivray, was a member of the Staff from 1904 to 1948, Miss Marjory Menzies, who taught in the Modern Languages Department, and founded the French prize, was a gracious and efficient Lady Superintendent from 1900 to 1924.
Of the English Staff, Mr. James Anderson, Head of the Department from 1883 to 1908, is referred to with affection and enthusiasm in three other contributions. His successor, Mr. William Braid Taylor, who later succeeded Mr. Gemmell as Rector evokes this tribute: “Mr. Taylor was a shy man, whose severity of expression was softened by a twinkle of the eye that brought hope, if not of escape, at least of mercy, to the wrongdoer. He soon showed himself an excellent teacher. Believing, to the dismay of the lazy, that for genius and dullard alike, hard work was the way to achievement, he assumed that all shared his view and refused to believe that learning was impossible for anyone. Above all, he was interested in his pupils as individuals, and found his happiness in helping them. Teaching the girls hockey, helping with rugby and cricket, or driving in stakes on the eve of the sports, he was completely at home. And pupils were proud to have his friendship”. Mr. Tait, Assistant in Mathematics from 1893 to 1917 and Head of the department till 1927 is thus described by a former pupil: “A kind man, calm of movement and temperament, he gave to all his pupils a sense of security and strength. Problems were no longer insoluble and the most intractable sums lost their tern under his quiet guidance. In the class-room and as umpire on the cricket pitch he inspires the efficient and brought hope and courage the fearful and disconsolate.” The Science Department as it is today was founded by Mr. David Baird who also fostered rugby in the school. When he left, in 1930, to become Headmaster of Johnstone High School, Science was securely established as one of the major departments and rugby had reached an exceptional standard for a school” with so few “big” boys. Other teachers of the period who gave long and excellent service to the school were Mr. W U. Park, a Colonel in the Territorials, who taught Arithmetic and put it into practice in surveying exercises from which pupils were inclined to drift away to more congenial pursuits, Mr. James Millar, the Writing Master, who was captain of the Greenock Golf Club and Mr. David Ramsay, who revolutionised the Art Department. Those Principal Teachers finely maintained the efficiency and reputation of the School during the difficult years of the 1914-18 war. A word must also be said of Mr. William Downie, school janitor from 1887-1922 who dispensed cocoa and roll and syrup at ½ d each from what has come to be called the “old staffroom” and Sergeant Sheret, Gymnastics Instructor from 1903-21, foils champion of the army and now church officer in St. Giles Cathedral.
The last phase in the reorganisation of the school was the appointment of Mr. J. L. L Niven as Principal Teacher of Classics on the retiral of Mr. Gemmell, who had been, like his predecessor, Head of the Classics Department as well as Rector. In the same way, Dr Buchanan and Dr Montgomerie, mathematicians, had supervised the work of the Mathematics Department. But it was now seen to be no longer possible to combine the business of organising the school with the headship of a department, without overworking both the Rector and the departmental assistants.