Byers, Margaret (1832–1912), educationist, suffragist, and philanthropist, was born 15 April 1832 in Windsor Hill, Rathfriland, Co. Down, fourth child and only daughter of Andrew Morrow , farmer and mill operator, and Margaret Morrow (née Herron). After the death (c.1840) of her father, a presbyterian elder and temperance pioneer, she was reared by paternal uncles in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Educated at the Ladies College, Nottingham, where she also taught for a year, she was deeply influenced by the school's headmistress, a Mrs Treffry, who instilled in her the belief that ‘Women can do anything under God’ (Jordan, 1). She returned to Ulster and married (February 1852) the Rev. John Byers of Tullyallen, Co. Armagh, who was then commissioned by the American Presbyterian Church to take up a missionary post in China. They subsequently spent a short period in Princeton, New Jersey, USA (where she was greatly impressed by the similarity of education offered to American boys and girls under the high-school system), before moving to Shanghai, where her husband soon became dangerously ill. During this critical time her only child, John (qv), was born. She subsequently organised their return home; however, her husband died during the journey in 1853. On reestablishing herself in Ireland, she refused her missionary widow's pension and briefly considered accepting work as a missionary herself in Agra, before taking up a teaching post at the Ladies' Collegiate School in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone (1854). Her five years there were not particularly happy, and in 1859, with the backing of several influential Belfast presbyterian clergymen, notably John Edgar (qv) and William Johnston (qv), she opened her own educational establishment in Wellington Place, Belfast. The Ladies' Collegiate School (known from 1887 as Victoria College) started with thirty-five pupils, and under her direction soon gained a reputation for educational excellence. It expanded rapidly, and after several changes in location, finally settled into a purpose-built school in Lower Crescent, Belfast.
Byers's primary aim as a headmistress was to improve radically the academic standards of education offered to girls, and in doing so afford them ‘the same opportunities for sound scholarship that was [sic] given to their brothers in the best boys' schools’ (Breathnach, 56). To achieve this she was initially forced to employ masters, but later found herself able to take on a predominantly female staff, many of whom were her former students. Anxious that women should have access to higher education – after Cambridge University turned down her application to open a centre for holding examinations at her school, on the grounds that the distance was too great – in 1869 she successfully petitioned the Queen's University in Ireland to allow her pupils to take their examinations. She encouraged her brighter students to sit the exams, and they showed themselves well prepared: in 1877 alone, thirty-one Ladies' Collegiate candidates earned certificates from the QUI. She condemned the exclusion of female students from the 1878 intermediate education bill; and, having quickly mobilised support, travelled to London with a deputation that included her colleague and friend Isabella Tod (qv), to lobby the lord chancellor, Lord Cairns (qv), who received an impressive list detailing the achievements attained by girls in QUI exams. Their efforts proved successful, and females were finally included in the act's benefits. After women were given access to both scholarships and degrees from the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons and the RUI, she opened her own distinct collegiate department within the school (1881). This too was successful and by 1888 the department had educated twelve arts graduates. Women were subsequently admitted to study at the universities, after which the numbers in her department dwindled. She was consistently critical of this trend, maintaining that mixed education was detrimental to women.
An active philanthropist, she was an influential figure in numerous charitable concerns within Belfast. Having become involved in the temperance movement through her work as a superintendent with the Ladies' Temperance Union, she went on to become a foundation secretary of the Belfast Women's Temperance Association and Christian Workers' Union (1874), serving as its president from 1895. Having supported the formation of other branches of the Association throughout Ulster, she was elected president of the newly established Irish Women's Temperance Union in 1894. She was also closely involved with the work of the Prison-gate Mission for Women from its inception in 1876; the Victoria Homes for Destitute Girls; and the English-based organisation, the Missionary Settlement for University Women, of which she was a vice-president. Victoria College pupils were always encouraged to assist the poor, and often raised funds for her favourite charities. An advocate of unionism and British imperialism, she was a supporter of the Women's Liberal Unionist Association. She also played a prominent part in the campaign for women's suffrage, and was a committee member of the National Society for Women's Suffrage. A regular speaker at public meetings in Belfast, she produced several articles on women's education, industrial schools in Ireland, and temperance. President of the Ulster Schoolmistresses Association from 1903, she received an honorary LLD from the University of Dublin in 1905, and in 1908 was appointed to the senate of the newly established QUB. Her son John, a leading Belfast physician and antiquarian, was knighted in 1906. Poor health in later years forced her to retire from her active duties. She died 21 February 1912 at her home in Victoria College and is buried in Belfast city cemetery.