Blackburn Independent Academy (1816-1843)

The Blackburn Independent Academy was founded in 1816. It succeeded previous efforts to establish a Congregationalist academy in Lancashire during the early nineteenth century, first at Mosley Street, Manchester and then Leaf Square, Pendleton. The initiative for founding the new institution came from a group of ministers and laymen, including the Mosley Street tutor William Roby, Thomas Raffles, minister at Great George Street, Liverpool, and wealthy Manchester solicitor and future MP George Hadfield. The academy remained in Blackburn for twenty-seven years, transferring to Whalley Range, Manchester, as Lancashire Independent College in 1843. The geographical constituency to be served was identified at the foundation as Lancashire and neighbouring counties, defined as Cheshire, Derbyshire, Cumberland, Westmoreland and north western Yorkshire.

Details of the location and domestic arrangements of the academy during its first sixteen years are sketchy. In July 1816 a contract was agreed with Dorothy Beasley, a widow living a Paradise Terrace, King Street, for boarding students at a rate of not more than £40 per annum. When Mrs Beasley resigned in 1819 the domestic management of the academy was taken over by the theological tutor, Joseph Fletcher. A sub-committee was appointed for fitting up studies and a library, probably at premises adjoining Fletcher's house in Princes Street. This building was given up in June 1829 in preparation for an abortive attempt to relocate the academy to Manchester. In 1832 a newly built property at Ainsworth Street was rented and fitted up for use as an academy house. During the early years at Blackburn the number of students in the academy at any one time was usually around 10, with numbers increasing to 14 following the move to Ainsworth Street. Fifty-three students formally completed their course of study, while a total of 78 were admitted, including 13 who transferred to Lancashire Independent College in 1843. The remainder left before the completion of their course. Applicants for admission were required to submit a testimony from their church as to their character and qualifications for the ministry, present a brief account of their religious beliefs and motives, and deliver a short address before the committee. On admission to the academy students were provided with board and lodging, and were not expected to pay towards their own tuition. The term of study was initially set at four years, but in 1837 the committee resolved that a discretionary fifth year be added.

Two future dissenting academy heads were educated at Blackburn: William Hendry Stowell, principal of Rotherham Independent College (1834-50) and Cheshunt (1850-64), and John Morris, head of Brecon Memorial College for over forty years. Thomas Nicholas entered Blackburn in 1842 before transferring to Lancashire Independent College. He went on to have a brief and unsuccessful spell as theological tutor at the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, and was involved in moves to establish a university for Wales in the 1860s. Other notable students included Alexander Raleigh, chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1868 and 1879, and James Rhys Kilsby Jones, a minister and regular contributor to Welsh periodicals who published a Welsh edition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1869) and a Welsh family Bible (1869).

The curriculum as defined at the foundation of the institution covered scriptural languages, Jewish and Christian antiquities, ecclesiastical history, physical science, intellectual and moral philosophy, Biblical criticism, controversial and systematic theology, the duties of pastoral office, and 'the most efficient methods of analizing, explaining and illustrating the discoveries of revelation' (Address to the Public, 21). In 1825 a new plan was adopted, comprising Latin, Greek, oriental languages, history, geography, mathematics, natural philosophy, theory of language and general grammar, mental philosophy, theology, and ecclesiastical history. An appeal for books to form a library was made in 1816, and funds were raised to acquire titles requested by the tutors. The first students were granted access to Joseph Fletcher's own collection of 600 volumes and to Roger Cunliffe's share in the Blackburn Subscription Library. Space in the academy building at Ainsworth Street was limited, and the library was accommodated in a room also used for classical lectures. This was unsatisfactory, since books could not be accessed without disturbing the classical tutor while lectures were in progress. When the academy closed in 1843, 2,000 volumes were transferred to Lancashire Independent College. Many books were in poor physical condition, and the collection was described as 'seriously deficient in nearly every branch of literature' (Lancashire Independent College Report, 1843, 11). In 1819 £30 was allowed for the purchase of globes, mathematical instruments and atlases.

Three theological tutors served the academy during its lifetime. The first, Joseph Fletcher, was minister of the congregational church at Blackburn from 1807, and it was to this that the academy owed its location. An early student, William Hendry Stowell, described Fletcher's teaching methods as combining the 'advantages of lectures, as in the Scottish Universities' with the 'minutest attention to the acquisition of learning secured by the method of tutors at Oxford and at Cambridge' (Stowell, Memoir, 30). When Fletcher accepted a call from the meeting at Stepney in 1822 his post was offered to William Roby. When Roby declined, Fletcher was succeeded by George Payne, who wrote Elements of Mental and Moral Science (1828) while holding the theological chair. Payne subsequently moved to the equivalent post at the Western Academy in Exeter in 1829, his position in Blackburn being taken by Gilbert Wardlaw the following year. Wardlaw remained in post until the academy moved to Manchester, by which time his failing eyesight had caused him to resign. On the insistence of Joseph Fletcher a classical tutor was appointed to assist the theological tutor, a post held in succession by William Hope (1816-19), William Howle (1819-21), Gilbert Wardlaw (1821-23), Ebenezer Miller (1824-27), William Lindsay Alexander (1828-31) and Daniel Burgess Hayward (1832-43).

The institution was under the direction of a committee of eight ministers and thirteen laymen, and funded by voluntary subscriptions, donations and congregational collections. An endowment of £100 per annum from Roger Cunliffe, the academy's first treasurer, continued after Cunliffe's death in 1822 on condition the institution remained at Blackburn. However, this was not enough to enable the academy to flourish. A printed circular of 1838 complained that the town itself was uninviting, and described the domestic arrangements as inadequate. The premises occupied were too small, cold, damp, and poorly constructed, and had the effect of presenting the academy as 'a half-neglected institution of the minor class' (JRUL, NCC, Box 19, Bundle A, Printed Circular, 26 November 1838). In putting the case for moving the academy, George Hadfield noted that Blackburn was too far from the main centres of population and that moving to Manchester or Liverpool would greatly increase the financial means available to it.

By the end of the Blackburn period, the high standard of education under Joseph Fletcher that William Stowell looked back on fondly in later life had declined. Robert MacBeth, one of the students who transferred to Lancashire Independent College in 1843, described how the impending move to Manchester and the failing eyesight of Gilbert Wardlaw had left the leadership of the academy to the students themselves, particularly Alexander Raleigh and Watson Smith. However, despite the financial difficulties and unsatisfactory nature of the location, the academy was generally successful in achieving its stated aim of educating ministers. Information on future careers is known for 63 students, of whom 61 entered the ministry or became missionaries, one became a school teacher and one, Daniel Burgess Hayward, served as a tutor in the academy. Most remained within the nonconformist tradition, although two later entered the Church of England. With the exception of a few errant individuals, the academy does not appear to have suffered from any great disciplinary problems. The last formal business was conducted at a meeting of the committee held in Blackburn on 20 April 1843.

Simon N. Dixon


The principal archival collection for Blackburn Academy is held at John Rylands University Library as part of the Northern Congregational College Archives. The most important evidence for the life and management of the academy is the committee minutes, which survive in full, and the correspondence of George Hadfield. The Hadfield papers are particularly informative on the financial management of the institution and the arrangements for the relocation to Lancashire Independent College. Among the correspondents are Thomas Raffles, Gilbert Wardlaw and John Clunie.

Published sources

Abram, W. Alexander, A Century of Independency in Blackburn 1778-1878 (Blackburn, 1878).
Blackburn Independent Academy Annual Reports.
Blackburn Independent Academy, for the Education of Pious Young Men for the Christian Ministry: Address to the Public (Manchester, 1816).
Fletcher, Joseph Jr, The Select Works and Memoirs of the late Rev. Joseph Fletcher, D. D., 3 vols. (London, 1846).
Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: A History of Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999).
McLachlan, H., English Education Under the Test Acts: Being the History of the Nonconformist Academies 1662-1820 (Manchester, 1931).
Raleigh, Mary, Alexander Raleigh: Records of His Life (Edinburgh, 1881).
Slate, R., A Brief History of the Lancashire Congregational Union and Blackburn Academy (London, 1840).
Stowell, William, Memoir of the Life & Labours of the Rev. William Hendry Stowell, 2nd edn (London, 1860).
Thompson, Joseph, Lancashire Independent College 1843-93 (Manchester, 1893).



See Cotton Town website for photographs of the Independent Academy, Ainsworth Street and 41-51 Ainsworth Street. [Links open in new window]

Simon N. Dixon, 'Blackburn Independent Academy (1816-1843)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011, revised October 2012.