Warrington Academy (1757-1786)

Warrington Academy, Lancashire, was opened on 23 October 1757. It closed twenty-six years later in 1783, due to financial difficulties and a decline in the number of students and subscribers. Although the Trustees attempted to revive the academy in 1784 and 1785, it was formally dissolved at a Trustees' meeting on 29 June 1786.

The plan to found a new academy at Warrington was conceived in response to the deaths of Philip Doddridge, Caleb Rotheram, and Ebenezer Latham in the 1750s and the concern that for the first time in nearly a century there was no academy serving the north of England which did not impose a religious subscription as a criterion of admission. At the dissolution of the academy in 1786, the Trustees resolved that any surpluses accruing from the sale of the buildings be transferred equally between the new academies at Hackney and Manchester. The library was transferred to the latter institution and the scientific apparatus to the former. Although New College, Hackney came to be regarded as the principal successor to Warrington Academy, New College, Manchester has an equal claim, many of its first promoters and tutors having been educated at the older institution.

The decision to locate the academy at Warrington was in part to serve the two major centres of dissent, Manchester and Liverpool. Manchester and the rest of Lancashire supplied a significant number of students, particularly during the academy's early years. However, recruitment throughout the lifetime of the academy was not confined to the north-west: students came from all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well from the British colonies of Jamaica, Barbados, and South Carolina. By July 1760, when the Trustees printed a report of the academy's progress for the subscribers, forty-four students had been admitted. Ten of them were enrolled on the divinity course. At this time, the academy taught around thirty students each academic session. The number of students increased steadily throughout the 1760s, but declined in the academy's later years. Between 1757 and 1783, a total of 397 students were educated at Warrington. Significantly, however, only fifty-three of these followed the divinity course. Recent studies have shown that although the total number of students was noticeably higher than Warrington's principal rival, Daventry, it was small in comparison to the English universities. Furthermore, the proportion of students who entered the dissenting ministry was significantly lower than at the academies of Doddridge and Rotheram.

The academy was funded by annual subscriptions and by donations from individual benefactors, as well as by student fees. This enabled the Trustees to establish a foundation to support poorer students to train for the dissenting ministry. When the academy opened in 1757, three students were admitted on the foundation, entitling them to free tuition, a stipend of £10 per annum, and 'several other advantages' (HMCO MS Warrington 2, f. 91). By 1760, eight students were enrolled on the divinity course on the Trustees' foundation, but in 1776 the debts incurred as a result of the purchase of new buildings forced the Trustees to suspend these exhibitions. A number of ministerial students were, however, funded by the Lady Hewley Fund and by the Presbyterian Fund: around twenty between 1766 and 1783, who received £15 and £12 per annum respectively. The first subscribers to the academy were from Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Warrington. When the academy opened in 1757, subscriptions totalling about £450 per annum had been obtained from London, Norwich, Birmingham, Worcester, Shropshire, Chester, Liverpool, and Manchester with the help of local agents and receivers. In the academy's early years, major donations were received from figures such as John Hopkins, who donated £100 in 1758. A list of benefactors printed in 1780 indicates that Henry Hoghton, William Tayleur, Mrs Hardman, Richard Bright, and Robert Newton had donated the same sum.

The governing body of the academy was made up of the subscribers and benefactors; it consisted of a president, a vice-president, a treasurer, a secretary, and a committee of twelve members, only a small minority of whom were ministers. This committee managed all aspects of the institution's finances, and had the final say in decisions relating to the curriculum and the appointment of the tutors. The first president was Lord Willoughby, followed by John Lees, and then Sir Henry Hoghton.

The divinity course at Warrington Academy was primarily intended to train candidates for the Presbyterian ministry. However, from the beginning the academy was open to students of all denominations without the requirement of any form of religious test. This meant that in its later years the academy largely lost its character as a dissenting institution: Gilbert Wakefield recalled that during his time as a tutor at Warrington at least a third of the students were from Anglican families.

The divinity tutors were John Taylor, John Aikin, and Nicholas Clayton. Other tutors of note include Joseph Priestley, John Reinhold Forster, William Enfield, George Walker, Gilbert Wakefield, and (it has been suggested) Jean-Paul Marat, who, though it has never been substantiated, may briefly have served the academy as a French tutor. Among the divinity students were Thomas Barnes and Ralph Harrison, the first tutors at New College, Manchester, as well as the future dissenting ministers Thomas Astley, John Simpson, John Palmer, Philip Taylor, James Pilkington, William Turner, William Hawkes, John Prior Estlin, and John Coates. Prominent lay students included John Aikin Jr., the physician and writer; Thomas Percival the physician; Henry Hanbury Beaufoy, MP for Calne; Samuel Farr, the physician and fellow of the Royal Society; Benjamin Vaughan the diplomatist and political reformer, and his brother William, a prominent merchant and fellow of the Royal Society; William Wilkinson, the son of the celebrated ironmaster; and Thomas Robert Malthus, the political economist.

From its inception, the Warrington Academy taught two different courses reflecting its intention to provide an education for students training for the dissenting ministry and the learned professions and for students intended for commerce and other areas of civil life. Divinity students followed a five-year course comprising the classical languages and mathematics in the first year; languages, logic, natural history, and natural philosophy in the second year; belles lettres, mathematics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy in the third year; moral philosophy and divinity in the fourth year; and divinity - including practical training in preaching and pastoral care - in the final year. Under Aikin, the divinity course was restructured slightly. In their first two years, divinity students studied under the tutors in belles lettres and philosophy and attended Aikin's teaching in Hebrew. In the third year, Aikin taught philosophy (ontology, pneumatology, and ethics) and jurisprudence, as well as critical lectures on the Scriptures and Jewish antiquities. In the final two years, Aikin added to the curriculum taught by Taylor a course of lectures on ecclesiastical history. Aikin's teaching was largely structured on Philip Doddridge's divinity lectures.

Students intended for civil life followed a shorter, three-year, course which comprised mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, and geometry), French, universal grammar, and rhetoric in the first year; mathematics (with an emphasis on the practical subjects of trigonometry and navigation), natural philosophy (including astronomy), and French in the second year; and natural philosophy, chemistry, morality, and the evidences of the Christian religion in the final year. This course was updated throughout the academy's lifetime as the result of the innovations of individual tutors. Priestley introduced lectures on logic, the theory of language, and anatomy, as well as civil history, the history of England, and legal and constitutional theory. John Reinhold Foster delivered lectures on natural history from 1767, offering instruction in topics as diverse as mineralogy, fortification, and gunnery. Enfield lectured on commerce, elocution, and composition from 1772, and Italian was taught by Lewis Guerry from 1773. Students intended for business were also offered classes for an additional fee in practical subjects such as bookkeeping, writing, drawing, surveying, and shorthand, which were provided by external tutors. From 1766 instruction was even available in music and dancing. In addition to their lectures, students were required to complete a regular course of academic exercises. These included translations from Greek and Latin, compositions, and public speaking for the divinity students; and English-French translation, letter-writing (in both English and French), and English composition for the students intended for civil life. Priestley also introduced weekly public exercises when the students read essays from Latin, Greek, and French authors and orations in English, French, and Latin before an audience of tutors, fellow students, and visitors.

When the academy opened the library consisted of the tutors' books, together with Seddon's own, and those bought by the Trustees. This was augmented by the gift or loan of the libraries previously belonging to Samuel Stubbs and Benjamin Grosvener. By the end of 1758, the collection was large enough to warrant the appointment of Seddon as librarian, with power to select a deputy and the brief to compile a catalogue. A Select Catalogue of Books Belonging to the Library of the Warrington Academy, printed in 1775, gives some idea of the collection at that time. By the 1780s, the academy had acquired a respectable collection of almost 3,500 volumes. These are listed in a number of hand-written catalogues now held at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. The academy also acquired a substantial collection of scientific apparatus, which was improved in the institution's final years under Clayton, a skilled instrument maker. Clayton furnished the academy with a device for demonstrating the laws of the composition and resolution of forces and a pair of whirling tables.

At the opening of the academy, the Trustees were keen that students should board in the tutor's houses as far as possible. There is evidence from an early date that students boarding in the town were the source of problems relating to discipline and attendance: in 1759 the committee passed a resolution that 'all the Students whether resident in the Academy or not, shall attend ye Morning & Evening Devotions and publick Exercises of the Academy' (HMC MS Warrington 2 f. 99). In 1761 the Trustees decreed that all students 'be directed to board in the families of some of the Tutors', and that when this was not possible 'only in such other families in the town as the Tutors shall approve of' (A Report of the State of the Academy, 1761). The Trustees soon embarked upon an ambitious programme of building, the aim of which was to provide 'apartments for the reception of all students' in order that they 'be much more secured against those avocations from study, and temptations to what is wrong' (A Report of the State of the Academy, 1762). By 1769 twenty-six apartments were available for the students' residence, and when these were full, students were required to board in the tutors' houses. All students dined together in the common hall.

From the beginning the academy had a number of links with the Scottish universities. Taylor, upon whom Glasgow conferred an honorary degree in 1756, was a friend of the Glasgow theologian William Leechman. Aikin had been at student at Aberdeen, and Seddon, Walker, and Clayton had studied at either Glasgow or Edinburgh and brought the influence of their university education to bear on their own teaching. A number of Warrington students went on to complete their studies in Scotland. The links with continental Europe were less strong than they had been with some of the older academies. What connections there were relate primarily to the native speakers employed to teach modern languages: Reinhold Foster had studied at Berlin and Halle; Fantin La Tour at Geneva; and Guerry at Lausanne and Leiden.

Warrington has acquired the reputation of being the greatest of the dissenting academies, indeed, one of the leading educational establishments of the eighteenth century. In particular the introduction of modern languages, civil and constitutional history, and experimental science has been interpreted as an important contribution to the development of a particular kind of modern education. In recent years these claims have been qualified. Warrington Academy was an extraordinary achievement, but in many respects it was not typical of other eighteenth-century dissenting academies, bearing more the character of a university. Its contribution to dissent, the body it was established to serve and by whom it was largely maintained, was limited. It only educated a small number of students for the dissenting ministry. The disciplinary problems, which haunted the Trustees throughout the academy's lifetime, have been retold many times and have augmented the academy's reputation for political radicalism and indiscipline.

Ultimately, the fame of a number of Warrington's tutors and the later achievements of a significantly high proportion of its students in the dissenting ministry, politics, medicine, the law, and business have secured the academy a place in the social and intellectual history of the eighteenth century. However, its role within Protestant dissent has, on the whole, been insufficiently understood, and its supposed innovations are often unfairly discussed in comparison with the English universities during the same period and with inadequate attention being paid to Warrington's relationship to other dissenting academies.

Simon Mills


The collection MS Warrington 1-4 at Harris Manchester College, Oxford is the most important archival source for the history of the Warrington Academy. It includes the Trustees' minute-books from 1757 to 1786, a register of admissions, and a list of subscribers and benefactors. Also included are a series of printed Trustees' reports for the years 1760-1764; 1766-1769; 1772-1773, and a list of benefactions beginning 1780.

John Rylands University Library, Manchester, Unitarian College Library Manuscript Collection, quarto notebook containing a collection of documents relating to Warrington Academy compiled by Samuel Heywood.

Harris Manchester College, Oxford, MS Seddon 1-6, correspondence concerning students and subscriptions, and lecture notes.

Published sources

A Select Catalogue of Books Belonging to the Library of the Warrington Academy (Warrington, 1775).
Bright, Henry A., 'A Historical Sketch of Warrington Academy', Christian Reformer, n.s. 17 (1861), 682-9; 732-48.
McLachlan, Herbert, Warrington Academy: its History and Influence (Manchester, 1943).
O'Brien, Patrick, Warrington Academy, 1757-86: Its Predecessors and Successors (Wigan, 1989).
Short, H. L., 'Warrington Academy', Hibbert Journal, 56 (1957-8), 1-7.
Turner, William, 'Historical Account of Warrington Academy', Monthly Repository, 8 (1813), 1-5, 86-91, 161-72, 226-31, 287-94, 429-33, 576-79, 625-29.
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.
-----, 'The Rev John Aikin senior: Kibworth School and Warrington Academy', with appendix: 'John Aikin's Pupils at Kibworth', in Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740-1860, ed. Felicity James and Ian Inkster (Cambridge, 2011).

Simon Mills, 'Warrington Academy (1757-1786)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, August 2011.