Blackbraes School

Blackbraes was a small mining community to the south of California.  The coalfield was owned by James Russel of Russel and Aitken and he built and leased out the miners’ rows.  Russel provided a school for the community of the growing population at Blackbraes and California in the 1850s.  It stood at the top of the hill on the west side of the main road from Shieldhill to Avonbridge, just south of Blackbraes Square.  The Ordnance Surveyors in 1861 described it as follows:

A small one storey building at Blackbraes erected by the proprietor  of  the  surrounding  coal works,  as  a  school  for  the education of the colliers’ children,  the average attendance is  180, two thirds of which are males.  Reading, writing and arithmetic is the course of education taught, the teacher receives no other payment but the school fees for his support, he having the house rent free.  There is a post office established in the same building, it has one arrival and one despatch daily, the former at 10.30am & the latter at 4pm.  Property of Jas Russel Esq, writer, Falkirk.”

The school was examined annually by the minister of the local churches.  In April 1866 there were two teachers – Walter Gardner who had been appointed five months earlier, and Miss Russel who taught female department subjects such as sewing and knitting.  The school was used as a mission station by the established church for almost a decade until a church building was erected nearby in 1866.

Illus 1: The Main Street of Blackbraes looking south with the two-storey Headmaster’s House on the right and the School immediately in front of it.

In 1873 the school was enlarged by Russel to designs by Thomas McFadzen, architect.  The newly formed Polmont School Board was relieved to observe this action as 79 of the children from that parish attended.  California was in Polmont parish, but Blackbraes was in Muiravonside parish – the boundary being the Gardrum Burn.  The private funding of the school was emphasised that December when Thomas Livingston Learmonth of Parkhall donated £5 to be spent on books.  He recommended that the school obtain them from the Pure Literature Society which would match.

Illus 2: 1861/63 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

With the construction of a school at Shieldhill it was expected that the number of children at Blackbraes from Polmont parish would decline.  However, in 1878 it had gone up to 123.  The headmaster of Blackbraes was then enticed to Shieldhill and some of the pupils moved with him.

Around 1888 the Muiravonside School Board felt compelled to purchase Blackbraes School from Russel and Aitken.  The reason seems to have been that the school was overcrowded and the coalmasters were unwilling to spend more money on it.  Immediately after the hand-over the school was extended and altered, and a schoolhouse was built for the head teacher.  The additions cost £920 and to proceed with the schoolmaster’s house the Board borrowed £1,250.

Illus 3: 1896/97 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

By 1902 the overcrowding at Blackbraes was worse than ever.  100 pupils from Polmont parish still attended the school and neither the Polmont School Board, nor its successor, the Grangemouth Parish School Board, were willing to cooperate with the Muiravonside School Board.  The simple solution was to exclude the children from north of the Gardrum Burn.  A protest from Russel and Aitken was irrelevant – Shieldhill had been operating at under capacity for some time.

Like California School, Blackbraes had to connect with the private sewer belonging to the other proprietors in the Blackbraes area in 1905.  That same year it decided to introduce continuation classes.  The children from other parishes soon returned to Blackbraes.  In 1908 there were 154 from the Polmont/Grangemouth area and 10 from Slamannan.  Congestion was a problem.  Negotiations were commenced with the school boards of those areas with the suggestion that a “combination school” be constructed.  They were to no avail and in 1913/14 the Muiravonside School Board re-constructed the building with major alterations.  Owing to strikes amongst the labourers it was not ready for the autumn return of 1914.  Problems had also been encountered with the demands of the Education Department which considerably increased costs and delays.  Woodwork and ambulance classes were introduced.

The work on the school building had been major, but in June 1917 dry rot was discovered.  It affected the hall, staff-room and corridors.  J G Callander, architect, was asked to produce a report.  Before it had been acted upon the school was flooded due to leaking rubberoid seals on the roof.  The problems were fixed and the school buildings entered the following decade in good shape.  In 1926 the Headmaster of Blackbraes was appointed interim head teacher of California School and in 1929 the two schools were formally amalgamated taking the name Blackbraes–California School.  In 1933 the Stirlingshire Education Committee decided to temporarily close California School and send the pupils to Blackbraes.  The decision mystified the Scottish Education Department which pointed out that California School was a more modern and better building.  Electric lighting was immediately introduced into Blackbraes School.  The school operated as a Junior Secondary School.

Illus 4: 1955 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

It was only after the Second World War that the decision to send all of the pupils to Blackbraes and to close California was reversed.  The secondary pupils transferred to Redding Junior Secondary School or Falkirk High School, as appropriate.  In 1946 it was mooted that Blackbraes School could be used to provide pre-vocational courses for between 80 and 100 students.  It took a while to implement this decision and in 1948 alterations were made to convert Blackbraes School into a Trades’ School.  More dry rot was discovered.  Throughout 1949 and 1950 local tradesmen – shops, banks, offices, distributors, the Post office, factories – were contacted.  On 9 October 1950 Blackbraes School re-opened with voluntary part-time classes for day release students aged between 15 and 18 years.  The initial response was good and at the end of the first week there was a daily attendance of 70.  It was the third Trades’ School in the county and as it dealt with commercial and distributive trades it filled an important gap.  The other two, both at Falkirk, were the Trades’ School for building and foundry work adjacent to Comely Park School, and the Mining Institute in Park Street.  It was not to last and towards the end of the decade numbers slumped.  With the opening of the Falkirk College of Technology the school was closed in 1962 and the building was demolished in 1967.

c1860David K Convery1865180
1923John Fraser
Mr Mathieson1931
1931James Hogg1935
1935Mr F J Dean1938
1938Mr White1941
1941Charles Simpson1946
1946John Campbell
Mr Johnston
1950James Preston
John McLachlan1962

Sites and Monuments Record

SMR 2007NS 9066 7558

G.B. Bailey, 2023