WHEN it comes to the earliest school, or schools, in Helensburgh, there is a dearth of information in official documents, but a plausible picture does begin to emerge from snippets in a variety of sources.
One useful work which does provide some clues is the book "A Nonogenarian's Reminiscences of Garelochside and Helensburgh", by Donald MacLeod (1883). The author is not a nonagenarian — that designation applies to his uncle, Gabriel MacLeod.
It states: "About the year 1802, the year in which Helensburgh was created a free burgh of Barony, I became a unit of its population and was sent to complete my education at its humble side school which still stands in King Street east of the well".
Several works, including the Helensburgh Heritage Trust book "200 Years of Helensburgh", state that the first school was opened in 1807. However, in 2008 the Trust bought a manuscript notebook relating to the setting up of a school on July 3 1805.
The impression gained from Macleod's book is that his uncle was sent to school as a result of the move to Helensburgh. However, the date given is only approximate, and in any case, there could have been some delay before Gabriel was sent to school.
Should this indeed have occurred, he could still have been as young as 12 years of age in 1805, and so would have been a potential candidate for the school. There is even the possibility that the school had a formative existence prior to its being formally established.
Another possibility is of course that Gabriel attended a school other than the one for which the notebook survives. However, the quoted extract from MacLeod's book suggests that the school building was still in existence (though perhaps not necessarily as a school) around the publication date (1883).
Again, the preamble to the manuscript notebook might seem to imply the absence of other schools in the town at the time of establishment.
If we are to argue convincingly that Gabriel's school, and that of the manuscript notebook, are one and the same, then some form of corroboration becomes essential.
Fowler's Renfrewshire Directory for 1834 has an entry for one John Batteson in the section dealing with Helensburgh. The entry informs us that Batteson is "Teacher, Town Clerk, and Collector of Statute Labour Money for the Burgh, King Street, Sinclair Street".
As the Town Clerk, and most likely the collector of Statute Labour Money also, would have been based at the Town Hall in Sinclair Street, we can tentatively link Battison the teacher with King Street. Certainly, this would tie up with the account given by MacLeod.
What of other teachers mentioned in Fowler's Directory? They are James Browne, the Parish schoolmaster at Row; James Kerr, teacher of the Infant School at William Street; John Oatt, teacher at the Town Hall, and Duncan Turner, Parochial schoolmaster at Luss.
This listing would certainly appear to indicate that there were few schools in Helensburgh at the time, but, more importantly, points to only Battison being linked with the school in King Street.
W.C.Maughan, in "Annals of Garelochside" (1896), implies that Mr Battison was the first teacher in Helensburgh; certainly his is the first name to be mentioned, with 1807 given as the founding date of his school.
Maughan does refer to two other schools: one run by Mr Hunter, the other by Mr Oatts. However, the former was at Princes Street, and the latter at the Old Municipal Buildings in Sinclair Street. Maughan relates that Mr Battison's school was in 1834 incorporated with the session school of Row.
He also tells us that: "In many respects a teacher of exceptional merits, Mr Battison was sometimes assisted by his nephew, named Walker". The mention of the session school is presumably a reference to the Kirk Session, and is a reminder that at this time, most schools came under the authority of the church, in this case, that of Row Parish.
George MacLachlan, the anonymous author of "The Story of Helensburgh" (c.1894), and Town Clerk from 1846 until 1906, makes some useful comments: "Besides the Parish School (i.e. at Row/Rhu) there were one or two private adventure schools, one dating from 1807, conducted by a Mr John Battison for a good many years.
“Mr Battison was a well-known man, and something of an original, and many reminiscences of his doings are still afloat. A school house of modest dimensions was built by subscription, and maintained by annual contributions and fees."
The author adds: "The income must have been small, for we find in an old memorandum book that the year's profits, exclusive of fees, amounted only to the modest sum of £10-3-9d, of which £4 was gathered at the raffle of a silver watch, which fell to one Robert Lennox of Malig. Mr Battison's profession . . . must have been a poorly paid one.”
As we have seen from the entry in Fowler's Directory, Mr Battison did indeed hold down at least two posts over and above that of schoolmaster. It was also common for schoolmasters to act as precentor and session clerk at the local church.
MacLachlan further mentions that: "Mr Battison's school was in 1834-35 incorporated with a school provided by the Session of Row, erected by subscription, and aided by the Government. The school was subsequently continued by the Free Church until the passing of the Scottish Education Act. During those years, it was well-attended, and successfully taught by Mr Alexander Campbell."
The incorporation dates given by MacLachlan and Maughan would seem to correspond to a reasonable degree with the timing of the final entry in the manuscript notebook.
Another factor to be taken into account must be the possibility of there being more than one school in King Street. A Helensburgh map of 1861 shows an "s. + chapel" in East King Street, immediately to the Sinclair Street side of the Eastburn (the stream that runs through what is now Hermitage Park).
It is straightforward enough to check from a town directory of 1865 that this reference is to Eastburn school and Chapel. The map does not indicate any other school on the same street, although the same 1865 directory does list Blane's Western Academy at 54 West King Street.
We now turn to what is known about the chapel apparently linked to the school in King Street.
According to the entry in "200 Years of Helensburgh" which deals with the Baptist Church, we are informed that "in 1833, Mr Dickie . . . came to live in Helensburgh, and formed a group called the Scotch Baptists. They worshipped in a house in William Street, and then built a chapel in Mr Dickie's garden, and for baptism used a pool in the East Burn, which ran through the garden".
The 1861 map confirms that Mr Dickie's property lies close to the East Burn in King Street, and that the school and chapel appear to occupy the same building.
There is still the question of how the chapel ties in with the school. Bearing in mind the statement by MacLeod that the school, or school building, still remained in King Street, it may be that when Mr Dickie built his chapel, he re-modelled the school which was already there, with the building thereafter having a dual function role. Alternatively, the chapel could have been built such that the school was now an annexe.
One potential difficulty with this story lies in reconciling the later history of the school, as given by MacLachlan and Maughan, with the Baptist presence at Eastburn. As mentioned, they both describe how the school later came under the Free Church, and there is no hint of any connection with the Baptist Church.
MacLachlan tells us that in the Free Church period of the school, it was conducted by Mr Alexander Campbell. A Helensburgh Directory of 1867 lists Mr Campbell's address as Free Church Schoolhouse, 57 Sinclair Street. However, it is not entirely clear if "Schoolhouse" in this context refers to the actual school, or the teacher's house.
The Helensburgh Directory for 1875 gives a Miss Davie as teacher at Eastburn School. This might suggest that during this period at least, the school still functioned, but either as a female-only establishment, or as a very elementary school — at that time, a female stood little chance of heading a mixed school, unless a very low-key one.
There are at least two possible solutions to the puzzle of the Free Church link to what would appear to be more an association with the Baptist Church. One is that after incorporation, the continuing school was simply established elsewhere, as already suggested.
A second possibility is that, as mentioned in "200 Years of Helensburgh”, the Baptist Church fell away after Mr Dickie's time, when the Free Church could have utilised the accommodation. It should be noted that the present Baptist Church in East King Street, dating from 1886, lies on a different site from that of Eastburn chapel and school.
Taking all the available information into account, it is likely that the 1805 school was that conducted by John Battison, and that it was located in East King Street.