The closure of Exeter Academy at the end of 1771 or early in 1772 left the west of England without an institution that could provide ministerial and lay training accessible to all denominations. Almost immediately after arriving at Exeter in 1785, Timothy Kenrick began to consider rectifying this situation. In a letter written in October 1785 to his uncle Samuel Kenrick, he outlined the previous attempts to establish such an institution, pointing out that the library of the last academy was available and that John Hogg, minister of the Mint Meeting and a former tutor at Exeter Academy, and Joseph Bretland, a former student at Exeter Academy, schoolmaster, and minister of the Mint Meeting, had agreed to work with him. A lack of funding, however, prevented Kenrick from executing his plans at the time, and the library was moved to New College, Hackney, a year later.
In 1799, three years after the closure of New College, Hackney, Kenrick resurrected his plans and circulated a proposal for an academy in the south-west which would provide training to both ministerial and lay students of the age of fourteen and over. He was joined in this endeavour by Bretland. The proposed duration of study was three to five years, depending on the level of knowledge and the requirements of the student. The proposal was accepted and a 'Society for supporting an Academical Institution in the West of England' was formed, which raised funds to support the academy and ministerial students in particular, awarding bursaries and exhibitions, and acting as the academy's executive body. The president, treasurer and chairman were appointed annually. Bretland acted as chairman while the president from 1799 to 1802 was Samuel F. Milford, a Unitarian and co-founder of Exeter City Bank. Provision was made for boarding students at 45 guineas per session, and the course fee amounted to 10 guineas (5 for each tutor), with ministerial candidates receiving a considerable discount, the extent of which is not known. Each student was required to pay a further 2 guineas for the use of the library and scientific apparatus. Although both Kenrick and Bretland were Unitarians, and their original motivation was the lack of adequately trained Unitarian ministers in the west of England, the academy was open to all denominations and no doctrinal tests were imposed.
Despite initial difficulties Kenrick managed to secure local support. He rented the house next to his own and by October 1799 had three students under his care, two of them boarding with him. Some revenue was generated by subscriptions and donations, but these were never substantial and the academy was sustained by the fees. As a result the fees were relatively high, thus considerably narrowing the pool of prospective students. Although some provision was made for poorer students who wanted to become ministers, the society's resources were limited. The academy remained quite small, with a total of only fifteen students in the almost six years of its existence. Eleven students completed their course, while four continued their studies elsewhere. Despite the limitations thus imposed on the academy, it quickly shed its initial regional focus, with several students coming from Wales, and others from as far afield as Ipswich and Cork. Besides John Kenrick, the academy's more prominent alumni were the Unitarian ministers James Hews Bransby and Thomas Madge.
Kenrick and Bretland shared the teaching of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English composition and elocution, while Kenrick was responsible for the teaching of logic, the theory of the human mind, metaphysics, morals, evidences and the history of natural and revealed religion, Jewish antiquities, ecclesiastical history, and critical lectures on the New Testament. Bretland covered mathematics, natural philosophy, geography, general grammar, oratory, and history. The methods of teaching and discipline adopted by both tutors followed very closely those at Daventry, where Kenrick had been a student. The generosity of the academy's supporters allowed the purchase of scientific apparatus and some books, and the library of the earlier Exeter Academy of Towgood and Merivale was returned to Exeter from Hackney for the use of Kenrick's Academy shortly after it opened.
The academy came to an end as a result of Kenrick's sudden death in August 1804. Bretland continued to run the academy alone as best he could, but early in 1805 it became obvious that he could not carry on, and the committee agreed to close it by 25 March. Thomas Madge, John Simpson and Henry Davies continued their studies at Manchester College, York, while Kenrick's son John, who later became the principal of Manchester New College, Manchester, and who was a student of the academy at the time of his father's death, chose to study with John Kentish, minister at Plymouth Dock, and then at Glasgow University.
The main manuscript material for Timothy Kenrick's Academy, Exeter can be found in the minute books of the Exeter Assembly in the Devon Record Office (DRO, 3542D-0/M1/2-5), Kenrick's divinity lectures in Dr Williams's Library (DWL, 28.137-47), and the Bretland Papers at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. The academy's library catalogues are also in Harris Manchester College (HMCO, MS Misc. 26.iii-v).
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