Paving the way


A Glasgow academic explores how the work of religious orders paved the way for the success of the 1918 Education Act in Scotland.

By the 1830s the city of Glasgow could not cope with either the educational or the social needs of the people.  Glasgow had grown out of all recognition: the population in 1835 was nearly twelve times what it had been in 1775.  It suffered from all the evils associated with the industrial revolution – overcrowding, bad housing, insanitary slums and, very often, severe unemployment, poverty and lack of education.

Irish immigration, in addition to the Clearances, increased the number of Catholics in Glasgow during the 1840s and 1850s.  As the Catholic population grew, the Catholic authorities were concerned to provide an educational system for their own children.

The Rev. Peter Forbes of St. Mary’s Church, Abercromby St, had first applied to the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, but they were unable, at that time, to free sisters for the Glasgow mission.  In 1846, Father Forbes was travelling through France seeking financial aid for the Scottish Mission and appealing also for Religious who were willing to care for the destitute Catholic children and young adults of his own parish in Glasgow.

By the end of 1847, two Franciscan Sisters, Adelaide and Veronica, were ready to embark on the apostolate which had drawn them to the Scottish Mission, the education of young Catholics.  The following year, on 17th February 1848, Sister Adelaide died of cholera and Sister Veronica was left alone in Glasgow to carry on the work.

As a direct consequence of the epidemics of typhoid and cholera which affected Glasgow in the 1830s and 1840s, one of the greatest needs of the period among the Catholic community was an orphanage, and the Sisters of Mercy, like the Franciscans, worked in the orphanage in Abercromby Street.  Like the Franciscans, they also taught in schools in Glasgow, initially in St. Mary’s, Abercromby St. and later, in 1877, they established their convent school in Hill St, Garnethill.

The Scottish Education Act of 1872 brought about great changes to the Catholic community in Scotland in general and in Glasgow in particular.  The pressure of pupil numbers particularly at the infant stage made schools even more dependent upon these first two female religious orders to come to work in Glasgow.

The Convent of Mercy school was recognised as a Higher Grade establishment in 1904.  Like the Franciscan Sisters, in a comparatively short time the Sisters of Mercy had made remarkable advances in the education of girls in the city of Glasgow in addition to their work with the marginalised in society.

The Marists and the Jesuits arrived in Glasgow in close succession in 1858 and 1859.  The Marists made a formidable contribution to the education of poorer children in the East end of Glasgow. There is ample evidence of this.  But the Marists, like the Jesuits, aimed also to develop a Catholic middle class in Glasgow.

Acceptance of smaller salaries as part of their vow of poverty is only one example of their dedication.  They also conducted night schools which provided an extra source of finance for the day schools, despite creating a heavier workload for the Marist brothers.  In the light of evidence submitted by the Schools Inspectorate, it becomes apparent that such schools served not only educational purposes, but were also social centres for immigrant Irish groups in the city.

The mission of the Marist Brothers in Glasgow therefore had a much wider impact than merely on education.  The work of Brother Walfrid in founding Celtic Football Club is an example of community building in the East End of Glasgow as well as an excellent financial source of free meals for poor school children.

When Brother Walfrid departed for London in 1892, the football club was turned into a business by its directors and its original function lapsed.  The penny dinner fund collapsed after 1892, but it had greatly helped the Catholic poor in its parishes for several years.

When the Jesuits founded St. Aloysius’ College in 1859, they had the very specific aim of educating poor and marginalised Catholics so that they could take their rightful places among the ranks of the professional classes of Scottish society.  This would not have been feasible in Glasgow until this point in history and it often involved considerable sacrifice from parents.

St Aloysius College focused on providing a classical, academic education for Catholic boys in Glasgow.

Like the Marist Brothers, the Jesuits were successful in providing aspirants to the clergy and religious orders.  Between 1878 and 1897 sixty-six boys went to Blairs seminary, three to the Franciscans and seven to the Society of Jesus.

Opportunities to enter the professions were restricted by the fact that the Catholic community in Glasgow was largely a poor community.  The Jesuits were looking for ways to create an educational community in which Jesuits and lay people could share a common sense of mission and the confidence they inspired helped to raise the demand for secondary education amongst the Catholics of Glasgow.

The 1870s proved to be a crucially important time for Catholic education.  The 1872 Act made education compulsory for all children between the age of 5 and 13 and Charles Eyre was appointed the first Archbishop of Glasgow after the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1878.

It was in 1893 that Archbishop Eyre made an urgent plea to the Sisters of Notre Dame to help establish the first Roman Catholic Training College in Scotland.  Eyre was aware of the standard of work being done at Mount Pleasant Training College, Liverpool, founded as far back as 1855 and of the teachers from Mount Pleasant already at work in Scottish schools.  He therefore contacted Mount Pleasant and opened negotiations with Namur.

The Sisters of Notre Dame chose the location of Dowanhill (The Hill of the Doves) as this residential district was near the University and the Botanic gardens.  In addition, it was not far from three good schools which were essential for the students’ teaching practice.

The work of the Sisters of Notre Dame gave Catholic girls the opportunity to continue education past the elementary stage and to aspire to white-collar positions for the first time in Scotland’s history.  Several Sisters of the Notre Dame order demonstrated such formidable qualities in teaching, research, educational management and leadership that they could justifiably be cited as pioneers of equality of opportunity for women.

Through skillful negotiation with the State and the University, the order enabled the small and separate Catholic schools system to attain the standards of the country at large by training a well-qualified and competent corps of teachers.  In this way, they contributed significantly to a general raising of the educational and cultural standards of the Catholic community.

Each of the religious orders made their own unique and distinctive contribution to Catholic education and thus to the survival and development of Catholic education in Glasgow during the period 1847-1918.  This made it feasible for Catholic schools to remain outside the state system after the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act and paved the way for the considerable achievement for the Catholic community of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act.

Frank O’Hagan is a musician and an Associate Tutor at the University of Glasgow.  He has recorded and released four CDs of his own music.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.