Byers, Margaret (1832–1912)

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Byers, Margaret (1832–1912)

Irish educationalist who founded the Ladies' Collegiate School (later Victoria College) in Belfast, in 1859, and took a leading part in campaigns to secure equality for women within the Irish education system. Born Margaret Morrow in April 1832 in Rathfriland, County Down, Ireland; died in Belfast on February 21, 1912; daughter of Andrew Morrow (a farmer) and Margaret (Herron) Morrow; educated in Nottingham, married Reverend John Byers, February 24, 1852 (died, 1853); children: son John (b. 1853).

Taught at the Ladies' Collegiate School in Cookstown, County Tyrone (1853–59); opened the Ladies Collegiate School, later Victoria College, in Belfast (1859); elected president of the Ulster Headmistresses' Association (1903); awarded honorary degree by Trinity College, Dublin (1905); appointed to the Senate of Queen's University, Belfast (1908).

In 1852, Margaret Byers embarked on what she must have anticipated would be a life of usefulness and adventure far away from her native Northern Ireland. At 20 years of age, and just married to a young Presbyterian minister, John Byers, she left with her husband for China, where he had been commissioned as a missionary. Shortly after their arrival, however, Reverend Byers fell ill. Far from home and heavily pregnant, Margaret's situation was already precarious, but worse was to come. On the day before her child was born, she was told by the doctors that her husband could not recover. With the birth safely over, the Byers decided to return home without delay, and it was left to Margaret to organize their departure, embarking with her dying husband and baby on a ship bound for New York. It was already too late for John Byers, however. He died during the voyage and was buried in New York, leaving his widow to continue her journey back to Ireland.

Little in Margaret's life before then could have equipped her for these ordeals. Born near the small town of Rathfriland in rural County Down in April 1832, she was the fourth child and only daughter of Andrew Morrow, a farmer, and Margaret (Herron) Morrow . Margaret Morrow is a shadowy figure in her daughter's youth, perhaps because she was already almost 50 years old at the time of her daughter's birth. However, Andrew Morrow was a more forceful personality, an intelligent and religious man, active in his local Presbyterian church as an elder, and in his community as a temperance campaigner. The similarities between him and his daughter are striking, and it seems clear that he had a lasting influence on her character and beliefs. However, when she was eight her father died, and Margaret was sent to England, living for the next few years with relatives in Stoke-on-Trent. During this time, she attended a Ladies' College at Nottingham, where she qualified as a teacher, and where she, perhaps, came into contact with a more radical approach to female education than currently existed in Ireland. In the short term, however, she had little opportunity to put her training into practice. In 1852, she had returned to Ulster in order to marry John Byers, and, immediately after the wedding, the young couple left together for their new life in the Far East. According to some accounts, Margaret had an opportunity to observe the education system in the United States when she stayed with her husband at Princeton, but this was only a short break in their journey before continuing on to China.

Within a short time, Margaret was back in Ulster. Her experience in the interim had been a traumatic one. In just a year, she had traveled to the other side of the world and back, had gained and lost a husband, had become a mother, and in the process had become aware of her own capacities. Alone, and faced with the necessity of finding a means of supporting herself and her young son for the future, she continued to display remarkable courage and self-reliance. She refused the pension to which she was entitled as the widow of a Presbyterian minister and, according to one report, actually considered going out herself as a missionary to India, but felt that "greater work" was to be done at home. Having decided to become a teacher, she found a position in the Ladies' Collegiate School in Cookstown, County Tyrone, while her son John was probably cared for by her own family in Rathfriland. Cookstown, however, was not really large enough to support a girls' school, and within a few years Byers had decided to move to Belfast, then experiencing a period of great economic growth, with a prosperous mercantile and professional middle class.

By now, Byers had also developed her own views of what type of education best fitted girls for their future role in society. Then the great majority of girls' schools, both in Ireland and in England, favored a training that would prepare young women to be virtuous wives and mothers: in effect, this implied a concentration not on academic learning, but on sound religious instruction and on the acquisition of accomplishments, such as drawing, music and decorative needlework. This approach, however, was increasingly under attack from those who believed that women themselves, and society in general, would benefit greatly from improvements in the area of female education. This movement promoted a view of female education as a preparation for work rather than for marriage, and demanded equal access for girls and boys to an exam-based system of education, and the first significant step in this direction was taken with the foundation in London in 1848 of Queen's College in Harley Street. Envisaged by its initiators as a means of improving the quality—and thus the status and pay—of female teachers and governesses, the institution offered lectures in a wide range of subjects, both at elementary and advanced level, and had an immediate success. Moreover, many of its former students went on to enter the field of education, and thus helped to promote the Queen's College ethos throughout the British Isles. By the 1860s, the movement had gained considerable ground in England, with the government-appointed Schools Enquiry Commission admitting the need for sweeping improvements in middle-class female education, and cautiously approving the idea of admitting girls and boys to the same state examinations.

Byers was to become the earliest, and one of the most effective proponents of this approach in Ireland. As she herself recalled it:

My aim was to provide for girls an education adapted to their wants as thorough as that which is afforded to boys in schools of the highest order; in fact, to work out for girls a practical and well-considered plan of education, in which due regard should be given to the solid branches of learning, as well as to moral and religious training.

Her own experience, both as a young woman who had to earn her own livelihood, and as a teacher, had shown her the acute need for such a system. In 1859, therefore, she rented a house at 13 Wellington Place, in which she opened an "establishment for the Boarding and Education of Young Ladies." Subjects taught included history, natural science, and classical and modern languages, and, in an effort to bring girls' education into line with that of boys, particular stress was laid on instruction in English and in mathematics. This first school rapidly proved too small, and Byers went on to build new premises for her Ladies' Collegiate School at Pakenham Place. Having started with 35 students, she now had 60 boarders, as well as day pupils. In 1874, expansion forced another move to specially built premises at the Crescent, which in 1887, Queen Victoria 's Jubilee year, was renamed Victoria College and School.

In 1878, secondary education was transformed by the passage of legislation that established a state system of examinations. Initially, the measure was to apply only to boys, but Byers was among those who mounted an effective, and ultimately successful, campaign to have girls included in the scheme. As a result, girls were allowed to enter the examinations of the Intermediate Board of Education, and to compete for prizes, scholarships, and exhibitions on the same terms as boys. The first examinations were held in 1879, and from the beginning the Ladies' Collegiate showed itself to be one of the most successful schools in terms of the results obtained. In 1888, for instance, the college won 48 distinctions, more than any other girls' school in Ireland, and 25 more than its nearest competitor, Alexandra College in Dublin.

Fully aware that improved secondary education was meaningless without access to higher level education, Byers had been among the first to demand that Irish women be admitted to university examinations. Having failed to persuade Cambridge University and Trinity College, Dublin, to open centers in Belfast in which her pupils could sit for their examinations, she discovered a redoubtable ally in Isabella Tod , founder in 1867 of the Belfast Ladies' Institute, a body established to provide "advanced classes" in a range of subjects and to expand the opportunities currently available to middle-class women. In 1869, in response to a petition from the Institute, Queen's College, Belfast, a constituent college of the Queen's University of Ireland (QCB), agreed to allow women to sit external examinations, and to be awarded certificates. The Ladies' Collegiate School was in a position to take immediate advantage of this concession. From now on, senior pupils of the school were routinely prepared for the QCB examinations, and, by 1874, 13 had received honors certificates from the Queen's University.

The opening up of the QCB examinations to women also had the effect of improving the quality of instruction available to girls in Northern Ireland. Firmly convinced that female teachers were best fitted to teach girls, Byers had nevertheless found difficulty, during her early years as a headmistress, in securing properly trained women, and it had been found necessary to employ lecturers from QCB in order to prepare pupils for the first university-level examinations. As more women attained certificates, however, increasing numbers of women teachers, many of them former Victoria College pupils, became available. Byers was quick to take advantage of this development, and, by 1889, her school had 38 female teachers and teaching assistants as against only seven men.

With the establishment of the Royal University of Ireland (RUI) in 1879, women became entitled to sit for examinations and to take degrees on the same basis as men. As the RUI was purely an examining body, however, students had to obtain their instruction elsewhere. Again, Byers was quick to respond to this need, and, in 1881, she opened a separate university department at the Ladies' Collegiate, in which students over 18 were prepared for RUI degree examinations. The department's achievement was apparent both in the numbers of women passing through it, and in their academic performance. Thus, while in 1888, 18 pupils passed RUI exams, by 1902 the number had risen to 70. In the decade 1891–1900, 95 Victoria students graduated, more than from any other women's college in Ireland, while in terms of the results achieved, Victoria was consistently ahead of all the women's, and most of the men's establishments.

By this time, however, women were gradually being admitted on equal terms to university faculties, putting the future of the women's colleges, such as Victoria, in doubt. Byers herself favored the retention of the women's colleges, believing that, as at secondary level, women were best qualified to teach women, and fearing that female lecturers and students would be disadvantaged in an integrated environment. On the other hand, many students and graduates as well as members of staff rejected the isolation, restricted curricula and potential second-class status of women's colleges, and demanded the full admission of women to university institutions. In 1908, two new universities, Queen's University, Belfast, and the National University, were established to replace the old Royal University. Women had full equality within both these institutions, making the remaining women's colleges superfluous. Shortly afterwards, the remaining women's colleges, including the college department of Victoria, closed down, bringing to an end the first stage in the movement for women's higher education and, theoretically at least, establishing their full equality in the area of higher education.

While Byers had struggled hard to achieve such success and was convinced of the value of girls' participation on equal terms in public examinations, she had no desire for any fundamental reassessment of the conventional female role. On the contrary, she argued, education could better equip a girl to "perform any womanly duty," and the development of a "maternal instinct … guided by high intelligence" would be to the betterment of society as a whole. While anxious to fit girls to earn their own living if necessary, she saw marriage and motherhood as perhaps the most important roles a woman could fulfil, and for that reason saw subjects such as cookery, dressmaking, and needlework as having an important place on the curriculum. As she allegedly remarked, "I think … the best life for a girl, after all, is a good marriage." Above all, she believed that education should inculcate a strong Christian faith, that academic success was no substitute for "a high moral tone of the spirit," and that it could reinforce women's moral influence and potential for good in the world. "Always be ready," she told her pupils, "to do with alacrity and earnestness the duty that lies near to you and ever hold yourselves in readiness for future work."

In addition to her achievements in the field of education, Margaret Byers was involved in a number of philanthropic and reformist movements. She was a leading member of the Ladies' Temperance Union and secretary of the Belfast Woman's Temperance Association and first president of the Irish Women's Temperance Union. She was also associated with the Band of Hope, a children's temperance organization, and with the Prison Gate Mission for Women, which met and assisted women on their release from jail. In these areas also, she believed that women could offer powerful, but always discreet, leadership. As she remarked in 1878 of the work of the Belfast Women's Temperance Association, "Its plans and operations have been carried on as heretofore in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Its action has been none the less powerful for good because it has never been characterized by anything that was startling or sensational." Again, she saw wifehood as the most desirable option for a woman, and the home as her proper sphere of activity: many prominent men, she argued, have had their "flagging zeal in temperance work stimulated by the gentle approval and tender sympathy of her who, though she may shrink from public work, accomplishes, it may be, more by her personal influence at her own fireside."

Despite such views, Byers played a major part in opening up opportunities to women outside the home. Moreover, she herself enjoyed an active public role throughout her career, serving, in 1903, as president of the Ulster School-mistresses' Association; in 1905, she was awarded an honorary degree by Trinity College, Dublin, the first Ulsterwoman to receive such an honor from any university, and, in 1908, she was appointed to the Senate of Queen's University, Belfast. By then, she had largely retired from active work, due to ill health, and she died on February 21, 1912. Her coffin, with her LL.D. robes on top, rested before her burial in the lecture hall of Victoria College, and it was the college that was to be her most visible legacy. Overcoming financial difficulties, it went on to consolidate its position as one of the leading girls' schools in Northern Ireland, and a fitting memorial to a woman who believed in the right, indeed the duty, of all women to utilize their capacities to their fullest extent.


Breathnach, Eibhlin. "Women and Higher Education in Ireland, 1879–1910," in Crane Bag. Vol. IV, 1980, pp. 47–54.

Brozyna, Andrea Ebel, "'The Cursed Cup Hath Cast Her Down': Constructions of Female Piety in Ulster Evangelical Temperance Literature, 1863–1914," in Coming into the Light, pp. 154–178.

Jordan, Alison. Margaret Byers: Pioneer of Women's Education and Founder of Victoria College, Belfast.

——. "Opening the Gates of Learning: The Belfast Ladies' Institute, 1867–97," in Janice Holmes and Diane Urquhart, eds. Coming into the Light: The Work, Politics and Religion of Women in Ulster, 1840–1940. Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast: 1994, pp. 33–59.

O'Connor, Anne V. "The Revolution in Girls' Secondary Education in Ireland, 1860–1910," in Girls Don't Do Honours.


Papers of the Ladies' Collegiate School, Belfast, in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland