The thread about the Sciennes School Strike of 1925; why it was stoked by political sectarianism and how a group of mothers stood up to the authorities and won

As often seems to happen, I start off reading a little bit about one thing and then fall unwittingly yet compliantly down a deep rabbit hole with all kinds of unexpected tangents. So let’s unravel a bit of the Sciennes School Strike of 1925.

Sciennes Primary School, CC-BY-SA 4.0 Stephencdickson
Sciennes Primary School, CC-BY-SA 4.0 Stephencdickson

Sciennes, if you don’t know, is a neighbourhood in Edinburgh. You pronounce it to rhyme with “machines” (it’s a Scottish corruption of Sienna, after a convent that long ago stood here) and it is home to a school of the same name. To get to the root of our story, we go back to 1872, when the Education (Scotland) Act of that year brought responsibility for mandatory schooling in Scotland under the control of local School Boards. For the Burgh of the City of Edinburgh, this was the Edinburgh School Board.

The roundel of Edinburgh School Board. Prominently and proudly displayed on its buildings. A wise lady dispenses education to a child. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Kim Traynor
The roundel of Edinburgh School Board. Prominently and proudly displayed on its buildings. A wise lady dispenses education to a child. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Kim Traynor

Most of the existing schools at that time were either church, parish or charitably provided and those of the Presbyterian churches (that is the majority of all churches in Scotland at that time) and parishes were transferred to the School Boards. Most of the facilities were too small and were inadequate as teaching spaces for modern methods, so a crash building programme was initiated. Sciennes was a product of this program, completed in 1892. Other public schools in the Southside of Edinburgh at the time included the 1875 Bristo School on the long demolished part of Marshall Street, Causewayside School at Salisbury Place and later Preston Street school of 1896 on the east part of that street.

Board schools, while largely Protestant in outlook, were strictly speaking non denominational and there was no direct church control (although the church was represented in the board membership). Crucially to what would happen in the future though, Catholic schools were not covered by the 1872 act and remained in control of that Church, with the Scottish Episcopal Church also choosing to remain outwith the School Boards. These churches feared the erosion of their denominational religious education. To provide for a Catholic education in central Edinburgh, the Church set up a school, St. Columba’s. It moved around a bit, looking for suitable premises, before settling in a converted townhouse at 81 Newington Road. You can still see where the sign once was.

81 Newington Road, you can see where the sign would have been above the central window.
81 Newington Road, you can see where the sign would have been above the central window.

Edinburgh’s Catholic population was growing quite rapidly at the time with immigration into the city centre from both Ireland and Italy. And then came the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, which brought the Catholic schools into control of the School Boards, which were themselves expanded into local Education Authorities with wider responsibilities.

The Edinburgh Education Authority (EEA) was directly elected by popular ballot and was outwith direct control of the City Corporation or any church, although a system of proportional representation meant a balance of Presbyterian, Episcopal and Catholic authority members. The EEA was unimpressed by the size and quality of the facilities it had inherited off the RC Church (actually, it bought them off them under the provisions of the 1918 act) so set about trying to relocate St. Columba’s.

The Post WW1 economic slump meant there wasn’t the money to go around to build a new school (particularly a minority school), so the EEA looked to rationalise its public schools in the Southside, which were largely under capacity, and make one into a new Catholic school. The plan seemed simple enough; move St. Columba’s to the 50% under occupied Causewayside School, and transfer that school roll to whichever school was closest to a child’s family home out of Sciennes, Bristo or Preston Street Schools.

Causewayside School, which would become St. Columba's
Causewayside School, which would become St. Columba’s

After the numbers were crunched, 154 children were to be relocated to Sciennes, 101 to Preston Street and 66 to Bristo. 291 children were to transfer in turn from St. Columba’s into its new home, and 81 Newington Road would be disposed of. All simple enough and making better use of the Authority’s resources, so it should be relatively uncontroversial administrative change, yes?

No. What happened next was the relatively young Scottish Protestant League decided to wade into things and try and make it a wedge issue – stirred up in part by local lawyer, political dabbler and green inker, Robert Sterling Craig Esq SSC, known as Sterling Craig, a man with a clear anti-Catholic bent. When the Authority announced its decision towards the end of the school term in June 1924, Sterling Craig and a local parish councillor, Mrs Inglis Clark, organised a public meeting in protest “in the strongest way”.

What followed next was a rather predictable series of conflicting arguments by Sterling Craig and Clark, which began to descend into the disingenuous, e.g. the alternatives would be too far, causing 2 or 3 mile walks to school (Sciennes and Preston Street were less than 500m away). Sterling Craig accused the EEA of inflating the roll of St. Columba’s School by “stuffing” it with children from the Catholic Home (an orphanage), a claim the Authority flat out denied. He also claimed 477 children were being displaced – the Authority said it was 321.

Sterling Craig simultaneously claimed that Causewayside was a non-denominational school (it was) but also “Protestant” (it wasn’t, although likely much of the school roll was). His loud and authoritative voice drowned out the views and representations of the parents and children impacted by this. He had previously sat on the Edinburgh School Board and was standing for the upcoming Edinburgh Education Authority election. This issue he was making a key plank of his campaign. His letters to the Scotsman refer to “the Roman Catholics” and “the Roman Catholic Children” in a very othering tone – they are quite unpleasant to read in places with retrospect.

Sterling Craig was upset that a “central” school (i.e. one serving a wide catchment) was being located in the Southside of the city; that children would be bused in (actually, trammed) at the Authority’s expense and that they would be given school meals at the EEA’s expense (at this time most school children went home for their lunch time) – despite these all being provisions in line with the 1918 act.

To boil Sterling Craig’s arguments down to a single sentence, they would be: I’m not anti-Catholic, but can’t they just go some place else? To this extent he suggested wholly inadequate facilities at Old St. Patrick’s in the Canongate (that the Education Authoritity didn’t even own and so would have to buy at its own expense). It was all very not from round here and he and his allies in Mrs Inglis Clark and others began to seriously go down the route of sectarian scaremongering. However the EEA, to its credit, stuck to its plans and even managed to get most of the parents would would be impacted by the changes on side.

Sterling Craig and Mrs Inglis Clark were not placated however, and with the nascent Scottish Protestant League of Alexander Ratcliffe, organised a “Great Protestant Rally” at the Livingstone Hall on South Clerk Street in January 1925, which was attended by around 500.

Long story short, the SPL – which claimed itself apolitical – and Sterling Craig agreed on a platform of trying to take over the Edinburgh Education Authority (elections were upcoming) and to campaign for repeal of the provisions of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act around state provision of RC education. Sterling Craig’s words were reported as “the only thing that prevented ‘the Catholics’ walking back to St. Columba’s and the old school going back to Causewayside was the laziness of the ratepayers“; if only people would turn out and vote for the SPL / him, they would sort it out.

In case you didn’t realise it by the way – 1920s and 30s Edinburgh local politics was quite a hotbed of anti-Catholicism. The Scottish Protestant League stood 7 candidates in the 1925 Education Authority election, Sterling Craig stood himself as an independent. Just one of the SPL candidates – it’s leader and founder Alexander Ratcliffe (who styled himself “Scotland’s Modern John Knox” and went as far as to refer in public to St. Columba’s as “the now misnamed St. Columba’s“) – was elected, as was Sterling Craig.

Ratcliffe soon got a bit bored of Edinburgh local politics and would move to Glasgow where he made some inroads with the SPL in the Glasgow Corporation elections of 1931, exploiting and stoking that city’s longer standing sectarian tensions. In Edinburgh it was the Protestant Action Society under John Cormack that would later take up the anti-Catholic political mantle. The SPL split with the Ulster Protestant League – which it had inspired – in 1933 when Ratcliffe’s wife Mary and another member attacked and defaced a (factually correct) painting in the Northern Irish Parliament that showed the Pope celebrating William of Orange’s victory at the Boyne

William III, the Duke of Schomberg, and the Pope, by Pieter van der Meulen, c. 1690
William III, the Duke of Schomberg, and the Pope, by Pieter van der Meulen, c. 1690

The SPL fell apart not long after that due to internal divisions and the Scottish protestant mainstream distancing itself from the increasingly extremist and unpredictable SPL. Alexander Ratcliffe, who started his political life on the Edinburgh Education Authority, dabbled with the Scottish fascists (who in turn kicked him out as being too extreme) has been described as “one of the very first Holocaust deniers in the country and perhaps even the world“. He was an extreme anti-Catholic, anti-Semite and racist to his core. He also thought that Hitler and Mussolini were in league with the Pope to smash Protestantism… He was a very conflicting and thoroughly distasteful man, who died at his home in Glasgow in 1947.

A wartime anti-Semitic pamphlet issued by Alexander Ratcliffe
A wartime anti-Semitic pamphlet issued by Alexander Ratcliffe

Back in Edinburgh and back to 1925, we return to the transfer of those children from Causewayside School to Sciennes, Preston Street and Bristo schools. How did that end up in a strike? Well what happened was that in true local authority style, after winning parents over to its plans and dispersing the children of Causewayside School to Sciennes, Preston Street and Bristo, the Education Authority went back on its word over the summer holidays and rightly aggrieved a lot of parents. Sciennes, it said, was actually too full. Around 150 children who had just recently been moved from Causewayside and settled in at Sciennes and had just returned there after the summer holidays, would instead need to go to Bristo School instead.

This poured salt on a wound that had not yet had a chance to heal, and the mothers of the Southside were having none of it. Official phraseology such as “arriving at a more equitable distribution of scholars” just made things even worse. The problem was not just the repeated, forced relocation of children, it was where they were to be moved to. Bristo was in a neighbourhood later given the “slum clearance” treatment, and as you can see from the aerial photo it had a tiny playground and was penned in on all sides

Bristo Public School from the air, you can see how penned in the playground at the back was, and how many of the school windows were in the shadow of neighbouring tenements. From Britain From Above
Bristo Public School from the air, you can see how penned in the playground at the back was, and how many of the school windows were in the shadow of neighbouring tenements. From Britain From Above

It was too small, it was too dark, it was dingy, it was badly lit and ventilated. And it was fundamentally on the wrong side of the (tram) tracks.

Bristo Public School on Marshall Street. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Bristo Public School on Marshall Street. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Without the distraction of Sterling Craig or Mrs Inglis Clark and their anti-Catholic agenda, the mothers of the affected children quickly formed an effective deputation to the Education Authority to resist the change. They literally went straight to the Authority – turning up at its offices on Castle Terrace on September 2nd 1925 to demand an audience. And for good measure, a party was also send to the house of the Authority’s Chairman – Councillor P. H. Allan – to wait for him there.

When it became clear that the man at the Authority was not for budging, the mothers organised a public meeting on September 4th, packing out the Nicolson Square public hall. Councillor Mrs Adam Millar inflamed the situation further by saying it was not the Education Authority’s fault, it was the fault of parents as they had voted for the EEA – or hadn’t bothered (turnout for the EA election being about 20%). The mothers found a sympathetic ear on the council in one Wilson Mclaren. At the meeting, the mothers of around 110 of the affected children agreed to stop sending their children to school entirely if they could not send them to Sciennes. The Sciennes School Strike had begun.

On September 8th it was reported there were rumours reported that the strike would spread, with some children from Craiglockhart, Roseburn and Gorgie schools being dispersed to Dalry, again to try and achieve a “more equitable distribution of scholars“. The strike did not spread. However it did not go away. The EEA tried to offer an olive branch and say children from Buccleuch Street would not have to go to Bristo but could stay at Sciennes. However those from George Square would still have to go to Bristo. This attempt at strikebreaking failed.

September 15th, into the 3rd week of the strike and it was still ongoing. 55 children were still out of school. The mothers caused uproad in the Education Authority board room by turning up en masse with their younger children in tow and “infants in their arms“. The mothers had sympathisers in the Education Authority, and Mrs Swan Brunton* on the EA spoke out in their favour. At a deadlock, the EA eventually conceded to set up a Special Committee on School Congestion to look into the matter further.

Janet Swan Brunton 1882 – 1932

* = The redoutable Mrs Swan Brunton was Janet Swan Brunton JP, a suffragette of the Scottish Cooperative Women’s Guild. In 1928 she became only the 5th woman elected to the Corporation of Edinburgh, as a Labour member. She died suddenly in 1932 aged 50, in Glasgow at a meeting of the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society, and was buried in North Merchiston Cemetery

September 21st. No resolution was in sight. 58 children from Sciennes were on strike, and in total 86 across the city were. On September 24th, the Scotsman reported from the Education Authority that the strike had been broken and large numbers of the affected children had now gone back to the schools which the EA wished them to attend. On September 25th, the Scotsman printed something of a retraction. The children had not, in fact, gone back to school and were still on strike and at a public meeting of ratepayers, it had been agreed that a general strike of children should be called in the Central District.

September 26th. The Education Authority was not backing down, and it issued a statement that it had acted in accordance with its legal rights, and if the 42 children on strike form Sciennes were not sent to school they would start taking legal action. But the strike was not broken. A week later and a month into the strike, on October 6th, the Education Authority called a special meeting. Mrs Swan Brunton implored the authority to use their common sense and allow the 40 to go to Sciennes. Mrs Mclaren of the committee spoke in support of Mrs Swan Brunton and the strikers. There was plenty room in Sciennes, let them go there as had been promised. Mr Alexander Ratcliffe blamed the Catholics as usual. Unfortunately, Mrs Swan Brunton’s motion, seconded by Mrs Mclaren, was voted down.

October 14th, five weeks in and the strike went on… It was suggested by a 1925 techbro that if the Corporation would pave the street outside Bristo School in wood that the noise of traffic would be reduced significantly to entice the strikers to attend there. The chairman of the Education Authority tried to force through a resolution in its favour. Mrs Swan Brunton challenged the count on it not reaching a quorum of 3/4 of the members, and she prevailed this time. The meeting then collapsed into farce and had to be adjourned.

The Education Authority tried again the next week, 7 weeks into the strike. One proposal was to set up yet another sub-committee – the “Special Committee on School Areas”. Alexander Ratcliffe agitated against “the Catholics” and also this time Episcopalians. The Education Authority agreed to set up the sub-committee and spent the rest of its time listening to the extremist ramblings of Alexander Ratcliffe, supported by Sterling Craig as seconder.

8 weeks in, October 26th. Another meeting was held by the Education Authority. It lasted precisely 2 minutes, without resolution and again collapsed into chaos when the chairman over-rode Mrs Swan Brunton’s motion for resolution. He left to the mothers in the gallery crying “Shame!”

November 2nd. Week 9. The Chairman called a private meeting of a restricted number of members of the Education Authority. The mothers were forced to wait outside the offices. The Authority could not bring itself to publicly concede, but fundamentally capitulated when it agreed that the 46 children who had been moved from Sciennes to Bristo could instead have their pick of Castlehill, Preston Street, Tollcross or St. Leonard’s schools.

The mothers decided en masse that they would send their children to Preston Street. And they were true to their word, 37 mothers and 46 children arrived at the school door the very next day, November 3rd, exactly 2 months from the start of the strike. The strike was over. Almost;
the Education Authority meeting had ended so late in the day, they hadn’t bothered to write to Preston Street School to inform them of the decision! The school refused to admit them and sent them away.

Preston Street School, CC-BY-SA Kim Traynor

Finally, on November 4th, the children were admitted to Preston Street School and the Great Sciennes School Strike of 1925 was finally over.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s