Coward College (1833-1850)

On 22 December 1831 the four trustees of William Coward (1648-1738) met to discuss a 'very important object respecting the Academical Institution' under their management at Wymondley House, Hertfordshire (DWL, MS NCL/CT3, pp.173-4). This is the first reference in the minutes of the Coward Trust to a plan to close their existing academy and establish a new institution in London. The idea had originated with James Gibson, the lay trustee, who was close to some of the promoters of the London University. It had become the view of the trustees that many advantages would be obtained from combining the teaching available at the University with a theological course provided in their own college. A row of three uncompleted houses on the south-western entrance to Gordon Square was identified as a suitable premises for the new institution. Thomas Cubitt, the speculative builder who developed the Square for the Duke of Bedford, offered the completed property to the Trustees for £2,200. The purchase was completed in February 1833, and Coward College opened with a religious service on 17 October. It operated for 17 years, closing in 1850 when it was united with Highbury and Homerton Colleges to form New College, London. As part of this arrangement the Coward Trustees became members of the trust holding the New College property and took part in the management of the new institution.

Coward College
Coward College, opened 1833 [source: DWL, MS NCL/L64/1/4]

Eleven students transferred from Wymondley in 1833 to continue their studies at Coward College. Two new probationary students joined them, and the College had a capacity of 16. During the early years demand for places often exceeded supply, but by 1847 the trustees became concerned at the lack of applicants. They wrote to the governors of Mill Hill School in March of that year offering £50 to any scholar who might continue their studies to matriculation in the University. The new arrangements meant that only the services of a theological tutor were required, and Thomas Morell transferred from Wymondley with the students. He held the post for an unhappy period of seven years, dying in 1840 a few months before he was due to relinquish his duties after losing the confidence of the trustees. His replacement was Thomas W. Jenkyn, whose services were retained until the closure of the college.

The course of study followed by students at Coward College differed substantially to that provided at Wymondley. Students, who now had to matriculate at London University (from 1836 named University College, London), no longer received their entire education from just two tutors. Instead, during the first three years of their five-year course most of the time was spent attending classes at University College. Students studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics in their first two years, Hebrew, Greek, and natural philosophy in their third year, and Hebrew, philosophy of the mind and logic in their fourth year. Thomas Morell delivered exegetical lectures on the Greek New Testament and church history to the first and second year, and Biblical criticism and Christian evidences to the third year. The Biblical criticism lectures continued into the fourth year, when students began courses on doctrinal theology and homiletics that were completed in their final year. Some students were keen to take advantage of other courses on offer at University College. In 1841 three of them petitioned the trustees for permission to attend German lectures, while two others wished to join the Arabic class. Until 1847 the trustees helped prospective students to matriculate and paid their matriculation fees, but for the remainder of the period students were expected to have matriculated before applying to the College.

The College library was transferred from Wymondley, and contained volumes acquired by academies supported by the Coward Trust, notably Doddridge's academy at Northampton, Daventry Academy, and Wymondley Academy. It was, in the words of Geoffrey Nuttall, 'nothing less than magnificent', rivalling 'any gentleman's library anywhere' (Nuttall, 42). The scientific apparatus that had been so useful at Wymondley was rendered redundant by the new arrangements. By the time it was transferred to New College in 1850 it was thought more useful as a collection of artefacts illustrative of the history of science than as an aid to practical instruction.

One outcome of the new arrangements was that students came to compare the tuition they received at Coward unfavourably with the classes they attended at University College. Within a few years of the move, Thomas Morell had lost the respect of his charges. He complained that a number of students were either absenting themselves from his classes or arriving late. When they did attend, they paid little attention to his lectures and disrupted proceedings. In 1836 the trustees sought to address the situation by circulating a questionnaire to the students asking them the proportion of time they spent on theology compared with University subjects. In the same year the usual award of £5 per student following the annual examination was withheld after too many unsatisfactory answers were received. After some initial improvement under Thomas Jenkyn, matters again deteriorated and he was not regarded highly by his students.

The location of the College caused problems too. Despite the many internal difficulties experienced at Wymondley, the old academy had been situated in a small Hertfordshire village, removed from the temptations of the metropolis. In London there were numerous attractions inducing students to break their 10pm curfew, and Thomas Jenkyn complained that many believed the payment of a one shilling fine entitled them to stay out late without further reproach. The trustees also objected to requests from the students to participate in regular meetings with their contemporaries from other academies in and around London. In 1834 Morell defended the students from accusations of extravagance after they hosted a tea party attended by representatives from the colleges at Hackney, Highbury, and Stepney. A resolution passed by the trustees in 1841 prohibited Coward students from attending quarterly meetings with their peers from other London institutions.

J. Ewing Ritchie, who studied under both Morell and Jenkyn, later wrote that many rural congregations regarded the education received at Coward College with suspicion and considered the less learned students of other colleges to be more pious. His own assessment of his peers was somewhat bleak, and he wrote that a number were 'utterly destitute of all qualifications for the pastorate' (quoted in Thompson, Coward Trust, 64). Ritchie himself became a journalist and writer, but the careers of many of his fellow alumni cast some doubt on his description of them. A number went on to train future generations of ministers, including Samuel Newth, Henry Robert Reynolds, Philip Smith, and Evan John Evans. Others became missionaries: Joseph Mullens and Matthew Atmore Sherring went to India, and Joseph Edkins to China. The majority of the 70 students known to have studied at the College went on to pursue careers as Congregational ministers. John Browne, minister at Wrentham, Suffolk, became known as an antiquarian, and John Curwen, minister at Plaistow, Middlesex, was a music educationist who popularised the 'tonic sol-fa' system of instruction.

Thomas Jenkyn was informed of the trustees' intention to close the College in June 1849, although the students do not appear to have been told formally until the following April. Two of the sixteen students in the house were close to the end of their course, and the remaining fourteen were invited to transfer to New College, London. Eight of them agreed to do so. Coward College had been a bold attempt to raise the academic standard of the education provided to candidates for the ministry supported by the founder's Trust. The later careers of many who studied there indicate that the experiment was in some measure a success. However, the reputation of the theological department relied heavily upon the accomplishments of its tutor, and neither Morell nor Jenkyn appears to have been ideally suited to the post. In 1852 Byng Place was leased to the Commissioners for Works and Public Buildings, and during the 1880s it became College Hall, a hall of residence for women students attending classes at University College and the London School of Medicine for Women. The building still stands, although the facade was altered in 1947 with the removal of a balustraded balcony that ran the full length of the east elevation.

Simon N. Dixon


The archives of Coward College form part of the New College, London collection at Dr Williams's Library. Details of the management of the institution, including the appointment of tutors, admission of students, financial arrangements, and disciplinary matters are contained in the minutes of the Coward Trust for the relevant years (DWL, MS NCL/CT3-4). A wealth of correspondence survives for the period under Thomas Morell (DWL, MS NCL/L53/3-6). The ten years under Thomas Jenkyn are less well documented, although a small amount of material is still extant (DWL, MS NCL/312/1-34, MS NCL/433/1-20). There are also useful accounts of the history of the Coward Trust during this period in manuscripts by Samuel Newth (DWL, MS NCL/CT12/1) and John Stoughton (MS NCL/CT16).

Published sources

'Coward College, Byng Place', Survey of London: volume 21: The parish of St Pancras part 3: Tottenham Court Road & neighbourhood (1949), 91,
Nuttall, Geoffrey F., New College, London and its Library (London, 1977).
Ritchie, J. Ewing, Christopher Crayon's Recollections (London, 1898).
Thompson, John Handby, A History of the Coward Trust: The First Two Hundred and Fifty Years 1738-1998 (Cambridge, 1998).

Simon N. Dixon, 'Coward College (1833-1850)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.