The Inestimable Dr Memes

There is much talk about leadership in education these days, and there isn’t a day goes by without the publication of a book or a paper, or a tweet or a blogpost on how it should be ‘done’, or how it should be ‘done better’. It was quite refreshingly amusing therefore to come across the following description of a school ‘leader’ from an earlier age, the inestimable Dr J.S. Memes, rector of Ayr Academy from 1826-1844. If leading by example is the best form of leadership, I don’t think you could find a better example than this.

Dr John Smythe Memes, LL.D., came from Brechin, and had distinguished himself as a student at Aberdeen University, taking Latin, Greek and Divinity classes, to which he added Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, as well as Botany and Anatomy. Initially finding employment as a tutor, he travelled during 1821 and the next two years on the continent, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German, and picking up a knowledge of several unspecified ‘Oriental languages’. He lectured to the Philosophical Society of London,contributed to the proceedings of the Astronomical Society, and interested himself also in literature and art. And so it was that this ‘gentleman of varied and elegant accomplishments’ took over as rector of Ayr Academy in February 1826 just after his 31st birthday. The Academy itself was enjoying a growing reputation, having re-fashioned itself in 1796 from the old Ayr Grammar Schule, famously attended by a young Robert Burns for a very brief period in his fourteenth year.

JDDr Memes flung himself into the work with enthusiasm. He took over classes in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He added History, Botany and English Composition with Rhetoric and Logic. He applied his skills as a draughtsman to preparing a series of large wall maps for his geography classes. He persuaded the directors to erect scaffolding so that he could personally paint two large terrestrial spheres on the ceiling of the school hall. In 1837 he introduced geographical ‘excursions into the country’. To extend the study of Natural History he acquired botanical specimens and created a botanical garden. He inspired the pupils of his senior English class to original composition and had printed two collections of their poems.

When, in 1838, the Classics and Modern Languages post became vacant, Memes convinced the directors that the remaining masters could easily cope if they ‘devote their individual attention to their classes’. In the summer of 1840 he spent six weeks in Paris, visiting six colleges, twenty-four municipal schools, the military academy and a college of education, ‘to acquire the most perfect methods of teaching the French language’. In the meantime, he was producing books on a number of subjects: A Memoir of Canova and Modern Sculpture (1828) and A History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (1837); Works of William Cowper (1834) and A Life of Cowper (1837); Memoirs of Josephine (1832) and a translation of Memoirs of Bonaparte (1836); with one of the earliest books on photography, Daguerre’s History and Practice of Photogenic Drawing (1839).

His enormous energies were recalled by staff and pupils alike – he was known on occasion to take extra classes as early as 6 a.m., teach for twelve hours with ‘trifling intervals’, sketch large maps for his geography classes till eight in the evening, meet with the Library Society to superintend their arrangements, and dismiss them at ten or eleven o’clock. Next morning, as early as four o’clock, he could be found working with his mathematics class, making plans of the town harbour to be exhibited at the annual examination.

Dr Memes became recognised and respected in the wider community of Ayr, and his polymathic powers were widely appreciated. He conducted evening classes in Astronomy, and gave free instruction to the  Ayr Mechanics’ Institute. When he delivered a series of Sunday evening lectures on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ in Wallacetown chapel, all 900 seats were occupied, and people had to be turned away. He provided evidence to be presented in parliament on behalf of the Glasgow and Ayr Railway Company. His knowledge of anatomy was recognised by the Ayrshire Medico-Chirurgical Association. With a party of senior pupils he made a survey and prepared a report on the feasibility of bringing piped water from the Carrick Hills into Ayr – for which he was rewarded with a public dinner in his honour. He assisted the Sheriff of Ayr by calculating the trajectory of a bullet from an air gun. When Ayr Town Hall was struck by lightning in January 1838, Memes ‘quieted public alarm’ and earned the gratitude of the town council by climbing the steeple and assessing that the structure was safe.

Under his leadership the school continued to make steady progress, but an outbreak of cholera in 1832 meant a declining roll, and by the time he left the Academy in 1844 to take up a role as minister in Hamilton parish church, his boundless energy seemed also to be in decline. One pupil recalled how in the senior Geography class, which was held daily in the hour before lunch, Dr Memes would have a glass of wine and a biscuit brought to his room to sustain him, after which he would frequently nod off to sleep.

At this point it would be easy for me to apply the usual clichés – they don’t make them like that any more, what happened to all the ‘characters’ in education, and so on. However, it’s probably best just to read all that again, take a deep intake of breath, and say, ‘Wow!’

Source: 750 Years of a Scottish School – Ayr Academy 1233-1983 by John Strawhorn

2 thoughts on “The Inestimable Dr Memes

  1. It is notable that he was given the freedom by the school authorities that enabled him to be the teacher he could be. That luxury, alas, is not being afforded to our current tranche of headteachers, who are constrained at every turn by blinkered “leaders” with little appreciation of blue-sky thinking.

    • I totally agree with you. Having said that, our headteachers now are essentially managers who used to be teachers. In Memes’ day the key thing was to be a top-quality teacher, and to demonstrate knowledge of the world.

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