King's Head Society Academies (1731-1769)

Including Samuel Parsons's Academy, Clerkenwell Green (1731-35); Abraham Taylor's Academy, Deptford (1735-40); Stepney Academy (1740-44); Plaisterer's Hall Academy (1744-54); Mile End Academy (1754-69)

The King's Head Society was established in 1730 to promote evangelical dissent and provide students with an orthodox education for the ministry. It took its name from the King's Head tavern at Sweeting's Alley, near the Royal Exchange in London, where meetings were held until 1742. The Society's immediate objective was to take a stand 'against the prevailing errors of the day' through sponsoring a series of lectures (i.e. sermons): these were delivered at the meeting house of Revd Robert Bragge in Lime Street between November 1730 and April 1731 (Medway, 59). The lectures, by Bragge, Abraham Taylor, Thomas Bradbury, and others, were published under the title A Defence of Some Important Doctrines of the Gospel (London, 1732). The second objective, to educate young men for the ministry, was realised in 1731 when Samuel Parsons was appointed as the Society's first tutor. Candidates supported by the Society were required to subscribe to A Declaration as to some Controverted Points of Christian Doctrine (London 1732), and were examined on points of doctrine every three months to ensure they continued to hold orthodox beliefs. Students were not expected to have already received a classical education, and the term of study was set at six years.

The Society's records do not survive before 1737, and as a result almost nothing is known about the academy operated by Parsons for four years from 1731. Parsons himself is an obscure figure, who had held a pastorate at Basingstoke for several years before moving to London. The students under his care boarded with him at Clerkenwell Green, although no information about the curriculum they followed survives. The names of nineteen men who received at least some of their education from Parsons are known. He removed to Witham, Essex, in 1735, when Abraham Taylor succeeded him as tutor. It is sometimes stated that Parsons and Taylor served concurrently, with Parsons teaching classics to the students before they proceeded to the theological course under Taylor. However, no contemporary evidence in support of this assertion has been found. A list of students in the earliest surviving minute book of the King's Head Society clearly distinguishes between those taught by Parsons from 1731, and those who studied with Taylor after 1735.

Taylor, one of the Lime Street lecturers, was a rigid Calvinist with a short temper. On one occasion he is reported to have 'inflicted a disgraceful corporal punishment' on two students who had travelled to Kennington to hear George Whitefield preach (Evangelical Magazine, 5 (1797), 7). Under Taylor's tutorship the academy removed to Deptford, where he had been minister since 1728. The full range of subjects taught at Deptford is not known, although when Thomas Gibbons resigned as a student in 1737 the Society's minutes recorded his complaints that logic was not being taught and that the introductory lectures in divinity were 'too close to Classical Learning' (DWL, MS NCL/105/1, p. 5). When questioned, Gibbons reported hearing that Taylor did intend to introduce regular logic lectures, and the survival of two sets of manuscript notes show that this was the case. Taylor's lectures on natural theology, which also survive, were based heavily upon Marck's Medulla. In September 1739 it was agreed to employ a Mr Ray to assist Taylor by lecturing in mathematics and philosophy, and in November of that year the students were examined in Hebrew, logic, and divinity.

In addition to the King's Head Society students, Taylor provided tuition to a number supported by William Coward (1647/8-1738). After Coward's death, his trustees, who included Isaac Watts, withdrew support from the academy at Deptford. This deprived Taylor of a considerable part of his income, since the eight young men in his care funded by Coward received an annual allowance of £18 each. Whether this had a direct impact on Taylor's relationship with the King's Head Society is not recorded. However, in March 1740 the Society granted the students a month's vacation 'on acct of ye unhappy Circumstances of their Tutor' (DWL, MS NCL/105/1, p. 36). A committee appointed to enquire into his affairs concluded that they were 'such as to render him incapable of serving the Society any longer in the capacity of a Tutor', and Revd John Hubbard was appointed to replace him (DWL, MS NCL/105/1, p. 37). Nothing is known of Taylor after this date, although he is thought to have died in poverty.

Hubbard had been minister at Stepney Meeting for some twenty years, and was an active member of the King's Head Society. His name often appears among those taking part in examinations at Deptford. In expressing his willingness to become tutor, Hubbard stated that he could accept no less than £24 per year for the board of each student, and requested that a further £30 be allowed for the appointment of a grammar and philosophical tutor. The students, at least three of whom had begun their education with Parsons in Clerkenwell, removed to Stepney, and in November 1742 it was resolved that the institution should be known as the Stepney Academy. Very little information survives concerning the curriculum taught by Hubbard. In November 1740 the committee appointed to examine students on their academic studies found the first class to have made good progress in Hebrew, and the second class to have shown improvement in divinity and chronology. In 1741 £5 was allowed to Mr Young, probably a senior student named George Lewis Young, for assisting Hubbard 'in Grammar Learning' (DWL, MS NCL/106, p. 48). The following April John Walker was allowed 20 guineas a year for providing tuition in classics, mathematics, and philosophy. Hubbard died in July 1743 and the King's Head Society was left in need of a new theological tutor for the fourth time in twelve years.

It is at this point that the history of the King's Head Society's academy begins to overlap with the Congregational Fund Board's efforts to train ministers in London. While the King's Head Society, Congregational Fund Board, and Coward Trust all operated independently from one another there was overlap between them. Many of the more conservative members of the Congregational Fund Board were active within the King's Head Society, while John Guyse was a Coward Trustee who regularly chaired meetings of both the Society and the Fund Board. Following Hubbard's death, the Society approached Zephaniah Marryatt, a Presbyterian and minister at Deadman's Place, Southwark, to succeed Hubbard as theological tutor. Marryatt was approaching the age of sixty, and was reluctant to accept the position on a permanent basis. For a while he provided tuition to the students at Stepney, where board was still provided for them by Hubbard's widow. Meanwhile, John Eames, theological tutor in the academy at Moorfields, died suddenly in June 1744. The Coward Trust, which had elected to send students to Eames rather than Taylor, appointed David Jennings of Wellclose Square to provide tuition to the young men under its care in London. However, in August the Congregational Fund Board chose to send its students to Marryatt, allowing him £30 a year. On learning of this, the King's Head Society agreed that Marryatt be 'rechosen to be Tutor to the young men under the Care of the Society' (DWL, MS NCL/106, p.91). Marryatt agreed to receive as many as thirty students, and accommodation was obtained at Plaisterer's Hall in Addle Street, London. Walker, whose services were retained, became responsible for the domestic management of the institution. In April 1753 Walker reported that the Hall was full, and the Society began sending a few students to receive their classical tuition from Revd James Webb of Hitchin. This arrangement seems to have lasted until 1755 when James Davies and Thomas Waldegrave, two students with Webb, were found guilty of 'very criminal practices together of a Scandalous and Immoral nature' and dismissed from the Society's care (DWL, MS NCL/106, p.162).

The academy continued at Plaisterer's Hall under Marryatt and Walker for ten years. According to Thomas Hall, who delivered his funeral sermon, Marryatt was highly regarded as a man of learning, particularly for his knowledge of Greek literature. It was said that there were 'very few, if any of the Books wrote by the ancient Greeks, and handed down to our Times, but what he had read in their own Language' (Hall, 46). John Pye Smith, in an account of the history of Homerton College, commented that Walker 'possessed no ordinary degree of attainment' in classical and Hebrew learning (Medway, 60). The regular academic and doctrinal examinations continued, with committees appointed by both the King's Head Society and the Congregational Fund Board to examine their respective students. From 1751 the Society agreed that 'future examinations in Academical Studies be in English' (DWL, MS NCL/106, p. 62). It was also the practice on these occasions for the examining committee to ask the students whether they were satisfied with the tuition and boarding arrangements they received. They normally reported that they were happy on both accounts, but in July 1751 'a universal dissatisfaction with the Housekeeper' was noted (DWL, MS NCL/106, p. 63). The incident prompted the Society to issue a new set of rules to which students must adhere. They were required to attend all lectures unless the tutor granted permission for their absence, and expected to attend family prayer twice a day. Students were not permitted to enter the kitchen 'except upon special occasions', and visitors were discouraged. One rule in particular reflects the hazards of locating the academy right in the heart of London, with students strictly forbidden from attending 'any Playhouse or place of Public diversion' (DWL, MS NCL/106, p. 63).

The lure of metropolitan entertainments, along with the lack of space for receiving new students at Plaisterer's Hall, probably explains why the Society began to discuss relocating the academy from the City to the suburbs in October 1753. A committee was appointed to consider the matter further, and resolved that the institution would be better located somewhere within three miles of the City. At this point, the relationship between the King's Head Society and the Congregational Fund Board was formalised, with the appointment of a joint committee to consider the relocation of the academy and to manage its future business. By March 1754 it was becoming clear that Zephaniah Marryatt would be unable to continue as theological tutor for much longer, and in April he informed the joint committee that he was in a 'dying condition' (DWL, MS NCL/106, p. 125). The committee were in agreement that the purposes of the academy would be best served by the employment of three tutors. They recommended the appointment of Revd John Conder of Hog Hill Independent Church, Cambridge, as divinity tutor, to be assisted in other areas of the curriculum by Walker and Revd Thomas Gibbons, minister at Haberdasher's Hall. Under the new arrangements, students were to board with the divinity tutor. The academy continued at Plaisterer's Hall for a few more months, but by November premises had been obtained opposite Bancroft's Hospital in Mile End Old Town, an area that remained rural in the mid-eighteenth century. Teaching commenced at Mile End in December 1754.

More evidence survives concerning the curriculum taught at Mile End than during previous phases in the academy's history. Two sets of manuscript notes on Conder's lectures on systematic theology survive from this period, and copies of those on preaching and Jewish antiquities delivered at Homerton probably reflect his teaching at Mile End. Gibbons's involvement with the academy is documented in his diaries, which cover the whole of his period as tutor at Mile End and Homerton. He delivered lectures on rhetoric, logic, ethics, and metaphysics, although he regarded this work as secondary to his pastoral responsibilities. In 1758 he expressed relief that he had 'finished the last Lecture of the four Year's Course of Lectures at the Academy' and had therefore 'acquired a Sett of Lectures for my whole future Life' (CL, II.a.3, 26 May 1758). Walker continued to teach classics, although little is known about his teaching at Plaisterer's Hall, Mile End, and Homerton. In September 1756 the examination committee reported with satisfaction on the students' progress in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Jewish antiquities, divinity, rhetoric, and ontology.

For a couple of years during the Mile End period the academy witnessed significant student unrest. In 1757 Conder reported misconduct by the students, some of whom had complained about his lectures and management of the academy. A committee appointed to examine the complaints found that their only cause to disapprove of Conder was that his moderate temperament made him too indulgent towards the young men in his care. In the aftermath of the affair new resolutions were passed prohibiting students from frequenting alehouses or bringing strong liquor into the house. The following year, matters deteriorated further when a private letter of John Stafford, a senior student, was stolen and conveyed to Revd Thomas Towle, a member of the King's Head Society. The contents of the letter are not recorded, but the intention was to inflict damage to Stafford's reputation. Seven students were dismissed from the care of the Society, and an eighth resigned the following month. Three of those disciplined remained at the Mile End academy with bursaries from the Congregational Fund Board, while the remainder were accepted by the Presbyterian Fund and continued their studies in David Jennings's Academy at Wellclose Square. A resolution of the King's Head Society ordering students to have nothing to do with Towle was passed, and remained in force until it was rescinded in 1784.

As early as January 1764 the issue of the lease on the houses occupied by the academy at Mile End was under discussion. The matter was discussed without conclusion for over three years, and in August 1767 a surveyor was appointed to provide an estimate for repairing the existing two buildings and erecting a third. The total cost of £1,310 was deemed prohibitive, and an alternative location was sought. After sites in Islington, Dalston, and Hackney had been rejected, negotiations were begun with the widow of Mr Hawtyn for a house at Homerton. The purchase of the estate was completed in October 1768 and the academy was relocated from Mile End the following September.

The names of over 160 students who studied at the academies at Clerkenwell Green, Deptford, Stepney, Plaisterer's Hall, and Mile End are known. They include a number who became academy tutors, such as Gibbons, Conder, Daniel Fisher, John Fell, and Henry Mayo. Caleb Evans, a student at Mile End, was tutor and later Principal of Bristol Baptist Academy. Among those who became prominent Independent ministers were David Bradberry, William Kingsbury, Robert Robinson, and John Stafford. Two students later became physicians of note: Thomas Cogan and Sayer Walker. Joseph Priestley famously refused to attend the academy at Plaisterer's Hall on the basis that he was at that time an Arminian. The King's Head Society's reputation for strict Calvinism, and the religious tests imposed on candidates, must have helped it to avoid the doctrinal disputes that affected other eighteenth-century academies.

Simon N. Dixon


The main archival sources for the Mile End academy and its predecessors are the records of the King's Head Society (DWL, MS NCL/105-108) and Congregational Fund Board (DWL, MS OD403; MS OD405-406; MS OD455). A full record of the curriculum does not survive for the pre-Homerton period, although there are manuscript copies of Abraham Taylor's lectures on theology and logic in the Congregational Library (CL, MSS I.d.24; I.d.25, I.e.29) and Dr Williams's Library (DWL, MS 69.24). A least two versions of John Conder's divinity lectures from Mile End are also extant (CL, MSS I.f.25-6; I.h.4-9). Thomas Gibbons's diary provides a record of life in the final months at Plaisterer's Hall and throughout the Mile End period. While the entries are generally brief, they provide a valuable sense of the routines of academy life and the attitude of a tutor to his duties (CL, II.a.3).

Published sources

Briggs, J. H. Y., 'Conder, John (1714-1781)', ODNB.
Congregational Magazine, n.s. 8 (1825), 133-6; 187-193.
Evangelical Magazine, 5 (1797), 5-18.
Hall, Thomas and Thomas Towle, A Sermon Occasioned by the Sudden Death of the Reverend and Learned Zephaniah Marryat (London, 1754).
Medway, John, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Pye Smith (London, 1853).
Nuttall, Geoffrey F., New College, London and its Library (London, 1977).
Rules Agreed upon to be Observed, with Relation to the Encouragement of Young Men, Who Are Enclined to Give Themselves up to the Work of the Ministry (London, 1732).
Schofield, Robert E., 'Priestley, Joseph (1733-1804)', ODNB.
Simms, T. H., Homerton College 1695-1978: From Dissenting Academy to Approved Society in the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1979).
Thompson, John Handby, A History of the Coward Trust: The First Two Hundred and Fifty Years 1738-1998 (Cambridge, 1998).
Thompson, John Handby, 'Gibbons, Thomas (1720-1785)', ODNB.
Thompson, John Handby, 'Taylor, Abraham (fl. 1726-1740)', ODNB.
Wykes, David L., 'The Contribution of the Dissenting Academy to the Emergence of Rational Dissent', in Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge, 1996), 99-139.

Simon N. Dixon, 'King's Head Society Academies (1731-1769)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.