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School History

If these walls could talk…

Nearly 300 years in the making, imagine the stories these walls could tell.

Find out more about the rich and unique tapestry of our School's history by scrolling through our timeline below.

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1760 – 1770

The idea of a liberal Presbyterian school was first mooted by prosperous Belfast businessmen. Land was acquired in Donegall Street at the corner of what is today Academy Street, adjacent to St Anne’s Cathedral.

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Dr. James Crombie was appointed Principal and a School prospectus was published. The intention was that the Belfast Academy fulfil some of the functions of a university.

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The School opened on 1st May and accepted its first pupils. Conditions were Spartan and hours long. Boarders had to attend prayers at 7am and again at 8pm. Boys were not allowed to possess dogs or guns without the Principal’s permission.

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Dr. Crombie died and was replaced as Principal by the Reverend Dr William Bruce. The Reverend Dr Bruce was also one of the founding members of the Linen Hall Library. Supposedly, his ghost benevolently haunts the Linen Hall to this day!


The “Barring Out” incident occurred. Emboldened by the revolutionary spirit of the times and angered by a reduction in school holidays, 9 boys, armed with pistols and provisioned with food, locked themselves into the Mathematical Room and refused to surrender. Shots were fired by the boys. Eventually all surrendered. Each received “12 stripes” and all left the School shortly thereafter.

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The Reverend J Gray was appointed as Principal.

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The Reverend Dr. RJ Bryce was appointed as Principal

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An infant School “for the children of persons in the upper and middle ranks” and to include girls, was established.

History Images 1880


Belfast Academy moved to its present site on the Cliftonville Road, and into a new sandstone building designed by a former pupil, Robert Young. Dr WF Collier was appointed as Principal of the new School.

History Images 1888


Queen Victoria gave her permission for the School to be named Belfast Royal Academy.

History Images 1890


Mr TW Foster was appointed as Principal.

History Images 1898


Mr TR Collier was appointed as Principal.

History Images 1900


Girls, who had up until then only attended the Preparatory Department, were now admitted to the Senior School, but were strictly segregated from the boys and taught separately from them.

History Images 1923 06


Mr AR Foster was appointed Principal. He later changed his title to “Headmaster”. The following year, the Academy was completely re-organised on a co-educational basis, with boys and girls mixing for all academic lessons, and teaching organised on departmental lines with seven Heads of Department. Mr Foster also changed the timetable to provide an hour for lunch and created a kitchen and dining room for pupils. He installed electric lights and central heating and also introduced the Prefect system as well as rugby as a game for boys.

Crombie 2017 LS


An extension to the Crombie Building was opened by Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. It housed a gymnasium, cloakrooms and Art and Music Classrooms.

History Images 1935


The Academy Sports ground, below Belfast Castle, was opened. Now known as the Castle Grounds, it was later also made the site for Ben Madigan kindergarten and preparatory school.

History Images 1941


Mr JM Martin was appointed Headmaster. Much of North Belfast was severely damaged by German bombers. Remarkably, while most of the area around BRA was destroyed or severely damaged and 745 people died, the School emerged largely unscathed, although 700 windows had to be replaced. Many children were evacuated from Belfast and BRA established branch schools in Portrush, Ballygally, Donaghadee and Cookstown.

History Images 1943


Mr JW Darbyshire was appointed as Headmaster. His time as Head of the Academy coincided with the most expansive period in the history of secondary education. During his years, the number of pupils at the School doubled and Sixth Form increased eight-fold. The most notable additions to the School include the Jackson Wing, the new Prep School, the new Darbyshire Building, the Ballywonard Playing Fields, the Picken Pavilion and the new rugby pavilion. He also encouraged a renaissance in cricket, the cross country club, the ATC and the Orchestra, and also set up set departments for History and Geography and included new subjects into the curriculum such as Engineering, Russian and Economics.

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The Ben Madigan Preparatory Department moved to its present site in the Castle Grounds in the shadow of the Cave Hill and overlooking Belfast Lough. The new building was opened by the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Lord Erskine of Rerrick.

History Images 1968


Mr JL Lord was appointed as Headmaster. Throughout his career Mr Lord strove to improve the services offered by the School and he maintained a sense of normality throughout the darkest years of The Troubles. Mr Lord also focused on improving local community relations and met regularly with the Heads of other schools, and in particular strengthened the long tradition of amity between the Academy and its neighbour St Malachy’s. He established separate science departments for Physics, Chemistry and Biology and in 1968 the new Darbyshire building was opened. So too was a new four storey science block, named the Bruce Building in honour of one of the Academy’s greatest headmasters. A domestic science block, the Mary Hyndman Building, was also added to the rear of the Jackson Building.

History Images 1974


A new swimming pool was constructed on the Wingfield site, opposite the main School.

History Images 1978


A new 44 acre site was acquired and developed as playing fields at Roughfort, near Mallusk, reinforcing the importance the School placed on sport in the learning experience of young people.

History Images 1980


Mr WM Sillery was appointed Headmaster. He oversaw the planning and opening In 1982 of a new art block, the Pollin Building as well as establishing a much needed Technology Block and a modern English building, named after Sillery’s predecessor, JL Lord.

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To mark the School’s bicentenary, a new sports hall was built, improving the teaching of PE and facilitating sports such as badminton, basketball, netball and volleyball.

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A new kindergarten building for younger pupils was opened at the Ben Madigan site at Castle Grounds in May by Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne.

History Images 2000


Mr WSF Young was appointed Headmaster. Most notably Mr Young successfully spearheaded the fight to retain academic selection in Northern Ireland. He also presided over the building of a new Maths block – the Sillery Building and under his direction, essential work was also carried out to protect the Roughfort playing fields from flooding and new fencing was also erected to secure the school site.

History Images 3 2009


Mr JMG Dickson was instrumental in securing and overseeing the £4 million School Enhancement Project which provided the school with a wide range of new facilities.. Opened by Education Minister, Peter Weir, this project provided the School with a wide range of new facilities across different departments, including a highly innovative and well-equipped music suite, refurbished classrooms and enhanced dining facilities in the Jackson Suite. Always ready to adapt to an ever-changing educational environment, Mr Dickson delivered the final element of the School Enhancement Project in 2017, with the creation of a new modern Learning Support Unit.

History Images 2015


HRH Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex visited to observe the School’s success in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as one of the largest school-based Award Centres in the UK. The Prince was very impressed with the vast range of activities undertaken by pupils and with the unique nature of the School, with its significant religious, socio-economic and geographical mix of pupils.

History Images 2016 music


A £4 million development project opened by Education Minister, Peter Weir, provided a range of new facilities at the School including a highly innovative and well-equipped music suite and refurbished classrooms, as well as enhanced dining facilities.

History Images 2017 LS


Always ready to adapt to an ever-changing educational environment and to the differing needs of its pupils, the School built a modern Learning Support Unit.

History Images 2017


Mrs Hilary Woods was appointed as Principal- the first female Principal of Belfast Royal Academy in the School’s 232 year History.

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