In 1778 a group of London laymen established an institution called the Evangelical Academy. At first it simply provided lectures for students resident in London, but after four years they bought a house at Mile End, removed the restriction to London, and appointed Stephen Addington as tutor. In 1791 the academy was removed to a house in Hoxton, which belonged to the trustees of Dr Daniel Williams, and had also been the location of the Hoxton Academy supported by the Coward Trustees before it was closed in 1785. The Coward Trustees agreed in February 1791 to let the premises for the remainder of their own lease from Dr Williams's Trust to Thomas Wilson and Mr Witton, trustees of the new institution, for £50 p.a. The new tutor was Robert Simpson, who took on four of Addington's former students. In June 1793 the trustees of the Evangelical Academy at Hoxton negotiated a new lease with Dr Williams's Trustees.
In 1794 Thomas Wilson was unanimously chosen by the subscribers to succeed his father Thomas in the office of treasurer to the academy, and during his service until his death in June 1843 the academy prospered in no small part due to his generosity and initiative. The increase of students from 1791 was assisted by his active role in seeking out suitable young men and encouraging them to offer themselves as candidates. The leaflet of 1794 soliciting subscriptions, Plan of the Evangelical Academy, made the method of selection clear: students had to be 'of evangelical Sentiments, possessed of good natural Abilities', and to have 'experienced a divine Change'. After a trial of two months and with Simpson's approval they were fully admitted. From four in 1791 the number increased to thirteen in 1794, twenty in 1798, twenty-five in 1801, and thirty in 1803. An additional tutor for classics, George Collison, was recruited in 1797, succeeded in 1807 by John Hooper, and Wilson increased the number of annual subscriptions, doubling the income from them between 1798 and 1803.
In 1799 a new lease was secured from Dr Williams's Trustees for 61 years at £30 p.a. and the accommodation was enlarged, with Wilson providing half the cost. The site also included a small chapel, opened in 1796 for the benefit of the neighbourhood as well as the students. It was agreed in 1799 with the chapel members and subscribers that the preacher would always be one of the tutors or students. In time this became a separate church and continued to grow. Initially Wilson was very much concerned to propagate evangelical religion rather than academic education, but by 1804 the academy secured two scholarships of £25 from Dr Williams's trustees for students to complete their studies at Glasgow University. They were placed under the watchful care of Greville Ewing, a trusted evangelical Scottish Congregationalist minister in Glasgow and tutor at the Glasgow Theological Academy. The Revd J. A. James of Birmingham said after Wilson's death that in relation to the instruction at the academy Wilson was perhaps 'not sufficiently impressed with the importance of its being carried on to any very high degree of classical, philosophical, and scientific acquirement', nor was he particularly interested in the education of dissenting laymen 'even among the respectable classes' (Wilson, Memoir of Thomas Wilson, 574). In this respect he differed greatly from those who founded the eighteenth-century academies.
A new building to accommodate students in the grounds of the main house was erected in 1809, and a third tutor, Henry Forster Burder, formerly a student at Hoxton and a tutor at Wymondley Academy, was appointed. The syllabus adopted in January 1810 was divided among the tutors as follows: Simpson: Hebrew and biblical criticism, Jewish antiquities, evidences of divine revelation, systematic divinity, ecclesiastical history, and its connexion with profane history; Hooper: English grammar, geography, Latin (including prose composition) and Greek; Burder: pneumatology, logic, and belles lettres, with special regard to pulpit composition and elocution. Throughout this period Wilson had also been founding new churches, rescuing former Presbyterian chapels which had closed, and supplying them with ministers from Hoxton. In 1817 Simpson resigned, and William Harris of Cambridge was chosen to succeed him.
The new building of 1809 was enlarged to accommodate forty students ten years later, but in 1824 the annual meeting of subscribers resolved to move to a completely new site in Highbury, situated on what is now Aubert Park but was then called College Road. Highbury was still a relatively undeveloped area, and it was possible to see Greenwich Hospital and ships on the Thames, as well as Highgate Hill to the north. Wilson presented the land as a gift, and the new building was opened on 5 September 1826, to be known henceforth as Highbury College. The buildings themselves, which formed three sides of a quadrangle in an imposing classical style, cost £20,000, and were regarded by Wilson's son, Joshua, as his father's best monument. Wilson toured the country to raise funds, as well as supporting poorer students out of his own pocket.
At Highbury the most important of the new tutors were Robert Halley, classics tutor from 1825 to 1838, who was succeeded by William Smith in 1839; Ebenezer Henderson, who succeeded Harris as theology tutor in 1830; and John Godwin, tutor in biblical criticism, philosophy, and logic from 1839. By the 1830s the public examination of the students in the various subjects, by a mixture of reading, answers to oral questions, and submitted essays, was taking place at the time of the Annual Meeting. Highbury, like other Congregational colleges at the time (Homerton, Coward, Cheshunt, Rotherham, Spring Hill, Airedale, Lancashire, and Western) was also connected by royal warrant to the new University of London – in 1825 Wilson had been one of the first members of the Council of the institution renamed University College London in 1836. By 1850 four Congregational ministers from Highbury had become MAs, one a BL, and eighteen BAs. (This represented nearly a quarter of the Congregational ministers who had received London degrees, just behind Spring Hill, Birmingham, and Congregational ministers in total represented about a quarter of those who received London University degrees in the first decade after its reorganization in 1839.) Although Highbury could now send out ten students a year into the Congregational ministry, Wilson saw the advantages of uniting the Congregational colleges in London. In the year of his death (1843) discussions were initiated with Coward College and Homerton. These discussions led to the formation of New College, London, in 1850. Of the Highbury tutors, Henderson then retired; Smith and Godwin continued their careers at New College.
Notable former students of Hoxton or Highbury include tutors and college heads such as George Payne (Blackburn Independent Academy and Western Academy), John Harris (Cheshunt College and New College, London), Henry Rogers (University College, London; Spring Hill College; Lancashire Independent College), Michael Daniel Jones (Bala Independent College), and the ecclesiastical historian John Stoughton (New College, London); the MP Henry Richard; the royal librarian Bernard Woodward; the liberal theologian James Baldwin Brown; the missionary to Hong Kong James Legge, who became the first nonconformist professor at Oxford when appointed to the newly endowed Chair of Chinese; and the novelist and fantasy writer George MacDonald.
The Highbury buildings were bought in 1850 by the Church of England Metropolitan Training Institution and then by the London College of Divinity in 1865. They were demolished in 1951 and replaced by London County Council flats.
The main archival sources for Hoxton [Independent] Academy and Highbury College are held by the Congregational Library and Dr Williams's Library. These include the minutes of the English Evangelical Academy (Dr Williams's Library, MS NCL/126/1) and the Coward Trust (Dr Williams's Library, MS NCL/CT2).
'Religious Intelligence', Evangelical Magazine, 4 (1796), 464.
'Extract from a Report lately printed of the Hoxton Academy', Evangelical Magazine, 11 (1804), 94-95.
'Highbury College, Islington, Middlesex', Congregational Year Book (1846), 134-5.
'Memoir of the Rev. Robert Simpson, D.D', Evangelical Magazine, 26 (1818) 457-63.
Munden, Alan, 'Highbury College, Islington, 1826-1951', Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 6:5 (November 1999), 321-27.
Peel, Albert, 'Life at Hoxton College, 1820-1823, being part of the Autobiography of Alexander Stewart', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 15 (1945-48), 75-84.
Plan of the Evangelical Academy, Hoxton. The Reverend Robert Simpson, Tutor [London,1794?].
Stoughton, John, Recollections of a Long Life (London, 1894), 16-22.
Wilson, Joshua, Memoir of the Life and Character of Thomas Wilson, Treasurer of Highbury College (London, 1849).
David Thompson, 'Hoxton [Independent] Academy (1791-1826) and Highbury College (1826-1850)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, March 2012.