‘If only Ballymoney’s walls could talk’

By Peter Thompson

THE other day I was walking up Victoria Street by the “Old Church School” and I thought to myself, if only walls could talk.

It is sad sometimes to see old historic buildings like this pulled down to make way for modernisation that never seems to happen, not only in Ballymoney but throughout the Province and it would be a sad day for the town if this would have been allowed to happen to this fine building.

Thanks to a grant of over half a million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the sterling work of all those involved the building is to reopen. Although the old school house is one of the oldest buildings in Ballymoney it is not a listed building but this issue is now apparently in the hands of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and I am sure all the people of the town are behind the request to have the this important piece of Ballymoney’s history protected by “listing” the building.

I have put together this short history in the hope it will shed some light on the origins of the schoolhouse which I hope will be of interest to the readership of “The Times’.

This small article will, I hope, generate some interest in how the Church got a school on their grounds and the Orange Lodges of Ballymoney got a new purpose built Orange Hall to meet in.

Erasmus Smith Schools

Erasmus Smith was a wealthy Turkish merchant and an alderman of London, his town residence was in St.John’s, Clerkenwell; his country seat, Weald Hall, in Essex.

He married a daughter of Lord Coleraine and had three daughters and six sons. He was one of the adventurers under the Cromwellian settlement and was granted in return of his “adventure” land in Ireland and in 1657 he by deed made over 13,000 acres for the formation of schools throughout Ireland.

The trustees being all Non-conformists were unable to execute their functions after the Restoration; and, in 1669 on Erasmus Smith’s petition, a new charter was granted, placing the schools practically under Episcopal supervision.

The future visitation and government of the schools founded by him was entrusted to a board of 32 governors with the power of electing their successors. One of these schools was established in Church Street, Ballymoney, in 1813 by the trustees of the Erasmus Smith funds. When the Endowed Schools Commission enquired into its foundations in 1857, these schools numbered four grammar Schools and 140 English Schools in different parts of Ireland; having 7,170 children on the rolls, and an average attendance of 4,357.

Church Street School and the Orange Order

When the Church of Ireland was disestablished by the Irish Church Act, 1869, a number of meetings of Vestry took place to consider the question of the future of the Church.

In 1872 the Select Vestry requested the Representative Church Body to sell by public auction the Parochial School house, known as the Erasmus Smith School, in Church Street and that the sale be entrusted to a committee appointed by the Select vestry for the purpose of applying the proceeds to the building of a new Schoolhouse.

At some point the school must also have been used by the Orangemen of Ballymoney when according to the booklet brought out for the Bi-Centenary of St. Patrick’s Church, Ballymoney, a meeting took place on 18th February 1874 and another motion was passed regarding the Erasmus Smith School ‘That the sum of 25 pounds be offered to the Orangemen of Ballymoney district on condition that they surrender to the Church body peaceable possession of the room in the Parochial School house which they now hold within one week from this date, and on entering into an agreement that the said sum be vested in the Ulster Bank in the names of a member of the Orange body and a member of the Select Vestry of this Parish for the purpose of building a Protestant and Orange Hall in Ballymoney. If not so applied within ten years, said sum with interest thereon is to revert to the benefit of the Select vestry of Ballymoney Church’. (page10, St Patrick’s Parish Church, Ballymoney 1782-1982)

A New School

Obviously the Orangemen vacated the building as in 1874 the new Church School was built in the north west corner of the graveyard of St Patrick’s Parish Church and in that year its doors were opened to welcome the young scholars of the town. It was later to serve many purposes and became a great asset to the Borough.

The Orange Hall

But what of the Orangemen who vacated the old Erasmus Smith School? According to local Ballymoney Orange historian Roy McComb in his booklet, ‘A short history of Ballymoney Lodges, L.O.L. 456 954, 956’ in relation to the offer made by the Select Vestry in 1874, on page 5 of his book he states, ‘This must have been the spur that was needed and under the foregoing circumstances a Committee was set up consisting of members of L.O.L.  791 and L.O.L. 956 who were then meeting in a public house (Henry’s) in Main Street. Ground was leased from the Antrim Estate, by Alexander Donaghy representing “791” and William Arthur for “956” and Bryce Gilmour who was W.D.M. of Ballymoney and Mr. Young of Market Street was engaged to build the hall at 400 pounds” In 1877 Ballymoney opened it’s new Orange Hall’.

The Future

From its early days as a School House in 1874, where many of the youth of Ballymoney over a long period received their education, to the later years when according to my mother who once lived in Charlotte Street and is now in her 85th year recalls soldiers being billeted there during WW2.

This grand old building was most definitely a multi-functioning hall. If only walls could talk, the walls of the this building could tell some fascinating stories.

After 1948 it served as a Church Hall till sadly in 1973 this grand old building finally closed its doors. It stands today as a happy reminder to the older folk of the town and Borough who remembers it as a functioning hall.

It was therefore great news, not only for the town but for the Borough that this fine old building will once again open its doors to the public with several projects ahead.

It will provide space for a wide range of community services including debt advice, a healthy living programme and a young mothers group. I was also delighted to hear that there will also be a facility to help people like myself with an interest in local history to research the School building, adjacent Church and graveyard as my descendants on my mothers side the Cheatley family who settled in the town in 1755 and attended the schools connected to the Church are all buried here.

The old schoolhouse will soon once again open its doors with its modern multi-functioning operations and will once again be used as a learning centre for the Borough and beyond. My congratulations to all those who made this possible.