JW  Darbyshire: Headmaster 1943-1968

J.W. Darbyshire

J.W. Darbyshire

John Darbyshire was a first-class graduate of Liverpool University. Before his appointment as Headmaster of the Academy he had been for twelve years a Geography master  in Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and in 1937, he became Headmaster of Larne Grammar School. He was a man of immense energy, an excellent teacher and a capable administrator.

When he became Headmaster of the Academy, Mr Darbyshire was already well known in Northern Ireland educational circles. He had been Chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of the Assistant Masters' Association; Secretary and Treasurer of the Northern Ireland Council of Teachers; Vice-President of the Northern Branch of the Geographical Association; external lecturer to the Higher Diploma at Queen's University, and external examiner for the Province's technical schools. Such  breadth of experience was no doubt foremost in the minds of the Governors of the Academy when they unanimously agreed to Mr Darbyshire's appointment as headmaster. He was the only candidate whom the Governors interviewed.

When he took office in January 1944, Darbyshire paid generous tribute to his predecessor, JMK Martin, the Head of the Classics Department who, as Acting Headmaster, had overseen the transition from A.R. Foster, Headmaster from 1923-1941, to Darbyshire's own headmastership.

The Government of Northern Ireland had in the year of Darbyshire's appointment,  published a White Paper on Education which, in essence, echoed the proposals of Britain's wartime coalition in 1943. The implementation of these proposals, later embodied in the provisions of the 1947 Education Act (NI), was to mark the headmastership of Darbyshire, who warmly welcomed the Act, even as he realised what would be a greatly increased demand for secondary education in the post-war world, and the consequent strain on school accommodation, as many more pupils availed themselves of the opportunities offered by the new legislation. Existing academic schools, such as the Academy, became grammar schools, and an examination at age eleven, determined whether a child attended a grammar school or an intermediate school.

To a certain extent, therefore, Darbyshire was fortunate in that his career as a headmaster coincided with a number of circumstances that contributed to his success. Not the least of these was the unprecedented public investment in the education service during the post-war years, a policy which benefited other schools in Northern Ireland. But Darbyshire had been perceptive enough to foresee this from the early years of his headmastership, and he thereafter dedicated himself to  ensuring that the Academy benefited as much as it did from what constituted, in effect, a form of social revolution. This diplomatic approach helped facilitate the development of a good working relationship with the officials of the Ministry of education. His integrity, and his evident commitment to the development of education, were officially recognised as early as 1953, when in the New Year Honours he was appointed OBE.

Darbyshire's most evident achievement was, of course, the massive development of the Academy in the post-war period, and this transformed the  educational provision that the Academy could offer. The complex of new buildings that now surrounds the original school: the Jackson Building, the Bruce Building, and the Darbyshire Building, along with the new Preparatory Department at the Castle Grounds, were all erected or planned during  his headmastership. They are a powerful reminder of his central importance in the modern history of the Academy, and the Board acknowledged this in its decision to give his name to the new building opened in 1968 - at the time a recognition offered to no previous headmaster.

These  changes to the physical appearance of the school were matched by less dramatic but  obvious alterations to the school regime. From September 1949 the wearing of school uniform, the most distinctive feature of which was a navy blue blazer, with the insignia of the school's initial letters in red surmounted by a crown, was made compulsory for all pupils. The much admired maroon Honours blazer, in use since before the war, was made a team award. Religious Education, compulsory under the terms of the Education Act, and in Northern Ireland, always fraught with difficulty, was, Darbyshire insisted, to be taught by competent teachers who had signed a written agreement that it would be non-denominational. The Form System extant today was implemented by Darbyshire. Less successful perhaps was his attempt to give expression to the new spirit of common purpose in the Academy  by writing a  school song for which Miss May Curran composed the tune. It was a measure of his character, that he was able to convince the school community that it represented his vision of an expanded and modernised school.

To his colleagues, as to the pupils, Mr Darbyshire represented a mixture of authority and concern; although a strong-minded man, he always considered it better to err on the side of caution. After his illness in 1951, he was obliged to reduce the scale of his activities and was fortunate in being able to rely on the  administrative abilities of his Vice-Principal, Mr Lord. His achievement was so considerable that his place in the ranks of distinguished headmasters of the Academy is secure. When he was appointed Headmaster in 1944, there were 712 pupils in a school which had changed little since the beginning of the twentieth century. On his retirement in 1968, there were 1,416 pupils and 70 full time members of staff, all but 6 of whom had been appointed during his headmastership. The lineaments of the school he left are still largely visible today.