Kirkcaldy has been blessed with several figures whose philanthropy was at least as worthy as their achievements in business.
Robert Philp was another. He made his fortune in linen, but he left untold riches in educational opportunities for those most in need.
His will provided for an educational trust, which funded three new 'Philp' schools and bursaries to another; equipment, books, clothing and financial assistance followed. These children, Philp had insisted, were to be given a start, and a chance.
Our education system has changed irrevocably since the days of the Philp Schools.
But for generations of 'Philpers', Robert Philp's legacy was life-enhancing, life-changing, maybe even life-saving.
Robert Philp – Industrialist and Philanthropist
Robert Philp is one of Kirkcaldy's greatest benefactors leaving on his death a legacy believed to be the largest ever bequeathed to the town. Living between 1758 and 1828 the passage of time has seen his memory and generosity gradually consigned to history.
Robert Philp was one of four children and was educated at the Burgh School prior to joining his father in the linen business. At that stage it was a cottage industry. The Philp's delivered yarn to home weavers then collected the finished cloth to take to market. It became obvious that transferring production into a factory environment would increase levels of production and in 1815 Robert Philp purchased the West Bridge Mill in Linktown with its dyeworks and bleachfield, all powered from the Tiel Burn. It remained in use until 1910 at which point it was John Hogarth's Flour Mill. It was sited close to the newer West Bridge Spinning Mill, which has subsequently been restored and converted into flats.
Robert Philp was a bachelor and two of his siblings died young and unmarried. A sister, Rachel, did marry, but she, her husband and son, all predeceased Robert leaving no immediate family at his death.
His business was in Linktown but as he was a Bailie in Kirkcaldy – this indicates that he must have lived in the town itself. He became a very wealthy man illustrated by his purchase of Edenshead House and estate in present day Gateside. While living there he gifted ground to allow for the erection of a church.
While it is clear that he had to have been an able businessman, it was his death or, to be more precise, his Will which elevated him to fame, with his memory being held in the highest regard by the townspeople.
Whether true, or an urban myth, it is said that members of the extended family altered their name to Philip thereby infuriating Robert. If his name was not good enough for them – neither was his money! His £70,000 fortune was placed in a Trust to give local pauper children an education.
The decision was no whim as the Will had been made in 1820 giving Robert 8 years to change his intentions if he wished to do so. The Will was detailed and set out his wishes in clear terms. The interest from the capital sum was to be used to provide a basic education in English, writing and arithmetic for 400 pauper children in specified areas. It was also stipulated that religious education should form part of the curriculum.
Philp provided instructions as to how the Trust should be administered. Governors were to be elected to have overall control of the Trust, with each of the areas to benefit having their own elected team of Managers. Such was the detail that the composition of the Governors and Managers was outlined in the Will which stipulated that fresh elections were to be undertaken every two years. Four areas were to benefit, although surprisingly Dysart and Gallatown were not included. Schools were built in three of the specified areas but, in one, the Trust paid for pupils to attend an existing school. 150 Pathhead children were to benefit, 100 in Kirkcaldy, 100 in the Links and 50 in Kinghorn.
Schools were built in Kirkcaldy (now Society), Linktown and Pathhead. In Kinghorn, the Trust paid for the Philp children to attend the Burgh School.
Initially, the Trust offered elementary education to a total of 400 children from ages 6 to 15. The Trust also provided books, pens, paper and slates, along with an annual clothing allowance. On leaving, scholars were granted a bounty to provide a financial start in life of between £2 and £5.
Being a Governor, or Manager of the Trust, was a prestigious position with keenly contested elections. The income was not from what we now term investments, i.e. stocks and shares, but came from rentals of land, farms and property, which the Trust had bought. It was so well managed that the capital actually increased, eventually allowing more children to benefit.
From the 1870s onwards schooling gradually changed through the introduction of compulsory free education. The Education Acts together with the Endowed Schools Acts transformed how education was delivered, especially in the drive to provide secondary and university education. Legislation altered how the Trust could distribute its income with much being diverted away from the original purposes.
With free education now available to all, the work and influence of the Trust became diluted, eventually simply providing clothing and bursaries. In time it was amalgamated with other Fife based educational trusts providing bursaries in the Eastern area of the county.
From being a major player in the provision of education its purpose and founding principles were evaporating – in reality it had been overtaken by educational progress and over the decades the Trust has faded from the public consciousness.
However, there can be no question that for well over 60 years the Philp Trust gave many children an education, clothing and a start in life, that otherwise would not have been possible. Robert Philp and his ideals deserve to be remembered and it is tantamount to an injustice that his name seems to have slipped below the radar.
Philp is remembered in Kirkcaldy by the Philp Hall on Links Street, two Civic Society plaques, and a street named after him. He is also, quite rightly, featured on the “Kirkcaldy's Famous Folk Board” in the Town House.
Robert Philp remains the only man to whom a statue has been erected in Kirkcaldy. This astonishing fact is a slight on the many sons and daughters who have brought fame to the town by its being their place of birth – Adam Smith, Michael Nairn, Sandford Fleming and John McDouall Stuart, to name but four. Such was the regard in which Robert Philp was held that the statue to him was unveiled in 1849.
The fate of that unique statue along with a full exploration of the man and his Trust can be reached by clicking the icon on this page – please do so.
Robert Philp, although his work is long done, well deserves to be better remembered, better known and better recognised, for his contribution to those in real need who at the time had nowhere else to turn.