In 1869, the Rev. D.J. Clarke, minister of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, founded the Railway Street National Schools. These were situated at the rear of the church. The first Principal was Mr Hill, who left after a few years, having been appointed as a Professor of Physical Science in India . After him came Mr Andrew Gillespie, who resigned in 1890. He was succeeded by Mr John Mathers, who left Brownlee to become Principal of a school in Ballynahinch in 1892. From 1892 until 1895 the Principal was Mr W.J. Thompson, who later became a medical doctor in London . Mr John McCullough took charge in October 1895, and was Principal until his death in April 1902.
In June of that year, Mr James T. Lamont was appointed as Principal. One of his assistants was a Robert J. Todd (a brother of the Todds who owned a large shop in Market Square ) Mr Todd had taught in the school since its foundation.
In the years immediately preceding the Great War, Mr Lamont was Principal of the Boys' school and Miss Martha McKitterick of the Girls' school. Mrs Margaret Lamont and Miss Eva McClelland were assistants. Mr James Donaghey and Miss Helen McGowan were monitors. The Railway Street premises were now seen to be less than adequate. Numbers had risen considerably and the need for separate rooms for the various classes was obvious. New premises were essential and these were to be provided through the generosity of Miss Isabella Brownlee.The Brownlees were a prosperous family who owned a grain mill at the foot of Bridge Street in Lisburn. They had been connected with Railway Street Presbyterian Church since its foundation. Hugh Brownlee had been a member of the church's first committee. By the early years of the 20th Century, Miss Isabella Brownlee lived at Alpha Lodge on the Hillsborough Road and was the last of her family name. She was deeply interested in the well-being of the church and in her lifetime had gone the length of purchasing a site in Wallace Avenue for a teacher's residence. Miss Brownlee died in 1909 and by her will she left the residue of her estate to her trustees - James Edgar Sloan (who had been secretary of the church and presented the site of the Fort Manse ) and the Rev. R. W. Hamilton M.A., then the Minister on trust for charitable purposes.
With this money and the assistance of the National Board, the site of the school was purchased, the school built and equipped, and later a residence provided, at a cost of about £7000. The architect was Mr James Hunter B.A., who lived at Beechwood on the way to Ballinderry. The Principal's residence was build by Mr R. Pinkerton of Bachelors' Walk.
Dr Lamont was recognised as Principal of the combined school and Miss McKitterick was his Privileged Assistant. In 1919 Dr Lamont left Brownlee to become Principal of Ulsterville School in Belfast and was succeeded by Mr James Boyd, M.A., whose wife, Mrs Boyd, was also appointed. She took charge of the Girls' Department after Mrs Lamont.
In 1931 Brownlee School and residence were transferred from direct control of Railway Street Church to the Education Authority of Antrim County Council. However, the church is still represented on the school's Board of Governors and has certain rights over the property and school building.
Mr Andrew M. Thompson M.A. H.Dip. Ed., succeeded Mr Boyd as Principal in October 1940. Under his care the school continued to prosper and the numbers increased. During the Second World War, children had to bring their gas masks to school and Anderson Shelters were constructed in the school playground. The cellars underneath the school were also prepared for this purpose.
Many people still have fond memories of Brownlee School while Mr Thompson was Principal. During the 1954/55 football season both the Brownlee Junior and Senior football teams successfully won their section and became champions, beating all the other schools from Lisburn, Lambeg and Dunmurry.
In the 1950's the school did not have a canteen. The only hot food in the winter months was purchased from the Lombard Café, situated beside the Railway Station. At lunch time some mothers would come to the school gates with hot pancakes or chips for their children to eat. When children were playing in the playground and a train came into the station, the steam would engulf the playground for up to fifteen seconds and played havoc with any important football matches taking place at the time.
At the end of the 1950's accommodation at the school was seen once again to be inadequate, and an expensive scheme of modernisation and extension work was commenced in 1958 and completed in 1960. The architect, Mr Logan, skilfully blended the original building with the new extension. A large new block was added to the school which included four new classrooms, a staff room, cloakroom areas, toilet facilities and a central hall. This new hall had many uses including morning assembly, physical training, games and a dining hall. Meals were now cooked at the central kitchen in Manor Drive, Lisburn and brought to the school in special containers.
The classrooms at the front were given a facelift at the same time with bright paint, new floors and other structural alterations. The Principal at that time was Mr Robert Stevenson and he lived in the Principal's house beside the school. Mr Stevenson originally hailed from Belfast and had previously taught in the Boys' Model School . In 1942 Mr Stevenson joined the RAF and was trained as a pilot in Canada . He was later posted to England where his squadron was based and took part in many raids and reconnaissance flights over enemy territory. After the war he took up his former profession and returned to duty in the classroom.
During this period there were up on 370 pupils on the roll and there were ten teaching staff including Mr Noel Boyd (Vice Principal and member of staff since 1931), Mr Isaac Kerr, Miss Roberta Campbell and Mr John McCracken. Rev Howard Cromie, who was the minister of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, was the chairman of the school's Management Committee, now known as the Board of Governors.
Numbers remained constant throughout the 1960's and 70's and a number of young teachers were appointed to replace the older members of staff. These new teachers included Mr Jim Kerr, Miss Carol Muir, Miss Barbara Titterington (now Mrs Bailie) and Miss Anne Robinson. Other established members of staff included Mrs Sally Alexander and Miss Roberta Campbell who retired in the mid 1980's. Mrs Alexander is remembered for founding the school's badminton club which met every Monday afternoon in the Racquets Club on the Belfast Road. By this time Brownlee Primary School was the educational home for many of the army service children whose parents were stationed at the nearby Thiepval Barracks. Many of these children had experienced life in many countries such as Germany , Cyprus , Singapore and Hong Kong .
In 1980 a proposal was made by the South Eastern Education and Library Board and Department of Education for Northern Ireland to follow the population shift from the inner town to the new residential areas, and relocate Brownlee Primary School in the Pond Park housing development. This was met with some opposition and eventually Pond Park Primary School was opened on the new site and Brownlee Primary remained in Wallace Avenue. Unfortunately rumours soon abounded that Brownlee was due to close, and many parents therefore decided to send their children to the new schools on the edge of town. Parents were also encouraged at that time to send their children to the nearest school to their home as opposed to the school of their choice. These factors resulted in a decline in pupil numbers and the inevitable redundancy of teaching staff at Brownlee.
Mr Stevenson retired in 1984 and was succeeded by the then Vice-Principal, Mr Jim Kerr. Mr Kerr had taught in Brownlee since 1963 and was a keen sportsman. He organised the Schools’ Football League throughout the Lisburn area and contributed much to school sports in the town. Mr Kerr also helped to steer Brownlee through some difficult days as pupil numbers continued to fall. This time the decline was due to a reduction in troop levels and therefore army service children, following the ceasefires of 1994. Unfortunately this had the result that more teachers had to be made redundant over the next few years. Mr Kerr retired in 1998.
The Principal's residence reverted back to ownership of Railway Street Church and was then sold. The money from this sale was used to update the halls and rooms of the church where the school originally began. One of these rooms has been named "The Brownlee Room" and is currently used by the church for youth activities.
In 1998 the school's Vice Principal, Mrs Rhonda Burns, held the reins for a year until a new Principal was appointed. Mr Colin Elliott took over as Principal of Brownlee in March 1999. Originally from Lurgan, he had previously taught in Dromara Primary School outside Ballynahinch and Annaghmore Primary School in Co Armagh.
Miss Carol Muir, who had been a teacher in the school for 28 years, retired in June and with the pupil numbers decreasing to 90 pupils, Mr Elliott and the Board of Governors decided not to appoint a new teacher to replace her.
Money that was saved by this decision was channeled into a huge redecoration and refurbishment of the interior and exterior of the school building. Teaching equipment and books were also updated, and the school's 'Parent Teacher Association' played a major role in raising additional funds for some of these resources. The staff quickly bonded as an effective team and moved to update many curricular and extra-curricular areas as well as begin a proactive promotion of the school throughout the local area. A 'House system' was introduced for Sports Day and a House Cup purchased. Many other cups and trophies were donated by parents and friends of the school and these are now presented to children at the 'Final Assembly' at the end of June.
Links between the school and Railway Street Church were also re-established with the pupils from the school taking part in special evening services and events such as the Christmas Carol Service were moved to the main church. While renovation work was taking place in the church halls, the school was used as the venue for the church's 'Holiday Bible Club'. It is now a tradition that Railway Street Presbyterian Church presents all the Primary 7 pupils with Scripture Union booklets entitled ‘Its Your Move’ which detail some of the experiences and choices the children will have to face as they transfer to Secondary School.
Throughout the 1999/00 school year, pupil numbers began to rise steadily and it became possible to appoint an additional class teacher. The school continued to develop and grow over the following four years with a consistent 10% rise in pupil enrolment each year. In February 2005 an After Schools Club opened within the school and extended the school day in Brownlee.
With pupil numbers rising to around 155 in the 2005/06 school year, it was decided to appoint a further teacher. This in turn led to 7 straight classes being created and Mr Elliott's teaching commitment was able to be reduced. In 2007 and 2008 through a process of rationalisation in East Lisburn , several of the smaller local schools were forced to close. Many children from Hillhall Primary School and Hilden Integrated Primary School , along with several of their staff joined the ranks of Brownlee Primary School raising its numbers to over 190 pupils. For a school with no catchment area as such, and at that time, an overall reduction in birth rates in the local area, it was a real credit to Brownlee Primary School that it enjoyed rejuvenation and growth at a time when current trends were showing a decline in the child population.
In March 2005 the SEELB published a document for a corporate plan of schools in the Lisburn area. The document highlighted the growth in Brownlee Primary School and the need for additional accommodation in the short to medium term. The proposal for Brownlee was made in consultation with the school's Board of Governors and detailed a new state of the art school being built. The new school would be constructed in the Brokerstown area of Lisburn and would involve Brownlee growing to a 14 teacher school. In 2008 the severe economic downturn occurred and this especially hit the local property market. Building work in the Brokerstown area all but ceased and the prospect of a new school in that area was shelved. In 2009 plans for Brownlee Primary School changed and it was proposed that the existing school be updated in a 3 stage refurbishment programme. This included a new roof and double glazing throughout the original building. The surrounding boundary wall was also rebuilt. The second phase, which is ongoing, saw the conversion of the attic of the original building into a computer room, staff room, Learning Support room, Library area and offices. Double glazed windows and doors were also installed throughout the school. The final stage of redevelopment will see the 1960s extension demolished and rebuilt as a 3 storey block which will in turn create a building able to deliver quality education well into the 21st century and beyond.
In 2011, Little Rays opened a pre-school on the site of Brownlee Primary School and this has led to a further demand for places in the main school. In 2013 the school had 58 applications for only 30 Primary 1 places. Also in 2011 the school had an inspection from the Department of Education. The outcome of this was extremely pleasing with many areas of the school deemed to be ‘outstanding’.
The inspectors also commented that the school lives its mission statement which is…..
"A school where the individual is valued in a supportive and safe environment where everyone’s learning experience is celebrated.”