St Joseph’s Primary School & a history of Catholic Education in Bonnybridge

The importance of St Joseph’s Primary School, Bonnybridge

We are here this evening to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving as we approach the end of the fiftieth year … the Golden Jubilee… of a well loved school. A Golden Jubilee is a great event in the life of any school …. but this is not just any school …. it is St Joseph’s, Bonnybridge, possibly the most talked about and most written about school in the whole history of Scottish Education. It was talked about in bars and clubs and parish halls, by ordinary men and women throughout Scotland and England. It was written about in the many local and popular national newspapers; it merited learned articles in the serious papers, even the London Times: it was talked about in the Bars of Court, the Outer and the Inner Houses of the Court of Session in Edinburgh and the House of Lords at Westminster; talked about in these courts for days by some of the most brilliant advocates in the country; with final written judgements given by no less than ten learned judges, Lords of the Scottish Court of Session and the House of Lords at Westminster. And why did all this happen..? Simply because the Catholic parents of this area wanted their children to be educated in the unique atmosphere of a Catholic School, staffed by Catholic teachers and they were prepare to fight for their rights in the only way acceptable to the civilised people that they were … through the law courts of the country.

A few years before, between 1918 and 1920, nearly two hundred Catholic schools, built and maintained by Catholic parents for their children, had been absorbed into the new state system … they were taken over by the State in return for certain safeguards declared in law. Not every Catholic was in agreement with this.”… some opposed it violently. Even Bishop Grey Graham before the passing of the Act, said in a Pastoral Letter to the priests and people of this Archdiocese that he was utterly opposed to the handing over of our schools no matter what conditions and safeguards we secure. But before the Act was passed in Parliament, Mr. Munro, the Lord Advocate who framed the Act, had agreed to so many conditions and safeguards proposed by the Catholic Authorities that even Bishop Grey Graham had to admit in his next Pastoral that honour was satisfied and justice had been done.

But not all laws work perfectly. The provisions of law have to be interpreted by different people in different areas. Nobody expected any difficulty in the transfer of already existing schools. But what about the provision of new schools ….? We were soon to know.

In 1920, the first of a series of petitions went to Stirling asking the County to provide a Catholic School for the 200 Catholic children in the Bonnybridge area. The reply was to become monotonous…. there is ample accommodation in the state schools in that area. There was stalemate … at least there was until two years later Bishop Graham appointed the man of his choice as parish priest of Bonnybridge, Father Edward Miley. Then things began to happen in earnest. The Scottish Education Department was asked to compel Stirling to build the school, but although they were sympathetic, they discovered they had no power in law to do so. that their hands were tied, and could only really act if there was a school there.

We will never know whether that was written merely as a statement of fact, or whether it was a civil service way of hinting at the solution: We have no power under S.S.8 but try S.S.I. The parents were getting nowhere with Stirling, another appeal had just been turned down … and so the historic decision was made. Plans were already in hand to build a new Church in High Bonnybridge: it seemed sensible to build the Church and School together, and so work was started.

Church and school original

Bishop Graham came to Bonnybridge on August 12th 1925 to bless the completed church and the nearly completed school. A week later the school was officially opened with a headmaster, four teachers and 245 children. There were still workmen about the place and it is in this respect that I found out just a few weeks ago that my father and Father Miley had actually appeared in court and been fined … a few of the toilets had yet to be finished, and so the Manager and the Headmaster having been duly reported by someone who was terribly worried at the possible health hazard to the little Catholic children, were summoned to court. The Sheriff was very understanding and a small fine was apparently in order.

The next step was an inspection by the Scottish Education Department. Dr. Patrick and Dr. Jamieson gave the school a glowing report and on the 18th November 1926 the Scottish Education Department gave their consent to the transfer of the school within the state system. This was what everyone had been waiting for, for sub sect ion 7 of Section 18 of the Education Act of 1918 said that with the consent of the Scottish Education Dept., a voluntary school may be transferred to the Local Education Authority.

But Stirling put a different interpretation on the word “may”. In effect they said you may offer to transfer but we are not bound to accept. And so stalemate again. But the parents, led by Father Miley with the full support of Bishop Graham, were fairly sure they had the law on their side. An action was brought against the County in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and the Lord Ordinary, Lord Murray, finally decided that the Trustees of Bonnybridge St. Joseph’s were at liberty to offer their school for transfer …. they may or they may not offer, but if they did offer, the County were compelled to accept because the Scottish Education Department had consented to the Transfer. That was in April 1928. The County appealed against the decision and before the appeal was heard in the Inner House of the Court of Session…tragedy struck the parish of St. Joseph’s. Father Miley died. And a week after his funeral, another tragedy, the Inner House had decided by a majority of three to one that the County need not accept the transfer.

Catholics from all over Scotland were now deeply involved. If this decision stood, it could well mean the end of Catholic Education in Scotland. Promises of support came from all over Scotland, prayers were said in Churches and schools throughout the country. Bishop Graham was urged to take the matter to the House of Lords, the Supreme Civil Court of the United Kingdom. If this decision was to pass unchallenged, the whole future of Catholic Education was at stake, especially in the field of Secondary Education for we had so few Secondary Schools: at that time Falkirk and Stirling area pupils traveled to Glasgow or Kirkintilloch for Higher Secondary Education. Archbishop Smith had died in June and Bishop Grey Graham had to make that momentous decision himself, but he was encouraged by the tremendous support he had from all over Scotland, even by the tremendous optimism that seemed to prevail for, although the judgment of the Inner Court was three to one against, the person who found for us, in a brilliant explanation of the relevant details of the 1918 Act, was none other than Lord Alness, the Lord Justice Clerk …. and everyone in Scotland knew that the same man, as the Lord Advocate Mr. Munro, had framed the 1918 Act. Indeed it was called the Munro Act.

And so the case went to the House of Lords. It is interesting to note that one of the Advocates briefed by the Church Authorities was a Mr. Carmont, later to become Lord Carmont… a well known name in the Scottish High Courts. On the 16th December 1929, the House of Lords, by a majority of four to one, upheld our case that the clause “may be transferred’ in the context of the whole section, meant that when it was offered for transfer, the Authority had no option but to accept it, providing the Scottish Education Department agreed to the transfer. And on March 13th 1930, Stirling County Council accepted the transfer of St. Joseph’s and all the financial responsibilities involved.

A test case like this had to come somewhere, sometime, in order that the law might be clarified. It came in Bonnybridge, and Bonnybridge was in Stirlingshire. But may I say in passing that if all of us were to accept defeat as graciously as Stirling County Council did, the world would be a much better place in which to live. For in the forty-five years since then, no Council could have done more in replacing our old schools and providing new schools than Stirling County. In fact, St. Joseph’s is now the oldest Catholic School building in the former Stirling County, and provision is being made for its replacement.

St. Joseph’s has been functioning as a school now for fifty years. It was built by parents who intended their children to be educated within the atmosphere of a truly Catholic school. There are many ways of illustrating this atmosphere but perhaps the best is that for the first four years, the teachers and pupils met for Mass every Saturday morning and prayed for a peaceful solution to their case; and for the next four years they continued to meet in the Church on a Saturday morning and prayed in thanksgiving.

This was a school built on the rock of faith, faith in God and faith in the basic fair mindedness of their fellow men. Naturally, it has had its failures; what school hasn’t? But from the sheltered atmosphere of this truly Catholic school, a steady flow of well balanced young people has gone out into the world, integrating into every sphere of community life, with perhaps more than its fair share of the specialists needed for a curing community; priests and nuns for home and abroad, doctors, dentists and nurses, teachers and psychiatrists, civil servants and social workers, skilled craftsmen of all trades, not to mention its research scientists and philosophers. But what is much more important than its proud record within the professions is the fact that St. Joseph’s has produced a steady stream of Catholic parents who are determined to preserve the same for their children as their parents fought to have for them: that their children should be educated within the unique atmosphere of a Catholic school staffed by Catholic teachers.

And as one who has had the privilege of visiting St Joseph’s many times in the past ten years, I can certainly testify to its atmosphere, and can assure the Cardinal here, that if the children in the other schools of the Archdiocese are as aware and as generous as the children I have found in St. Joseph’s, he need have no fears for the Church of tomorrow.

Church & school from24 Wheatlands Av 1

Perhaps there is more to fear for the Church of today, in that there are some members of our Church, priests and teachers among them, who even in their public statements seem to be prepared to water down, even to cast overboard the legal provisos and safeguards for which our parents fought. Let them remember that the driving force behind the Bonnybridge case was the-reasonable will of the parents to have their children educated in a Catholic school and the source of whatever authority priests and teachers have in the field of education comes from the trust placed in them by the parents of the children they serve.

It is good to see the revised formation of the Catholic Education Council, touching as it does on all aspects of Catholic education. It is good to examine every aspect of Catholic education to see how it can be improved, to admit failures, even to question how Catholic some of our schools are. But let those who are entrusted with the preservation of Catholic Education in this country tread very carefully lest they betray the heritage bequeathed them by the Catholic parents of yesterday; and the trust placed in them by the Catholic parents of today.

The above was the homily preached by Monsignor Daniel Foley, son of Mr Dan Foley who had been a headteacher of St Joseph’s School, on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebrations held on the 20th June 1975.


On Thursday 21 September 2000, St. Joseph’s Primary School, Bonnybridge celebrated its 75th Anniversary. Archbishop O’Brien considered that the Golden Jubilee sermon of Monsignor Foley contained so much important history, much of it learned first hand by Monsignor Foley from his father, that it is deserving of being recorded on this occasion and for future generations, giving as it does the history of the 1918 Scottish Education Act and its aftermath.

St Joseph’s Primary School continues to flourish under the Headship of Miss Aileen McFeat.  This year (2015) sees new extension work being carried out on the building which was opened in 1989, a sure sign that the parish school continues to grow and expand.

The school website can be found at

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