Major John Ness, Blantyre

Researched by Paul Veverka. Words from the book, “Blantyre Glasgow Road South – The Real Story” (c) 2017

**Update: Since writing this, I have revisited and now have a huge amount of expanded detail about John Ness, available in the Feb 2020 book, “Blantyre People” by Paul Veverka (c) 2020

During the late 19th Century in Blantyre and surrounding districts, there was no better known gentleman – and, we venture to say, no more popular than Major John Ness, the veteran and beloved headmaster of Stonefield Parish School. A special favourite with all classes, his services were in great demand and at public of Masonic functions, the Major could always be relied upon to take an active part, either as chairperson or speaker and no better orator could be found. A military man, known to administer discipline in a balanced manner with pupils, whilst continuing to be liked and respected.

Major John Ness wm

Major John Ness, Blantyre (b1830-d1908) former headmaster

   He had a fluency of speech that could rarely be excelled, which combined with the general understanding of the subject he was speaking about, he had the happy knack of being humorous in the extreme, making him a favourite with audiences.

   John Ness was born in Glasgow in 1830 and educated in St Enoch’s Parish School, Glasgow then later in St Matthew’s, Glasgow. His first success was in gaining a Queen’s Scholarship in the Training College after which he emerged a duly, qualified teacher.

   Opportunity arose when Monteith, owner of the mills required the services of a new headmaster in Blantyre Village Works at his small school. John Ness took up the position coming to Blantyre in 1856 and became teacher of Blantyre Works School on 1st June 1856.

   In 1857 John Ness, knowing his personal friend and Explorer David Livingstone was back in Britain, wrote to Livingstone to ask if he would come back to his birthplace at Blantyre to attend a soiree, celebration of the explorer’s accomplishments. Livingstone was not keen, due to the weather and had intended to stay in London. John Ness persisted and wrote to Livingstone’s mother at Peacock Cross in Hamilton asking if she could perhaps persuade him instead. Livingstone mother duly wrote the letter, referring to all of Livingstone’s Scottish rallying friends and Livingstone despite his reservations, came back to Blantyre in 1857 to visit. This much celebrated event was publicized far and wide and great accounts exist in detail of what took place at the soiree. Having been in Africa for 16 years, Livingstone told his audience he had hardly seen a white man for all that time and had started to forget English. At times in his speech, Livingstone would pause and gaze ahead. Heckler shouting out, “Spit it out Livingstone!” and apologies were offered explaining at times he would forget larger English words in mid sentence. It is said Livingstone had no real great desire to relearn English, his heart truly belonging to the “Dark Continent”.

   He’s recorded as being at the Blantyre Works School in the 1862 Handbook of Hamilton, Bothwell and Blantyre & Uddingston Directory. He remained at this school until 1873, the year his friend David Livingstone died. His decision to leave really was outwith his hands when, by the unanimous vote of the ratepayers, who petitioned the newly-formed School Board for the purpose, he was chosen headmaster of the proposed Stonefield Parish School and asked to oversee its construction. During this time in 1874, he was admitted a Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

   Up until 1875, he lived at Waterloo Row, near the mills of Low Blantyre, was married and had 5 children. He was a very strict man and discipline came naturally, overhauling the rampant disobedience that existed when he first came to Blantyre schools. His word counted at all times. This was true for parents too, who if they dared complain about the punishment their children were receiving at school, were likely to face possible dismissal themselves at their own employment!

   On 26th October 1875, he became headmaster of the Stonefield Parish School which opened that day, prompting also a house move to the adjacent Schoolmasters home at Victoria Street. In 1875, he was given a salary of £120 a year or £10 per calendar month. School children had a playground chant, “The Ness’s School is a great wee school, built wi’ bricks an’ plaister. There’s wan thing wrang wi’ the Ness’s School, it’s its baldy heidit maister!”

   Outside of his duties the Major had one or two hobbies and as a Volunteer and Freemason, he showed much enthusiasm. He had only been in Blantyre a short time when he raised the Volunteer Company and man ever did more to install a love for Volunteering into the minds of Blantyre youths than John Ness. Following out his military career, he was a sergeant up until 1865, when he was a appointed a colour sergeant; then ensign from 1870 until 1873, lieutenant for a period of 9 further years and captain up until 1886, at which time he received the honorary rank of Major. In November 1887, he resigned from military service in the Blantyre Volunteer Company, carrying with him the privilege of retaining the rank and wearing the uniform of the regiment. He was one of the few officers entitled to wear the Volunteer Decoration after leaving. He was present at the reviews of 1860 and 1881 on the latter occasion in command of the East Kilbride Company.

   As a Freemason, the Major was one of the most popular members of the Craft, for 4 times holding the office of R.W.M in “Lodge Livingstone 599” and attended the opening in 1904 of the nearby Masonic Halls on Glasgow Road. In the Provincial Grand Lodge he occupied many important offices. A stained glass window was installed in the lodge in his honour and in Hamilton, a whole Lodge named after him, “Major Ness Lodge 948.” He was also a prominent member of the “Clark Forrest R.A. Chapter” . He also held office in Bothwell U.F church for close to 50 years.

   The Jubilee of Headmaster John Ness F.E.I.S.V.D was celebrated in Blantyre Works Old School on 1st June 1906 where he had started his duties in 1856. Flags were hoisted on the school at Stonefield and there was a fine display of bunting in the village.

   In 1907 John Ness became ill forcing retiring from his headmaster’s position. Ness was headmaster at the Low Blantyre School for 32 years, on top of the 18 years he had previously spent at the Village school.

John Ness died on Saturday 23rd May 1908 aged 78 with 52 years service for the community.

On 13th January 1909, a granite obelisk was unveiled in the Cemetery at High Blantyre to his memory. Commissioned and laid by his fellow Masonic members, the memorial is a fitting and impressive gravestone.

2017 Ness Headstone

John Ness Memorial Stone at High Blantyre Cemetery , pictured in September 2017

Such was his renown, that the Stonefield Parish School became known as “Ness’s School” even in later years after his death. The position in the Cemetery reserved for more prominent figures of Blantyre’s history. Next to him on the right is the Rev Burleigh’s smaller obelisk.

Featuring Blantyre Project Social Media with permission. Strictly not for use by others on or offline, our visitors said,:

Elizabeth Weaver “This was true for parents too, who if they dared complain about the punishment their children were receiving at school, were likely to face possible dismissal themselves at their own employment!” Such appalling injustice – I dare say if you were from landed gentry or the wealthy merchant class, any complaints would have been taken seriously, but the working classes had few rights (as always).


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