New College, Hackney (1786-1796)

The origins of New College, Hackney can be traced to a meeting that took place at the London Coffee House in Cheapside on 13 December 1785. The founding of New College was designed to remedy the shortage of places for ministerial training following the closure of the academies at Warrington and Hoxton. New College was based at Dr. Williams's Library in Cripplegate during its first academic year from 1786 to 1787. On 29 September 1787 it transferred to its magnificent new premises in Hackney, then a wealthy village three miles from London. Set in eighteen acres of carefully manicured pleasure-gardens, the College (formerly Homerton Hall) had originally been built for the Governor of the Bank of England, Stamp Brooksbank. It had been designed by the architect Colen Cambell and completed in 1732, five years after work had begun on it, at a cost of £28,000. Once the New College governors purchased the property, accommodation wings were added to the east and west sides of the building, giving the College an air of grandeur that announced the high aspirations of its founders. Open to students from any denomination, New College was the most ambitious and controversial of the eighteenth-century liberal academies.

It quickly attracted considerable funds and resources. The governors at the recently dissolved Warrington Academy donated scientific apparatus and half their remaining funds to the new institution. New College also acquired the loan of the library used at the second Exeter Academy (1760-71). In addition, by November 1788 it had received more than £11,000 in benefactions from around the country: Thomas Corbyn (1711-91), a wealthy Quaker from Worcester who had made money as a pharmaceutical chemist and apothecary, bequeathed £2,000; and Robert Newton (1713-89), a Derbyshire landowner who had been educated at Findern Academy with Theophilus Lindsey, donated at least £1,500. An array of distinguished figures also donated large sums. As a result, New College flourished throughout the late 1780s. Student numbers rose from six in 1786, to twelve in 1787, to fourteen in 1788, to thirty-four in 1789, and to a peak of forty-nine in 1790 (nineteen ministerial and thirty lay students). In the early 1790s, however, student numbers began to decline as the College's reputation was marred by controversy. In 1794 there were around twenty students in residence, a fact that exacerbated the financial difficulties of the institution. In total, 106 students are known to have passed through the College.

The institution was governed by an independent general committee consisting of sixty members, each of whom was either an annual subscriber or a governor for life. Although the general committee was required to meet annually, any group of thirteen members were empowered to act on behalf of the institution. Meetings attended by between thirteen and thirty governors met to discuss College business twice a month. From the general committee four members were elected as trustees. Thomas Rogers (1735-1793), a wealthy banker of Newington Green and the father of the poet Samuel, was the Chairman of Governors from 1786 until his death; he was succeeded by the Unitarian Member of Parliament for Camelford, William Smith (1756-1835). The New College governing committee consisted of an array of notable figures including Thomas Brand Hollis, J. T. Rutt, Capel Lofft, John Disney, Samuel Rogers, Joseph Johnson, and nine Members of Parliament.

In addition, the College attracted a number of celebrated tutors, several of whom were fellows of the Royal Society. In total, eighteen tutors were appointed between 1786 and 1796. The founding tutors were Richard Price, Andrew Kippis, Abraham Rees, and Hugh Worthington. Price taught mathematics and moral philosophy; Kippis belles lettres, including universal grammar, rhetoric, chronology, and history; Rees divinity, Hebrew, Jewish antiquities, and ecclesiastical history; and Worthington logic and classics. Lectures on experimental philosophy and elocution were also advertised in the College report for 1786. The academic year began on the third Monday in September and ended on the first day of July. Lay students followed a three-year course and were charged sixty guineas for the year, including board and education. The course for ministerial students was five years in duration and they studied at a greatly reduced cost. In most instances, they received grants from the Presbyterian Fund.

Although the College developed rapidly in the late 1780s, it began to experience financial difficulties following a series of costly building projects. In total, more than £13,000 was spent on the purchase of Homerton Hall and major building works alone. These difficulties were accentuated by the institution's developing reputation as a centre of theological and political radicalism. Thomas Belsham's appointment as a tutor in 1789 marked the beginning of an important transition from a dissenting academy to a Unitarian seminary. Belsham instituted a series of reforms to the curriculum which placed emphasis on Unitarian ideas: in his theology lectures he began to focus on the doctrinal controversy surrounding the Trinity, whilst his philosophy lectures were firmly grounded on the doctrines of philosophical necessity and materialism. The shift towards Unitarianism was affirmed in 1791 when Joseph Priestley was appointed as tutor of natural philosophy and history following the Birmingham Riots.

The institution's reputation for theological heterodoxy was accompanied by a political radicalism inspired by the French Revolution. In June 1792 Thomas Paine was the guest of honour at a republican supper held at New College, only a month after he had been summoned to answer a charge of seditious libel for the second part of The Rights of Man. Three months later a French spy, François Noël, formerly Professor of Belles Lettres at the University of Paris, dined with Joseph Priestley at the College. Noël had been introduced to Priestley by the College's tutor of French and Italian, John Scipio Sabonadière (1752-1825), a man with high political connections who may well have been working as a French agent throughout this time at Hackney. Finally, in May 1794 William Stone, a prominent New College governor, was arrested on a charge of High Treason. He was accused of providing military intelligence to the new French republic. At the heart of the case was his correspondence with William Jackson (1737?-95), an Irish journalist who was also working as a French spy. Three other New College governors, Benjamin Vaughan, John Hurford Stone, and the chairman, William Smith, were also implicated in the plot. Although these men were not charged, William Stone was tried early in 1796. After a lengthy trial he was finally acquitted and released.

Within a few months of Stone's acquittal New College closed its doors as bankruptcy loomed. On 23 June 1796 the College and its grounds were sold at auction for £5,700. Four years later the main building was razed to the ground by developers. Despite its early demise, New College is of considerable significance within the intellectual, political, religious, and cultural life of the late eighteenth century. It was widely admired as a centre of learning and among its list of governors, tutors, and students can be found many of the most distinguished figures of the age. William Hazlitt, Jeremiah Joyce, Arthur Aikin, and William Shepherd were notable alumni, and a broad range of New College students went on to lead influential careers as writers, scientists, physicians, politicians, ministers, and tutors. Its legacy was felt throughout the early nineteenth century, notably at Manchester College, York: Charles Wellbeloved, a former New College student, was appointed as Principal of Manchester College in 1803.

Stephen Burley


Dr Williams's Library, London holds the administrative records of New College, Hackney (MS 38.14) and correspondence relating to its origins and establishment (MS 187.2). Other valuable records of College life can be found in correspondence of Theophilus Lindsey, part of the Unitarian College collection held at John Rylands University Library, and in the autobiographical reminiscences of Thomas Starling Norgate held at the Norfolk Records Office (MS Horæ Otiose).

Published Sources

[Anonymous], Salutary Admonitions to the Dissenters, in a Letter to Thomas Rogers, Chairman of the Committee for the Establishment of a New Academical Institution (London, 1787).
Belsham, Thomas, Knowledge the Foundation of Virtue: A Sermon Addressed to the Young Persons who Attend the Gravel Pit Meeting, Hackney (London, 1795).
----- , Memoirs of the Late Theophilus Lindsey (London, 1812).
----- , The Importance of Truth, and the Duty of Making an Open Profession of It (London, 1790).
Burley, Stephen, ed., 'New College, Hackney: A Collection of Printed and Archival Sources',
Kenrick, John, A Biographical Memoir of the Late Reverend Charles Wellbeloved (London, 1860).
Lindsey, Theophilus, The Letters of Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808), ed. G. M. Ditchfield (Woodbridge, 2007).
McLachlan, H., 'The Old Hackney College, 1786-96', TUHS, 3.3 (1925), 185-205.
[New College, Hackney], List of Subscribers to the New Academical Institution (London, 1788).
----- , Report, &c. New London, Jan. 16, 1786 (London, 1786).
----- , Report, &c. New London, Jan. 16, 1787 (London, 1787).
----- , Report, &c. New London, Jan. 16, 1788 (London, 1788).
----- , Report, &c. New London, Jan 21, 1789 (London, 1789).
----- , Report, &c. New London, Jan. 16, 1790 (London, 1790).
Pope, John, Observations on the Miraculous Conception . . . to which are added Remarks on Mr Wakefield's Opinion Concerning Matt. xxvii.5 (London, 1792).
Price, Richard, The Evidence for a Future Period of Improvement in the State of Mankind (London, 1787).
Priestley, Joseph, Letters to a Young Man occasioned by Mr Wakefield's Essay on Public Worship (London, 1792).
----- , The Present State of Europe compared with Ancient Prophecies, A Sermon (London, 1794).
----- , The Proper Objects of Education in the Present State of the World (London, 1791).
Stephenson, H. W., 'Hackney College and William Hazlitt 1', Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, 4:3 (1929), 219-47.
----- , 'Hackney College and William Hazlitt 2', Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, 4:4 (1930), 376-411.
----- , William Hazlitt and Hackney College (London, 1930).
Wakefield, Gilbert, An Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Social Worship, 2nd edn (London, 1792).
----- , Short Strictures on the Rev. Doctor Priestley's Letters to a Young Man, concerning Mr Wakefield's Treatise on Public Worship (London, 1792).


Two extant images of the New College, Hackney building are held at the London Borough of Hackney Archives. The site on which the College stood is now occupied by the Jack Dunning Estate, a residential council block situated between Homerton University Hospital and Lower Clapton Road.

Stephen Burley, 'New College, Hackney (1786-96)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011, rev. November 2020.