Byers was an advocate for women’s education and founder of Belfast’s Victoria College
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 20 year old 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 a ladies’ college at 13 Wellington Place, where the architect Charles Lanyon was a neighbour. 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 in a few years, Byers’ Ladies Collegiate occupied increasingly large premises at Howard Street and Pakenham Place off the Dublin Road. Then, in 1874, the Collegiate moved entirely into new premises, purposefully designed by architects Young and Mackenzie.
The new building, at the junction of University Road and Lower Crescent, which is currently 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. Byers’ campaigning on this issue resulted in her election to the Senate of the Queen’s University Belfast, in 1908.
Like many other late Victorian Presbyterians, Byers was an active temperance campaigner and, in 1895, was appointed President of the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association. She was also instrumental in the establishment of ‘industrial schools’ for impoverished girls in Belfast and the north. Byers’ work received the royal imprimatur in 1887, when she was permitted to rename her school, Victoria College and School.
Margaret Byers died in February 1912, but is remembered as a larger than life figure by past pupils like writer Helen Waddell and sculptor Anne Acheson.
Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann; Margaret Byers (1992) by A Jordan.