Cotton End Academy (1840-1874)

On 2 October 1839 the directors of the Congregational Home Missionary Society met to consider the 'best means of providing a Succession of well-trained Missionaries for the service of this Society' (CL, III. 4. 60, p. 401). Mr J. C. Evans presented strong views on the subject, and two weeks later he offered a detailed plan on how the desired ends could be achieved. The matter was discussed and, after a number of objections had been raised, Evans's proposals were withdrawn. However, the issue was revived the following June when a series of regulations were established to govern the admission of candidates for education by the Society. It was agreed a Home Missionary college was not required, and that a few students should be placed with suitably qualified ministers in neighbourhoods where their labours as Home Missionaries would be of value. No classical education was considered necessary, and all instruction would take place in English. Candidates for admission were to have been in communion with a 'Christian Church' for at least 12 months, and were expected to present evidence of their 'correct knowledge of the great truths of revelation' and their acquaintance with experimental religion (CL, III. 4. 61, pp. 31-2).

The term of study was not to exceed three years, and should encompass the study of English grammar and composition, general history, geography, public speaking, the structure of sermons, mental discipline, Biblical studies, and evangelical theology. Students were also expected to receive training on 'the best method of meeting the principal errors, as of Socinianism, or Popery' (CL, III. 4. 61, p. 36). This plan seems subsequently to have been modified, since on 1 September 1840 a letter was read from Revd John Frost of Cotton End expressing his 'readiness to carry out the scheme of Education agreed to by the Board' (CL, III. 4. 61, vol. 7, p. 83). It was this arrangement that would lead to the establishment of the academy at Cotton End, a small village four miles from Bedford.

Frost was born at Kidderminster in 1808, and had studied under Richard Cecil at Turvey. In 1832 he accepted the pastorate of the church at Cotton End, where he remained until his death in 1878. According to the Post Office Directory of 1869 the chapel at Cotton End was rebuilt by subscription in 1836 and could accommodate a congregation of 700. Frost insisted on an allowance of £40 for each student per year, with the year to consist of 48 weeks of study and a four-week vacation. James Matheson, secretary to the Home Missionary Society, visited Cotton End in October 1840 and declared himself satisfied with the accommodation provided. The first three students entered the academy at the beginning of November. H. G. Tibbutt stated that they were probably boarded in cottages in the village. However, the census returns for 1851 and 1861 both show four ministerial students residing with Frost and his wife, Ann. Tibbutt has identified 136 students who studied under Frost, 98 of whom had been admitted to the academy by 1860. Approximately half of those trained were sent to Cotton End by the Home Missionary Society. In January 1842 a request from the Colonial Missionary Society to send a young man to Frost to be educated was approved. Other students probably paid their own expenses or were funded privately.

Frost's arrangements for training men for Home Missionary service are detailed in an appendix to the 1841 report of the Home Missionary Society. The itinerant labours of the students were described first, and were divided into three areas: the instruction of youth, preaching, and domestic visits. Students were involved in running the Sunday school, conducting Bible classes, and preached once a week at Cotton End and eight other local villages. They were dispatched in pairs to Cotton End, Harrowden, Wilshamstead, and Deadman's Cross where they visited each household in turn. The curriculum was outlined under eleven headings, comprising English grammar and composition, logic and mental philosophy, moral philosophy, evidences of revealed religion, theology, Greek, Biblical antiquities, homiletics, church history, and popery. There were weekly exercises in sermon composition, weekly expositions of prescribed portions of scripture, and exercises in reading and speaking. Hebrew was also taught, and the more able students read the Greek New Testament. Representatives were sent each year by the Home Missionary Society to examine the students under its care.

In 1846 the Revd George Redford and the Revd Algernon Wells conducted the examination. The process was rigorous, beginning on the evening of Monday 6 July and continuing throughout Tuesday and Wednesday until late in the evening on each day. The examination was mainly written, although there was also a viva voce element. Redford and Wells reported that, 'Answers were omissions in a few instances; but considering the number of questions and the difficulty of many of them, it was not to be expected that all would be answered by every Student' (CL, III. 4. 62, p. 107). The examiners concluded by expressing their satisfaction with the academic attainments of the students, which were as high as could be expected given their preaching commitments and the length of the course. They added that the men were 'receiving a mental cultivation admirably adapted to make them more efficient agents in the evangelization of the neglected masses of our country men then they could otherwise have been'. (CL, III. 4. 62, p. 108). The Home Missionary Society minutes contain a number of references to the provision of books for the academy, and Frost occasionally asked the directors to provide copies of specific works. In February 1846 he requested copies of the Biblical, Eclectic, and British Quarterly Review for the use of his students.

The full course at Cotton End lasted for three years, although students remained with Frost for varying periods depending upon their progress. While some of the students at Cotton End after 1860 went on to continue their studies elsewhere, most of those who entered during the first two decades received no further ministerial training. Students were usually aged in their twenties at the time of entering the academy, and around three quarters went on to pursue careers as Congregational ministers. Four of those who entered before 1860 become missionaries for the London Missionary Society. Several became prominent within Australian Congregationalism, including Francis William Cox and William Harcus. William Tidd Matson, who held a series of pastorates in Hampshire, Northamptonshire, and Lincolnshire, became famous as a hymn writer. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, applied to enter the academy but withdrew in protest at the manner in which he was examined on the doctrines of Arminianism. By 1873 the number of students with Frost had fallen to two, and the Home Missionary Society committee had come to the conclusion that it no longer required its own ministerial training institution. The Cotton End Academy closed in Midsummer 1874, to the regret of Frost who had hoped to continue training ministers for three or four more years before retiring. In the Spring of 1878 Frost dined with a number of his old students at Islington, and was presented with a timepiece as an expression of their esteem. He died on 7 October 1878.

Simon N. Dixon


The principal archival sources for the Cotton End Academy are the minutes and reports of the Home Missionary Society, held by the Congregational Library at Dr Williams's Library, London (CL, III. 4. 61-3; V. 1. 174-7). The census returns for 1851 and 1861 provide evidence of students boarding in the home of John Frost and his wife (TNA, RG9/992, fo. 60, p. 5; TNA, HO107/1752, fo, 275, p. 13).

Published Sources

Lovegrove, Deryck W., Established Church, Sectarian People: Itinerancy and the Transformation of English Dissent, 1780-1830 (Cambridge, 1988).
Post Office Directory of Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire (London, 1869).
'Report of the Examiners of the Home Missionary Students, Under the Care of the Rev. John Frost', Home Missionary Magazine (1841), 191-3.
The Twenty-Second Report of the Home Missionary Society (London, 1841).
Tibbutt, H. G., 'The Cotton End Congregational Academy, 1840-74', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 18:3 (1958), 100-5.
----- , 'The Cotton End Academy Students', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 18:4 (1959), 131-8.

Simon N. Dixon, 'Cotton End Academy (1840-1874)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.