Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Identifying and Exploring an 1860's Era School Photograph

Crossford School and Children,
Lanarkshire, Scotland, c.1866-68
[From my own collection]

A Short Preface :

In my former 'life' as a Photographic Archivist I took great pride in correctly identifying, dating and naming old photographs, usually with a reasonably high degree of accuracy. The knowledge I gained over many years, including applying a very thorough and systematic approach to this process, has also helped me solve many mysteries relating to my own family collection of not only photographs but also of memorabilia. My methodology in regards to the latter will form the subject of a future blog.

So, let me share with you one previously unidentified and undated but absolutely fascinating image which had always intrigued me. My hope is also that by highlighting this quite historic photograph others may be able to add to what I have uncovered.

The date "1862" appearing on the lintel

Establishing the Subject Content :

Obviously a school group, and the teachers and children are dressed in typical 1860's to 1870's style clothing. The date of  "1862" appears over the lintel while the photographer is "Wm. Birrell, Hamilton [Scotland]". There is a very high stone fence built to the left which indicates a neighbouring property. There is no location noted nor any mark or stamp on the rear of the photograph, being a 113mm by 65mm "carte-de-visite" format image.

William Birrell's accidental fingerprint. This was most
likely placed on the glass negative during processing.

The Photographic Process as a Guide to Dating :

Birrell would almost certainly have used the "collodion emulsion" process invented in 1864. This involved sensitising the glass plate by coating one side in liquid collodion in a travelling or portable darkroom, placing it in the camera in darkness, exposing the plate to the image for a set time based on the perceived amount of ambient light (usually just a few seconds), then developing and fixing the plate back in his portable darkroom. This whole process would have to take no more than about 10 to 12 minutes otherwise the emulsion coating on the plate could completely dry out and ruin the latent image. Due to the relatively slow exposure time a few blurred faces are evident.

The Colodion "wet plate" photographic process used prior to 1864 required that the glass plate be first placed in a sensitising bath before exposure. This was a messy process and additionally gave unreliable results so was less suitable for field use.

Crossford Village with the River Clyde, pre 1911
[From my own collection]

Establishing the Area :

This was the longest process. As the photographer was based in Hamilton the image would need to have been taken within a radius of say 30 kilometers south to south west of Hamilton (as other photographers would be prevalent in other directions with larger towns).  

My family were resident just to the north of Stonehouse which led me at first to think this could be Draffan school which their children attended from around the late 1850's onwards (noted in family records), Stonehouse itself, or perhaps even Dalserf (where they attended church). On closer examination however, I noted a faint but distinct ridge line evident behind the school building. The aspect of the photograph would be facing north and this would fit with it being taken somewhere along the Clyde River valley, but where exactly? Searching modern Google street view, not surprisingly, proved fruitless. The Low Parks Museum in Hamilton were unable to provide any information as to the location of this image.

Crossford School Teachers and Children, c.1866-68
[From my own collection]

Searching Old Newspapers and Books :

According to "The British Newspaper Archive", William Birrell, "Photographic Artist", is noted as being active in Hamilton from as early as April 1867. A further mention in the "Journal of Photography" dated the 26th January 1877 (per Google Books) notes that Birrell was awarded a bronze medal for "his automatic ozyhydrogen apparatus".  So we have a date range of at least circa 1867 to on or after 1877.

Searching scanned newspapers for the date 1862 (the lintel date) in relation to schools also proved fruitless.

Panoramic View of Crossford School Children, c.1866-68
Click Image for Larger View
[From my own collection]

Establishing a Precise Date :

Firstly, we know that the process of Carte-de-Visite (CDV) format photographs was patented by the Frenchman André Disdéri in 1854. The format came into widespread use from 1859. I believe, as previously stated, that Birrell used a reasonably portable photographic process invented in 1864.

The date on the lintel reads "1862" and the lintel surround itself appears slightly discoloured or weathered. We know at least that the image is definitely dated after 1862.

"Wm. Birrell, Photo, Hamilton"
[From my own collection]

An excellent photographic dating site, "Glasgow's Victorian Photographers", which includes many examples, highlights CDV's with text appearing on the front of the image in a "fine, black font" as dating from 1864, give or take a couple of years. I would agree that, based on other images in my possession, this date range is entirely correct. The reverse of the CDV is blank.  

The style of clothing fits with the period 1860's into the 1870's.

Therefore, in my opinion, we have a date of perhaps anytime from say 1864 at the earliest to 1870 at the very latest. Old CDV cards could still have been used by Birrell till stocks were exhausted. So let's say 1866 to 1868. I doubt that we will ever get an absolutely exact date for this photo.

The Main Street, Crossford, pre 1910
[From my own collection]

Confirming the Location :

This proved the most difficult exercise. Ultimately I felt sure that it would have been taken either at Dalserf or Crossford as these two villages had strong family connections, even if no children attended schools there. I soon discounted Dalserf as not having the correct aspect with the low hill in the background. This left Crossford but no current building even faintly resembled this school building. The ridge line at the back does however almost perfectly match the old photo.

Ordnance Survey Book Entry for Crossford School, 1858-61
[Source : Scotland's People]

So What Schools Were There in Crossford in the 1860's? : 

The "Ordnance Survey Name Book" records, which are available on "Scotland's Places", makes mention in 1858-61 of (only) one school in Crossford, "a district school in receipt of £16 from the Government [...] educational fund and the fees of about 100 pupils. The usual branches[?] taught. One storey slated in good repair". While this fits perfectly with the style of building and the number of pupils evident in the photo our school has the now enigmatic date of 1862 on the lintel.

The published "Report of the Committee of Council on Education" for 1868-69 (being schools aided by Parliamentary grants), which is available on Google Books, lists the Crossford School as being an undenominational school funded by "Subscription", having an average attendance of  89 pupils, and being paid an annual Government grant of £15.0.0 (the same as the 1865-66 year but then with 84 pupils)

Interestingly, education for all children was not compulsory until the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1872, all schools originally being parochial or church funded. From 1830 the Government provided grants towards "Building, enlargement, improvements, or fixtures" and from 1846 (subject to annual inspections) provided an annual grant subsidy based on attendance numbers.

I have checked the Parliamentary grants for the financial years 1858 to 1862 and there is no mention of a grant for the Crossford school building. Unfortunately, and perhaps crucially, there is no available record for the 1862 to 1863 year.

The 1858 Ordnance Survey Map of Crossford
showing the "footprint" of the school next
to the United Presbyterian Chgrch
[Source : National Library of Scotland]

I next consulted the "Ordnance Survey Maps" which are available from the National Library of Scotland. A building matching the exact 'footprint' of the school - and in fact marked "School" - appears on the 1858 map (published in 1864) next to the old (and now recently demolished?) United Presbyterian Church (later the United Free Presbyterian Church) on the corner of Main Street and the present day Smuggler's Brig Road in Crossford.  As with the old photo the building is built right up to the left boundary of the property. 

The 1911 Ordnance Survey map crucially shows this building with the same footprint but now marked as a "reading room". Smuggler's Brig Road was obviously formed at a later date with the property adjoining the old school property being demolished. The Church itself closed in 1913 when an amalgamation took place.

"Reading Room"
Ordnance Survey Map, 1911
[Source : National Library of Scotland]

But on Google Street View today what we see on this site is the Crossford Village Hall, an older styled building with a completely different footprint. It would now appear that post 1911 the old school building / reading room was dismantled and replaced with the current hall which appears to have subsequently also been built onto. But interestingly, part of a low capped stone wall is still visible to the right of the building and can just about be discerned in the 1860's photo.

Crossford Village Hall which now
occupies the site of the old 1862 school
[Source : Google Streetview, 2011]

School & School Board Records :

The South Lanarkshire Council Archives have confirmed that they do not hold any relevant records (eg admission registers, log books or minute books) for the old Crossford School. 

Approval was given by the Lesmahagow School Board (which oversaw Crossford) to "enlarge" the Crossford School in 1873. We know the school building was definitely vacated before 1911 as it was then a reading room. 

I do note a cryptic and rather caustic letter from "An Elector" published in "The Glasgow Herald" dated April 1876. The writer decries the decision to appoint a new candidate to the Lesmahagow School Board (which oversaw Crossford School) simply in order to overturn a decision which had been "arrived at after great trouble and anxiety" and emphasizes that "...the site of the Crossford School, near Underwood, has been sanctioned by the Government, the title-deeds made out, and, in fact the whole matter irrevocably settled." I cannot locate any further reference to this disagreement. The first actual published reference I can find to "Underbank School" at Crossford is in 1897.

The (second) school building still exists as upmarket flats on Lanark Road at Underbank and, according to a real estate site, dates from the 1870's. No foundation stone is noted.  

But the present day Underbank Primary School did not open until as late as 1925, new school plans being considered by the Education Board as early as 1915.

Some minute books, letter books and ledger books do exist for the Lesmahagow School Board. These are held by the Glasgow City Archives but only commence in 1873 and end in 1919.

Crossford United Presbyterian Church, circa 1903
The arrows confirm the location of the old school.
[Image courtesy of Hugh Miller and
"Lost Houses of the Clyde Valley"] 

Period Photographs :

While I have not located any other images of the old school building I have, just in the last couple of days, discovered (with thanks to Hugh Miller, a local historian) an old postcard image which crucially does show the immediate area and entrance to the old school. This is a circa 1903 tinted postcard of the then United Presbyterian Church and adjoining cottages on the main street. Although only the stone fence, gap in the fence for the entrance. iron railing and two chimney pieces of the old school are visible this still confirms beyond any doubt whatsoever that we have the correct location for my image. You can also see the previously mentioned low stone fence adjoining the church, part of which remains today.

The First or Second Crossford School? :

We know with absolute certainty that the school building, being the subject of this blog, was built or enlarged in 1862 (confirmed by date on lintel), closed and moved to a second school building at Underbank very soon after 1876 (confirmed from published sources), then also closed and moved to a third new combined district Primary School building also in Underbank just down the road in 1925 (date confirmed by the school).

While the 1858 Ordnance Survey record (noted above) alludes to an existing one story slated school in good repair later Ordnance Survey maps show the school building in the same location and position as my photo. So it would appear that the existing school building was only partially rebuilt in 1862. It is unfortunate that published records do not record the scope of the 1862 rebuilding but we do now know the site and 'footprint' is the same as for the pre 1862 school and possibly included much of the fabric of the previous school building which even in 1858-61 was "in good repair".

Old land title records held by "Registers of Scotland" or Sasine records held by the National Records of Scotland would presumably show how long the original school had been on this site. A locally supported school would have existed for many years, most likely under the aegis of local heritors or churches and latterly receiving the previously mentioned Government grant. A school at Crossford is not specifically mentioned in the 1791-99 or 1834 "Statistical Accounts" for Lesmahagow Parish but this is not to say that one didn't exist.

How Did I Come By This Image? :

My great great uncle John Watson and his wife Margaret née Frame ran the grocery shop in Crossford from at least 1858 to 1883 but had no children of their own. Their grandfather clock, which I know hold, is featured Here and I or my family own other small items which belonged to them. Margaret was extremely close to her own family who ran the local smithy and who lived just next door or boarded with them. The Frame family had school age children so John and Margaret Watson may have obtained or were given a copy of the photo. But they would also have known many of the local children who attended the school.

Summary :

My photo now appears to be the first identified image of the old Crossford School and pupils. This is a wonderful and possibly unique "snapshot" of all school age children from the Crossford area during the mid to late 1860's.

My hope is that other images of this school, which evidently closed in the late 1870's, may be found or be identified. It would also not be difficult to at least ascertain the teacher's name(s) from 1871 census records if anyone is able to access these records?  

Please contact me should you have any additional information relating to the (1862) Crossford Primary School, or better still, any old photographs or postcards. My contact email appears in the box in the right hand menu bar or you can add a comment to this Blog.

Copyright :

Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own collections and may be freely copied for personal, non-profit or academic use provided this site is acknowledged. Other images will require the permission of the image holder.

Sources :

- Watson family photographs and ephemera (held by the writer)
- "The British Newspaper Archive" website
- "The Glasgow Herald" (Google Newspapers)
- "Glasgow's Victorian Photographer's" website
- "Edina" - The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791 - 1845 
- "Scotland's People" website
- "Scotland's Places" website
- Hugh Miller, Lanarkshire
- "Lost Houses of the Clyde Valley" (Facebook site)
- South Lanarkshire Council Archives
- Glasgow City Archives

1 comment:

  1. School photos provide amazing social history. Thank you.

    One of the enlarged images of the children next to the school fence has young school aged girls carrying babies. Since the pupils are behind the fence and the babies outside of it, I assume the babies (and their minders) were simply going past when the photographer was there. Or they had come at lunchtime to drop a sandwich to the pupils.


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