Cheshunt College (1792-1967)

(Historical account to 1860)

Cheshunt College Cheshunt College, opened in 1792 in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire [source: The Order Observed at the Countess of Huntingdon's College at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, on Friday the 24th of August, 1792 (London, 1792)]

Cheshunt College was the continuation of the Countess of Huntingdon's college, which was situated at Trevecka at the time of her death in 1791. The so-called 'Apostolic Society' had been formed among her supporters before she died and had raised funds with a view to continuing the college. By the end of 1791 they had purchased Cheshunt House, Hertfordshire, for £950. In the spring of 1792 they moved the library and better furniture from Trevecka, along with seven students, who were formally re-admitted in August. As at Trevecka, there were no fee-paying students; the costs were borne by the Society. Admission was by recommendation from a supporter and interview by the trustees. The official opening of the college was on 24 August 1792.

The principal mover of events was James Oldham, a city merchant and member of the Spa Fields Chapel in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. The Apostolic Society was succeeded by the college governors in 1793. They were a group of men, largely lay, who consulted with Lady Ann Erskine, the Countess's successor as organiser of the Connexion, and leading evangelical ministers. They had some difficulty in securing a president for the college. There had been no such principal officer for most of the time at Trevecka, as the Countess had ruled the college there, a master deputising in her absence. At Cheshunt a resident tutor's post was combined with that of president and a search was made for an ordained member of the Church of England to fill it. Revd Isaac Nicholson, a curate recommended by Revd Richard De Courcy, was appointed. Other sympathetic clergy, such as Thomas Haweis, served as external examiners. Students came with references from both Anglican and dissenting ministers. Although great pains were taken to secure a president from the Church of England, the opening services of the college, on 24 August 1792, were conducted by four former students of Trevecka, who represented different denominations: John Eyre (Church of England), John Platt and Lemuel Kirkman (Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion), Anthony Crole (Independent).

Within a few years the college began to lose its formal links with the Church of England. Nicholson resigned in 1803 because the stipend of £100 per annum and a house with garden was inadequate. He was succeeded by the Revd Dr Andrew Horn, who was recommended for the post by Lady Ann Erskine; he had been educated at Cheshunt and ordained in the Connexion. (There is no indication as to when or where he obtained his doctorate.) His time at Cheshunt proved brief: in 1807 he accepted the call to a pastorate at High Wycombe. Horn was succeeded by Revd Dr Henry Draper, an unbeneficed clergyman of the Church of England, who retained his lectureship at St. George's in the Borough. He resigned his post at Cheshunt in 1810, nominally on grounds of health, but again probably because of the low stipend. The Governors also felt that he filled the students with aspirations for university degrees and Anglican livings when the college needed to supply the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.

There followed a period of uncertainty, with the temporary appointment of Josiah Richards as tutor before John James came in 1814. James and his successors to 1850 were known as resident tutor rather than president, a title later revived for William Stowell. From 1814 a classical tutor was also appointed, the beginning of the expansion of the college. James oversaw the completion of a new block of student rooms, increasing the college capacity to twenty students. At the opening of the college in 1792 there were six students fully admitted and one probationer. In the first two decades numbers of students sometimes reached double figures and extra sleeping accommodation had to be found in the house. James was a former student at Cheshunt and began an arrangement with his friend and former Trevecka student John Bickerdike, who had transferred to Cheshunt, to take on students as probationers before they entered Cheshunt. Bickerdike kept a school alongside his ministry, first in Woolwich for the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion and then from 1828 as Independent minister in Kentish Town. Students on this preliminary course included candidates for work with the London Missionary Society. This led to a formal agreement between the college and the Society in 1837. William Kemp was resident tutor from 1821 to 1831 and continued James's policies. In this he was assisted by Jacob Kirkman Foster, another former student and minister in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, who was the classical tutor from 1826 and succeeded Kemp as resident tutor.

The original college prospectus stressed biblical studies and preaching. Classics were taught, but not all students were expected to learn Hebrew. The college aspired to teach French, for the purposes of foreign evangelism, but relied on recruiting a French student to teach the others. First principles of mathematics were intended to teach the students how to reason. General knowledge of history and geography presumably gave a background to mission. A weekly exercise in English composition on sacred subjects was intended to cultivate energetic expression and fluency. The Annual Report for 1811 described the course as lasting four years, covering the general principles of grammar and English composition; history, ancient and modern; geography and use of globes; logic; Jewish antiquities and eastern customs; divinity - doctrinal, experimental and practical; and some degree of the original languages of Scripture, to enable students to read Greek and Hebrew with the aid of lexicographers. The Cheshunt College Rules, printed in 1816, give a picture of daily life in the college and of what was learnt (Cheshunt ms E9/8/6). Writing at the end of Foster's time, James Bennett claimed that 'The course of study comprises Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages; mathematics, history and geography; theology, systematic and expository, with the composition of sermons; ecclesiastical history and the philosophy of the mind' (Bennett, History of Dissenters, 140).The 1827 Report specified the classics curriculum as Ovid, Virgil, Horace and Tacitus; the Greek Testament, Xenophon, Homer, and Sophocles. It announced that the college had introduced natural philosophy (with a small cabinet of minerals, a reflecting telescope, and an orrery) and was appealing for further donations to expand a subordinate but important study.

As resident tutor from 1831 to 1839 Foster was anxious to preserve the links with the Connexion in the face of the growing Congregational nature of the college. The trust continued to require governors, staff and students to adhere to the Fifteen Articles of religon specified by the Countess of Huntingdon, which echoed the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. The Fifteen Articles barred admission to Baptists and Roman Catholics. In practice the college served evangelical Calvinists from the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion and the growing number of Independent churches which coalesced into the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1831. At first, some Welsh Calvinistic Methodists also applied to Cheshunt for training, seeing it as the new Trevecka. Part of the difficulty for members of the Church of England who might wish to use the college was the existence of a chapel on site, opened in 1806, licensed for public worship by Protestant dissenters. There was always the potential for conflict with the incumbents of surrounding parishes where the students were sent to preach in rooms or dissenters' meeting houses. It was made clear after a Chancery suit in 1833 that the college trustees were an independent body and not answerable to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, whose members could take up subscriptions and elect trustees, but in competition with Congregational and other subscribers. Among students, staff, and governors Congregationalists became the dominant group. The college office moved from the Spa Fields chapel of the Connexion to Blomfield Street in 1833.

The decisive move towards Congregationalism came with the appoinment of John Harris as resident tutor in 1839. Harris was an able administrator and began by improving record-keeping in the college. He introduced written examinations and the papers give some flavour of the course the students followed: for example, the Hebrew Antiquities paper of 1840 invited the students to name the Mosaic laws respecting agriculture. The impression from the papers is that the general subjects such as geography required a superficial level of attainment but that more sophistication was required in theological topics.

In 1849 the trustees regretfully turned down a possible amalgamation with Coward, Highbury, and Homerton Colleges, to which they were sympathetic, but they took the view that the Trust Deed prevented them doing so. This did not stop them considering the matter again in 1850 when Harris and the classical tutor, Philip Smith, moved to New College. In 1850 they accepted the two remaining students from Newport Pagnell Academy and then the remaining students of Rotherham Academy, when they appointed its tutor, W. H. Stowell, as the new president of Cheshunt. Rotherham had declined under Stowell and he fared little better at Cheshunt, resigning in 1856 after persistent student complaints about his teaching. Richard Alliott, president from 1857 to 1860, was attracted to the college by 'the catholicity of its constitution' (Evangelical Magazine (1864), 132), though its nearness to London, compared with Plymouth, where he had been president of Western College, was probably also a factor.

The amalgamation of the libraries of Newport Pagnell and of Cheshunt, which still included many of the Countess of Huntingdon's books from Trevecka, gave the college a valuable resource. Those that survive at Westminster College are dominated by seventeenth and eighteenth-century Calvinist authors, along with travel books reflecting the missionary interests of the time. It is not apparent how many contemporary books have since been lost. Foster certainly regarded the rising German theologians as heretical.

The classical tutor under Harris, Philip Smith, published standard texts on ancient history and became headmaster of Mill Hill School. James Sherman, minister of the Surrey Chapel, was a Cheshunt student, as was James Parsons of Leeds. William Hale White ('Mark Rutherford') was a student under Harris and transferred to New College, London with him when he moved. It was from there that White was expelled for his theological views in 1852, which was the beginning of his literary career.

Cheshunt College was completely rebuilt from 1871 to 1874 under Henry Robert Reynolds, president from 1860 to 1894. The early years of his time at Cheshunt were subsequently regarded as a golden age for the college. Towards the end of his life ill-health dogged him, forcing his retirement two years before his death. His theological ideas remained fixed in the 1850s and the numbers of students had declined before he retired. In 1905 the college moved to temporary accommodation in Cambridge, having secured a site in Bateman Street, where a new building was opened in 1914. The trustees had wanted to amalgamate with Hackney College, London, but the Board of Education prevented this after objections from the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. The Fifteen Articles were regarded as a barrier to any merger with a Congregational college; the Board’s preferred solution was to create a foundation providing bursaries for students but the Governors preferred to relocate the college in Cambridge, as some of their supporters urged. The Cambridge building was sold in 1967 when the college amalgamated with Westminster College, Cambridge, on its site at the junction of Madingley and Queens roads. The Cheshunt endowment is administered by trustees and its historic records and books are housed at Westminster College.

Stephen Orchard



The archives at Westminster College, Cambridge, contain the surviving records of Cheshunt College. There is an almost complete set of annual reports. The minutes of the trustees, subsequently governors, are complete. There are some correspondence books from the nineteenth century and some student records of a late date. A range of ephemera connected with the college is also available. The New College collection held in Dr Williams's Library contains materials relating to Cheshunt College, including the papers of John Harris (see List of the Archives of New College, London, & The Coward Trust, The National Archives, GB 0123 New College).

Published sources

Bennett, James, The History of Dissenters: During the Last Thirty Years (from 1808 to 1838) (London, 1839).
Binney, T., and Reynolds, H. R., Two Addresses delivered at Cheshunt College, October 9th, 1860 (London, ?1860).
Centenary Celebration of Cheshunt College, 25th June, 1868 (London, 1868).
Foster, Jacob Kirkman, 'John Bickerdike', The Countess of Huntingdon's Magazine (1850), 133-34.
Harding, Alan, The Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion: A Sect in Action in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2003), 226-30.
Mayor, Stephen, 'The Crisis at Cheshunt College', JURCHS, 6 (1999), 336-46.
Orchard, Stephen, Cheshunt College 1768-1968 (privately printed, 1968).
The Order observed at the Countess of Huntingdon's College at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, on Friday the 24th of August, 1792 (London, 1792).
Rules and Articles, to be observed by the Students in the Countess of Huntingdon's College, at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire (Cheshunt, 1797).
Welch, Edwin, Calendar and Index of Cheshunt College Archives, List & Index Society Special Series, 14 (London, 1981).
----- (ed.), Cheshunt College: The Early Years: A Selection of Records, Hertfordshire Record Publications, 6 (Linton, Cambridgeshire, 1990).

Stephen Orchard, 'Cheshunt College (1792-1967)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2011, rev. February 2021.