A sketch of a still rural Paisley (circa 1825) looking North from about Saucelhill show only three ecclesiastical buildings. In a very short space of time, that view was to be very different: a disrupted Church of Scotland was to ensure that – in organisation, landscape and attitude.
The demand for Paisley’s silks and muslins in the eighteenth century led to a rapid growth of population and the building of a “new town” on the east of the Cart and, as well, an expansion into George Street and the west of the Burgh. New Churches were required to meet the needs of the populace but the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 brought massive change, including the birth of Orr Square or as it was then known, the Free High. Rev. John McNaughtan, for eleven years the High Kirk of Paisley, “came out” in 1843 with a large following of elders and members and built the Free Kirk. This exodus was over the right to give elders and members a say in the choice of their minister.
This right was conceded thirty years later but by then it was too late, as the Free High and many others were well-established.
The first five years of the Free High witnesses a wave of enthusiasm and life, growing to a membership of 955. The first person baptised was Margaret Chalmers Jamieson and within the first five years, the Church witnessed 340 baptisms (more than one per week!). It had 762 scholars in a Sabbath School with 92 teachers in three areas of the town. It offered both day and an evening school for reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic and geography with about 100 pupils.
All of this was financed by convenants and offerings of the congregation that was itself divided into districts, each with an elder, a deacon and a lady visitor.
When Paisley was built up further eastward from Garthland, a Free Church, Sherwood, was built and many of the office bearers and members left to support the new church. When the minister of the day had complaints about this, his answer was: “A mother should be jealous of her daughter”.
Orr Square had a church tower, prominent and graceful; for a hundred and fifty years a landmark in Paisley and a witness to the purpose of spreading the Gospel for miles around. As a church, it was built to be spacious and pleasing, with as much room for increase as any congregation could wish. Its pulpit was distinctive and handsome, from which it is recorded that a former minister “charmed thousands”.
In 1895 the famous American evangelists Moody and Sankey preached and sang the Gospel to crowds. The office-bearers of old created ample, well-built halls beside the church and in time created a Mission Hall in Storie Street more than sufficient to meet congregational needs. The church manse was an old house and rather big, but convenient and comfortable. These formed the visible inheritance, none of them striven for or paid for by the members of the later years of the twentieth century, but the upkeep of all of them was to be their lot.
Most churches begin every new year with a need to raise funds. Orr Square had a substantial bequest of one of its benefactors, Peter Brough. Brough had been a deacon in Orr Square in the 1840’s. He is said to have been a great evangelical and believer in education and social improvement. When he died he left his fortune for the good of the town. Notable among his bequests was one of £500 per annum to the congregation of Orr Square “to inspire and encourage them in their usefulness to the community”. That generous bequest was accepted b the forebears in the spirit in which it was given, not as a crutch to lean on, but as an inspiration to neighbourly help. The office-bearers gave substantial help in early years to Sherwood, Lylesland, St. John’s and Martyrs Memorial churches in Paisley and to surrounding churches in Renfrew, Nitshill, Elderslie, Johnstone, Beith and Lochwinnoch (all of them, of course, Free Churches).
From 1843 to 1994 Orr Square Church and its parish were served by only seven ministers (see opposite). This represents a remarkable service by a few devoted souls.
During the ministry of John Maver, the church in 1908 established a Boys’ Brigade Company, the 23rd Paisley, which met in the Storie Street halls for close on seventy years until that hall was closed. During the same ministry a Girls Guildry was created as the 1st Paisley, the oldest Paisley Company in what is now known as the Girls Brigade. A Girl Guide Company – the 21st Paisley – was established in 1921 and the church also had a Scout troop. Lively and active is a reasonable description.
Rev. Ellen McRoberts was the first lady minister in Paisley and was an Assistant at Orr Square to Benjamin Sibbald. However, Church Law of the time prevented her from being ordained as a Church of Scotland minister.
No history of Orr Square could fail to mention the contribution of Rev. Robert Morrison to the Church, Town and Gown. In his forty five years ministry in Paisley he was a friend and pastor to many during a time of reconstruction of the town centre with inevitable change for the Church. He served on Paisley Town Council and was for close on forty years a Trustee of Paisley College of Technology, now the University of Paisley, and a chaplain to Dykebar Hospital. A much-loved minister to many.
No church, however, is just about ministers, and many of the laity of the church gave their time and talents to the service of the community in the Master’s name.
The story of Orr Square is encapsulated in these words but much more could be written of the development and life of that great old Church.