Originally Banbridge was little more than a bridge over the River Bann and Loughbrickland and Dromore were of much greater commercial importance. Prior to 1712, it was known as Ballyvally but the erection of a new stone bridge in that year, gave rise to a new name and Banbridge was born. Its foremost function was as a bridging point on the River Bann for the road between Belfast and Dublin but its founding also coincided with the growth of the linen industry. Water driven beetling equipment was in use in Ulster as early as 1725 and a bleaching works was built at Ballydown in 1740. In 1767, the Marquis of Downshire obtained a patent to hold fairs and markets in Banbridge and, to foster trade, he built a market house and had the town laid out in very spacious lines. With the greater prosperity that this brought, there was a demand for an increase in culture and learning and to meet this need, Banbridge Academy was established in 1786 by Mr James Withers.
The school was originally a private business, entirely self-supporting and not tied to any religious denomination. Housed in a small, terraced house in Library Lane, beside the railway line, such small accommodation did not prevent pupil numbers from rising to 72 by 1837. An early report on education in Seapatrick Parish notes that the income from pupils was £150 and the rent for the building used to house the school was £18 per annum. Somewhat surprisingly for the period, the Academy was a ‘mixed’ school in the sense that boys and girls were educated together. Even in the 1800s the Academy was not behind in promoting progressive educational thinking.
By 1878 there were 102 pupils on the roll of the school and the decision was made to move from Library Lane to rented accommodation in the basement of the new Temperance Hall. The Library Lane premises now served as dormitories for boarders. At this time the principal, the Rev. H. J. Cooke, a gold medallist from Trinity, established the ethos of the quest for academic excellence. Pupils were now distinguishing themselves at Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s College Belfast and The Royal University of Ireland.
As Britain neared the zenith of Victorian greatness in the 1880s, the retrogressive step of segregating girls from boys had begun in the Academy and the Intermediate Examination System was established in 1881 with an emphasis on payment by results. The system, designed to assist the classical types of school to improve their finances, no doubt also promoted the establishment of a large number of schools in a relatively small area. There were three schools, in Church Street, Rathfriland Steet and Friar’s Place under Church of Ireland administration and three more run by the Unitarian, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches of the town. This was in addition to the Lancasterian School, now a National School. These schools were run alongside five ‘superior’ schools, of which Banbridge Academy was one. The then headmaster, Mr. Gillespie, introduced science as new subject, an innovative idea, and promoted an interest in games. Early records indicate that the Academy, along with Cliftonville, Knock and Moyola Park, had one of the first soccer clubs in the Province.
When Mr Dodds took over as headmaster in 1890 he renamed the Academy the Banbridge Academical Institution. The school, in spite of having been in existence for more than 100 years, still had no permanent home and was now located in the Bannside Hall. It also had serious financial concerns, possessing not a single endowment. In Mr Dodds’ time a new sport, rugby football, was introduced and again the Academy’s Rugby Club was one of the first in Ireland.
In 1907 Mr Brice Moore took over as headmaster and a preparatory school was introduced. The number of pupils on the role was 80 at this stage, only to be rivalled by another establishment in the town, the Excelsior Academy. It was impossible for two such small schools to exist in so small a town and eventually in 1915 the two merged. The title Banbridge Academy was reinstated. Mr Moore and Mr Warren worked as co-principals for a time, before Mr Warren, having served during World War One, left to found Portadown College in 1922.
The ongoing problem of accommodation was solved in 1929 when an announcement was made that the school would be housed in ‘commodious temporary accommodation at Daisy Hill.’ This ‘commodious accommodation’ turned out to be the workhouse!
When Mr Moore retired in 1933 the next headmaster was the historian, Dr William Haughton Crowe. At this stage the school was in debt, it possessed no buildings, it owned no equipment, no office, no telephone, no typist or typewriter, no playing fields and no canteen. Pupil numbers had risen to 150.
In 1938 the Board decided to transfer the school to the Down Education Committee and thus the Academy, which had been private for so long, became the property of everyone in County Down. The transfer was proposed with the following conditions:
1. that a new school should be built within a reasonable period of time;
2. that the local Board of Governors should be allowed to retain its voice in connection with the staffing of the school.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw seventy former pupils serving in the military, of whom seven gave their lives: Sergeant Pilot Jack Martin, Major G.F.W. Martin, Sergeant Observer Robert McCrory. Captain William Ledlie, Flying Officer Joseph McKee, Signaller Gerard McCreanor and Sergeant Pilot George Walsh. The two Martins were sons of the Martin family of Magherally. Robert McCrory, a former head boy, was killed in a raid over Hamburg, William Ledlie was killed in an air crash at RAF, Mill Hill and George Walsh crashed in a fighter plane in England.
In 1943 pupil numbers had continued to rise to 240, hour long lessons had been cut to forty minute periods and the school day began with early morning P.T. or ‘keep-fit’ time. Over a hundred pupils gathered to bend and stretch before the start of the school day.
By 1947 Edenderry House and grounds had been placed on the market and Dr Crowe, realising their potential, persuaded the Down Education Committee to purchase it for the sum of £50,000 (including structural charges).
With the introduction of the Qualifying Examination in 1947 the number of pupils on the roll increased to 340. The new accommodation which had to be provided for them was not completed until 1951, when the new school was officially opened by Lord Brookeborough.
Dr Crowe’s successor was Mr Frank Dorman who became headmaster in 1962. The school was already too small to meet the needs of the pupils and almost immediately Mr Dorman began negotiations for new buildings. By the time he retired in 1984 a new gym, sixth form centre, science buildings and many new classrooms had been added. However, history often repeats itself and the Academy buildings were no exception. By the time Mr Breen had taken over the headmastership in 1984, the buildings were already once again too small for the constantly growing school. So it fell to Mr Breen to solicit the Department of Education for another huge grant to build a completely new school at a cost of £3 million.
Sadly, the Academy was robbed of one of its outstanding headmasters by the untimely death of Mr Breen in 1995. The beautiful new buildings will always be regarded as a lasting tribute to him but Mr Breen’s contribution to the success of the Academy cannot be seen only in terms of fine buildings. During his time the school developed in many different ways. Increasing numbers of pupils were sent to Oxford and Cambridge, they won national Mathematical competitions and many outstanding pupils obtained the top mark in Northern Ireland in both GCSE and A Level exams.
The school found success not only in the academic field but on the sports field too. The boys’ hockey teams won All Ireland Cups, as did squash and equestrian teams, while the extra-curricular activities multiplied greatly.
We live in an age of league tables and here the school was highly successful. Though most teachers regard league tables as both irrelevant and inaccurate, strangely enough, if you ask any of them, they can tell you not only where their own school is placed, but also where most of the other schools in the neighbourhood are too. To the school’s rather modest surprise, when the tables first appeared, Banbridge Academy was right at the top – though as Mr Breen humorously reminded us – when you start at the top there is only one direction in which you can change your position.
Mr Raymond Pollock, took over in 1996 and under his leadership the school continued to grow. With more than 1300 pupils now on the roll, it is not surprising that once again the school outgrew its buildings and Mr Pollock assumed the hereditary role of past headmasters in negotiating with the Department of Education for yet more money to build another extension.
The present Headmaster, Mr Robin McLoughlin, began in January 2015 and in spite of the large numbers, the school has managed to retain something of the family atmosphere that is so much in the tradition of Brice Moore. Pupils are encouraged to work hard and to reach their full potential, while also enjoying a relaxed and friendly environment. The Academy may be over 225 years old but it still produces, at the end of seven years, young people who can think for themselves, who care for others and for their environment and who have become leaders in many fields, not only in the Province but in the world at large.