Between 1836 and 1840 a Synod of the Presbyterian Churches in England was established by the joining together of initially two and eventually six presbyteries in connexion with the Church of Scotland. For a variety of reasons the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided in 1839 to declare the English Synod independent, and the Presbyterian Church in England came formally into being. Although the Assembly had assumed that the English Church would continue to draw its ministers from Scotland, some in England felt otherwise, and in 1842 the Presbytery of Lancashire presented an overture to the Synod meeting in Carlisle that means should be adopted 'for the establishment of a College, in which natives of this part of the Empire may obtain at a moderate charge the benefits of a literary, philosophical, and theological education, to qualify them for the office of the holy Ministry in the Presbyterian Church' (Abstract of the Minutes of the Synod (1842), 33). A committee was appointed which reported to the Synod at Berwick in 1844, where it was agreed to establish such a college. The urgency of such a move had been intensified by the fact that half of the Church's ministers had left to take vacant parishes in Scotland after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. On 5 November 1844 the college was opened, with a lecture at the Literary Institute in Leicester Square by Peter Lorimer outlining the history of the college and his hopes for it. Described clearly as a 'hall of theology', it was also intended to remedy the problem of 'an un-English ministry', with an 'un-English voice and manner and address' and a Scottish heart longing for a speedy return (Introductory Lectures (1845), 1, 11). The committee's attempts to secure theological professors from Scotland were unsuccessful – it had been seeking candidates from the Free Church of Scotland. Three ministers in England, Peter Lorimer, Hugh Campbell, and James Hamilton, were appointed to act as interim professors.
In the early years, lectures for certain courses, particularly those related to pastoral theology, were given by various London ministers, notably James Hamilton, minister of Regent Square Church. In 1845 Peter Lorimer was appointed Professor of Hebrew and Biblical Criticism, and Hugh Campbell Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Jurisprudence. In 1846 Thomas McCrie was appointed Professor of Theology and Church History.
The first classes were held in rooms at Exeter Hall in the Strand, and this arrangement lasted for eight years. Twenty-three students attended classes in the session of 1844-45, twenty-seven in 1845-46. As well as ministerial students, there were young laymen interested in theology, some elders of local churches, and some city missionaries wanting further instruction: there were also preliminary evening classes in Latin, Greek, Mathematics and Logic, which proved attractive to 'young men in business desirous of self-improvement' (Douglas (ed.), Westminster College, 4-5). Of the twenty-seven students in 1846, eighteen were ministerial students. But from 1847 the number fell suddenly (possibly because of the establishment of the Free Church New College in Edinburgh in that year), and only thirty-five students entered in the next ten years. In 1852 the college moved to 51 Great Ormond Street, then in 1858 round the corner to 29 Queen Square, and in 1864 to Queen Square House, where it remained until its removal to Cambridge and transformation into Westminster College in 1899. The principal advantage of Queen Square House was the provision of accommodation for students. So despite the original intentions there were lay students as well as ministerial from the beginning.
Students came from Wales and Ireland as well as England; at the end of the 1853 session only seventeen of the sixty-seven students who had passed through the college had been ordained in the Presbyterian Church in England. By 1863 thirty had been ordained, the remainder in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, Australia, and China. For the most part, the Presbyterian Church in England, although conservative theologically, was not wracked by the internal controversies that beset the Free Church of Scotland. The Queen Square students had regular meetings at their Students' Society, formed in 1852, at which papers on the controversial topics of the day, historical and scientific, were read. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Queen Square was much closer to the University of London than the Congregational Colleges in north London, its students were less involved in the Arts courses.
In the 1890s the debate about a move to Cambridge began, resulting in the establishment of Westminster College in 1899. In 1967 Cheshunt College, which had moved to Cambridge in 1907, united with Westminster, so when the United Reformed Church was formed in 1972, Westminster already united the Presbyterian and Congregational strands of the new Church.
The archives of the college are housed at Westminster College, Cambridge.
Abstract of the Minutes of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in England, in Connection with the Church of Scotland (Manchester, 1842).
College Jubilee Supplement, The Presbyterian (29 November 1894).
Cornick, David, ' "Our School of the Prophets". The Presbyterian Church in England and its College, 1844-1876', Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 5: 5 (November 1994), 283-98.
Douglas, A. Halliday (ed.), Westminster College, Cambridge: An Account of the Opening of the College at Cambridge on 17 October 1899 with a History of the College from its Foundation in 1844 to the Present Time (London, 1900). The Introductory Lectures at the Opening of the English Presbyterian College, November 1844 (London, 1845).
Knox, R. Buick, Westminster College Cambridge: Its Background and History (Cambridge, n.d. ).
Levi, Leone, Digest of the Actings and Proceedings of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in England, 1836-1876 (London, 1877), 117-48.
Lorimer, Peter, A Sketch of the Life and Labours of the late Rev. Hugh Campbell (London, 1855).
Reid, John, 'The Old College: Its Professors and Students', The Presbyterian Messenger (July-October 1899), 172-4, 205-7, 231-3, 257-8.
David Thompson, 'The Presbyterian College, London (1844-1899)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, March 2012.