Burgh BB celebrates centenary

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BB-logo-wMEMBERS, past members and friends of the 1st Helensburgh Boys Brigade had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday October 25 2016 — the centenary of the formation of the company.

It was not the district’s first company, but it has certainly been the longest lasting.

Former BB member the Rev David Clark, who is chairman of Helensburgh Heritage Trust, researched the company’s history as part of the centenary celebrations.

In 1888, the year which saw the birth in a Helensburgh manse of John Logie Baird, a Boys Brigade company was registered in connection with Park Free Church.

The first captain was John Stuart, although his tenure lasted only some five months, and Thomas Mitchell took over the reins in February 1889.

This company could claim to be amongst the first 200 companies in Scotland. Half of these were in Glasgow where the movement had been founded in 1883 and the others were spread across cities, towns and other small communities.

It did not prosper, and its activities halted in 1891-2. However the company restarted in 1899, this time registered with the United Presbyterian Church of St Columba, and functioned for twelve years.

The captains were John King, James Adam and Patrick Rodger.

But by 1911 this company was struggling to attract sufficient numbers to remain viable, and subsequently closed.

In 1899, another company, 2nd Helensburgh, was registered with St Michael’s Scottish Episcopal Church with James Syme as the captain, and the lifespan of this company has so far proved impossible to ascertain.

It was restarted in 1908, so obviously had folded, and this time when it restarted it was registered not with St Michael’s but with the Old Parish Church on the seafront. It too seems not to have run very long.

In 1915 a company was formed in Rhu and ran for about a decade before closing. The following year, at a most unfavourable time — one of the lowest points of the First World War during the Battle of the Somme — the 1st Helensburgh BB was born.

The Somme offensive, intended as the decisive breakthrough in an unprecedented conflict, instead very quickly became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter.

By the late summer of 1916 the mood of the country was shifting slowly but surely from a patriotic enthusiasm to a questioning in the minds of some people and disillusionment in the minds of many others about the real merits of the war and the nature of its legacy.

At that very time and in such unpromising circumstances the initiative for the new company came from the eight Helensburgh Protestant congregations — two Church of Scotland, three United Free, the Congregational, the Baptist and the Scottish Episcopal.

The impetus came from an organisation which covered not all but some of these, the local Sabbath School Union, which had as its object the promotion of Christian knowledge and mission among young people.

It provided an important bridge between the various congregations, as some of the congregation members saw themselves as rivals rather than as co-workers for Christ.

In George Mathieson the Sabbath School Union had an energetic and persuasive enthusiast for the formation of a Boys Brigade Company.

As a result of his efforts, on October 8 1916, the local weekly paper, the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times, reported: “The resumption of the Boys Brigade movement in Helensburgh has been taken up enthusiastically by the local Sabbath School Union and it is to be hoped that this effort will be crowned with success.

“The arrangements are still in a transition stage but on an early date intimation will be made of a place and time for a meeting when the aims and objects will be explained.”

The paper added that hopes for the success of the resumption of the BB movement in 1916 understandably reflected the backdrop of an overwhelming war and the whole concept of esprit de corps.

The report continued: “In past years much good work was accomplished through this agency, and many of the young men now on military service owe not a little of their success as soldiers to the discipline and the training which they received while members of a Boys Brigade company.

“They were taught how to play the game and they have not failed in the hour of their country’s peril.”

A week later the paper intimated that the introductory meeting of the formation of the Boys Brigade company for Protestant churches would be held on Friday October 25 in the West United Free Church Hall, the Kirk in the Square.

In the following edition it reported on the success of the evening when a large attendance of boys — and presumably parents — heard an illustrated outline of the nature and the purposes of the movement, and they were left in no doubt of what was expected of them as members of the new company.

The meeting was chaired by the minister of the West United Free Church, the Rev Stephen Band, a message of encouragement was received from the Rev Vincent Alexander, captain of the Rhu company, and at the close of that meeting some 120 boys gave in their names to be members.

This packed first meeting took place in the very hall which, after its demolition in 2014, gave way to the new suite of halls of Helensburgh Parish Church, where the centenary company has its home.

The officers of the company were appointed at the meeting of October 31, and they managed to get a representation and a spread amongst the officers of all the different congregations involved in setting up the new company.

The captain was George Mathieson, a member of St Columba and representing the Sabbath Forenoon Meeting, and Lieutenants Hendry, Thomson, Jarvie, Bond and Stanton came from the Congregational Church, the Old Parish Church, the West United Free Church, the Baptist Church and St Michael’s Church respectively.

A couple of weeks later the boys were organised into squads, or platoons as they were known then, divided according to their church affiliation, Lance Corporals having been selected and promoted to lead them.

So there was a platoon from each church — probably a not very subtle way of ensuring and encouraging a competitive edge between them.

Two weeks later uniforms had arrived and were issued, hats, haversacks and belts, and thus began many years of applying lots of Brasso and boot polish and whitening of haversacks.

The pill box hat was selected, the officers wore Glengarry caps with a dark suit, shirt and tie, and tan gloves, and the Captain carried a short brown walking cane.

The uniform was very simple, designed to be inexpensive and to be worn over the boys ordinary clothes.

The new company responded in a very different way to the all-consuming war effort because the 1917 records of an organisation called the Dunbartonshire Herb Growing Association — set up to provide medicinal herbs used for the care of wartime casualties — state that in Helensburgh the Boys Brigade volunteered to assist in picking foxgloves.

An important element was music and bands, and always has been. The learning, the development, the participation and the fellowship from being in a band was a classic expression of the BB ethos and has been a feature of the BB over the years.

The work of the Boys Brigade, week in, week out, leads to the annual inspection. So great were the numbers that on lots of occasions they had to hire the Victoria Hall — 450 was the number recorded as attending on one occasion. The inspecting officers were invariably senior military officers.

In 1925 the registration of 1st Helensburgh had narrowed down to the four congregations considered to be serving the eastern end of the town, St Columba, Park, the Old Parish and the Baptist Church, and by this time the 2nd Helensburgh was back up and running.

Its registration was transferred to St Bride’s, the West Parish Church, and that registration was shared later with St Andrew’s, the Kirk in the Square. Eventually it went back to St Michael’s for a number of years before it too discontinued.

It was associated with the churches on the western side, St Andrew’s, United Free, St Bride’s, the Congregational and St Michael’s, and was also serving Rhu.

Recruitment for the 1st Helensburgh from 1926 onwards was almost exclusively from the four congregations, company strength was good, and the numbers were between 35 and 45, never less than seven officers and at one time as many as thirteen.

There was regular drill work, various badge activities, and the mainstays were the signalling class, the bible class, and of course football. Membership statistics show a dip in any years the football team did not function.

It was the Boys Brigade which started the practice of a parade up Sinclair Street to the War Memorial in Hermitage Park, to begin with just on their own, and eventually that grew into a larger parade of organisations.

There were also recruiting marches — marching round the town trying to attract new members, and there were Lennox Battalion events, many held in Dumbarton and Alexandria.

An important part of the life of any Boys Brigade company is the camp, and lots of different camps have been undertaken in places such as Rothesay, Arbroath and Lochaline. They also went abroad, the first time to Italy in 1964.

It was not until 1964 that the 2nd Helensburgh Company restarted, first of all as a Lifeboys and a Junior Section, and later as a full Company, registered jointly with St Andrew’s and St Bride’s.

The two companies amalgamated in 1999 to become 1st/2nd Helensburgh.

  • A grandfather of Helensburgh woman Liz Greer attended the launch of the Boys Brigade movement by founder William Smith in Glasgow’s North Woodside Church Hall on October 4 1883.