James Gillespie (1892 – 1997)

On 19th November 1996 John Singles visited Mr Gillespie at Milngavie, Glasgow…


James Hillespie on his 90th Birthday in 1996

I walked up his road mid-morning, taking in the beauty of the snow-capped Campsie Fells and was stopped by a young woman. It was his home help. “Mr Gillespie is waiting for you” she said, “He’s looking forward to meeting you.”

I soon arrived at a smart bungalow surrounded by a trim garden where I was warmly greeted by Mr Gillespie’s daughter Helen and her husband Dennis, who live close.

Entering the lounge, there was the man I had made a “pilgrimage” to see. Although 47 years had passed, a firm handshake and a greeting in an accent that seemed a blend of educated Lowland Scots with the lilt that one hears north of the Highland Line. I felt very humble to be in the company of a man who had served in the Army throughout the 1914-18 War, who had spent 35 years of his working life as the PE master at Moseley School (1923-58); and who was now nearing his 105th birthday.

I think we were both initially excited as, for both of us, the years seemed to temporarily roll back. I spent 4½ hours with this wonderful chap, our conversation punctuated a little by a welcome lunch provided by Helen. Mr Gillespie talked of his gymnastic training at the Carnegie Instituteand then life in the Black Watch as a PT Instructor. During the War he was drafted to France and assisted wounded men back to a level of normal fitness. He talked of his teaching in Lancashire and his voice displayed great pride when he recounted how he gained his appointment at Moseley Secondary School in late 1923. He talked with affection of the members of that body of staff, many of whom had also served in the Great War. After his retirement in 1958 he and Mrs Gillespie moved down to Worming where, for many years, he maintained his great friendship with Charles Hill, who had also moved to the South Coast. “I always worked closely with Charlie” he said, “I did my utmost to promote a good level of fitness in the boys and Charlie then took over the sports training. We always did well on the Athletics field but when “Robin” retired, the new Head, Mr Gaskin, did not seem so interested in maintaining the proficiency of the field sports. It was a great pity and it was probably time for me to go!”

We talked of the lads from the School who had died in the 1939-45 war and he expressed a great sadness that over 90 had died in the service of their country. “Good lads” he said, “and I would have known them all over the years. Such a terrible loss of life though.” He had not known that his nickname had been “Doc”, but felt that this stemmed from the fact that he had once been called onto the rugger field to reset a lad’s knee that had “popped” during a house match. I left mid-afternoon as he evidently needed to settle down by his fireside before tea but I had left him with a bottle of Scotch as I knew he was minded to “take a dram” before turning in early to bed. For me, it had not just been a ramble into schoolboy nostalgia but an experience that personally lifted my spirits. Mr Gillespie saw his 35 years at Moseley not just as a vocation but as a form of dedication to successive generations of Moseleians. For him, physical fitness promoted character and, all in all, these years had been the happiest time of his life, coupled with his marriage and bringing up of his children.

I spoke to him by telephone on Christmas Day but there is little doubt that his 105th birthday on 18th January this year was a happy and exciting occasion. Apart from telegrams of good wishes from the Queen, the Lord Lieutenant of Dumbartonshire and the Lord Provost of Milngavie, he received around 30 cards from old boys including one from Mary Miles and the School Governors together with many letters recalling past events at the School. I telephoned him that morning and he was in the middle of opening his post and trying to recall the faces of those who wished him well. “I have had one from Grant. He played rugger and so did his brother. I have also had many letters, so do thank all these old boys most sincerely. They have been so kind to remember me today.” His daughter Helen tells me that he subsequently received telephone calls from John Blakemore (1935-40) and Len Perry (1926-31). It was John who found out that Mr Gillespie was living in retirement in Scotland and enabled our contact to be re-established. For Len, it would have been rolling back of 66 years!

During the afternoon, Mr Gillespie had visits from the Deputy Provost and Deputy Lord Lieutenant in addition to a gathering of his family. He also receive considerable newspaper coverage as the oldest man in the Dumbartonshire district. Again, all Moseleians who wished him well on the day are warmly thanked have been involved in a wonderful event within the School’s history.

I am not the first Moseleian to visit Mr Gillespie as I know that a colleague from the Wolverhampton area visited him earlier last year.