While the Academy of Mr. Gemmell’s period begins in several essentials to resemble the school we know, we come across many references which place it in a bygone time. In the early part of the period there were still open fires and gas lighting. The Staff had no Common Room and the departments lived in dignified isolation, meeting only twice a year to write reports, and each June to arrange the prizes. The daily visits of the Janitor to “take the Roll” and tours of inspection by the Rector alone established the fact that the school was a whole. Present-day pupils would not envy their predecessors who, if they wished dancing lessons, had to have them on Saturday forenoons so that pupils are enabled to avoid late hours in the dark winter nights and so that the classes do not interfere with the ordinary school lessons.” It is rather a surprise to us, too, accustomed as we are to associate strict enforcement of rules with the schools of the past, to learn, from the monotonous repetition of the statement, ‘Boys are expected to wear the Academy Cap,” that the expectation was vain. A repeated reference in the Prospectus to a falling-off in attendance “during the first two and the last three weeks of the session, immediately before every holiday and on Fridays generally throughout the year” makes sporadic truancy seem a relatively small matter by comparison.
In the later years of Mr. Gemmel’s Rectorship the curriculum, founded on the learning of the past, was expanded to include a wider range of subjects. Spanish was added in 1921, technical subjects were given more attention, and music was no longer restricted to singing. This meant a re-adjusting of periods and a curtailment of the time—about ten periods a week—allotted to Classics, but was a further step towards the realisation of the ideal expressed in the school motto—”Hinc Vera Virtus.” During this period, too, the Education Authority took over the school from the School Board. That this change in administration did not affect its character is a tribute to the Rector’s vision and tenacity of purpose. His retiral ended an epoch decisive in the life and development of Greenock Academy.
Mr. Gemmell was notable as a scholar, a headmaster and a personality. The variety and impressiveness of his gifts were not more remarkable than the masterly and masterful manner in which he deployed them, whether spectacularly, as when, on his own behalf, he conducted, and won, a case in the Court of Session, or less obtrusively as in his vigilant, unremitting attention to the interests of his school. He was a distinguished member of the University Court, taking a prominent part in University administration and keeping a watchful eye on Classical studies, as was to be expected from a President of the Scottish Classical Association. But despite his enthusiasm for the Classics, he was fully aware that the curriculum had to be changed to meet changing circumstances, and it is to him that the school owes the introduction of Spanish. His busy and purposeful mind neglected no subject in the curriculum and no school activity. “Humani nil a me alienum puto” might well have been one of his mottoes. He constantly insisted on the importance for later education of a thorough grounding in the Primary School and saw that it was given. The cricket and rugby captains had to report to him after every match and if the team had lost, a post-mortem took place. The high reputation which the Academy acquired in the worlds of learning, business, and sport was a testimonial to his great abilities. That he had his eccentricities and what Dr Johnson might have called his “anfractuosities” there is plenty of evidence: this cannot obscure the fact that the Academy was fortunate to be guided into the 20th century and through some of its most difficult years by so sure and so skilful a pilot.