William Sang Connacher

Spirit of Birkenhead Institute



It was in November 1883 that Mr George Atkin of Egerton Park, Rock Ferry, issued the preliminary circular which led to the foundation of the Birkenhead Institute. To him, therefore, must be ascribed the honour of being the Founder of the School, but he had not taken the step without consultation with other leading citizens of the borough whose names are here recorded as they appear on the original Memorandum of Association under which a company was formed, known as Birkenhead Institute, Limited. They are:-

Thos. W. Oakshott of Rock Ferry

Chas. Houston of Oxton

John Hargreaves of Rock Ferry

William Legg of Tranmere

Thomas Deakin of Birkenhead

J. B. Moffat of Rock Ferry

The object of the Company is set forth in clear and precise terms. It was to establish a Public Hight School in Birkenhead to provide first-class Mercantile and Collegiate education for boys, on terms "not exceeding those charged at the best public schools in Liverpool", and the management was to be vested in "laymen of all denominations." The course of instruction was to fit pupils for Commercial Life, the Civil Service, the various professions, the Universities, and the various branches of industry requiring Technical Education.

The need of such a school had long been felt, for Birkenhead was expanding rapidly at the time. Between 400 and 500 boys and many girls crossed the river daily to attend Liverpool schools. The liverpool Institute had already been founded and had proved remarkably successful, and the founder undoubtedly had this in mind when the circular was issued, for the Birkenhead High School was to be "similar in principle to the Liverpool Institute."

The founders were business men. They did not intend to make claims on the community for donations or charitable contributions. They laid it down as a leading principle that the school, when once organised, must be self-supporting. The best way was to form a Company, and the support must assuredly come from the middle classes, for whose sons the school would suply an efficient education.

Little time was lost in putting these ideas into practice. The company was formed in November, with an authorized capital of £10,000, in 2000 shares of £5 each, £1 payable on allotment and the balance as required. By this time, Mr Oakshott had retired from the Board of Directors, but further directors appear in the persons of Messrs. T. Castle, S. Cross, G. Grierson, W. Hinson, and G. Strongitharm, J.P.. The prospectus set forth the aims previously mentioned in the circular, and as an inducement there was extended to shareholders the privilege of nominating students at a reduced fee. It was also stated that the directors had purchased desirable premises on land in Whetstone Lane, Clifton Park. The company's bankers were the North and south Wales Bank, Ltd., the solicitors Messrs. Tyrer, Kenion, Tyrer and Simpson, of North John Street, Liverpool, and the secretary Mr Robert Calder. The gentleman mentioned as having given their approval and cordial support to the project included many of the most influential citizens of Birkenhead, and of these Mr T. H. Jackson of the Manor House, and Mr S. Stitt of The Grange are worthy of note, since both were to play an important part in the future life of the school.

The first general meeting of the Shareholders was held on January 23rd, 1885, in the Common Hall, Hackins Hey, Liverpool, and Mr Atkin was unanimously voted to the chair. The business was brief but precise. The original directors were confirmed in their office, and the meeting was then informed by Mr Atkin that he and Mr William Legg had purchased the house "Brooklands", Whetsone Lane, and was asked to approve the purchase. The area of the land was 5,608 yards, and the price paid ٠,725.  The whole amount had been advanced by the founder, a striking tribute to his determination. The directors were further authorized to prepare a schem for the working of the Institute.

With the project thus successfully launched, the directors lost no time in getting down to business. Five meetings were held in 1885. Mr T. Mellard Reade, F.R.I.B.A., the well-known school architect, was engaged to prepare plans for buildings to accommodate 300 scholars, but the cost was prohibitive, for the hope that the shares would  be promptly taken up was not realised. By September 1885, the total was only 812, and by December it was 923. The general depression in trade had been severely felt in Birkenhead, and it seemed as if the ambition of the founder would never be achieved. But in spite of the fact that by December 1885 two of the directors had resigned, Mr Atkin nobly stuck to his task, and in an endeavour to attract subscribers, a new prospectus was issued in January 1886., with a frontispiece designed by Mr Reade, showing the perspective of the proposed buildings; but in June, the number of shares had risen by only 55, and Mr Henry Tate wrote advising the abandonment of the scheme. Mr Atkin's letter in reply to this suggestion  is unhappily lost, but we may conjecture that its puport was an emphatic refusal to entertain such an idea. 

Thr directors' meetings for 1886 appear to be mostly concerned with duscussions with the architect, and the original ambitious scheme was abandoned in June, 1886, for in that month he was asked to prepare plans for converting "Brooklands" and its stables into a school for at least 100 scholars. In the following month, Mr reade submitted his report, and as might be expected, it was unfavourable to the idea. "The building", he said, "would only be an altered stable when done with, and would probably damage the success of the school". The fortunes of the founders seem at this juncture to have touched rock bottom, but Mr Atkin, ably supported by Messrs. Hinson, Moffat, and Legg, refused to be disheartened, and the architect was instructed to prepare plans and procure tenders for a building to house 150 scholars.

At this critical period, it was apparent to Mr Atkin that the necessary funds could not be raised in Birkenhead, and he must have written to several influential citizens of Liverpool, urging them to take shares in the company. His policy bore fruit, for at the meeting held in January, 1887, a letter was read from Mr Philip H. Holt, the shipowner of Liverpool. It was characteristic of the man who had done so much for education in his own city, and its main purport was to advise the directors not to proceed with the buildings until the financial position of the company was reasonably safe. Mr Holt would not become a shareholder, but he would lend the company £200 free of interest. Mr Henry Tate also wrote in the same strain, and as a consequence of these warnings, the building programme was suspended.

The year 1887 thus opened on a brighter note, for Mr Holt's interest in the Company had provided the necessary stimulus. A new director appears in the person of Mr Peter Atkin, and still further to improve the position of the company, Mr George Atkin generously waived the interest due to him for 1886 on the money he had advanced. By July the number of shares taken up had risen to 1022, and in September the prospects became considerably brighter. for Mr George Holt followed his brother's example by offering the company £200 on loan.

Early in the following year the Company was within reach of its goal, for it had been decided that when the number of shares taken up had reached 1200, the building of the school could be safely begun. Mr Atkin's determination that his cherished object should be achieved is never more clearly marked than now. Once more he waived his interest on the money he had advanced. and in March he further guaranteed the disposal of the 80 shares necessary to bring the total to the required 1200. Another change in management occurred in this year, for in February Mr Moffat resigned his seat on the Board, and Mr T.E. Blenkarn took his place. In March, 1888, after three years of patient labour and in face of enormous difficulties, the historic meeting was convened, which set the building scheme in motion, with Mr Mellard Reade once more in attendance. Plans were submitted for a one storey building to accommodate 150 boys, and the cost was estimated at £2,000 for a brick building with stone facings, and about £160 more for buildings all of stone. Tenders for the work were to be ready in nine days' time!

On March 22nd, 1888, the tenders, eleven in all, were duly considered, and it must be recorded to the credit of the directors that they decided to erect a stone building, and entrusted the work to Mr W. H. Forde, of Claughton Road. A call of £2 per share payable on May 1st was announced, and arrangements for the laying of the foundation stone were left in the chairman's hands. This ceremony seems never to have taken place. There is no further mention of it at any subsequent meetings of the directors, and there s certainly no foundation stone in the present school buildings. It can only be surmised that Mr Atkin was unable to secure someone suitable for the occasion, and, rather than waste time, dispensed with the cermony. It seems a pity that such an opportunity of commemorating the founder's great work for the school has thus been lost, for there is in its walls no permanent memorial of him.

It is impossible therefore to give the exact date when the first stone was laid, but by July the building was well and truly begun, and was expected to be completed by December 1st, and it was hoped that the school would be open in January 1889. But there was still much to be done, and some idea of the task involved may be gathered from the fact that no fewer than nine directprs' meetings were held between September 18th and December 31st, the last, two days after Christmas. The furnishing of the school, supplies of gas and water, the fee to be charged, and the laying out of the grounds were discussed and settled with the greatest care; even the door-mats and scraper were not forgotten. A tribute must here be paid to the untiring efforts of the secretary, Mr Calder, who has recorded every detail with scrupulous care. His work at this period must have kept him fully occupied.

The appointment of the Headmaster was, however, the matter that received the most serious attention, and once again the Liverpool Institute served as a pattern; for its regulations geverning the appointment of a principal were adopted as far as possible. One cannot help noticing that included in them was a clause that "The Directors desire that it shall be a leading object with the Masters so to carry on the work of the School as to infuse into the minds of the Pupils a Christian and philanthropic spirit". One wonders whether the pupils always realised this when leaving the Headmaster's study!

The post was advertised in September, and on October 19th, the secretary reported that 184 applications had been made. From these a short list of twenty five was selected, and finally four were chosen to meet the Directors. The choice was unanimous, and on October 31st, 1888, Mr W. S. Connacher, M.A. (Edin.), F.E.I.S., became the first Headmaster of the Birkenhead Institute.

Here are some interesting pictures from the history of the Birkenhead Institute:-


Here are some more interesting pictures and items from the Birkenhead Institute over the years, including some local advertisements:




 Here is the link to the Birkenhead Institute history site: