Margaret Byers 1832-1912
Born in Rathfriland, Co Down, in 1832, Margaret Morrow was educated at a ladies’ college in Nottingham. In 1852, she married the Rev John Byers, an Ulsterman educated in Glasgow and Princeton and together they travelled to Shanghai on missionary work. Within a year, John Byers fell ill and died on the return voyage to New York, leaving his widow with a new baby. On her return to Ireland in 1854, Margaret Byers taught at a school in Cookstown. Moving to Belfast in 1859, she established the Ladies’ Collegiate at 13 Wellington Place. During this period, most of Belfast’s commercial, professional and industrial middle class, from whom she would draw her pupils, lived in the town centre. With pupil numbers rising from 35 in 1859, to more than 60 within the space of few years, the Ladies’ Collegiate occupied increasingly large premises at Howard Street and Pakenham Place off the Dublin Road. In 1874, the Collegiate moved into entirely new premises. The new building, at the junction of University Road and Lower Crescent, which is now the Crescent Arts Centre, also housed a separate collegiate department from 1881, providing third level education at a time when Irish universities still resisted full access for women. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Royal Jubilee, the school was renamed Victoria College and School. Here, Byers set the pattern for change by offering her female students academic courses with subject areas such as history, philosophy and science, as well as Latin and Greek (necessary for university entrance). Responding to a growing demand to equip young women for employment opportunities, the students at these schools were trained to take up positions as governesses or teachers, and their well-qualified staff helped to raise standards and encourage respect for female academic achievement.
Byers was a strong church-going Presbyterian and deeply involved in a range of voluntary activities. As elsewhere in Victorian society, drunkenness in Belfast was perceived to be an inevitable precursor to poverty and sin and, an active temperance campaigner, Byers was appointed President of the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association in 1895. She was also instrumental in the establishment of ‘industrial schools’ for impoverished girls in Belfast and the north and an active suffragist and Committee member of the Belfast Liberal Unionist Association.
Female education was, however, her primary concern. A close friend of the educational and political activist, Isabella Tod, she worked with her to further advance educational opportunities for young women and both were instrumental in founding the Ladies Institute as a pressure group for female education in 1867, as well as the Ulster Schoolmistresses Association. She also supported Tod in her successful campaign to have girls included in the 1878 Education (Ireland) Act, enabling them to sit public exams, and in the 1879 Universities (Ireland) Act which entitled women as well as men to be granted degrees from the Royal University of Ireland. In recognition of her achievements, she was awarded an LLD from Trinity College Dublin in 1905, the first Ulsterwoman to be awarded an honorary degree from any university, and in 1908, she was appointed to the Senate of the new Queens University of Belfast.
Margaret Byers died in February 1912 and is buried in the City Cemetery on the Falls Road. She is remembered as a strong supporter of women’s academic abilities and a pioneer of their academic rights.
Alison Jordan, Margaret Byers: Pioneer of Women’s Education and Founder of Victoria College, Belfast (Belfast, 1991)
Gillian McClelland, Pioneering Women: Riddell Hall and Queen’s University Belfast (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2005)