Ancestry UK

Bell School / Glebe Oral School, Greenock, Renfrewshire

Probably best known for his invention of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847. Originally named just Alexander Bell, his middle name was added as an eleventh birthday present. His mother was almost deaf, and his father taught elocution to the deaf, influencing Alexander's later career choice as teacher of the deaf. In 1870, after two of his brothers had died from tuberculosis, the Bell family immigrated to Canada, settling in Brantford, Ontario. In April 1871, Alexander moved to Boston, where he taught at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes. He also taught at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. One of Bell's students was Mabel Hubbard, daughter of one of the founders of the Clarke School. Mabel had become deaf at age five, following a bout of scarlet fever. They fell in love and married in July 1877, when he was thirty years old and she was twenty.

In the same month, the Greenock School Board was debating the education of the deaf children in the town, of which six had been identified. The possibility of establishing a local school for them was aired, but it was decided instead to assist their parents in sending the children to one of the existing deaf schools in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

On 9 November 1877, as part of a series of lectures in Britain, Bell visited Greenock and spoke at the Watts Institution on the subject of "The Telephone, Illustrated with Experiments." The following year, perhaps having become aware of the School Board's deliberations, he established a private day school for deaf children in a room at the Greenock Academy, on Nelson Street, Greenock. It took place in a room of the Greenock Academy of Nelson Street and was taught by a special articulation teacher, a Mr Jones, whom Bell had arranged to come from America for the purpose. Initially, the class comprised four girls, aged from 7 to 11 years of age. As well as mixing with the hearing children of the Academy in the playground, the deaf children joined them for instruction in subjects such as writing, drawing, and sewing

Meanwhile, the School Board had been continuing to investigate the operation of other schools for the deaf that were then in operation and eventually, in November 1882, decided to open its own school. A teacher, Miss Nickels, was obtained from the college in Ealing run by the "Society for Training Teachers of the Deaf and for the Diffusion of the German System", and the new school was opened on 1 September 1883. It was based in a room at the Glebe School, on Upper Crawford Street, Greenock. Bell had returned to America by this time and the Glebe Oral School, as it became known, took over the children from his class in the Academy, together with a few other children.

In 1898, the school transferred to larger premises, back at the Greenock Academy site, which was by then known as Ardgowan.

By the start of the twentieth century, there were indications that the school was relaxing its rigid adherence to the oral method. An Inspector's Report in 1906 noted that that a few of the pupils at Greenock were unable to make satisfactory progress by the oral method and were being taught by signs.

In 1919, the School Board was abolished and the deaf school came under the control of Renfrewshire Education Authority. In 1930, the name of the establishment was changed from Glebe Oral to Nelson Street (Deaf) School. In 1934, the Education Committee instructed the school to introduce the manual method. The Committee's policy was that "the semi-deaf and semi-mute should be instructed orally and in addition should have a short intensive course in signs and finger-spelling," while "the totally deaf who are not likely to profit by oral instruction should be taught in accordance with the manual system."

In April 1939, the school's then headmistress died, leaving the school without a head. The following month, Miss Taylor of Paisley was appointed to replace her and obtained an assistant. Unfortunately, Miss Taylor then had to take leave of absence owing to illness, and two unqualified assistants were left to cope with the sixteen pupils, all of whom were taught in the same room.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the school re-opened after a few days break. However, the attendances were poor, owing to numerous air-raid alerts and shorter hours were worked because of transport difficulties. After a heavy raid on Greenock in May 1941, the school was closed for two weeks.

The Nelson Road premises subsequently became the Finnart campus of the James Watt College.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • None identfied at present — any information welcome.