In January of 1844 the 31 yr. old William King started his studies as one of 300 students drawn from all over the world to the newly-formed College of the Free Church of Scotland. Victor Ullman, in Look to the North Star, says of the relationship between King and the charismatic President of the College, “ For all of his three years in Edinburgh, William was to be in Dr. Chalmer’s thrall, as a student, a protégé, and a friend… he was to pattern his life and beliefs after that man’s rare combination of unswerving faith and administrative practicality. “ (53)
Part of Dr. Chalmer’s focus was “raising the lower classes from that state of moral degradation into which they had fallen” .(48) His plan was to divide the poorest sections of Edinburgh, “appoint a gentleman and Lady who were to visit all the families in their division once a week.” (49) Their mission was to create a relationship which would encourage the parents to send their children to schools administered by the Free Church.
West Port was considered one of the lowest and most degraded slums in Edinburgh. Impoverished Irish immigrants flooded to this area to labour in the harvests. King tells in his autobiography of two men who provided boarding for the immigrants in Burks Close, West Port. As a way of lining their pockets, they took to smothering some of their boarders and selling the bodies to the medical school for dissection. For his part in the crimes, the one man was hung. (The story of Burke and Hare has been made into a movie. It’s worth reading about them on Wikepedia!) Also in Burks Close was an old tannery where a school and church was opened by the divinity students. Children were invited to attend both. “The boys collected from the street when first placed in School were in such a state of filth and rags that their bodies had to be washed and their hair cut, before they could be set on the benches…the boys had their hair cut close by a barber and perfumed, which so pleased the boys that when they saw a few thus dressed by the Barber, willingly came of their own free will to be washed and perfumed. The girls washed their clothes and combed their hair. A seamstress was appointed to assist them in making and mending their own clothes. The cleaning up of the Scholars had an influence on the Parents, who began to come to Church with their clothes clean and tidy. The girls also began to knit and sew for their brothers.
“A night school was opened for the boys that were grown up and could not attend the day school. In School they were up to all manner of mischief and the boys without would disturb those that were within. On a signal given the lights would be put out and the boys would pitch into each other, and for a few minutes all would be in confusion until the gas was again lited and order restored. It became necessary, during the first winter of the night school to have a policeman placed at the door of the schoolroom to keep the boys without from disturbing those that were within. But the second winter all this difficulty disappeared. The boys began to like the school and to study and gave no trouble, and many of those boys that were wild at first became diligent students and soon learned to read and write, attended the Sabbath School and became useful members of Society.” (52)
When have you witnessed people completely turning their lives around?