Early Education - Story of Belfast

BELFAST was a very small place indeed, and it is much to the credit of the inhabitants that so long ago as the year 1647, we find references to the payment of a schoolmaster. A year later, a sum of ten pounds was to be raised every year by a tax on the people, to be paid for the maintenance of a schoolmaster for the education of the youth of the town. He was also to have a chamber to live in, and a suitable house for the school. It is a pity that history has left no record of the first master's name.

Later on, two teachers were paid by the Government, and they received twenty pounds each as yearly stipend.

The Marquis of Donegall built the first school-house, which was either inside the churchyard, or very close to it, at the corner of Ann Street. Church Lane was then called Schoolhouse Lane. He afterwards established a Classical School for poor scholars, and, about the same time, he presented a Mathematical Lectureship to Trinity College in Dublin, and the endowment of £30 a year is still paid to keep it up. The master and scholars of the Classical School presented an address in Latin to the Marquis upon one occasion, to which he replied in Latin. Several schools sprang up and flourished as the town increased.

Belfast Harbour Office

Belfast Harbour Office

David Manson was the most famous schoolmaster of those early days, and he was the author of a very good dictionary, which is still known as "Manson's Spelling Book." He opened an evening school in Clugston's Entry in 1755, and his advertisement shows an amount of originality which is very pleasing.

He wishes his "customers" to know that he "teacheth by way of amusement, English Grammar, Reading and Spelling at moderate expense."

Five years later he removed to a front house in High Street, when he again announced in the quaint language of the time that he " will teach to spell, read and understand the English Tongue, without the discipline of the rod, by intermixing pleasureable and healthful exercise with instruction." One item in this advertisement must have appealed strongly to the youth of the town, for we find that in a short time he had to remove to still more commodious premises. He built a house in Donegall Street, "where there is a healthful air and delightful prospect of land and water." David Manson was a man whose ideas were much in advance of his time, for he combined games with his teaching, and had a bowling green at Lilliput for the amusement of his "good boys," and used the grounds of the Linen Hall for other sports. He invented a curious machine called " a flying coach " and a turn in it was the highest reward for work well done. Was this the forerunner of aviation?

Manson's flying coach was the embryo of the present airship, just as the "dandy horse" of long ago was of the bicycle.

The Belfast Academy was opened in the year 1786, and it has had a long and honourable history. Many of our finest public men have been educated within the old walls of the school in Academy Street, and for many years it was considered to be the first school in Ulster. The original building became too small for the increasing number of scholars, and, in the year 1876, the school was removed to the present very fine building at Cliftonville, where the Belfast Academy still holds a high place among the educational establishments of the city.

The story of the Academy cannot be complete without a brief notice of an event which is detailed at great length in one of the old books of the school records. Some real or fancied grievance roused the wrath of the boys and they took the law into their own hands. On the morning of the 12th of April, 1792, eight boarders and two day-scholars shut themselves into the mathematical schoolroom, and declared war against the masters until their requests should be granted. In anticipation of a prolonged siege, they had liberally helped themselves to a large quantity of provisions from the kitchen. They had also procured five pistols, and an unlimited supply of powder and shot, and were fully prepared for serious operations. They sent a written despatch headed "Liberty Hall" stating fully their demands and refusing to surrender until their requests were granted. Smiths were brought to break open the door. Slaters were sent up to the roof to pour water down the chimney, but all had to retire before the reckless firing of the boys.

At last the Sovereign was sent for to recite the terrors of the law, but the uproar of the battle continued all day, until late at night the unruly boys capitulated. We have no distinct record of the after events, and one would like to know if the boys were "disciplined with the rod" or were forgiven.

A few years later the famous "barring out" took place in the college at Armagh, but that was a more serious affair and lasted for some time. The story of that exciting event belongs to another history.

Another popular school was in a place called Crown Entry, and it was kept by Mr. James Sheridan Knowles about the year 1812. He was a great elocutionist, and no record of Belfast schools could be complete without his well-known name.

About the year 1806, the first suggestion of higher education for the youth—both boys and girls—of the town was made. A year later, at a meeting held in the Exchange to consider the question, £3,000 was subscribed in a very short time. The idea of a great academical institution was enthusiastically taken up by all the influential people in the country adjoining.

Some delay occurred, but at last eight acres of waste ground were procured on the most liberal terms from Lord Donegall and the Institution was built upon a very desolate and dreary place. Nothing but wet grass fields like a dismal swamp lay round the new building, and a watchman was kept to drive stray cattle off the grass. Mr. James Thompson was the first Master of the Mathematical School, and Mr. James Knowles, Master of the English School.

For many years, it was known as the Belfast College, and many distinguished men were educated there. Mr. Thompson's two sons were amongst the most illustrious names. He built the first two houses in College Square East, which stood alone, fronting an open plain, with the blue encircling hills in the distance, and quite unsheltered from the blast. It was here that Lord Kelvin and Sir James Thompson spent their early days, and it is interesting now to read of them gathering flowers in the meadows round the Institution, of the buttercups and daisies and the beautiful summer sunshine where the children played in the breezy open fields.

It would not be treating the girls of Belfast fairly to allow the thought that all the education was considered to be for the boys' advantage. So it is pleasant reading to meet with an advertisement as follows, in the year 1755. "Mrs. Smith has given up her boarding school in Belfast, and is succeeded by Mrs. Lanagan, who teaches all manner of cookery, and the French language if desired." This indicates a pleasing variety in the course of study at Mrs. Lanagan's. Next we find Margaret Cullen in Dazell's Row opened another cookery school, and she "proposes to attend ladies at their own houses who prefer home instruction to the public school."

Two cookery schools! Was it all French cookery? Surely the ladies of the town were thoroughly well trained in the useful as well as the ornamental side of life.