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Derry City Cemetery Series: ‘The Misses’ MacKillip’s’: Five sisters who pioneered higher education for women across Ireland
25 Jul 2019
One of the most fascinating tales to emerge from the Victorian era in Derry is the tale of a band of sisters who pioneered higher education for women in Ireland in an era where like children, the patriarchy also liked women ‘to be seen and not heard.’ The ‘Misses MacKillip’s’ as they were collectively referred to, set up their first school the Ladies Collegiate College, at number 11 Queen Street in 1877. And, their efforts would eventually set in motion a string of innovations in education for women across the island. The next move was the establishment was the renaming of the Ladies Collegiate School to Victoria High School and a relocation to Crawford Square where both boarders and ‘day girls’ attended. Near to Victoria High School was the Northlands School of Midwifery which was founded in 1908 and this had an association with the High School. In the same period, a Miss J Kerr opened another boarding school, St Lurach’s College at the top of Lawrence Hill in 1900. Strand House School which had opened in 1860 closed its doors during the First World War and its remaining pupils transferred either to Victoria High School or St Lurach’s. Finally, in 1922 these institutions merged and formed Londonderry High School. The amalgamation coped with its logistical problem of the need for more space by buying the former home of shirt industry magnate William Tillie in 1928. Duncreggan House as it became known was situated at the junction of Duncreggan Road and Northland Road. As the decades passed and with an increasing need for places of education to meet the demands of a forward-thinking educational programme, many additional buildings were added to the Duncreggan site which were officially opened in May 1962 by the Duchess of Abercorn. On the day of the official opening the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education announced that a new building would be constructed to house the Preparatory Department of the Londonderry High School and it opened in 1964. When Londonderry High School closed in the 1970s, the girls joined the boys of Foyle College Preparatory Department at the Northland Road site in 1974 and the amalgamation was copper fastened in 1976 when under an Act of Parliament Foyle and Londonderry College emerged in 1976 and created the first co-educational grammar school in the city. However, none of this would be possible but for the efforts of the ‘Misses MacKillip’s’ which had begun almost a century before. All the five sisters, Mary, Margaret, Sara, Jane and Caroline were involved in the education of women in their lifetimes. The family hailed originally from Coleraine, but their father John was manager of the Belfast Bank in Derry. When she passed away aged 87 on October 22, 1936 the reports in the local papers revealed that although she had retired from teaching many years before, the pioneering educational work of Margaret MacKillip had not been forgotten. One report read: “It is with very deep regret, which will be shared not only by her many friends and former pupils but by the whole community, that we have today to record the passing of Margaret MacKillip, founder of the Londonderry High School and one to whom education in Ireland, and particularly in the North West, owes a great debt for a lifetime devoted to its interests. “Miss MacKillip, after bringing the Londonderry High School to the forefront of educational establishments in this country, retired some fourteen years ago, and for some years past had rarely been able to take part in any public activities. For the last few months she had been seriously ill, and the end was not unexpected. “A grateful host of former pupils who remember the loving personal interest she took in each one of them and have and how their whole lives were influenced by the ideals which she constantly set before them will mourn the death of Miss MacKillip, one to whom they remained thankful and loyal long after school days were over.” Margaret MacKillip was noted as a sound educationalist but moreover as an “administrator of outstanding ability that gained for the school such a distinguished place, but largely owing to the wonderful personality of the founder herself that such fine traditions grew up around the school.” Her obituary continued: “From the outset when it was housed in Queen Street and a few months later in Great James’ Street, the school has always been noted for the well-ordered lines on which it has been conducted.” And, in an era where discipline, especially for young people was demanded by society, it was also written: “Although firm, where the discipline of the establishment was concerned Miss MacKillip was very warm hearted, gentle and charitably disposed. “The welfare of the pupils at the school and in domestic life was always uppermost in her mind and she was more than a wise teacher to those under her charge-she was a good friend to them all.” It was these combined abilities that also let it be said: “Many loyal hearts throughout the world have been filled with gratitude at thoughts of Miss MacKillip, who taught them to love books not for what they would get from them but for their own worth. She planted in the minds of her pupils deep regard for the good and beautiful things of life.” Margaret MacKillip was also ahead of her time in encouraging the development of the social and sporting side of the school and urged pupils to meet outside of their curricular activities and participate in games when possible. Around the end of World War I the MacKillip’s belief in sporting pursuits for women was highly recognised when in a tribute to that aspect of female education, playing fields were donated in their honour. Those sports grounds at Duncreggan Road, now the property of Ulster University, are still there today. But, back then a group of former pupils of the MacKillip’s Victoria High School, led by the Mayoress of the city, Mrs J Gilbert Magee oversaw them being handed over to the school. One part of Margaret’s obituary also said: “The late Miss McKillip was of an extremely charitable disposition, and although she was not actively associated with any philanthropic work there were few deserving objects which she did support generously.” However, what was it that spurred this educational powerhouse on to create pathways into higher education for women? We know that Margaret MacKillip was educated at a ‘young ladies’ superior school in Coleraine’, in an era when there were no intermediate exams, no university open to women and no desire to provide higher education for females in this part of the world. After leaving school, she stayed at home for several years until, through a friend in Derry, she was recommended as a teacher in the Preparatory Department of the Londonderry Academical Institution (now Foyle College). Margaret had no previous training in teaching but showed a great deal of bravery in accepting a post and quickly became a great success in it. Upon the death of her father in 1877, Margaret’s mother and her sisters also came to Derry and she and three of her sisters, Jane, Mary and Sara founded the Ladies’ Collegiate College. The school’s first intake consisted of nine ‘day girls’ and the dedicated mission of the ‘Misses MacKillip’s’ was to teach the same subjects taught in the privileged boys’ schools of the time. The pupil numbers grew slowly at first, but after successes in the first batch of intermediate examinations in 1879, the school population increased quickly and as exhibitions, medals and awards began to flood in until in both 1890 and 1891 the school was named as the best girls’ school in Ireland and necessitated the shift to the larger premises at Crawford Square. The MacKillip’s mother poured all her money into the venture and the school became more and more notable for its educational achievements. In turn, these achievements attracted the attention of The Honorable The Irish Society and the Worshipful Drapers Company who both granted the school university scholarships in 1884. The case for the scholarships was bolstered by the fact that Margaret MacKillip did not put forward a claim for her own school but for education in general in the city and county of Derry. As it transpired Victoria High School attracted the largest share of university scholarships on offer at the time with many of its former pupils going on to distinguish themselves both in education and other professions. The Northern Ireland Education Act which came into force after partition, and long after Margaret and her sisters could have retired, offered no cover for proprietary schools, but held out the hope at last, that a publicly funded girls school was at last feasible. In fact, Margaret MacKillip in her later years spoke about her long-held desire to see such a school for established in Derry and said: “I had always cherished an ambition to see a public day-school for girls and had previously approached other heads of schools on the matter without effect. At this educational crisis I felt impelled, before retiring, to make a strong effort for the establishment of a girls’ public day-school, although how to accomplish it was an unsolved difficulty. “I knew about the English public day-school system, but its example was of no use to us, as the organisation included hundreds of schools. However, I thought if St Lurach’s School could be amalgamated with Victoria High School, and if we could obtain from The Honorable The Irish Society their continued help in scholarships or endowments for a new public school, we should have a good working basis to go on. “My sister and I went to London, and the Governor and the Deputy Governor of the Irish Society kindly granted us an interview. We stated our case, asking, should we succeed in persuading the other school to join us under a public committee, would the Society grant their support. “As I expected, the answer was that they could not promise a grant on a hypothetical basis, but they were sympathetic. “We returned to Derry to find that the only way to effect the amalgamation of the two schools was for us to undertake the risk of buying St Lurach’s, which was then in the market. We took the risk and bought it. Then came the question of the establishment of a public school. Fortunately, I got knowledge of one school in England whose constitution seemed to be what would suit our requirements. I put the case before Mr Wray, our solicitor. He worked out a scheme which met all our legal requirements. “A Board of Governors was essential, and I was instructed by Mr Wray to get one together. I did so and the new school was handed over to this Board of Governors in 1922 under the name of Londonderry High School. “It cost us a pang to part with name of Victoria High School, which had represented such good work for nearly half-a-century. But it was thought advisable.” It was the first proprietary school to become a public one after the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. When she passed away in 1936, Margaret MacKillip was survived by three of her sisters-Jane, Sara and Caroline MacKillip. The eldest sister, Mary MacKillip had died aged 89 at Victoria High School, which was also acted as sisters’ home, back in 1916. There was also a brother George MacKillip. Margaret was succeeded as headmistress of Londonderry High School by her sister Sara who died on May 23, 1941. The last remaining sister, Jane MacKillip passed away on March 12, 1947. In Margaret MacKillip’s obituary it was also stated: “She realised the ambition of her life-work, the higher education of girls, and the success of her labours is recognised and evident wherever her former pupils are to be found.” The family were closely associated with Great James’ Street Presbyterian Church and it appears that none of the five sisters were ever married, but they all lied buried together in the same plot at Derry City Cemetery.
CAPTION: An old image of Crawford Square in Derry where Victoria High School was located after occupying other nearby sites.
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