Education in Dalserf Parish

Sharon McPherson

Andrew Shaw began his education at Dalserf Public School in August 1896, when he was four years old. He left school at the end of December 1905, at the age of thirteen. What was that experience like for him? Detailed descriptions of education in the various parishes of Scotland, written by the clergy, can be found in the Statistical Accounts of 1791, 1840, and 1950. But even though the specific period we are interested in falls between the last two works, the section on education in Dalserf Parish in the Statistical Account of 1840 does give us some interesting background, setting the scene for us.

In 1840, Dalserf Parish School was described as being like the church in that it was inconveniently placed for the population, but it was well attended as it was the only school in the parish. The schoolmaster was required to be qualified to teach English reading and grammar, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, practical mathematics, and Latin. He also had to have attended college for two or three sessions. In the parish school there were also young people learning Greek and French. The Bible was a standard teaching book in the school, and the catechism was regularly taught and explained. There were other school books ‘of proper kinds, and the mode of teaching . . . [was] in course of improvement’. The parish schoolmaster, who was also Dalserf Parish Church session clerk and the collector of the poor’s rate, received an annual salary of L. 34, 4s. 4d. (£34.22 approximately). He also had a house and garden ‘of dimensions and extent required by law’.

Government aid was needed in order to maintain teaching standards in the fee-based private schools, which included those schools overseen by the Kirk. The writers of the Account commented that it would be a pity if these aided schools were not placed under the -superintendence of the Established Church because it had long experience and proven ability. Eventually, however, many private schools became State-controlled.

The Kirk’s ‘proven ability’ and dedication to providing each child with an education was evident. The parish schoolmaster was to teach all ‘pauper children’, and the Kirk session paid for those whose parents were unable to pay as they didn’t want any child ‘left untaught from want of means’. Parents undoubtedly wanted their children to benefit from education, but poor families often had to take their children out of school so they could work to earn a wage. To compensate, ‘any deficiency of this kind [was] in general afterwards supplied by attendance on weekday evening and Sabbath schools.’ There were three well-attended Sabbath schools, and as a result ‘the number of young people . . . who cannot read, more or less, is very small,’ reported the Account.

There was a public library in the parish of Dalserf, the books being kept in the school. The stone school building that still stands in Manse Brae was built in the 1860s at a cost of £463.

It has now been made into three dwellings which adjoin the schoolmaster’s house, and there is a modern bungalow in what was once the school playground. This building is next door to the cottage where Andrew Shaw grew up; I wonder if he was ever late?

Andrew’s neighbour was the schoolmaster, William Sim, who began his long teaching career at Dalserf school in 1870, ultimately becoming headmaster in 1881. From the time of the 1840 Statistical Account to the 1890s, the curriculum had expanded to include singing, drawing, ‘experimental science’, and ‘repetition’. The girls learned ‘cookery, laundry work, dairying, &c.’ By 1892, the year Andrew was born, the average attendance at Dalserf school was 147 out of a roll of 230, but by November 1893 the average attendance had risen to 196. Back then, it was not uncommon for parents to be fined five shillings for failing to educate their children. But what could mothers and fathers do when, in 1895, a measles epidemic caused the school to be closed for four weeks? The headmaster recorded the plight of the ‘scholars’ and teachers in the school log book, pictured below.

Mr Sim retired in 1914, and when he died three years later, in 1917, an entry in the school log dated 7 March noted: ‘School closed in the afternoon. The teachers [and] pupils attended the funeral of Mr Sim, who had been master here for 45 years.’ The Hamilton Advertiser praised the educator in an obituary:

DALSERF. William Sim, F.E.I.S., Whinknowe. . . . enjoyed the confidence of the community in a very marked degree. . . . As a country schoolmaster Mr Sim had no small success. Nearly two generations of the community were instructed in the rudiments under his eye, and not a few have achieved high place and honour, and done credit to their teacher and school. He had a kindly and sympathetic nature, and was always personally interested in the progress and welfare of his pupils. In the teaching profession, as in the community, he was held in high esteem, and for a term he was president of the Hamilton Branch of the Educational Institute of Scotland, of which he was a Fellow. Mr Sim was Session Clerk of Dalserf Parish Church, and Registrar for the district.

Although Mr Sim’s nature was ‘kindly’, he also maintained ‘the utmost discipline’ during class, as illustrated in the following handwritten account entitled ‘A Country School Sixty Years Ago’. Written in March 1951, the unknown author described school in the 1890s:

‘The school consisted of three rooms, the headmaster’s being in the middle. One of the most primitive things about the school was the arrangement for the supply of drinking water for the pupils, about 160 in number.

‘In each shed was a big pail filled by the cleaners each morning. A tin mug hung on a nail, and you can imagine what the pails were like latterly, with many children eating their piece [snack] and having a drink at the same time.

‘Work in school was in many respects different from now-a-days. Much of it, as in history, geography, and English, was more mechanical; lists of dates and events, capes, rivers and towns were rhymed off, so as to memorise them. Now, reasons for every-thing, and cause and effect, are discussed with the children so as to make them think and reason for themselves. One result of this thought-less rhyming is seen in the following amusing incident. An inspector was taking Standard 6, and one of his questions was “Where is Moscow?” Now one of our geography rhymes was “Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga; Nijni-Novgorod, farther up the river; Moscow, the old capital, farther up still”. Unthinkingly a boy answered, “Moscow, the old capital farther up still”. The inspector looked puzzled until the infant mistress [teacher of children aged four to seven] explained the strange answer.

‘Our annual inspector’s visit was a fixed day in June, and we had to turn up specially dressed, and very uncomfortable we looked and felt, especially the boys in Sunday suits and collars, and boots and stockings, accustomed as we were with bare feet, something one rarely sees now-a-days.

‘I well remember these visits, when we sat tensely waiting for the great men’s arrival from a station a mile away. As the time drew near, we had to sit up with arms folded and as the poet says, “All the air a solemn stillness holds,” even the teachers tip-toeing about making final arrangements. One of the older boys was always sent to watch for the appearance of our visitors in the distance, and when he arrived breathless with the news a great sigh seemed to pass through the school, and then die away into silence. The last few minutes were the worst, and there was almost a feeling of relief when at length they came marching in through the end room, their footsteps sounding loudly in the silence.

‘It used to be said, with what truth I know not, that the measure of success achieved by a school depended a good deal on the dinner, including the quantity and quality of liquid refreshment the inspectors were regaled with at mid-day.

‘Of our teachers, one assistant master I remember specially. He always wore a bowler hat, and we began to notice that sometimes he arrived wearing it on the back of his head. We -latterly found that when it was worn in this way he was in a cantankerous mood, and so we could act accordingly.

‘In connection with another assistant, I remember when some of his pupils solemnly decided that his tawse [strap] must disappear. We had discovered that his desk could be worked open by shaking the lid, so one night the plotters led the teachers and others away and then -secured the tawse. Next, we proceeded to an old quarry-hole full of water in the wood, tied a heavy stone to the tawse and heaved them into the quarry, where they disappeared amid many expressions of delight. Next day, a strict inquiry was held, but though practically everybody knew about the disappearance, not a shred of evidence could the teacher get. We didn’t benefit long from the episode however, as another pair of tawse appeared in due course.’

In conclusion, the above writer speaks of a hamlet of about a dozen houses called Hoolet-hole that lay about a quarter of a mile away: ‘A widow kept a little shop there, and we could get a scone and syrup, or treacle [molasses], or a bowl of soup for a ha’penny, but her home-made candy was the main attraction!’ If I know anything about little boys, I am sure Andrew Shaw made his way to this lady, along with the other young lads, whenever he had the princely sum of a ha’penny.

It is easy to imagine Andrew sharing his candy with a particular schoolmate: Laurence Ritchie, Janet Murray’s brother. The two boys often played together after school, in Manse Brae, until their fathers came home from work and their mothers called them to dinner. The Admission Register on the opposite page tells us that Laurence (#1065) and Andrew (#1097) both started school in 1896. But on 22 December 1905, when he was thirteen, Andrew Shaw left behind all the friendships and pleasures of his Scottish childhood. On that date, opposite Andrew’s name in the register, a school official wrote one word under the heading ‘Cause of Leaving’. That word was ‘America’.

I lived in Manse Brae, and such is our affection for Diana and Charles that I never pass the place where Andrew Shaw was brought up without thinking of him and them.

Manse of Dalserf

September 2001

About the Author

Sharon McPherson was born in Blackpool, Lancashire, on 19 March 1953, the daughter of the late Reverend Fred Jones and Clarissa Jones (née Price). She was, as they say in Scotland, ‘a daughter of the manse’, her spiritual family for thirty years being the Elim Pentecostal Church, the denomination of which her father was a minister. Her primary education was in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and her secondary education was mostly in Blackheath, Birmingham, her final school year being at Dalziel High School, Motherwell.

She trained as a teacher at Hamilton College of Education, gaining an Associateship in Early Years Education. She has taught in Motherwell; Dalserf Primary, where she met Cameron, who was school chaplain; and Wishaw. She is currently head teacher of Mossend Primary School in Bellshill. The most wonderful surprise of her life was when she became the mother of a precious son, David, at the ripe old age of forty-four. Cameron was even older! God does have a sense of humour.