The Harris Academy first opened its doors to pupils over one hundred years ago on 31st August, 1885. To follow the story of its foundation, however, it is necessary to trace a long and tortuous path which began thirteen years before.
In 1872, The Scotch Education Act was passed by Parliament and this resulted in profound changes to the traditional system of education throughout the country. Of greatest importance, it established the principle of compulsory (though not free) elementary education, and set up School Boards within each town to ensure that children were given this opportunity. The School Boards were given control of the burgh schools common throughout Scotland and, in most towns, they became Higher Class Public Schools where tuition in "advanced branches of learning" would be available.
In Dundee the situation was somewhat different. The Education Act had stated that a burgh school was any school to which the term was legally applicable whether it be called "an academy, or a high school, or a grammar school, or any other name". As such, the School Board felt that it was entitled to control the High School. This claim was complicated, however, by the long and varied history which this school had enjoyed.
The first school in Dundee was the Grammar School, which claimed to date back to the thirteenth century, and remained in existence for some five hundred years. In the early 1800s, it combined with the Dundee Academy and the English School to form the Public Seminaries and, in 1834, entered a fine new building at the top of Reform Street. This merger had been partly funded by public subscription but the new seminaries soon ran into financial difficulties. Additional subscriptions resolved this immediate problem and the subscribers petitioned the crown for a charter of incorporation which would protect the rights of those who had donated money to the institution. This charter was duly granted in 1859 and the school adopted its new name of The High School of Dundee.
When the 1872 Education Act was passed, the High School successfully asked that it should be excluded from its provisions since they would go against the terms of the charter of 1859. The Directors of the High School therefore felt that the school's independence was secure. This was not the opinion of the School Board, however, and so began a dispute which was to last for over a decade.
The first meeting of the newly established Dundee School Board was held in April, 1873 and its intentions were soon evident. The High School was asked to provide information about its origins and history with the objective of proving that the Board was justified in its claim to take it over. These inquiries provoked a startled reaction on the part of the High School Directors. Letters were despatched to Glasgow and Aberdeen to establish whether the School Boards of these towns were making similar claims and a meeting of the Directors made plain their displeasure at the School Board's actions:
I do regret that the School Board at their first meeting should have thought of confronting us as opponents, instead of rather hailing us as fellow labourers with themselves in the same good cause of education.
The School Board persevered with its investigations of the history of the High and its conclusions were sufficiently convincing for it to propose that the two parties should jointly submit the matter to the Court of Session in order to reach a definite conclusion.
This proposal again resulted in immediate action on the part of the High School. A Committee anent the School Board's Claim was set up and Inverness Royal Academy was consulted to establish whether similar claims had been levelled against its independence. Meanwhile, the subscribers to Dundee High declared their intention to "do all within their power to protect the High School". The School Board maintained its stance that the matter should be decided by a joint case before the Court of Session but, after a series of meetings, this proposal was rejected by the High School Directors and deadlock was reached.
The threat to the independence of the High had been averted for the meantime but further problems soon beset the school. In its defence against the School Board's claim, the High had frequently proclaimed the superior quality of education which it offered. In April, 1875, however, a report on various Dundee schools by a Mr Meiklejohn was highly critical of the teaching methods used and the standards attained by the High School. Other evidence suggests that these criticisms were unjustified but they nevertheless provoked a storm of protest from the school which was proud of its reputation for excellence. This reputation was strongly defended by the local press which described Mr Meiklejohn's criticisms as inaccurate and "bumptious". Despite this, these criticisms could have done little for the morale of a school whose independence had been so recently threatened.
This threat was renewed following the passing of another Education Act in 1878 which reinforced the provisions of the act of 1872. The School Board was encouraged to challenge the independence of the High once more but, on this occasion, adopted a new approach to the problem. In September, 1879 the Board agreed that it should build a second Higher Class School within the town which would be largely funded from the rates. Negotiations were begun for a site between Ward Road and Bell Street, alongside Courthouse Square, and the City Architect was instructed to draw up plans for the school. This proposal implied another threat to the High School since such a Higher Class School would have been in direct competition for pupils. The wisdom of two such schools in such close proximity was highly debatable and once again raised the question of the relationship between the School Board and the High. The editor of the "Advertiser" left little doubt as to his opinion in the matter:
We have always regretted that the High School of Dundee was not placed under the School Board. When Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow had no hesitation in placing their High Schools under their School Boards, why should Dundee?
As was no doubt intended, this challenge stimulated the High School Directors to consider reaching some form of accommodation with the School Board. A series of meetings was held between the two parties in the hope of reaching an acceptable compromise. A proposal that School Board pupils should be admitted to the High at a reduced rate of fees seemed to offer a possible solution but this was dashed by the objections of a group of the Directors. Once again, this prompted a scathing attack by the local press which criticised various of the High School Board for their "carping, irritating and uncompromising tone" in responding to the "friendly overtures" of the School Board and condemned their "needlessly offensive and hostile attitude". In the "Advertiser's" view, a change of thinking was required on the part of some of the High School Board in order "to make the school not the school of a class, but of the whole people of Dundee".
Discussions dragged on for several months with no real progress being made. Eventually, in March 1880, the School Board expressed its impatience with the lack of progress in the negotiations:
The course pursued by the High School Directors applicable to this Board's proposal to provide Higher Class education for the working and middle classes of Dundee precludes the possibility of any help from these Directors towards that most desirable object.
The members of the Board therefore decided to renew the claim to the High School and to take legal advice about the best method of enforcing this claim. The Solicitor-General for Scotland was consulted and gave his opinion that the School Board was justified in its claim and should instigate an action of declarator in the Court of Session to enforce it.
This procedure was not followed immediately since such litigation, it was claimed, would have been extremely costly. Instead, the Board again approached the High School Directors with the proposal that they should submit a joint case to the Court of Session to determine the matter. The cost of such a case would have been a mere £30 to each party and would avoid the necessity for "long and embittered litigation". This proposal was finally rejected in December, 1880 and the School Board declared its intention of taking the matter to court. First, however, it asked permission to follow this procedure from the Scotch Education Department:
You know the need there is for a secondary school in Dundee available to the pupils of our elementary schools at a moderate fee... and how anxious the School Board are to have the question decided. The fees charged by the High School are practically prohibitory to even the best part of the working classes. Fancy a working man with two or three children that he desired to have well educated requiring to pay from £30 to £40 for their education!
The Education Department agreed with this appeal and a legal case seemed inevitable but at this point the course of events was changed by the intervention of Bailie William Harris.
Bailie Harris had been born in Dundee in 1806 and attended the Grammar School until his father's death forced him to leave at the age of sixteen. He then served his apprenticeship as a baker before leaving the city for the greater opportunities offered by London. During his stay there he acquired valuable experience and business acumen and this enabled him to establish his own company on his return to his native city. This business prospered and by the middle of the century William Harris had become a wealthy and respected corn-merchant and mill owner. Not surprisingly, such an active man played a notable part in local politics. He served as a town councillor during the 1840s, occupying a variety of positions before being appointed a bailie in 1848. He retired from the council three years later but maintained his interest in his native city and, in his later years, made charitable bequests for the good of the town.
The School Board's attempts to gain control of his former school prompted Bailie Harris to take action. In February, 1881 he offered to donate £30,000 for the purposes of Higher Education in Dundee on condition that the Board give up all claim to the High School. Of this sum, £5,000 was to be set aside so that the interest would pay for the education of a number of deserving Board pupils at the High. The remainder of £25,000 was also to be invested and the interest used for the benefit and improvement of the High School. The School Board acknowledged the generosity of this offer but nevertheless felt that it was not the ideal solution to the problems between Board and School. They therefore rejected the offer but hinted that they might be willing to give up their claim to the High if £10,000 was placed at their disposal.
This rejection sparked off another series of disputes but eventually resulted in Bailie Harris making a second offer of aid. On this occasion, he again bequeathed £30,000 of which the High School Directors were to receive twothirds and the School Board one-third. In return the Board was to give up all claim to the High. The Scotch Education Department strenuously objected to this settlement and would have preferred the School Board to continue with its attempt to gain control of the High. Despite this, the Board accepted the proposal "by which the course of education in Dundee will be greatly promoted" and which would "bring within the reach of all classes the advantages of a Higher Education"
This agreement was incorporated in an Act of Parliament and the William Harris Endowment and Dundee Education Act was finally passed in 1882. The bulk of its text was concerned with improvements to be made to the administration of the High but its thirtieth clause was to result in the foundation of the Harris Academy:
The School Board shall establish from the payment by William Harris... and maintain within the burgh of Dundee a Public School within the meaning of the Education Acts
The generosity of Bailie Harris brought forth fulsome tributes from both sides in the dispute who recognised his "wise and generous munificence... his sagacity and enlightened liberality". Their gratitude was perhaps best summed up by the High School Directors:
His name will be remembered and venerated in his native town by many future generations who will reap the benefits of his wise and benevolent interest... Mr Harris has freely bestowed his gifts in his own lifetime; and the Directors hope that he may be long spared to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing his purposes in bestowing the same completely fulfilled.
Sadly, this hope was not to be realised. Bailie Harris had been in poor health for some time and died in March, 1883 - two years before the school which bears his name was officially opened.
The legal wrangles having finally ended, the School Board now faced the practical problems of building the new academy. It received the promised payment of £10,000 on the 23rd June, 1881 and this sum was invested in the North British Railway Company while possible sites for the school were considered. This task took rather longer than anticipated and, by October, a suitable site had still not been found. By the beginning of 1883, however, various alternative sites had been examined and the choice narrowed down to a site on Constitution Road or land owned by a Mr Alison at Park Place. After long deliberation, the School Board selected the site at Park Place and negotiations were set in hand for its purchase. It was not until November, however, that the site was finally secured, at which point the Board agreed that the finished school should be styled The Harris Academy.
The Board then invited tenders for the construction of the school and these were agreed in January, 1884. The sums involved represent an interesting contrast with present day values. The main task of building the school premises was entrusted to the mason's firm of Robert Laing, at a total cost of just over £5,000. Joiner work, in the hands of Andrew Bremner, accounted for almost £2,000 while the combined bill for plumbing, plastering and slating the building amounted to less than £700. Just under £3,000 was spent on finishing and equipping the building, including the sum of £663 for classroom furnishings and fitments.
Building work having been set in progress, the Board then concentrated its attention on the appointment of staff. In December, 1884 it was decided that the post of Head Teacher or Rector should be advertised at annual salary of £450. In view of the importance of this post, the Board further specified that all applicants must be graduates. Not surprisingly, this post attracted a large number of applicants from all parts of the country but, by February 1885, this had been reduced to a short leet of five:
James Brebner, Dundee Institution
Hugh Campbell, Stranraer Academy
Alexander Forbes, Royal Academy, Tain
Robert Henderson, Edinburgh Ladies College
Alexander Watson, Dumbarton Academy
The Board found this choice far from easy but, after some "discussion and division", the Selection Committee finally recommended James Brebner for the position.
During the next few months the other members of staff were chosen. James Malloch from Edinburgh was appointed Second Master while the prestigious posts of Latin and Greek Assistant and Mathematical Assistant were given to John Wilson of Kilmarnock Academy and Richard Thornton of Glasgow Academy. Less senior posts also attracted a healthy response but, within a few months, the final appointments had been made. The school was now fully staffed to cope with its first intake with a total teaching staff of sixteen.
Building work was meanwhile continuing satisfactorily, although the original plans of architect David Maclaren were slightly altered at the suggestion of the newly appointed Rector. Some of these alterations were indicative of Mr Brebner's progressive views on teaching methods. A room was to be laid aside to be used as a school library or museum "which have been found to be of great use in rendering the ordinary teaching more interesting and intelligent". Changes to the larger classrooms were also considered necessary:
The isolation of classes is almost a necessity for satisfactory work. There are two rooms capable of containing 120 pupils each, and two with space for ninety each. In all four there would constantly be two classes at work simultaneously, and it would be an advantage to have the rooms divided by partitions, as is done in all newly-built schools.
Although such ideas seem obvious to modern eyes, they demonstrated a remarkably far-sighted viewpoint for the time. Nevertheless, the new Rector had his way and, despite the delays which these changes involved, enrolment of pupils was begun and it was agreed that classes should commence on 31st August, 1885.
Enrolment exceeded everyone's wildest expectations and, on the opening day, 1,035 pupils entered the doors of the Harris Academy. While this must have been a source of some satisfaction for the Rector, it nevertheless posed numerous problems in terms of staffing and accommodation. As early as that first day, Mr Brebner made the solemn announcement that such numbers "would necessitate the provision of extra accommodation". Such warnings will sound familiar to modern ears, as will the solution adopted. Arrangements were made to lease the Rector's former school, the Dundee Institution in Tay Square, to cope with the additional pupils. Harris annexes are far from a new development!
The official opening of the school took place two days later, on Wednesday 2nd September. A number of distinguished guests attended including Miss Harris, sister of the late Bailie Harris, the Lord Provost, leading churchmen, local M.P.s, and professors from the recently founded Dundee College.
The principal speaker was Sir Lyon Playfair, a former Secretary of the Science and Art Department and a leading campaigner for the provision of scientific education in schools. The speeches were of the long and somewhat self-congratulatory type which seem common on such occasions, with praise being lavished on both Bailie Harris and the School Board for the parts they had played in the school's foundation. One slightly discordant note was struck by the principal speaker who, in a long speech extolling the benefits to be gained from the study of scientific subjects, commented that "I do not think this school is properly equipped for the teaching of science". This criticism was lost, however, in the general euphoria of the occasion. More typical of the feelings of the assembly were the remarks of the chairman, Bailie McDonald, who expressed the hope that the disputes of the previous decade could be forgotten and that the new academy would fulfil the hopes of all present:
Dundee has not only its High School, but its Harris Academy as well and these two will vie with each other in imparting High Class Education.
Over one hundred years later, both the High School and the Harris Academy are still thriving institutions, hopefully fulfilling the wishes of their mutual benefactor whose generosity was intended "to promote the efficiency of the High School, and to bring within the reach of all classes the advantages of a Higher Education".