Newport Pagnell Academy (1783-1850)

The academy at Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, was opened in 1783 and closed in 1850, when the remaining two students, the library, and other assets were merged with Cheshunt College, Hertfordshire. The academy was in the house of the Independent minister, William Bull, who had previously kept a school. He had been a student of Caleb Ashworth at Daventry but was also influenced by the evangelical revival. Bull was minister in Newport Pagnell from 1764 and became a close friend of John Newton, curate at nearby Olney from 1764 to 1780. The poet William Cowper was the third member of an intimate group of friends. After Newton's move to London John Clayton, Independent minister of the King's Weigh House Chapel, approached him with a view to persuading Bull to open an evangelical seminary for training ministers. Arrangements were made during 1782 and the first students received in 1783. Clayton believed the institution could be financed by subscribers, but in 1786 the evangelical banker, John Thornton, undertook to cover the costs and set up a fund to pay Bull's stipend. Bull was joined by Samuel Greatheed as tutor from 1786 to 1789. Although the students preached in the surrounding area with a view to re-establishing old meeting houses as centres for evangelical ministry, Thornton's endowment and Greatheed's philosophy of vocational education suggest that Clayton's original aim had been broadened. Greatheed aimed to teach in a way that left the studies and consciences of the students 'unfettered' (Lewis, 'The Newport Pagnell Academy', 277).

The academy was never a large institution, being contained within Bull's house. There were 114 students in all, but the circumstantial evidence suggests there were never many students at any one time; there were only two students when the academy closed. In 1812, in anticipation of Bull's death, the Newport Pagnell Evangelical Institution was set up, consisting of two committees, a London committee to raise funds and a local committee to supervise the management. Bull died in 1814 and was succeeded by his son, Thomas Palmer Bull, who had been co-tutor since 1790, after Greatheed's departure. Thomas's son, Josiah Bull, became a tutor in 1831, by which time the institution had become de facto a Congregational seminary. Both father and son resigned their positions in 1842 and were succeeded by John Watson, who had been co-pastor in Islington. In 1848 Watson left to become tutor at Hackney College and was succeeded by William Froggatt.

The original curriculum was devised with advice from John Newton, whose Plan of Academical Preparation for the Ministry describes an ideal evangelical and non-denominational education, and it was designed to attract evangelical subscribers. It emphasised biblical studies and excluded the systematic study of doctrine, and in this respect was similar to the curriculum adopted at Trevecka by the Countess of Huntingdon. Rhetoric and science were also excluded. The library, the catalogue of which survives, did include early editions of Newton's Principia and Optice, but this may indicate the breadth of William Bull's reading rather than the teaching programme. The collection of books on travel is almost certainly associated with Samuel Greatheed, who was a prime mover of overseas missions. There are volumes of Puritan and evangelical devotion, sermons, and church histories, which are consistent with the aims of the curriculum. Most of these books could be classified as Protestant evangelical. There is some poetry, including Pope and Milton, which was read to improve the English style of the students.

In the 1840s the mood in Congregationalism moved towards the closing of small academies and the provision of larger colleges for the training of ministers, which the expansion of the denomination demanded. The subscriptions and student applications fell. The situation was not helped when four students were expelled for supporting the Anti-State Church Association against the specific instructions of Watson. A further related dispute broke out in Froggatt's time and the academy was criticised by the radical Congregationalist Edward Miall in his newspaper, The Nonconformist. Newport Pagnell Academy was judged unable to continue by its trustees and amalgamated with Cheshunt College in 1850.

Stephen Orchard


The library catalogue and correspondence relating to the merger with Cheshunt College are at Westminster College, Cambridge, in the Cheshunt collection. Lewis, 'The Newport Pagnell Academy', refers to archival material in the possession of William Bull's descendants. Letters of William Bull are in Lambeth Palace Library.

Published sources

Bull, F. W., 'The Newport Pagnell Academy', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 4 (1909-10), 305-24.
Lewis, Marilyn, 'The Newport Pagnell Academy 1782-1850', Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 5 (1994), 273-82.
McLachlan, H., English Education under the Test Acts (Manchester, 1931), 241-4.
Mercer, M. J., 'Bull, William (bap. 1738, d. 1814)', ODNB.
Newton, John, A Plan of Academical Preparation for the Ministry, in a Letter to a Friend (?London, 1782).

Stephen Orchard, 'Newport Pagnell Academy (1783-1850)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr. Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2011.