Corlett, (Ada) Barbara (d.1891), pioneer of women's education, was the daughter of Henry Corlett, coach-spring manufacturer in Dublin, who may have been originally from the Isle of Man. He patented a coach spring in 1867, and retired in 1871. Nothing is known of her early life or education. On 19 August 1861 a committee of middle- and upper-class Irish women, with assistance from a number of businessmen, established a Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and proceeded, with total resources of thirteen shillings and fourpence, to set up in Grafton St., Dublin, an employment registry for women, to help respectable women find means of supporting themselves. The main promoters of this pioneering effort were Anne Jellicoe (qv) and Barbara Corlett; as expected, it highlighted the urgent need to provide training for women, and on a suggestion from Henry Walker Todd, the committee moved quickly to establish classes in business skills such as book-keeping. An appeal for funds, and a loan from Jellicoe, enabled them in 1863 to buy bigger premises at 25 Molesworth St. for the Queen's Institute for the Training and Employment of Educated Women, so called because Queen Victoria agreed to be its patron. In 1865 the name changed to ‘the Queen's Institute of Technical Schools’, reflecting the expansion in its facilities and courses; it was the first technical college for women in the UK, and is said to have been the model for similar institutions in Vienna, Austria, and probably elsewhere.
The committee and the staff were alike idealistic and ambitious, but the greatest difficulty facing them was the unwillingness of middle-class women to risk losing the status of gentility by working for their livings. As a result, particularly at first, most of the women and girls preferred to learn painting and allied decorative arts, which could pass muster as genteel accomplishments. The Institute held annual exhibitions of the pupils' work for a number of years, and the ceramic painting in particular was highly commended by distinguished visitors. Nobility and even royalty supported the Institute by buying the china, and collectors still prize the Belleek and Royal Worcester porcelain designed or painted by the Dublin women from 1870 on, under the guidance of a very talented English painter, Herbert Cooper (d. 1916), and with the support of an energetic entrepreneur, W. H. Kerr Corlett, officially the secretary of the Institute, seems to have taken control of it completely after Jellicoe left in 1866 to found Alexandra College. She must be credited with at least some of the Institute's successes and thus with unprecedented improvements in women's opportunities. Presumably as a result of determined lobbying, as early as 1861 the RDS agreed to allow women to use their library and to sit their examinations for commercial certificates just as men did, and in 1870 the civil service accepted women as telegraph operators, the first time any such official post had been open to females. The Queen's Institute was officially charged with training Irish women for the new opportunities, and in time 288 former students took up jobs in the Post Office. Of the first 1,786 pupils, 862 secured employment as clerks, telegraph operators, and textile designers and in other crafts and professions. On at least two occasions, when delegations of local politicians, noblemen, and philanthropists waited on the lord lieutenant of the day to lobby for funding to further the Institute's educational aims, Corlett went with them. She was one of the handful of women who addressed the meeting of the Social Science Association in Dublin in October 1881, speaking about the Institute's twenty successful years and its 6,220 pupils.
By that date, however, things were going badly wrong; perhaps it is significant that Corlett's speech emphasised her own contribution by ignoring Jellicoe's founding role, and some of her remarks suggest that she was in danger of losing touch with the realities of the situation. Efforts to increase income by developing a girls' school and putting pupils in for as many examinations as possible, to qualify for government grants, suggest a loss of focus and financial difficulties in the establishment, while an economic depression in 1881 increased the numbers wishing to attend and decreased charitable donations. A desperate appeal for funds in October 1881 was fruitless; a committee was set up to inquire into the Institute's finances, and on 14 February 1883 reported serious shortcomings of organisation and even of financial propriety. Accounts and minutes had not been kept, and about £1,500, identified as a Building Fund, could not be traced. The secretary and trustees were urged to explain the state of affairs; by 4 August 1883 these had become still more inexplicable, when the courts heard a petition to wind up the whole Institute. It appeared at the hearing that Miss Corlett had somehow become the only trustee of a fund of £1,000 originally provided by Lady Monteagle for educational and philanthropic purposes. Corlett wanted to use this to set against the Institute's debts, but this was opposed by Lord Monteagle's counsel; it also transpired that the move to wind up the business had been precipitated by serious and bitter disagreements between Corlett and Herbert Cooper.
Corlett's mental state deteriorated and she was in an asylum from February 1887. She died at the end of 1891. The building and its equipment was sold to pay debts; 25 Molesworth St. was taken over by Buswell's Hotel, and most histories of Irish education more or less ignore the twenty-year existence of the Queen's Institute. Corlett has been criticised for her excessive emphasis on gentility as well as for her self-aggrandisement and deficiencies in book-keeping; to balance this, perhaps she should be given some credit for the enthusiasm and drive that helped give several thousand women and girls a new confidence and new abilities and opportunities.