Imagine a university with a firm claim to be the third oldest in England. It would have a fine tradition of liberal higher education rooted firmly in the Eighteenth Century and, suddenly, it would be in a fashionable part of London. It’s not too fanciful a counter-narrative to imagine New College, a dissenting academy in Hackney founded with a flourish in 1786, now being among our most prestigious universities.
The dissenting academies are a neglected part of our higher education history. We will have gone over 100 years between the publication of authoritative accounts of the history, with Irene Parker’s 1914 account finally being updated by a volume edited by Isobel Rivers.
The universities were greatly affected by the religious turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries. After the restoration, the 1666 Act of Uniformity required all ‘every person Instructing, or Teaching any Youth’ to subscribe to the Church of England, which promptly excluded Dissenters from the universities and schools. Furthermore, any one teaching, even in a house, must obtain a licence from their bishop. This was eased, de facto, after the Act of Toleration in 1668 and Protestant Dissenters formed a series of academies to teach their youth, arguably in many cases to a higher standard than the higher education on offer in the English Universities.
The academies were fragile, and after some prominent closures, a series of meetings established the need for ‘an ACADEMICAL INSTITUTION, in or near the metropolis, for the education of ministers’ (Resolutions 1786 p58). There’s a level of similarity between the liberal parts of New College in Hackney and the University in Bloomsbury that followed it forty years later, the clear distinction is the absolute requirement for a religious underpinning.
Dr Andrew Kippis spoke at the opening of the New College, and his sermon (with some of the documents connected with the institution) subsequently printed for distribution. Education should be about ‘impressions of a religious and moral temper’, he said, but argued strongly against those who would deny education to ‘inferior orders of people’ He proceeds to make a case for social mobility through education.
Besides, if in consequence of good natural powers, a vigorous application of their talent, and the blessing of God on their endeavours, some of the children of the poor can acquire considerable mental attainments, and rise to a higher rank in society, why should this not be permitted? Why should all the advantages of life be confined to the few men who happen to boast of honourable birth, or hereditary wealth? (Kippis, 1786, p15)
Society would be improved, he argued, by its leaders being educated:
Nor can any thing be more desirable, than that gentlemen of original and independent fortunes should posses a large fund of knowledge. This, next to piety and virtue, will be found the best method of enabling them to support their elevated stations with reputation and dignity. (Kippis, 1786, pp16-17)
Kippis addresses the concerns about the ‘hazard of fixing the institution in the vicinity of the metropolis’ as the college will be diligently guarded against these ‘by the rules of the collegiate life, and by the exercise of a prudent and vigilant discipline’ (Kippis 1786 pp46-47)
For the College was to be established in Hackney, with the students boarding under the supervision of a tutor (another clear difference with the later University of London). The resolutions of the committee set out the term dates and examination routine. Having appointed tutors, they wrote to out to congregations asking for support, with an expectation
…that our funds may soon become sufficiently ample, to admit of granting such Appointments to Professors, as shall induce the ablest and best men, wherever they reside, to relinquish their other emoluments, and to devote themselves, as far as shall be thought requisite, to the service of the institution (Resolutions p72)
Burley notes that the College acquired a fine building in Homerton Hall, and developed quickly. He notes that it over-stretched itself financially, and also became firmly linked with radical thought. Joseph Priestley lectured at the College and printed a copy of his lectures with a handsome dedication to the work of the college. He noted, however that things were amiss:
You cannot but be apprised that many persons entertain a prejudice against this College on account of the republican, and, as they chose to call them, the licentious principles of government, which are supposed to be taught here (Priestley, 1794, xix)
Government was gripped by fear of revolution at home and invasion from France. Priestley’s international links were under suspicion. In 1794 a governor of the college, William Stone, was arrested for high treason. By 1795 the Seditious Meetings Act had banned ‘Lectures and Discourses on and concerning supposed public Grievances, and Matters relating to the Laws, Constitution, and Government and Policy of these Kingdoms’ (excepting the Universities from these powers). Nonconformist ministers and their congregations were under direct suspicion for their links to France.
Although Stone was acquitted in 1796, Burley notes that within a few months New College closed its doors as bankruptcy was threatened and on ’23 June 1796 the College and its grounds were sold at auction for £5,700′.
Hale Bellot noted that the dissenting academies might have been the direct sources of the modern universities, but for their religious character and the reaction to the French Revolution (1929, p7). The University of London was criticised for being too radical, but its founders weren’t under the threat of transportation for sedition. Some dissenting academies survived, migrating to Oxford and Cambridge where they joined the universities, but it’s not too fanciful to imagine that a well resourced, residential and radical alternative to the two universities might have survived longer than ten years, if it’s first ten years hadn’t come at the same time as the French Revolution.
For those interested in the development of new providers, Andrew Kippis had some final encouragement.
There is no great and good design that may not be embarrassed with doubts and hesitations. If we are never to push into action, till the perplexities of speculative and timid men are entirely removed, nothing valuable will ever be attempted. … what success may attend [our] endeavours [we] cannot say … Some good, [we] trust cannot well avoid resulting from the execution of [our] design; and, at any rate, [we] will have the conscious satisfaction of having sincerely attempted to promote the noblest interests of mankind, and the temporal and eternal happiness of the rising generation. (Kippis, 1786, pp50-51)
Burley, S, 2011, ‘New College, Hackney (1786-96)’, Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.
Hale Bellot, H, 1929, University College London, 1826-1926, London, University of London Press
Kippis, A, 1786, A Sermon preached at the Old Jewry on Wednesday the 26th of April 1786 on occasion of a new academical institution among protestant dissenters for the education of their ministers and youth, London, T Cadell
Priestley, J, 1794, Heads of Lectures on a course of Experimental Philosophy, particularly including Chemistry, delivered at the New College in Hackney London, J Johnson
Resolutions and Proceedings relating to the establishment of a new academical institution in Kippis (1786)