Big thank you from

IN LISBURN, 1901-1920

Lisburn Technical School, c. 1920. (Photograph courtesy of	(Lisburn Historical Society).
Lisburn Technical School, c. 1920. (Photograph courtesy of (Lisburn Historical Society).

Technical education developed in Ireland during the first two decades of the present century. In some parts of the country in those pre-Partition days, this development happened at a very fast rate indeed. This was to be particularly the case during the period from 1910 to 19211.

Though it would be wrong to suggest that there had been no attempts to introduce technical schooling in earlier years, `technical education was a thing of slow and uncertain development until the twentieth century,1 as one commentator has aptly put it. The first major step in its growth was taken with the passing of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, which provided for the creation of local councils throughout Ireland. This Act empowered these newly-created county and borough councils to levy a rate, initially of a penny in the pound, to provide movies for technical instruction 2

The next step came in 1899, with the passing of the Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act. This marked the start of the technical education system in Ireland, for the Act established the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction. Horace Plunkett, who had played a major part in the Co-operative movement and in the establishment of the Irish Agricultural Organization Society in 1894, was appointed Vice-President of the Department.3

Besides providing for the raising of a local rate for education, the control of this educational sector was placed in the hands of a combination of local and national civil authorities. Contrary to all precedents in Ireland, therefore, technical schools were to be lay-controlled and non-denominational.4 At a local level, control consisted of statutory committees set up by the councils of county boroughs, urban districts and counties. Although there was to be an element of ecclesiastical suspicion of this separate lay structure, technical schools were in the main left to develop their own futures.

The initial success of the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction [hereafter referred to simply as the Department] must largely he credited to its two key figures, Vice-President Plunkett, who received a knighthood in 1903, and T. P. Gill, its Secretary. Together, these two represented the driving force of the system. In theory, the Chief Secretary for Ireland was head of the Department, but as he was often busy with other tasks, Plunkett and Gill effectively ran the organization. Their complimentary relationship has been described as tine in which 'Plunkett set policy and performed high level negotiations, where Gill ruled the day-to-day administration.'5

As regards the Lisburn school, it was Gill who was to play the major part, as he retained the Secretaryship until the partition of Ireland, while Plunkett left the Vice-Presidency in 1907.

Opening Session 1914-1915  
Cecil Webb, first Principal of Lisburn Tech., c. 1935. (Photograph courtesy of Dr. Hugh Webb).  Opening Session

Classes in the technical schools were designed to be mainly related to the needs of the local community. Courses tended to have a vocational or technical bias and included different branches of science, art and technology. In rural areas, there were also manual instruction and domestic economy. This distinction between the more theoretical `technical instruction' and the more practical `manual instruction' was one which had been firmly established as far back as 1889, with the Technical Instruction Act. Although significant in the concepts which it had proposed, this Act lacked the organizational structure and back-up which would have enabled its ideas to become widely adopted." It is important to add that the Government not only made organizational provision with the 1899 Act already mentioned but also made available- on top of the local rate- an annual sum of £55,000, `to assist in the establishing of a system of Technical Instruction.'

Though the Act came into existence in 1899, it was 1901 before the Department took up its duties.8 As stated above, the Department operated via local committees. There was, however, another tier between these two-the Board of Technical Instruction-which consisted of twenty-three members, whose function was to advise the Department on all relevant matters submitted to it by the committee. An important and influential member of this Board was Frank Barbour, of the well-known Lisburn family of textile manufacturers.

The notion that Lisburn should have a technical school was first mooted in 1901. The suggestion was contained in a letter from Barbour to Gill, written from the Ulster Club, Belfast, on l l February. The correspondence reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Gill,

On my return from the meeting of the Technical Board last Wednesday I wrote to the Chairman of the Lisburn Urban Council suggesting that they should take some steps to avail themselves of the provisions of the Act for Technical Education and he has asked me to attend their next council meeting and point out what advantages they can derive so I would feel much obliged if you can give me information as to what the other towns of the same population as Lisburn are doing and what are the leading features of Technical Education specially interesting to such towns. Lisburn is essentially a manufacturing town, there are four large flax spinning mills, several small weaving factories, hemstitching works, etc. I believe (sic) myself that cooking class and home industries, sewing and such domestic education would be very valuable in the houses of the work people for the women, and instruction in building, mechanics, spinning, weaving and commercial book keeping, drawing etc., for the young men. If you would arrange to send down one of your organizers to explain the work that should be undertaken a good meeting could be arrange (sic) to hear him.

Yours sincerely
Frank Barbour.9

Over a year later, Mr. Dixon from the Department reported that he had attended a meeting of Lisburn Urban District Council on 25 September 1902 and stated `they have done nothing at all up to the present, but they seemed in a reasonable frame of mind and will probably make some move now.'10
If this last assumption meant that he felt that the Town Council were now about to initiate a scheme of technical education, he was very wrong in his assessment. His remark about the Council having `done nothing at all up to the present' tends to suggest that the Department had presumed that Lisburn would have made a move on the issue by that date. The Council had most of the relevant information, after all, as Gill had replied to Frank Barbour on 16 February 1901, stating that the maximum grant for the Lisburn school would be £600 initially, for materials and equipment. Gill further suggested that the Council might strike a rate of a penny in the pound, to supplement this sum.11

After Dixon's meeting with the Council in September 1902, there were to follow years of correspondence between Council and Department. In the main, this consisted of the former asking if the latter would subsidize Lisburn pupils' train fares, in order that they might attend technical studies classes in Belfast.12 Proximity to Belfast - always an advantage for Lisburn from an industrial point of view was now militating against the town's motivation to develop its own technical education scheme.
This attitude was in sharp contrast to Ballymena, where the Council had sent a deputation to Scotland, on a fact-finding mission. When the group returned favourably impressed, the decision was taken in October 1900 to press ahead and implement a scheme. Ballymena Technical School opened on 18 November 1901, with Mr. P. F. Gillies as its first Principal. It was thus one of the first towns in Ireland to adopt the 1899 Act.13

Lisburn Urban District Council did not again address the question of developing its own scheme until October 1912. On the fourth of that month, the Town Clerk, Mr. T. M. Wilson, wrote to Gill, asking for copies of schemes for other towns. 14 Interestingly and true to the notion of local development Gill replied that he would prefer to send the Inspector for the Ulster District to meet a committee appointed to draw up a scheme for the area. This committee was to have thirteen members and could include non-Councillors with specialist educational knowledge. The number of these specialists, however, had to be exceeded by the number of Councillors by at least one. 15 
There is no record of response to Gill's suggestion until 5 April 1913, when Mr. Robert Bannister, a member of the Council, wrote to Gill, asking questions about how to obtain the £600, whether the town had to supply the building and fit it out, the minimum number of schemes and what the penny in the pound would he used for.16 Gill's reply, nine days later, indicated that the penny in the pound might be used towards the renting of a suitable building and drew Bannister's attention to the fact that Banbridge, Carrickfergus, Lurgan and Portadown 17 -all with smaller populations than Lisburn -had by now developed Technical Schools.

The implication of this latter point was obviously not lost on the Council, for some eight months later, they decided to act! On 3 November 1913, after a special committee of the Council had met the Principal of Belfast Technical Institute, Mr. Forth, a newspaper report of the following day stated that 'a long discussion took place relative to the question of adopting the Technical Education Act, as a result of which, they unanimously recommended the council to adopt the Act.' The recommendation was accepted and passed unanimously and a statement of intention made with regard to obtaining a property in Castle Street, known as Castle House, by paying rent for a term of years.18 Just under a month later, this special committee offered to rent Castle House at £60 per year for two years, with the option of purchasing the building at the end of the agreed period for £1,500.19

In the eyes of the Department, however, the committee were moving too quickly, as they had not been properly constituted under the conditions of Section 14.1 of the 1899 Act. 20 By March 1914, the situation had been resolved and the first meeting of the Technical Education Committee was held in Lisburn Town hall 21

The suggested scheme for Lisburn, as outlined by Dr. Garrett, the Inspector from the Department 'comprised domestic, commercial, engineering and building classes; also linen weaving and spinning.22 It was also decided at this first meeting that a Principal be appointed, at an annual salary of £250. 23 An advertisement for the position was duly placed in the press.
Out of a total of fifty applicants, the committee eventually decided on Cecil Webb, a remarkable man by any standards. A more appropriate phrase might be `a remarkable young man', for he was only thirty-five years old and had by then been Principal of Clonmel Technical School, Co. Tipperary for nine years. 25 Born in Tortworth, Falfield, Gloucestershire, where his father had been gamekeeper to the Earl of Ducie, his early training had been in crafts. During his teens, he had gone to Sweden, to further his training in bookbinding, woodcarving, furniture making, metalwork and engraving. In 1902, he came to Ireland to teach technical subjects in Kilkenny, and three years later, moved to Clonmel.
A keen motorcyclist, he brought his motor bike with him to Ireland, where it was regarded as a threat rather than a novelty by the populace of Tipperary. According to his grandson, he was actually denounced from local pulpits for introducing what many regarded as a satanic contraption. Local people stretched a rope across the road to ensnare him and a local cleric, on one occasion, turned his horsewhip on him, presumably to drive out the devil from man and machine!
Webb, in fact, retained his passionate interest in motor bikes and their engines and in 1918, designed and built an engine which his grandson has a model of, together with the patents. For those of a technical beat, this was a three cylinder two stroke engine, employing double diameter pistons, to provide pressurized charging of the cylinders. 21

Webb took up his position as School Principal and Committee Secretary on 1 July 1914 and in no time, was making up for the endless years of debate and prevarication since the school idea had first been mooted, thirteen years before. By October 1914, he had had a telephone installed27 in Castle House, 28 the purchase of which was finalized by the following January, for £2000 29
The school was formally opened by J. Milne Barbour D. L. on 6 November 1914. Gill was among the guests at the ceremony. In his congratulations to the town on `coming into line with other towns in the matter of providing technical instruction,' 30 he left no doubt as to where he felt the blame lay, regarding Lisburn's lateness in adopting a scheme. 'Lisburn, it must be admitted, took some time to make up its mind. Belfast with its great advantages close beside it was perhaps a temptation not easy to resist-a temptation against undertaking, the responsibility of a scheme of its own. We have long regretted this reluctance in the Department.31

Despite this formal opening ceremony, evening classes had already begun on 19 October, with subjects ranging from domestic economy to an introductory course on damask weaving. 32 These courses had been developed on the advice of the Department's Northern Inspector and were in operation during the school's first year. However, early in 1915, Webb began to develop his own curriculum, as a response to the community's needs. His first idea was for the creation of a day Commercial School,33 a scheme which was already in existence elsewhere in the country. This was intended for pupils who had reached the seventh standard of the National School, or were fifteen years of age 34 The scheme was duly submitted, with the committee's agreement35 However, shortly afterwards, Webb decided to postpone it for the time being, because of the school's financial situation, namely its overdraft .36 Nevertheless, by the end of 1915, Thomas Dunne had been appointed temporary Commercial Instructor for the 1916-17 session, at a salary of £12 per month, for ten months. 37

This may perhaps have been a trial scheme, for some six months later, Webb was of the opinion that the day Commercial School was not a viable financial undertaking and was not inclined to recommend a permanent appointment 38 Nonetheless, by the following year, Dunne's position, and that of the scheme had become permanent, judging from the fact that he was now paid an annual sum of £156 and was included in the school's salary list 39

Webb's proposal for curricular innovation in the field of motor engineering also met with the problem of lack of finance. His plan, in fact, was to create a Motor Engineering School in Lisburn. 40 He took most of his ideas for this from a scheme at Pembroke Technical School, Ringsend, outside Dublin..41 He made no secret of his desire to borrow the concept, going so far as to include with his letter to the Department, a copy of the Pembroke syllabus for this particular subject.42 Pembroke Technical School was probably an excellent source from which to borrow, as it had been established some seven years before the 1899 Act, and thus had probably more experience than most in the technical field.4

The Department, however, initially refused to sanction the scheme. Webb's disappointment at this and the depth of his feelings about the idea can be seen in a letter he wrote to the Department. `The keen competition which will follow the War makes it imperative that the school shall render the utmost assistance to the young people of the town, and to the industries that are cantered in and around it.44 Lisburn, in fact, eventually did develop a Motor Engineering School, in 1917. Under its auspices, half the apprentices in Ireland who had obtained scholarships in motor engineering under the Department's scheme, were to receive their training in Lisburn, and the other half at Ringsend.45
Lisburn's syllabus for its Motor Engineering School, as it eventually evolved, consisted of a mixed balance of both theoretical and practical measures.46 Such was its impact and success that it was chosen for particular commendation in the Interim Report of the Lynn Committee on the educational services in Northern Ireland, in 1922.47 

As regards training for Lisburn's thriving textile industry, local textile employers were generous in their donations of machinery and money to purchase the same. Various members of the Barbour family were particularly prominent in this respect. Typical examples of this benefaction were a gift of £50 from Milne Barbour ,48 a donation of £25 from each of the Barbour brothers, J. Milne, Harold and Frank,49 and the equipping of two new classrooms by Mrs. Harold Barbour. The Lambeg Weaving company50 donated a power loom and yarn. There were also occasional smaller gifts from other sources, such as £5 from the Lisburn Weaving Company, for `the encouragement of proficiency in textile work 51

Webb was undoubtedly profoundly grateful for such generosity, which went a considerable way towards enabling the school to offer a variety of training in this particular field. Webb's debt to his Lisburn benefactors was not simply a material one, however, for Milne Barbour actually appears to have had a considerable input into the curriculum for textile training. An example of this is the latter's suggestion that the course should include a wide variety of processes such as preparing and spinning flax, bleaching and dyeing, plain and damask weaving, and marketing the products. He also suggested training in subsidiary skilled trades such as mechanical and electrical engineering and millwrighting. 52

It is interesting to note how the committee tackled the problems which bedeviled vocational training. In the early days before day release (as the Interim Report of the Lynn Committee noted), there were difficulties in attempting to establish 'a system of Voluntary Day Continuation classes for apprentices.'53 The only alternative to this method of obtaining additional - and valuable- training was for apprentices to attend evening classes, very often after long hours of hard physical labour. Webb suggested that employers should give apprentices time off `equal to one half of that which was spent in school. '54 The response to this was that both Milne Barbour and E. S. Clarke of the Island Spinning Company agreed to release apprentices at four o'clock on the day of classes. 55 This displayed considerable enlightenment in an age when such concessions were not readily made - or the general rule. Indeed, Clarke 'strongly condemned a system which required a growing boy to work from 6 a.m. until leaving off time at 5.30 p.m. and that he should then attend a Technical School until a late hour. ,56
Education in Lisburn Tech., however, was not always concerned with such weighty issues. Research on the history of the school reveals glimpses of the idiosyncratic element which has always been part of this particular sector of education. It is one thing to run a series of classes for allotment holders 57 but another to respond to a request for classes relating to the grocery trade by organizing a lantern lecture on `Bacon and Hams!'58

It is worth remembering that the school's important and formative years were those of wartime, which event was inevitably reflected in the life of the institution at times. In November 1914, the Committee offered the use of fourteen rooms in the school wing to the Belgian Relief Committee, to house refugees. 59 The offer, however, was not taken up. The following year, the committee considered the desirability of using the school workshops to manufacture hand grenades or other war material.60 Webb had, in fact, prepared machines to turn out such weapons. When it became obvious, however, that orders for munitions were not to be forthcoming, no further plans for war work were mooted.61 As the war drew to a close, Webb. ever enquiring, went to Co. Tipperary to see `exactly what is being done in the matter of training disabled and discharged soldiers.'62

1920 was a significant milestone in the history of technical education in Northern Ireland for, in that year, responsibility for it was transferred to the new government which had been established under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.63 Closer to home, the year was also momentous in the history of Lisburn and of the school itself, for, on 22 August, District Inspector O. R. Swanzy of the Royal Irish Constabulary was shot dead some three hundred yards from the Tech., as he left church 64
This unhappy event was just one incident in a series of sectarian murders which had flared up in Belfast from 21 July, as the tensions of the Anglo-Irish war in the south swept over Ulster. Swanzy, recently transferred from Cork, had been held responsible by the I.R.A. for the death of Cork's Lord Mayor, Thomas MacCurtain. After his murder, Lisburn was engulfed in riots and Roman Catholic homes were burnt. All told, the period from June to September 1920 saw twenty-two civilians killed in Belfast, with riots there and in Lisburn, Banbridge, Dromore, Ballymena and Bangor. 
The school, understandably, did not escape this strife and tension. In April 1927, Webb reported m the committee that `owing to the losses resulting to the school from the disturbed condition of the town following upon the Swanzy murder,' he thought it would be two of three years before they would be in so favorable a financial position again 65 The school, of course, did recover, as did the town. The backlash of the murder, however, emphasized how strongly outside events could influence the school and detract from the aims of the technical education movement, where `all classes and creeds are equally interested in and benefited by this work.'

Webb retired in 1941 after a period of twenty-seven years, during which his enthusiasm and energy helped place the school in the forefront of educational life in Lisburn. Principals since his retirement have been Dr. R. C. Fox, Mr. J. Waring (Webb's prize pupil), Mr. D. Wright and M. J. H. McDowell (current Head). Today, the `Tech.',-now called Lisburn College of Further Education-has some five thousand students studying subjects ranging from computer studies to tracing one's family tree. The College uses the most advanced computer and robotic technology - a fitting tribute to Webb and his passion for things mechanical, one might say! As befits the emphasis on education for all, the College is also engaged in the Open College/Open Learning programme. Truly, L.C.F.E can be said to be a vital and important asset to Lisburn and its community-a fact which has not altered since its opening, almost three quarters of a century ago.


1. J. Leith, `Facets of Irish Education Prior to 1921, with some reference to Schools in Mid-Antrim,' Mid Antrim Journal, 1983, p. 77.
2. J. Coolahan, Irish Education, 1981, p. 87.
3.   Ibid.
4.   D. H. Akenson, Education and Enmity, 1973, p. 16.
5. D. H. Akenson, A Mirror to Kathleen's Face. 1975, p. 17.
6. T. J. Durcan, History of lrish Education from 1800, p. 128.
7.  Interim Report of the Departmental Committee on the Education Services in Northern Ireland, Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland, 1922, par,, 59
8.   Leith, 1983, loc. cit.
9. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4107.
10. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4107. Report of a meeting of Lisburn Urban District Council, 25 February 1902.
11. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4107. T. P. Gill to Frank Barbour, 16 February 1901.
12. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4108.
13. Leith, 1983, loc. sit., p. 79.
14. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, T. M. Wilson to T. P. Gill, 4 October 1912.
15. P.R.O.N.I.,   ED 4109, T. P. Gill to T. M. Wilson, 12 October 1912.
16. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, R. Bannister to T. P. Gill, 5 April 1913.
17. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, T. P. Gill to R. Bannister, 14 April 1913.
18. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, (Belfast News-Letter, 4 November 1913).
19. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, (Northern Whig, 2 December 1913).
20. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 3 December 1973. Marginal vote by Mr. O'Connor, D.A.T.I, beside cutting from Northern Whig, 2 December 1913.
21. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4709, (Belfast News-Letter, 12 March 1914).
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, (Irish Times, 23 March 1914).
25. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109. Summary of experience and qualifications of applicants for Principal's post, Lisburn Technical School.
26. Conversation between the author and Hugh Webb, June 1986.
27. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 9 November 1914. Minutes of meeting of Technical Instruction Committee for Lisburn.
28. This mansion house was built m the nineteenth century as the residence of Sir Richard Wallace, son of the Marquis of Hertford and sometime M. P. for Lisburn. The facade is close in design to that of Hertford House. London, home of the Wallace Collection.
29. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 11 January 1915. Minutes of meeting of Technical Instruction Committee for Lisburn
30. Lisburn College of Further Education (L.C.F.E.). Collection of newspaper cuttings. Lisburn Standard, 10 November 1914.
21. L.C.F.E. Collection of newspaper cuttings, Lisburn Standard, 18 November 1914   
32. L.C.F.E. Collection of newspaper cuttings and memorabilia, poster advertising tees and courses. 19 October 1914.
33. The term 'school' here would nowadays mean department'.
34. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 7 February 1916, Principal's comments in Minutes of Technical Instruction Committee.
35. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 25 May 1916. Letter from Cecil Webb to the Secretary of D.A.T.I., submitting plans for Commercial Day School.
36. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 7 June 1916. Minutes of Technical Instruction Committee for Lisburn.
37. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4198A, 31 August 1916. Minutes of Technical Instruction Committee far Lisburn.
38. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 3 May 1917. Minutes of Technical Instruction Committee for Lisburn.
39. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4110, 13 June 1917. Annual submission of Technical Instruction Scheme for Lisburn Technical School to D.A.T.1., for the period I August 1918-31 July 1919.
40. As in note 33, `school' here would nowadays in,,, 'department.'
41. P.R.O.N.I ED 4109A, 21 June 1916. Letter of submission to D.A.T.I. from C. Webb.
42. Ibid.
43. Coolahan, op. cit., p. 86.
44. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4198A, 9 August 7916. Letter from C. Webb to Secretary of D.A.T.I.
45. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 6 September 1917. Letter from T. P. Gill to Cecil Webb.
46. P R.O.N.I., ED 4700, 7 January 1918. A copy of the syllabus of the Motor Engineering School within Lisburn  Technical School, sent to D.A.T.I.   
47. Interim Report of the Departmental Committee on the Educational Services in Northern Ireland, Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland, 1922, par,. 71.
48. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 4 October 1915. Donation from J. Milne Barbour to Cecil Webb.
49. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 31 August 1916. Donation noted in Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
50. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4110, 5 February 1918. Donation noted in Minute% of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
51. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4119, 12 March 1919. Donation enclosed with a letter from the manager of Lisburn Weaving Company.
52. P.R.O.N.I ED 4109A, 5 April 1917, Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn
53. Interim Report of the Departmental Committee on the Educational Service., in Northern Ireland, Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland, 1922, para 70.
54. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 17 June 1917. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
55. Ibid.
56. Ibid.
57. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4110. 12 June 1918. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
58. Ibid.
59. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 19 November 1914. Letter from Cecil Webb to D.A.T.I., relaying decision taken on 9 November 1914.
60. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, I November 1915. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
61. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109, 3 January 1915. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
62. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 7 June 1917. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
63. Coolahan, op. cit., p. 92
64. P. Buckled, Irish Unionism 2: Ulster Unionism And the Origins of Northern Ireland 1886 to 1922, 1973, p. 122.
65. P.R.O.N.I., HD 4110, 25 April 1921. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.
66. P.R.O.N.I., ED 4109A, 3 May 1917. Minutes of Committee of Technical Instruction for Lisburn.

Alister McReynolds is currently Acting Head of the General Studies Department in Lisburn College of Further Education. At present, he is completing a Master's degree in Education at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. one of the main themes of which is the history of education in Northern Ireland.