St John’s School

A theme of my research into the people who founded St John’s Edinburgh in 2018 is how highly they regarded the education of children.

Daniel Sandford, who founded St John’s, laid out his manifesto on the subject in a Charge to the clergy of Edinburgh when he became bishop in 1806:

There is no office of your profession by which you may reasonably expect to do more real and lasting good. I can declare also, and I speak from long experience, that there is no duty required of us, which is more delightful in itself, or more affectionately and gratefully received by our people.

His successor, Edward Bannerman Ramsay, re-stated this paramount importance of education, in the preface of his Catechism for the Young Persons of St John’s, first published in 1835, which was used all over Britain:

It brings the pastor into early and intimate personal acquaintance with the young members of his flock, whilst it associates him with the parents under a most interesting bond of union, by sharing with them the important office of training and instructing the youthful minds of their offspring in the most important of all knowledge.

Another very important feature of the foundation of St John’s was its Choir. In 1817, before the church was built, the Vestry had decided on its composition (2 bass, 2 tenor, 2 countertenor and 6 treble) and repertoire (responses, psalms, canticles and anthems). Adult musicians would migrate to take up new musical opportunities, but the challenge was to find local trebles with suitable skills, in a city with no choral tradition.

So it is unsurprising that in 1838, St John’s founded its own school, primarily to provide trebles for the choir:

Mr Cay stated… a plan … by Mr Hamilton the organist for securing well-instructed boys for singing in the Choir, the principles of which were that one of the first teachers in Edinburgh along with the organist should give them instructions and that thy expenses of doing so should be defrayed out of the funds of the chapel, in return for which they boys are to attend and assist in the singing chaunting and reading in the chapel at all times when required, that the plan had already been so far successful that application had been made to the organist for admission to the School (to be called St John’s School), of a sufficient number of boys to warrant making a trial of the plan. (St John’s vestry minutes, 17 April 1838. John Cay, 1790-1865, founder member of St John’s vestry, Sheriff of Linlithgowshire and uncle of the physicist James Clerk-Maxwell.)

Proposed regulations stated the boys would be taught reading and singing, would be no more than 10 at first, admitted under the age of 11 and engaging to remain until their voices break. Any performing they did outside the chapel was to be regulated by the school. There was the possibility of other fee-paying pupils joining. The vestry approved the plan and to establish the school using the funds previously used for singers’ salaries.

In 1853, the new director of music Frederick Meaton was instructed to conduct the choir and spend three hours a week training the choristers in the school. The Curate Mr Addison oversaw the choir.

Mr Meaton … informed Mr Rollo [vestry member] that Mr Addison had so far altered this arrangement that instructions had been given that girls should be trained for the choir as well as boys, upon which point he had obtained the views of several of the members of vestry and had communicated the same to the organist, but as the matter was one of importance, this meeting had bee called to consider the subject which having been discussed it was unanimously resolved to minute as follows — Understanding that in consequences of inconveniences which had been experienced the Vestry had on a former occasion adopted a resolution to have only boys in the choir, they see no reasons for making any alterations in the existing practice. While acting upon this resolution which all things considered they deem wise and expedient, the vestry by no means wish to exclude the female children of St John’s School from taking part in the musical services of the church as an aid to the choir whenever proper arrangements can be made for the purpose. It is the understanding of the vestry that the organist is in terms of his engagement to teach music to the school generally and independent of the separate instructions of the choir.

Where was the school? The best candidate I can find is the school is marked on the Ordinance Survey 25 inch map of 1892-1914 (which appears not marked as a school on earlier maps). This was replaced in the early twentieth century by Methodist Central Hall.


I’m sure it would be possible to find out more through archival research, for example in St John’s vestry minutes, National Records of Scotland, CH12/3/3; the Canmore collections, National Records of Scotland; and the Scottish Guardian, the Scottish Episcopal Church newspaper, microfilms in National Library of Scotland.

It would be a great topic for a Masters dissertation on the history of education in Edinburgh. If anyone is looking for one and would like to work with me on it, I would love to hear from you.