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The Female Industrial School on Stornoway’s Keith Street was opened to wide acclaim in 1849. Built the previous year by Sir James and Lady Matheson, the school was dedicated to the education of the poor and was to provide a place of learning for the island’s young girls.

The building became the new home for Miss Anabella Maciver’s existing class which, under the patronage of Lady Matheson, already boasted a group of “more than one hundred girls, who are tidily dressed, well-instructed in reading and writing, and in plain and ornamental needlework, and trained to go regularly to church”. The work of the school is best described in the following extract from The Highland News of January 1849:

Industrial School c. 1905

Industrial School c. 1905

It has frequently been our duty to notice the progress of practical and social improvement in the Lewis, and we have always considered the task a pleasing one. But we have special pleasure ‘in giving place to the following communication from our Stornoway correspondent, which gives the details of a very important movement in the extension of education to females of the poorer classes, a movement exhibiting a degree of purely disinterested philanthropy on the part of the liberal-minded proprietor and his amiable lady. Our correspondent writes under date 22nd January 1849 as follows:-

An occurrence of deep interest took place here on Tuesday last, the 16th inst. On that day a handsome, spacious, and commodious building, erected by Mr and Mrs Matheson for an industrial ‘school, was opened for its intended purpose, in presence of a large and respectable assemblage. After a very impressive prayer by the Rev. John Macrae, minister of Stornoway, Mr Matheson addressed the meeting at some length.

He said -“Ladies and Gentlemen – In the name of Mrs Matheson and myself, I have much pleasure in now dedicating this edifice as an industrial seminary for the young females of the Lewis; and we have to offer you our best thanks for favouring us with your presence on this occasion, to join in fervent prayers to the Almighty, that he may be pleased to extend his all-powerful protection to this institution, so that it may be conducive to the training up of generations yet unborn in habits of piety, industry and usefulness to society. The education of the young of her own sex was one of the earliest objects that engaged the attention of my beloved wife. She had recourse to the co-operation and advice of the ladies of Stornoway, many of whom we have now the pleasure of seeing around us; and I am happy to say that, with the aid of their co-operation and means, most readily and most kindly afforded, the result has been eminently successful, chiefly owing to the singularly fortunate selection that was made off a teacher, in the person of Miss Anabella Maciver, whom it is impossible for me to name without bearing testimony to her untiring zeal under circumstances of no ordinary discouragement, and her admirable judgement and tact in not only imparting instruction to her pupils, but in imbuing them with a desire to learn, so opposite to the indifference to education on the part of both old and young which, unfortunately, prevails in many parts of this island. At a later period, Miss Macalister was engaged as assistant teacher; and it is pleasing to add, that her assiduity and abilities are deserving of every praise. The ladies formed themselves into a society for the promotion of female education, and gave much of their personal attention and time in regularly visiting the school twice every week; the gratifying result of which is now exhibited in the highly-interesting assemblage before us …many of whom, if it were not for this school, might have been growing up in ignorance, in idleness, and in vice, a discredit to the place, instead of being as they now are an ornament and a credit to us. The number of pupils would have been much greater, were it not that we have been hitherto at a loss for adequate accommodation – to remedy which Mrs Matheson and myself have constructed this building, which, we hope, will be found sufficiently spacious, and being provided with a washing room and laundry, it is proposed to give instruction in these, in addition to other branches of industry, so as to qualify such of the pupils as are inclined to earn their livelihood as expert domestic servants. The school is primarily for the instruction of the poor, admissible to its benefits by the votes of the ladies who are members of the Female Education Society. Others besides the poor are admitted on the payment of very moderate fees, and of such pupils the number is considerable. For Miss Maciver’s school, thus constituted, the lower room is destined, in which we are now assembled. There is another room above us, which is equally spacious, intended for gratuitous instruction in Ayrshire needlework, under the tuition of Mr Pritchard an his female assistants, whom we engaged for this purpose, by the recommendation of Mr Smith of Deanston, nearly two years ago. But I am sorry to say that, although their attention has been most anxious and praiseworthy, our success in this department has been very limited and far from encouraging, owing to the indifference and irregular attendance of the pupils. We will still, however, persevere in spite of this discouragement, in the hope that as its benefits become more apparent, they will be as eagerly availed of as they deserve. Those who now slight this instruction are not aware that in many remote parts of the country, especially in the north of Ireland, the Ayrshire needlework given out by the manufacturers of Glasgow and its vicinity, affords a livelihood to numbers of industrious females, to the extent of thousands of pounds every year, promptly paid in ready money.

Seminary - the building today

Seminary – the building today

A similar advantage is now offered to the females of this place, if they will only bestow a little industry and care in learning the art. It is not difficult to learn; and of the few who have mastered it we have an instance of a girl who has executed a most beautiful piece of work, while engaged in herding cattle, Of the limited work executed here I cannot speak in higher terms of praise than by telling you that it is so beautifully done as to be admired and sought after even in France, that country which lays down the law in all that is elegant. I am told that pupils are averse to learn, from an idea that even when the art is acquired the produce of their work would not be sufficient maintenance. This is a great mistake: let them only persevere and become expert, and they will soon find it is more profitable than any other occupation to which they can devote themselves. There is a girl in the room, scarcely above the age of childhood, who has earned by her need sixpence a day. (The girl, by name Isabella Munro, was here requested to stand up). It is not, however, necessary that they should look to it as the sole occupation of their time, or the only means of earning a livelihood. They will find it no small source of profit by merely making it, as it were, the amusement of their leisure hours. And what a boon must it be to the female poor, that by devoting their leisure to an elegant and not laborious pursuit, which may be carried on at their firesides to beguile the long winter evenings, or in the open fields during summer, they may go far to earn their food and clothing, and save themselves and families perhaps from becoming a burden to the parish, Parliament having liberally granted an annual sum for the advancement of education, we have applied to the Government for a grant in part of the sum which this building has cost, and which, if obtained will render the school subject to the regulations and inspection of the Government; but it will continue as hitherto open to all without religious distinction. I cannot conclude without noticing an affecting circumstance which I am sure will always; impart an additional interest to this building in the eyes of us all. The first plan of it (it has been since enlarged) was given me by an estimable friend now no more, but whose memory is cherished with warm affection – the Rev. John Lees, late minister of the parish. It was one of his last labours. I believe indeed his very last labour on this earth.”

The round of enthusiastic approbation which burst forth at the conclusion of Mr Matheson’s address bore ample testimony to the appreciation of its views and sentiments by the audience.

Thereafter the Rev. Mr Macrae addressed the children, in reference to the philanthropy of the founders of the institution, and the benefits it was designed to confer on the rising generation.

The Rev. Mr Murray, minister of the Free Church of Eye, then addressed the children in the Gaelic language, for the benefit of such of them as might not yet have acquired a knowledge of English, and having explained in a manner suited to their capacities the objects of the institution, concluded by impressing upon them, in the strongest manner, the kindness of Providence, in the opportunities now afforded them, and of their debt of gratitude to their benefactors, and their obligation to repay that debt in the only way in t heir power, by assiduity, application, and after good conduct.

After this address, and a short prayer, the meeting broke up. The building, thus unpretendingly dedicated to a purpose of such paramount and charitable usefulness, cost a sum of £2,000. Its appropriate endowment will also depend, almost exclusively, upon the munificent founders.

Frank G Thompson

** Industrial School c. 1905 (top) and the building today.

Colour Photographs

© William Foulger