Our History - Margaret Byers

Born in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act, Margaret Byers (née Morrow) was the daughter of Andrew Morrow, of Windsor Hall, Rathfriland, County Down. He owned a flax mill and was an elder in his local Presbyterian church but he died when Margaret was eight.

Margaret was sent to be raised by uncles in Stoke-on-Trent and was educated at the Ladies’ College, Nottingham.

In 1852 she married the Rev John Byers of Tullyallen, Co Armagh. The pair headed off to Shanghai to become missionaries but he became seriously ill and he did not survive the journey. 

At barely 20 years old, she briefly remained in New York where she became familiar with the American educational system which she greatly admired, not least because there was very little distinction between the quality of education received by girls compared to boys.

On her return home Margaret declined a modest pension from the American missionary organisation in which she and her late husband had served. She was resolute in her determination to make her own way in the world and began teaching in a very traditional girls’ school in Cookstown in 1854. She was profoundly unhappy in Cookstown and in 1859 she opened her own school, the Ladies Collegiate School, initially in Wellington Place, Belfast. It was based on her rather more challenging ideas, some of which she acquired during her brief stay in the United States. While French and needlework were still taught, her more imaginative curriculum included modern history, natural science, Latin and Greek, subjects which girls were not normally taught.

In 1873 she built a new school at Lower Crescent in south Belfast (now the Crescent Arts Centre) and this was to be the school’s home until the move to the present Cranmore site in the early 1970s.

In 1878 she was a member of a delegation to London organised by her friend Isabella Tod to persuade Disraeli’s Conservative government to extend the benefits of the Intermediate Education bill to girls.

Margaret Byers is credited with persuading Lord Cairns, the Lord Chancellor, of the merits of the case. Lord Cairns, one of the most prominent Conservative politicians in the second half of the 19th century, was a Belfast man. As Hugh McCalmont Cairns, he was one of the two MPs for Belfast between 1852 and 1866 and as Lord Chancellor, he memorably continued to teach Sunday school.

In 1887, the year which marked the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, the school was renamed Victoria College. A century later, Victoria College amalgamated with Richmond Lodge School, a neighbouring girls' school of similar status.

Victoria College rapidly acquired an enviable reputation for academic excellence, competitive examinations in the 1880s and 1890s demonstrating that Victoria College was indeed one of the most formidable academic establishments in Ireland.

Former pupils of Victoria College were among the first female graduates of the new Queen’s University in Belfast as a result of the energy and enthusiasm of Mrs Byers who had fought for equal terms for women eligible for higher education. 

Famous past pupils of Victoria College include writer and medieval scholar Helen Waddell, sculptress Anne Acheson, the entrepreneur Nicky Kinnaird, opera singers Rebekah Coffey and Giselle Allen, BBC journalist and broadcaster Wendy Austin MBE and Dame Joan Harbison, former chief executive of the Equality Commission.

Margaret Byers was an energetic woman with a wide range of social interests. She devoted herself to the welfare of families and the poor, temperance, prisons and hospitals. She founded the Victoria orphans’ homes at Ligoniel, which survived until the 1950s. Like her friend Isabella Tod, she was a supporter of women’s suffrage, but disapproved of the violent tactics of some suffragettes.

In 1905 she was awarded an LLD from Trinity College, Dublin, thus becoming the first Ulsterwoman to be awarded an honorary degree from any university.

In 1908 she was appointed to the Senate of the new Queen’s University of Belfast.

John Byers, her son, was Professor of Midwifery at Queen’s University and was knighted in 1906. John Byers also had a keen interest in Ulster dialect and folklore.

Margaret Byers died at her home in Victoria College on February 21, 1912 and was buried in Belfast’s City cemetery.

A blue plaque has been erected by the Ulster History Circle on the Crescent Arts Centre, Lower Crescent.

Margaret Byers is the subject of an excellent short biography by former pupil and teacher, Alison Jordan.