Spirit of Birkenhead Institute

The History and Heritage of Birkenhead Institute


Here are some interesting items about the history of Birkenhead Institute. I am adding more information regarding the early days of the school, (See below), but this will take some time, so please bear with me!

 If you have any more items of interest, I shall be pleased to add them to the site. Please send them to me at :

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William Sang Connacher , M.A., F.E.I.S.

William Sang Connacher, MA, FEIS, was the first Headmaster of the B.I. in 1889. He was Headmaster from 1889 until his death in 1903. Mr Connacher was born in May, 1853, and he was 35 when he came to Birkenhead, having been born in Perthshire. Mr Connacher gained his M.A. at the University of Edinburgh. He was Headmaster of the B.I. for fourteen years, and made a significant impact upon the firm establishment of the Birkenhead Institute.

 After serving for a time as head of Canvin's Institution, Edinburgh, he became principal of the St. Andrew's Scotch School, Buenos Ayres, from which post he was invalided home. After his appointment to the Birkenhead Institute, he threw himself heart and soul into the work of organising the School and establishing it on a firm and lasting basis. He worked so well that on his death, which occurred at the house of G. Atkin, Egerton Park, Rock Ferry, a former pupil, the Rev. J. Ivory Cripps, could write for the Birkenhead News of February 28th, 1903, "The sad untimely death of the headmaster of the Birkenhead Institute takes a prominent man from the town, and, as one of the Old Boys who on Thursday followed his body to the grave, I wish to say what I can. My own debt to him and to the school is a very great one. There I received my education, much of it from Mr Connacher in person, and although it is now six years since I left, I do but speak for every Old Boy who has not lost touch with his old headmaster when I testify how interested he was, how eager to know how we were getting on, how full of careful advice and practical sympathy. He was a man of wide reading and sound scholarship, and one whose conversation was more stimulating I have not known. But his best monument is the Institute as we know it. No one else's work is being disparaged when I say that he made the school, and that without him it would not have been the flourishing institution that it is. He had every gift. He was a skilful administrator, a teacher of exceptional efficiency, and a great disciplinarian."

Here is a link to a dedicated site for Mr W. S. Connacher:



Article by W.M. Robinson, (Robinson Minor):           "Those Early Days "

In the absence of notes recorded at the time, it is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, accurately to re-create the events of the dim past, and this seems particularly so in my case, when half a century of intensely active and somewhat varied life, replete with all the changes and chances the thronging years are in the habit of providing for a mildly adventurous spirit, has gone by since that day in January, 1889, on which I became a pupil of the Birkenhead Institute.

How excellent a thing it would be if the slogan: "Verify your quotations," adopted by every responsible writer, were accompanied by another relating to the substantiation of reminiscences: more excellent still if one were now able, by means of the written word, to implement that supplementary advice!

The frailty of the human memory trips me up at the very outset, for in my mind throughout all the years which have passed since those early days at the Institute there has been firmly fixed the figure "36", representing the number of boys who attended on the first day. My own copy of the photograph which was produced in these columns a few months ago gives one pause. It is hardly likely that we superior beings in the big school would exclude from our calculations the "brats" of the kindergarten, and the explanation of the discrepancy appears to rest on the possibility of the photo having been taken some little time after the opening of the school, further entrants making their appearance in the interim.

The The Institute as we first knew it comprised an entrance lobby with a class-room on either side and a double class-room at the far end. The latter was on the Holly Bank Road aspect of the building, and was capable of being completely divided by a wood and glass partition. In this room - the left-hand portion of which contained the Headmaster's desk - the whole school assembled to commence the day with a brief devotional service. Underneath were two rooms used as a gymnasium and as shelter during wet play-times. The former was in charge of one who was always called "Janitor". He was an old soldier, I believe, and I do not think that we boys ever knew his name. Occasionally he drilled us, but I have no recollection that his attitude towards us possessed any of the traditional fierceness and sarcasm usually cridted to army sergeants - and not unjustly crdited, as I was to discover years later during the Great War!

William Sang Connacher was a Headmaster with a first-class brain. He was severe at times - we boys could see the storm approaching when his lips thinned - but he was a just man. To some of the seniors - as to me in the fulness of time - was given the opportunity of participating in the hospitality he dispensed in his residence, that fine old house adjoining the school, and I have always looked upon this as part of my education. Mr Connacher was old-fashioned enough to believe in the virtues of corporal punishment, and I can claim the rather doubtful honour of being brother to the boy (Robinson Major) who received the first caning!

I recall with gratitude the way in which, on one occasion, the Head "talked to me for my good" - and I thoroughly deserved it! At the end of my first year at the Institute, I was fortunate enough to win a Scholarship (£5 I think), that being the only occasion when my name was called out at Speech Day, and I had to go forward and receive my prize. Some time after that I began to "slack", having come under the influence of a group of work-shies, and Mr Connacher evidently wished to rescue me from that company.

The second in command, J.H. Crofts, was a genial soul who also knew his job. He may have been a trifle easy-going, but he got the work done, and one supposes that this is all that matters. I recall one morning, at assembly, when Mr Connacher came in alone, and we surmised - conscience told us! - that something serious was afoot. Nor were we wrong. Some of us had been "ragging" Mr Crofts, and the Head spoke to us gently but firmly on the subject. That "ragging" had to cease forthwith. It did! As nobody was singled out for punishment, it is presumed that Mr Crofts - a good sportsman! - had not mentioned any names. Thus I, for one, escaped caning!

J.V. Thomson was forbidding in appearance and manner, but he proved to possess a heart of gold, and I believe we all liked him. Mr Samuel, who came later, concealed a friendly and jovial nature behind a facade of austerity. In later years, it was delightful to see him unbend on social occasions and entertain the company with his simple little songs.

Miss Farrell had charge of the knidergarten, and to this day, I can hear her speaking. The aptest description of her is contained in the expression "a great Victorian lady", for that is how she always impressed me.

Mr Gerorge Atkin, who was Chairman of the Directors in those early days, took a deep interest in the Institute. It seemed a point of honour with him to be with the boys as much as possible, and I recall that it became a habit - and a very acceptable habit - for him to bring his daughter and her husband to any special "do".

I remember very few nicknames at the Institute. Harry Hamilton was "Square", though I never knew the origin of this pseudonym. Because I wore a silver pig on my watch-chain, I was "Piggy", and my friend Harold Bally, now Vicar of Needham, Norfolk, calls me that to this day, on those rare occasions when we met. "Shiner" Jones was so known because he once remarked to a group of school-mates "I am rather good at Euclid - I shine" That settled matters!

During the very early days of the school, the rumour that we boys were going to wear "mortar-boards" caused a great deal of consternation, and I suppose that some of us wondered what would be the reaction- and possible response - of the gamins to this unwonted head-gear. Fortunately, as I see it (and I vividly saw it then!), wiser counsels prevailed, and the fates were kind to us. We had ordinary caps of dark blue, with a red star in front,  - a neat and distinctive mark of the school to which we went.

In February, 1893, when I reached the mature age of fifteen and a half, I left the Institute and entered service of one of the giant Insurance Companies which had (and has) its Headquarters in Liverpool, and I served that great organisation until my retirement just a year ago. (For a period, it may here be added, I was Hon. Secretary of the old B.I. Boys' Club). I was never able to subscribe to the doctrine which is so often impressed on boys, namely, that the happiest days of one's life are those spent at school. It may be rank heresy to say such a thing in these columns, but I feel bound to add that, happy as were my days at the Birkenhead Institute, I found a far greater measure of delight and enjoyment in my long years of commercial life. I had no definite ideas of employment when I left school - the usual wild dreams of "going to sea" had long since faded - but, as I told my Father (thereby raising his ire!), I did not to sit on an office stool. So on an office stool I sat, as life developed, I had an intensely interesting career.

P.S. In connection with the preparation of the foregoing, the Headmaster has given me a sort of roving commission, of which I take advantage to this small extent. I would desire to impress on every present pupil of the Birkenhead Institute the importance of having a hobby of some sort. Important as is such a thing during years of business - and I may say here that I have no use whatever for the individual who consecrates the whole of his time and thought to his employment, thus becoming in the end something of a monomaniac and doing disservice to his employer and to himself - a hobby entailing the full use of one's leisure in the late afternoon of life is vital. In my own hobby of cycling, and of journalism, lecturing, and administrative work in the cause of cycling, I found during my workaday years a happy method of filling up "the magic after-hours" of a strenuous business life, just as today, in retirement, enriched in mind and body by all that cycling has taught me, I am deriving greater and ever greater joys and advantages from what is now almost a full-time job.





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.




Mr Connacher was 35 years old when he came to Birkenhead, having been born in Perthshire in May, 1853. He was a man of sturdy build, and strong personality. His photograph, showing eyes set well apart and surmounted by heavy eyebrows, reveals great strength of character. Like many other Scotsmen of his day who were not born in affluent circumstances, he had maintained himself at the University of Edinburgh chiefly by coaching other students, and after three years had taken his M.A. degree.

After a year or two as an assistant master, he became in 1877 Headmaster of Canvin's Institution at Duddingston, near Edinburgh, and stayed there until 1883, when on the recommendation of Dr. Laurie, Professor of Education at Edinburgh, he went abroad to Buenos Ayres as Headmaster of St. Andrew's School, where he remained till 1888. He was to be headmaster of the Birkenhead Institute for fourteen years.

Mr Connacher lost no time in appearing in his post, for there was much to be done if the school was to open in the following January. The furnishing went on apace, the playground was asphalted, railings and gates were fixed, and the important question of the school staff was settled. It was decided that there should be two assistant masters, one for Classics and one for Mathematics, a Drawing Master, (Two days a week), a Kindergarten Mistress, and a Janitor, a title much too pompous for the schoolboy, whose familiar abbreviation of "Janny" is well known to several generations of Institute boys.We must here place on record the first staff of the school. They were:-

Mathematics Master : Mr J.H. Crofts, B.A. (Cantab.)

Classical Master  : Mr J.V. Thompson, B.A. (Oxon.)

Liverpool Academy of Arts : Mr James Towers

Certificated Teacher and holder of Kindergarten Certificate: Miss Farrell

Janitor and Drill Master:  Adam Johnston

In December 1888, the first school prospectus was issued. It reveals at once the organisation of the school and the wise scope of the curriculum. There was a Preparatory, a Junior, (Forms I., II, and III), and a Senior Department, (Forms IV, V, and VI), the latter being divided into a Classical and a Commercial side. The course of study included English, Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, (For those who may desire it), Writing, Arithmetic, Book-keeping, Shorthand, Algebra, Geometry, Drawing, Natural and Physical Science, Chemistry, Vocal Music and Drill. A detailed syllabus of the work to be done in each form was included, and makes interersting reading by comparison with a syllabus of today. Latin was begun in Form I,  French in Form II, Greek in Form IV, and German in Form V. By the time a pupil reached the Sixth, he was considered proficient enough to study Horace, Virgil, Livy, and Cicero in Latin, and Lucian, Homer, and Plato in Greek. The English syllabus for the sixth included Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon.

It is interesting to note that the following were extra subjects: Music, (Piano, Violin), Drawing, Shorthand, Gymnastics, Spanish - for which an extra fee was charged - and 2s  6d a term was paid for the use of Slates, Copy-Books, Pens and ink. The fees charged were:

Boys under 3.................... £1    10s    0  per term

Boys of 9 and under 12 ...  £2     10s   0  per term

Boys over 12....................  £3      0s    0  per term

The holidays were: Six weeks at Midsummer, three weeks at Christmas, one week at Easter, and Bank Holidays.






By the end of the year 1888, then, arrangements had been practically completed for the opening ceremony, which was fixed for Saturday, January 12th, 1889, his Grace the Duke of Westminster having consented to perform it. The directors met twice before the great day to make the final arrangements. Every detail was most carefully prepared, and included such items as plants, flags, red baize for the platform and hall, and four policemen supplied free by Mr Strongitharm, who was High Bailiff of Birkenhead. Finally, it was decided to give a special luncheon to the Duke and Duchess, the menu to consist of :-

Hare soup; mutton cutlets; boiled turkey and ham; roast beef; saddle of mutton; vegetables; cheese and celery.

Presumably the Duke and Duchess had no liking for sweets. The order of proceedings at the Inaugural Ceremony was as follows:

Miss Blanche W. Atkin presented a bouquet to the Duchess.

Opening Prayer by Rev. F. Millward, Vicar of St. Catherine's, Tranmere.

Description of the Building by T. Mellard Reade, Esq.

Aim and Objects of the School by The Headmaster. (Mr W.S. Connacher).

His Grace the Duke of Westminster then declared the Building Open and delivered an Address.

Address by Principal Rendall, M.A., of Liverpool University.

Vote of Thanks to the Duke and Duchess:-

Proposed by His Worship the Mayor of Birkenhead, (C.T. Gostenhofer, Esq.)

Seconded by Samuel Stitt, Esq., J.P.

Vote of Thanks to the Chairman:-

Proposed by Rev. W.M. Hutton.

Seconded by Peter Owen, Esq.

The speeches were of a nature usual to such occasions. Mr Atkin confined himself mainly to givivng the raison d'etre of the school, and once more made it evident how deeply the success of Liverpool Institute had influenced him. He further disclosed the fact that he had been connected with that school since 1840.

The Headmaster, in speaking of the aims and objects of the school, called attention to the deficiencies of the English educational system of that day, the most glaring of which, he said, were, firstly, the lack of state-aided schools for the middle classes, and secondly, the lack of qualifications which was so common among those who ran private schools. He advocated an Act of Parliament setting up a Teachers' Register. It is interesting to note that these defects have now been remedied.

The Duke, in a happy speech, stressed the importance of the classics, both ancient and modern. He was pleased with the Headmaster's remarks, and wished him success. He was glad the school had a gymnasium, and had no doubt the system would be humane. He believed that in the XVI century it was thought necessary to flog the boys throughout the school; not that they had done anything wrong, but as a reminder that they were not to do anything wrong in the future.

Mr Samuel Stitt, however, after expressing his gratification at knowing that the school was un-sectarian and undenominational, created a genuine surprise by proposing to endow it with an annual scholarship of £20. This generous offer had an immediate response from the Duke. It had been not erroneously supposed, he said, that he was not a poor man, and he would follow Mr Stitt's example and found a scholarship on similar conditions. The school thus gained two of its most valuable scholarships on its opening day. The proceedings ended with a photograph by Messrs. Robinson and Thompson of Hamilton Square.

Thus, after four and a half years of patient endeavour in the face of great difficulties and many discouragements, the Birkenhead Institute was launched upon the career which has made its name famous in the town. Mr Atkin must have been a proud man when he saw that the ambition of his life had been achieved. His name will live for evermore in the annals of the school.

This completes the period of history up to 1889 of Birkenhead Institute. There were indeed many hurdles to overcome before the school was successfully launched.

Please see now the "EARLY DAYS" page for more history of the Birkenhead Institute from 1889 onwards.