Lurgan Free School

Vol. 9 No. 3 - 2011

Lurgan Free School 1786-1793

by Florence Gracey

In European history the eighteenth century is generally regarded as the “Age of Enlightenment”. On a national level, W.G. Hoskins referred to the mid eighteenth century as the period “when the philanthropic impulse reached its height”.

North Street Lurgan
Blackstone dwellings at the top of North Street Lurgan where the Free School began in 1786

In Lurgan, The Free School was one such example of “educational philanthropy”. Writing in his doctrinal thesis, later published as ‘Lurgan: an Irish Provincial town 1610-1970’, Dr. F.X, McCorry stated that during the period 1750-1800 “Lurgan’s economic life was dominated by the manufacture of fine linens”.

This thriving economy attracted in-migration of considerable numbers of poorer people. As a result, the ancient lanes and alleyways became areas of inferior dwellings. In his analysis of house valuation 1782-1795 Dr. McCorry said “lowly rated houses comprised 50% of Lurgan’s housing stock”.

Free School founded

It was into this urban situation that William Brownlow and some of the town’s gentry set about establishing a school that would cater for the educational needs of children of the town’s poor inhabitants. Lurgan Free School was founded in 1786 “a public school in which the poor children of the Parish of Shankill shall be taught, gratis”. The foundation was the initiative of the landlord, Right Honorable William Brownlow; the money to be raised by annual subscription, together with the offering from an annual charity sermon to be preached in the Parish Church.

The aims of the school were clearly set out, “that the children shall be taught to read and instructed in the principles of the Christian religion by a master of good character and sufficient abilities”.

Trustees and Managers appointed

Four of the principal inhabitants of the Parish, together with the Rector, Curate and dissenting ministers, were appointed trustees and managers of the subscribed fund, which was to be used to pay for the education of the children, the school books and the Master’s salary. Any surplus money each year was “to be laid out in clothes for those children who are most in want of them”. A list of 48 subscribers together with the amount they undertook to pay annually was recorded.

The main subscribers were –
Right Hon. William Brownlow£9 - 2 - 0
Wm. Stinton (Rector of Parish Church)£9 - 2 - 0
Henry Gamble (Curate of Parish Church)  £1 - 2 - 9
James Christy£4 - 11 - 0
Wm. Magee (Presbyterian Minister)£1 - 2 - 9
Thomas Malcomson£1 - 2 - 9
Adam Cuppage£2 - 5 - 6
Richard Eustace£2 - 5 - 6
John Greer£2 - 5 - 6
Henry McVeagh 11 - 4
Doctor Law£1 - 2 - 9
John Cuppage – during residence£1 - 2 - 9
Captain Brownlow£2 - 5 - 6
Abraham Bell 11 - 4
Joshua Desvoeux 11 - 4

A sum of £68-10-5 was covenanted and Mr. Richard Eustace was appointed Secretary / Treasurer to the Trustees. At the first meeting of the subscribers, a committee was appointed to carry the school scheme into execution, and “to call immediately for one year’s subscription”. It was agreed the subscribers would hold a general meeting once every quarter.

The financial account of the special preachers to raise money from a charity sermon recorded –

  Sermon  Benefaction.
1783 Sept. 23
Rev. Henry Gamble, Curate  £40-10-5£23-16-7
1788 Sept. 14
Rev. Wm. Stinton, Rector£48-19-1£6-16-6
1789 Aug. 30
Bishop of Dromore, Dr. Thomas Percy  £55-12-4£10-0-5

At the first meeting of The Free School Committee, 24 August, 1786, it was agreed the 2 houses near the Church called ‘the old school house’ should be rented from Rt. Hon. William Brownlow at an annual rent of £3-8-3. Matthew Waring was appointed as School Master at an annual salary of 16 guineas, and John Mulholland was appointed assistant Master at an annual salary of 12 guineas. The following year, March 1787 a School Mistress, Sarah Maghon was appointed, and her annual salary was £6. By September 1791 the Trustees had increased Matthew Waring’s salary to 20 guineas, and John Mulholland’s salary to 15 guineas. In the minutes for the meeting of September 1791, it was recorded “Sarah Maghon’s salary, on account of her extraordinary trouble shall be paid £10”. Whatever the nature of her “trouble”, this reflected the philanthropic attitude of the Trustees to their employees.

In the first year of its existence, 1786, Lurgan Free School enrolled a total of 239 pupils – 142 boys and 97 girls. The break down in religion was 47% Church of Ireland, 45% Catholic and 8% Presbyterian. The absence of any Quakers from the Roll book suggested that The Society of Friends had established their own school. From 1April to 1October the school day began at 8a.m and continued to 6p.m, and 9a.m. to 3p.m the rest of the year. From the book of enrolment which is part of the Brownlow Documents, there was no long summer holiday. In fact enrolment took place every month of the calendar year, which must have proved difficult for the teachers, coping with a new intake of 15 – 19 pupils each month. Details of the first 4 pupils is shown below –

Date of Entrance: 1786 Sept. 11
Child’s NameParents Religion
John MitchelWm. & ElizC. of I.
Patrick Martin  Patrick & Hannah  R.C.
James LynasWm. & JaneR.C.
David SmartArchibald & Eliz.Presbyterian

All had their place of residence shown as Lurgan except James Lynas who lived in Ballyblough.

The roll included five orphans one of whom Eleanor Faloon died the year following enrolment, age 8 years. In 1794 Archibald Magill was listed as a foundling- a reminder of the grim social conditions that prevailed in the eighteenth century, when a stricken single parent felt there was no alternative but to leave the child at the door of a neighbour. The child was then handed over as a ward of the parish, which took responsibility for feeding, clothing and educating the child. In 1790 in the column for Parents’ names, is this comment regarding a brother and his sister –

“two children exposed by their mother in the market place, February 1790”.

The frequent inclusion of the phrase ‘left the parish’ is a reminder of the mobility of the urban poor of the period.

Of those who were enrolled 1786/87, 110 children out of a total of 239 representing 46%, had as their address the town of Lurgan. This included 7 children whose address was specifically named as Rose and Crown, a well known hostelry of the era, located approximately where the present Bank of Ireland stands. Such children may have been wards of the parish, or their parents had employment there. 7% came from Dougher; 5% from each of Stonewall (the wall of the Demesne) and from the townlands of Knocknashane and Toberhewny. Other townlands featured in the list of residences include Shankill, Teghnavin, Lisacurran, Cornakinnegar, Turmoyra Legacurry, Boconnel, Tannaghmore and Tullydegan. Titterington’s Lane, was likely the forerunner of Factory Lane since the Brownlow Lease book 1667-1711 showed Titterington’s Tenement extending across this area, and John Roque’s map 1760, detailed an extensive laneway in the location of what later became Malcolm Road.

The detailed accounts kept by Richard Eustace, Treasurer to the Free School Committee, provide a unique picture of some of the artisans of Lurgan, in the late eighteenth century, as indicated by this extract

Payee  Amount
Wm. Godfrey for deal for forms£1-5-3
Pat Taafe for making ditto 10-10
Thomas Bentley lime for the schoolhouse4-8
Archibald Smart for drawing sand 9-8
Adam Cuppage for bricks 5-10
Henry Gilbert for worsteds and needles7-2
Mary Biggam for woollen yarn 7-7
James Murphy for turf 11-8
John Abram for turf 7-11

The last two men were probably residents of the Montiaghs, where the surname was common, and the Red Bog there, was a source of fuel for the area.

Despite its name, the school was not entirely free to every pupil, as the income from subscribers also contained this entry –

“money paid by children at a penny per week”.

The poorest children were given clothing recorded for September 1786. The list provides a picture of children’s dress of the period.

Patrick M. A shirt and green jacket.
James L.Leather breeches.
John M.Pumps and yarn stockings, brown coat and waistcoat, corduroy breeches.
Roger M. A coat, pumps and stockings
Robert D.A green stuff jacket (stuff in this instance usually referred to woollen), Fustian (twilled cotton fabric) waistcoat, breeches, a blue frieze (rough heavy woollen cloth) jacket and trousers.

Clothing given to the female pupils included, stuff gowns, drugget (woven and felted, coarse woollen fabric) jackets, shifts, drugget petticoats, pumps and stockings. The insertion of ‘new’ in brackets implied that some children received second hand clothing.

Once the School was well established the Committee of Lurgan Subscribers turned its attention to the general welfare of the townspeople, and resolved at the end of the eighteenth century to sell at a reduced rate-

“cheap oat meal to such families that consist of 4 persons or more, one stone of meal; 2 or 3 persons to get half a stone, and a single person to get quarter of a stone."

The Parish Rector signed the minutes of the meeting. The names of persons considered needy, thus qualified to purchase meal at a reduced rate was appended, including one simply listed as “Blind Tommy of Ballyblough”.

North Street National School
North Street National School (photo courtesy of Laurence Menary)

The Free School started its life in the two black stone buildings still standing at the top of North Street; in 1786 the street was known as the Back Lane since it represented the back entrance to the Brownlow demesne, and was then on the edge of the town. Its opening was of great significance, since this represented the first move into organized education in Lurgan. In 1812 the school moved to new premises in North Street, and became eventually North Street National School. As the accompanying photograph shows these premises were derelict by the 1930s.

Note. The later history of the Free School appeared in Review Vol. 4, No.3 “19th Century Schools in Lurgan” by Ian Wilson.

Acknowledgement. I wish to acknowledge the help of Dr. Brian Trainor, who identified the Lurgan Free School Books, as unique documents in the history of Free Schools in Ireland.


  • Lurgan Free School. D1928. P.R.O.N.I.
  • The Making of the English Landscape. W.G. Hoskins.
  • Lurgan: An Irish Provincial Town, 1610-1970. Francis X. McCorry.
  • Survey of County Armagh, John Roque. 1760.