I’ve recently acquired a high resolution photo of St Joseph’s School Chapel in Winter 1903. (Not on any other website). Such a prize deserved a revisit to the history of the building and so I’ve more deeply researched the building uncovering further details about the opening, the people involved, its construction and use.
St. Joseph’s School Chapel – was a former large detached double storey building at the bottom of Stonefield Road on Glasgow Road junction, to accommodate the late 19th Century religious and educational needs of the town’s Roman Catholic population.
With the discovery of coal and surge in industry within Blantyre in the 1870’s, the town’s Roman Catholic population grew quickly. In the 1821 census it was noted there were 149 Roman Catholics in Blantyre, and by 1881, there were over 600.
It was no longer acceptable to meet for mass in converted homes or hired halls and som people were forced to travel to Glasgow for mass on holy ground. St. Joseph’s, Blantyre, was formed into a separate Mission in 1877. Till that time it had been served from Hamilton, of which, like Uddingston and Cadzow, it is an offshoot. For some considerable time prior to the opening of the present chapel-school, Mass was celebrated and Sunday School conducted in a block of houses in Dixon’s Rows, the inner walls or partitions having been removed. Such accommodation, however, proved wholly inadequate to meet the wants of the Catholic population of the district, so negotiations commenced for the purchase of a site for a more suitable huilding.
By 1877, the local Catholic community rejoiced on being informed that Father John Frawley (27 years old) would be the first permanent priest of Blantyre. He had a tall first task, which was to raise funds and construct a building that could not only be used as a church, but also could accommodate pupils as a school. The building had to be multi purpose.
On 16th September that year, Father Frawley was transferred from Airdrie and due to the reformation, would be the first priest to live in Blantyre for over 300 years. He immediately set about fund raising and the people of Blantyre were generous, but no sooner than he had started, within 5 weeks Blantyre suffered a terrible tragedy that saw people focus on the Pit Explosion at Dixons and the aftermath within the community. Funds stopped coming in and were diverted to assist the rescue and help those widowed. Within the Rev Stewart Wright’s account of the explosion, it was documented that Father Frawley was instrumental in restoring faith in the community and assisting.
A year later, the fundraising started again and in the year 1877, a handsome Presbytery was erected and the construction of St Joseph’s School Chapel began in April 1878, on the site of the present St.Josephs Parish hall. With Father Frawley project managing, it was built on land purchased from John Clark Forrest, a local landowner. The feu then taken consisted of some three imperial acres was centrally situated at the junction of Stonefield Road with Glasgow and Hamilton Road.
A journalist who interviewed Father Frawley commented in the Hamilton Advertiser that the school would open in summer 1878, an ambitious construction programme, with the Church being on the upper floor open in the October of that year.
The school and the chapel with over 600 seatings at a push, was completed and officially opened on 24 October 1878. It had a frontage to Glasgow Road of 260 feet, and extended 338 feet backward.
Archbishop Eyre preached the opening sermon, while Fr. Whyte,SJ., was the preacher of the evening. Fr. Gleeson was the celebrant of the Mass assisted by Frs. Mullen and Carpenter, as deacon and sub-deacon respectively.
The upstairs chapel was repainted in 1884 and could only accommodate 62 people. The ground floor, together with a side wing two-storeys high, formed the school proper, affording accommodation for 514 scholars. In 1902 an additional plot was feued as the site of a proposed new Church. It lay parallel to the former feu, and gave a further frontage of 81 feet, with a similar extension of 338 feet backwards.
The Chapel, which would also double up as a school during the week was detached and built of stone. The arched entrance door faced on to Glasgow Road and was situated on the east side of that façade. Facing also on to Glasgow Road on the lower floor were three tall and narrow windows, and a large stained glass window on the upper floor incorporating a stone trefoil design at the top. The roof was slated and an iron cross-adorned the top of the pitch. A couple of mature trees in the front garden gave the building a rural feel, despite its busy location. Trams would regularly run past it, the terminus being nearby from 1903. In front of the building, was a small 2-foot stonewall with railings on top. The congregation would enter the grounds between 2 stone pillars on Glasgow Road. The building was heated with coal and had at least 4 chimneys.
One of the earliest headmasters was a Mr McDade.
Sadly, Father Frawley’s health deteriorated and after only 3 years he emigrated to Australia in 1880, dying 1 year later and the very young age of only 31. The Roman Catholic community rightly holds his memory in high esteem for his remarkable achievements in the 3 short years he served the parish. Father Donnelly succeeded him from 1881 until 1886 then by Father Hackett who served into the 20th Century.
Within the 1880’s nobody could have predicted the thousands of Roman Catholics arriving in Blantyre for work opportunities in the coal pits. The Church quickly became crowded with the need of a larger, grander chapel required by 1889, which would not be built until 1905 with the present St Joseph’s RC Church. Seating for the church grew substantially after the completion of the new Church, when the space in the old Chapel was utilized as further school classrooms.
It was noted that there was also a small school at Auchintibber a little village up among the hills, about two miles distant from Blantyre. The children, however, who attended there were mostly Protestants, as there were but few Catholics in Auchentibber at the time.
As indicative of the growth of the Mission, it should be pointed out that, whereas in 1886 the average attendance at school was 385, by 1904 it had risen to 717. A census taken in 1887 showed the population to be 2446, whilst a similar enumeration made during autumn 1904 gave 4219, or nearly doubles the number in 1887.
According to Google Earth timeslip feature online, the School building was still there in December 1945 but by this time other smaller buildings had been built behind it to accommodate the growing educational need.
The building was subsequently demolished in the 1960’s.
From “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c)2016