James Scott's Academy, Heckmondwike (1756-1783)

The initiative for establishing an academy in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1750s came from Edward Hitchin, minister to the Independent congregation at White's Row, London. Hitchin was the brother-in-law of Joseph Priestley of Birstall, a Deacon of the Independent church at Heckmondwike and elder cousin of his more famous namesake. On his visits to his brother-in-law in Yorkshire, Hitchin became concerned at the state of religion in the area and the lack of orthodox ministers. His concerns were shared by James Scott, minister at the Upper Chapel in Heckmondwike from 1754. The two men met often, and the idea emerged that an academy should be established to train young men for the ministry, and that the tutor should be a man of orthodox views who could instil similar beliefs in his students. Hitchin promoted the cause in London, leading to the establishment of 'a Society for educating young Men for the work of the Ministry, in the West Riding of the County of York'. This body, usually referred to as the Northern Education Society, met for the first time in London on 24 May 1756 with Hitchin as secretary, Dr John Guyse, a member of the King's Head Society, as chairman, and E. Webber, Esq., as treasurer. Webber was soon replaced by William Fuller, a London banker, who was a major benefactor to the academy, an active member of the King's Head Society, and a substantial donor to the Congregational Fund Board.

The oft-quoted aim of the Northern Education Society was to dispel the 'cloud of "Socinian darkness" then spreading over the northern counties of England' (An Account, 4). It was agreed that James Scott should be appointed tutor of the new academy, which was to have as its sole objective the education of ministers. Lay students were not admitted. Scott accepted the invitation after some deliberation, and not before he had notified the London committee of the expense that would be involved in fitting up his house for receiving students, and the anticipated cost of their board and lodging. He also requested that Edward Hitchin make enquiries concerning the teaching methods employed by John Walker at the Mile End Academy.

The first three students entered the care of Scott in his house at Millbridge, Heckmondwike in August 1756. During the early period at Heckmondwike, students boarded either with Scott or at another house nearby, The Holme. The domestic management of the institution was entrusted to Scott's wife, Esther, until her death in 1763. In March 1768 a property was purchased at Southfield in Norristhorpe, about two miles away. By this time there were seven students in the academy, who moved to the new premises with their tutor at Michaelmas. Scott is reported to have relocated to another house in Heckmondwike towards the end of his life as he became unable to negotiate the steep hill up to Southfield. When he died in January 1783 the academy was transferred to Northowram under the tutorage of Samuel Walker. No contemporary evidence survives giving the formal name of the institution. While most nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers refer to it as the 'Heckmondwike Academy', the late Victorian antiquarian Frank Peel noted that it was more commonly known as a 'college' (Peel, 133).

James Scott's Academy, Heckmondwike
James Scott's Academy, Heckmondwike, Southfield in Norristhorpe [source: Peel, 169]

The number of students in the academy varied from eight to eleven at a time. A total of 57 are known to have completed the four-year course, and a further ten continued their studies at Northowram. The early students at Heckmondwike were mainly from the area around the academy, and many later settled in the West Riding or nearby. As the academy became established its reputation grew, leading to applications from students in other areas of the country. Those educated by Scott include men born in Norfolk, Suffolk, London, Essex and Hertfordshire. The Northern Education Society, which managed the academy, provided an allowance of £15 per annum for each student. At least one, Ezekiel Offwood, is known to have paid his own expenses. On application to the academy students were expected to give evidence of their piety and orthodox evangelical beliefs. They were to profess their 'full and cordial belief in the Gospel of Christ as its great and leading truths are embodied in the doctrinal Articles of the Church of England, and the Westminister Confession and Catechisms' (Peel, 145-6). Once the appropriate declarations had been made to the satisfaction of the committee, the students were received on three months probation.

James Scott remained in sole charge of the academy throughout its existence, although he received assistance from his friend Rev. John Pye of Sheffield. Pye paid regular visits to Heckmondwike to examine the students and offer them encouragement in their studies. Little is known about the curriculum, and no lecture notes or other evidence of Scott's teaching methods have survived. The course lasted for four years, and the plan of study would have been designed to equip students to become effective preachers in the towns and villages of the West Riding and neighbouring counties. In addition to enquiring about the teaching methods of John Walker at Mile End, Scott also canvassed the views of John Pye, who had been educated in the London academies run by the King's Head Society. Scott did not advocate the principle of free enquiry among his students, and considered it to be his duty to teach only orthodox beliefs. Classical languages were taught, and there is some evidence that science was included in the curriculum. Students were not permitted to preach during the first three years of their course, and thereafter could do so only with the consent of the committee.

During its early years the academy received a high number of visitors, which Scott considered disruptive. In 1761 he addressed the situation by determining that the academy would be open to guests on one day a year, when they would be given a dinner and hear a lecture or sermon. The Heckmondwike Lecture became a major event for Congregatonalists in the West Riding, and during the nineteenth century a fair was held in the town as part of the festivities. The event continued well into the twentieth century.

Sixty-two of the sixty-seven students known to have received at least some of their education under James Scott went on to become ministers. Many remained in the West Riding or other parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire, although others settled in Norfolk, Suffolk, Leicestershire, Kent, London and elsewhere. One of the first to be admitted was Timothy Priestley, brother of Joseph, who was pastor of Independent congregations at Kipping in Yorkshire, Hunter's Croft Church, Manchester, and Jewin Street, London. The Northowram tutor, Samuel Walker, received his ministerial education at Heckmondwike, as did Robert Simpson, tutor at Hoxton from 1791-1817. Another prominent Yorkshire Congregationalist educated by Scott was Joseph Cockin, minister at Halifax for over 30 years and a strong supporter of the Independent Academy at Idle. A few former students subsequently moved away from Congregationalism, including Reynold Hogg, treasurer of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792, and John Bartlett, who became a Unitarian.

While Joseph Priestley considered his brother Timothy to have received an 'imperfect education' (Priestley, Autobiography, 74), James Scott's former students continued to hold the academy in high esteem. Writing in the Evangelical Magazine in 1795 Joseph Cockin wrote that through the labours of students from the academy, 'decayed congregations have been revived, and many new ones raised up' (Evangelical Magazine (1795), 466). Timothy Priestley expressed a similar view, writing in 1791 that 'great numbers of places that were supplied by Baxterians, Arians and Arminians, were in a few years supplied with Calvinists', with many meeting houses enlarged as a result (Christian's Magazine, or Gospel Repository, (1791), 178). In delivering Scott's funeral sermon in 1783 Jonathan Toothill described the students sent out from Heckmondwike as 'an honour to their profession', although added that the academy had 'begun to grow a little drossy' and was in need of revival when it was transferred to the care of Samuel Walker at Northowram (Toothill, 32-3).

Simon N. Dixon


No archives relating to the academy or the Northern Education Society have survived.

Published sources

Christian's Magazine, or Gospel Repository, (1791).
Cockin, Joseph, Memoirs of the Rev. Joseph Cockin (Idle, 1829).
'Early Nonconformist Academies: Heckmondwike and Northowram', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 6 (1913-15), 291-6.
Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: A History of Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999).
Miall, James G., Congregationalism in Yorkshire: A Chapter of Modern Church History (London, 1868).
Peel, Frank, Nonconformity in Spen Valley (Heckmondwike, 1891).
Priestley, Joseph, Autobiography of Joseph Priestley, ed. J. Lindsay (Bath, 1970).
Taylor, John H., 'The Congregational Fund Board 1695-1995', Y Cofiadur, 59a (1995), 2-36.
Toothill, Jonathan, The Foundation of the Dying Christian's Triumph, in the Prospect of Nature's Dissolution (Huddersfield, [1783]).
Wadsworth, Kenneth W., Yorkshire United Independent College (London, 1954). [Williams, Edward], An Account of the Rotherham Independent Academy, which was Opened November 5, 1795 (Sheffield, 1797).

Simon N. Dixon, 'James Scott's Academy, Heckmondwike (1756-1783)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.