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Park Place 1885-1930


The first prospectus of the Harris Academy in 1885 described the Park Place building in predictably flattering terms. "The Academy is situated in a central and healthy locality; the classrooms are lofty and well ventilated, elegantly fitted up and furnished with all the newest and most approved educational apparatus and appliances". The school had been designed for only 855 pupils in average attendance, however, and its resources were soon found to be totally inadequate for the demands placed upon it by an unexpected influx of pupils.


On the opening day, 1,035 pupils presented themselves for enrolment and the Rector's demand for extra accommodation was met by the leasing of his old school, the Dundee Institution in Tay Square. This emergency measure was merely a foretaste of things to come. By September, 1885 the School Board reluctantly admitted that "the accommodation, great as it is, turns out to be quite insufficient for the requirements". The Board even considered opening a similar school in another part of the town but delayed any decision regarding this on the grounds that the Harris was still an experiment which should not be repeated until its success was firmly established.




Meanwhile, the numbers continued to grow. By 1888, the roll had reached almost 1,500 and even the recently acquired Dundee Institution could not cope. As a result, a second annexe was added to the school in the shape of the West End Academy, an adjacent building which had been a private school providing education for almost 300 children. At this point, in 1889, pressure on the school was thankfully eased when the School Board acquired the Morgan Hospital and the Morgan Academy was established as a sister school on the east side of the city. This allowed the Board to consider dispensing with the use of the West End Academy but this could only be achieved, in the Rector's opinion, by ceasing to admit infants, limiting the number of pupils from country districts or by adding another storey to the Park Place building. At this time, the School Board were unwilling to consider any additional expense and therefore decided that enrolment was to be kept "within the limits of the Harris Academy proper, with pupils from the city being enrolled first and any available places then being allocated to applicants from the country districts".


The opening of the Morgan Academy and the restrictions placed on enrolment at the Harris provided a temporary solution to the accommodation problem but could not cope in the longer term with the popularity of the Harris among pupils and parents. By 1906, the year of the school's majority, the roll had once again risen to 1,150 drawn from the city and some fifty surrounding parishes "from Cupar to Coupar, from Glenrothes to Arbroath". After long deliberation, it was decided that the only long-term solution was to add an extension to the original building and, in 1908, another storey was added to the front of the Park Place premises. This extension caused some inconvenience to pupils, many of whom had to be housed in the Park Wynd Mission Hall and the Y.M.C.A. while building work was undertaken, but they did have the compensation of longer holidays while the main beam was fixed in place. Former pupils, however, expressed some sorrow at the change which they felt altered the character of the school and in particular lamented the destruction of the elegant staircases of the original building which the extension necessitated.


Despite this extension, conditions remained far from ideal as the reports of H.M. Inspectors reveal:


The managers are invited to take into their earliest and most serious consideration the condition of two rooms in the Harris Academy which are both unsuitable for teaching purposes and gravely prejudicial to the health of the scholars. The lighting is so bad that the gas has to be kept burning during the winter months. In consequence also of the furnace being immediately below, overheating is frequent; and during a recent week was over seventy degrees. The room, moreover, is furnished with a gallery so high and steep that the heads of the boys in the top row are within six feet of the roof. The adjoining room is quite as objectionable; it is merely an oblong box, 12 feet by 22 feet, with no floor space and bad ventilation. While these two rooms are perhaps the most unsatisfactory, it may be added that the whole of the old building is bad and not even remotely consistent with the requirements for a state aided school.


These criticisms were endorsed by pupils of the time, as Sir Charles Cunningham testifies:


My school days began and ended in the huddle of buildings which crowd the area between Park Place and Tay Square. Cramped, overcrowded, with playgrounds like postage stamps, an offence against planning, a challenge to good order and government, they were nonetheless the home in which the spirit of the school was born and matured.


The situation became even worse in 1912 when a fire severely damaged several of the rooms in the building. While providing pupils with the unexpected blessing of an extra four days holiday, this placed additional strain on the school's already over-stretched resources. The demand began to be heard that an entirely new school ought to be built but this was met by the acquisition of yet more annexes- "the Doctor's houses". Pupils of that generation will remember with some pleasure "Dr Don's", a private house with coal fires in every room, surrounded by pleasant grounds extending towards the Nethergate. Perhaps they can remember the outcry when the Town Council's plan to widen the Nethergate threatened the magnificent tree that stood at the bottom of the gardens and the poem that was written in its defence? As a result of their efforts, the tree was spared and still stands today. This success, however, did little to solve the more urgent problems faced by the Park Place Harris.


The need for an entirely new school was becoming acute and the erection of a "stately new building in the west end of the city" was considered but rejected. Meanwhile, the overcrowding continued with the result that H.M. Inspectors issued the warning that the "regulations regarding size of classes are being seriously infringed". At this point, the Scotch Education Department tired of delay and imposed a cut in the grant to the school because of the "failure of the Board to put forward satisfactory proposals for meeting the defects and deficiencies of the building". This action achieved its desired objective and, by late 1913, a new building with a front elevation to Park Place was planned. Pictures of this "stately edifice" were even printed in the local press but some observers greeted these plans with more than a little cynicism:


The pupils are taking a deep interest in the suggestions and plans for the new building. This interest is much to their credit and is entirely unselfish, as even the youngest does not hope to see it finished until he has joined the wider circle of F.Ps.


Sadly, their pessimism proved well-founded for this plan was not to be fulfilled. The outbreak of war brought other more vital priorities and the building of the long hoped-for new Harris was "postponed owing to the national situation". The delay in planning the new Harris and the delay in its construction were regrettable but, in fairness to the members of Dundee School Board, it must be remembered that the Board's concerns embraced much more than the pupils of a single school. To their credit, the Board achieved much of value in the pre-war years, notably the establishment of the highly successful Stobswell Central Supplementary School in 1912 and the Fairmuir School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped in 1914. Similarly, after the war had ended, the newly constituted Dundee School Authority had not its problems to seek. Schools of all types were desperately needed and any programme of building had to be undertaken in a time of economic recession which necessitated years of financial stringency. In such circumstances, and with so many conflicting issues, it is perhaps no surprise that the proposed new Harris Academy became a highly contentious issue.


Despite the economic problems involved, the Authority embarked upon an ambitious five-year plan to improve educational facilities in the city. The new Harris was one element of this plan but the need for a Roman Catholic secondary school was also a major consideration. These two proposed developments became connected when a School Committee suggested that the best solution was for the Catholic pupils to be housed in the existing Harris at Park Place while a new Harris be built on a different site. The positioning of the new Harris soon became a matter of some controversy since the most convenient, and cheapest, site was at Ashcliff at the extreme west end of the city. Several members of the Authority, led by Garnet Wilson, were strongly opposed to such a site but it was nevertheless pur­chased in 1924 for the relatively modest sum of three thousand pounds.


This move provoked further protests with Garnet Wilson once more in the forefront. Such a site, he argued, was manifestly unsuitable for the new Harris. It was too far from the city centre, making pupils liable to increased travel and lunch costs; the site was too steep and uneven, making building difficult and expensive; it was too close to the busy Perth Road with its obvious traffic dangers; and it would be at the very edge of the catchment area which it was supposed to serve. Many ratepayers' groups were bitterly opposed to the financial burdens that such a project would entail and voiced their objections in the strongest terms.


Despite these objections, the Authority pressed ahead with the plan. The sum of £107,000 was borrowed to finance the operation and the building of the new Harris was commenced. After almost twenty years of unfulfilled hopes, Harris Academy opened its doors on its present site on 1st May, 1931.