Hackney Unitarian Academy (1812-1818)

By the early nineteenth century Unitarian congregations were faced with an endemic shortage of trained ministers. Although Manchester College, York was training ministers, its academic requirements were ambitious, which necessarily limited the number of ministers it could send out, and it was thus perceived as neglecting the poorer congregations. To redress this imbalance, in May 1811, Robert Aspland, one of the most active Unitarian ministers of his time, came together with other likeminded men under the auspices of the Unitarian Fund to discuss the establishment of a seminary for training 'popular rather than learned ministers' (R. B. Aspland, Memoir, 303) who would be 'suited to the wants of smaller and less prosperous Congregations' (Monthly Repository, 6 (1811), 373). Their intention was to provide a shorter course of practical theology that would equip men for their preaching and pastoral duties, but without the benefits of a rounded education offered by higher institutions such as Manchester College, York, thus giving poorer and less academically minded men the opportunity to follow their calling and supplying the disadvantaged congregations with trained ministers. Thus, instead of establishing an institution that would rival Manchester College, the founders were unambiguous in their intention 'to raise different classes of Preachers and to serve different classes of Congregations' (Monthly Repository, 6 (1811), 374).

In June 1811 the founders agreed that the academy would offer a two-year course for students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. It would be run by the Principal Tutor who would provide boarding for the students. The term 'Unitarian' was chosen to reflect more the opinion of the founders than any requirement in terms of the religious beliefs of prospective students, and was intended in its broadest sense – with the only condition being an acceptance of the 'sole worship of one God, the Father' (R. B. Aspland, Memoir, 303). Nonetheless, this proved to be a major point of contention amongst prospective supporters. While some found the term offensive because they felt that the institution should remain free of any sectarian labels, others objected because they wanted a clear identification with Unitarianism. Another point of concern, raised most prominently by Thomas Belsham, former divinity tutor at New College, Hackney, was the short duration of the course, which was felt to be inadequate to enable students to acquire even a basic general knowledge and understanding of theology. Belsham was convinced that the institution would eventually have to increase the length of the course, a conviction that he expressed in his letters to Aspland and one that was ultimately realized.

A product of the Unitarian Fund, the academy was run by a group of six prominent Unitarians: Aspland; John Christie, secretary; Richard Taylor, treasurer; and a Committee of Management consisting of John T. Rutt, William Frend, and John Bickerton Dewhurst. It received some financial support from the Fund, the exact amount of which remains unknown, but according to R. B. Aspland it was inadequate to run the academy. Nor did public appeals yield enough to sustain the academy: in 1812 life subscriptions and donations amounted to only £453 10s., while the annual subscriptions raised only £130. Although additional funds were raised subsequently, they were never sufficient to ensure the stability of the institution, and this lack of support led to its closure after only six years. But financial considerations were of little concern to Aspland, who was unanimously appointed Principal Tutor and who proceeded with the establishment of the academy regardless. In the autumn of 1812 Aspland moved to Durham House, Hackney Road, a large building with gardens that provided appropriate accommodation for the tutor's growing family and his students, and the Hackney Unitarian Academy was opened.

At the heart of the course lay divinity, history (ecclesiastical and general), mental and moral philosophy, elocution, rhetoric and belles lettres, pastoral office, and composition, all taught by Aspland. In addition to this, students were taught classics, Hebrew, and mathematics. Dewhurst, another member of the committee, was appointed classics tutor alongside Aspland. His untimely death in early October 1812 left Aspland to bear the whole responsibility for the academy. As a consequence, during the first year Aspland taught the entire course himself, except for Hebrew. To stress the academy's emphasis on the practical aspect of its divinity training, Aspland concentrated the theology curriculum on the acquisition of practical skills that would provide the students with a good foundation for their work as preachers, ministers, and missionaries. Given the academy's goal to train able preachers, of particular significance were subjects such as elocution, rhetoric, the pastoral office, and especially the composition and delivery of sermons, the area in which Manchester College, York drew most criticism for its failure to supply ministers capable of performing well in the pulpit. To provide the students with the necessary experience of addressing an audience, the classes were supplemented by extempore prayer and active participation in Aspland's weekly religious conferences at Gravel Pit Chapel. The students often supplied Unitarian chapels supported by the Unitarian Fund, and spent their vacations in what R. B. Aspland termed 'missionary excursions', in which they acquired further practical skills.

The proceedings and studies of the students were recorded in a diary, a task that the students took turns to complete. According to R. B. Aspland this was the only record of the academy's work that escaped destruction. However, it subsequently disappeared, and his Memoir of his father's life remains the only record of the academy's work.

From 1814 to 1815 Jeremiah Joyce was employed as mathematics tutor. Thomas B. Broadbent, employed as classics tutor from 1814 to 1816, was held in particular esteem by both his students and colleagues for his ability to engage his students. In 1816 John Morell took over both the classics and mathematics department of the academy, and was succeeded in 1818 by William J. Fox, a former Homerton student and a budding politician and preacher, whose employment was terminated by the academy's closure shortly after he arrived. Hebrew was taught first by a Mr Bolaffey – very likely Hayim Vita Bolaffey, author of Hebrew grammar books and later Hebrew tutor at Eton and Oxford - and then by a Mr Bright.

As Belsham predicted, the original plan of the academy soon had to be amended, with the managers realizing that a two-year course was inadequate to cover the material required to equip the students for their professional role. Uncertainty about an appropriate length for the course prevented both tutors and students from making the best of their studies, and the addition of a third year did not resolve the issue. In 1816 the committee recommended to the governors that the course be extended to four years for the students whose studies included classics, and be limited to two for those whose studies were confined to English literature and theology. It was also decided to limit the age of prospective students for the long course to between seventeen and twenty years and to require at least a rudimentary level of knowledge of the classical languages, while candidates for the short course should be between eighteen and twenty-three years old and should possess 'an adequate English education' (Monthly Repository, 11 (1816), 495). The academy closed only two years after the alterations were agreed, thus making these decisions redundant.

Despite Aspland's indefatigable efforts to realize the ambitions for the academy, it failed to fulfill the hopes of Unitarians such as Belsham that it would become an influential institution in the metropolis. Ultimately, it was little more than a small seminary for Unitarian preachers. The academy's relative lack of success was underpinned by the growing concern of Charles Wellbeloved, theology tutor at Manchester College, York, and others that its educational provisions were inadequate to provide the requisite level of ministerial training. In a letter from 1816 to G. W. Wood, John Kenrick, classics tutor at Manchester College, described the academy as a place for those for whom studying was second to other interests, despite the recent efforts of the academy committee (and thus in contradiction to the founders' initial intentions) to provide a more traditional and more comprehensive education. However, the letter also betrays the underlying apprehension that, had the circumstances been different and had the academy succeeded in obtaining more solid support, an institution such as this, located as it was in London, would have seriously threatened the position of and support given to Manchester College, York.

In the course of its brief existence, a total of twelve students attended the academy. The students came from as far as Scotland, Lancashire and Suffolk. In its first year the academy housed two students, in the second three (one of whom left in the first few months). From 1814 to 1816 the student number was a minimum of four, reaching its peak of five in the academic year 1815/16. In the following academic year this number was reduced to three students, and in the last year to two. Nine of the twelve recorded students became Unitarian ministers. The three who did not (Fletcher, Hancock and Webb) entered the academy as ministerial candidates but did not remain long. Of the other nine students, two in particular are worthy of mention: the topographer and antiquary Thomas Walker Horsfield, Unitarian minister at Lewes, and John Smethurst, the first Unitarian missionary in the north of Ireland. Both have entries in the Oxford DNB.

Inga Jones


No records of the academy survive. Some information is provided by a letter in the Wood papers at Harris Manchester College, Oxford (HMCO, MS Wood 3, ff. 40-41v).

Published sources

Aspland, R. Brook, Memoir of the Life, Works and Correspondence, of the Rev. Robert Aspland, of Hackney (London, 1850).
The Christian Reformer, 1-4 (1815-18).
'New Unitarian Academy', Monthly Repository, 6 (1811), 372-5.
Ruston, Alan R., Unitarianism and Early Presbyterianism in Hackney (London, 1980).
'Unitarian Academy', Monthly Repository, 11 (1816), 494-5.
Webb, R. K., 'Aspland, Robert (1782-1845)', ODNB (2004).
Wykes, David L., 'The Education of English Unitarian Ministers in the Early Nineteenth Century: Did Manchester College Meet Denominational Needs?', Regaining Historical Consciousness: Proceedings of the Earl Morse Wilbur History Colloquium, ed. W. R. Ross (Berkeley, CA, 1994), 42-51.
-----, 'Scholarship or the Practical Skills of Ministry? Manchester College at York', Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, 24:4 (2010), 267-74.

Inga Jones, 'Hackney Unitarian Academy (1812-1818)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, October 2011.