The Western Academy (1752-1845)


Ottery St Mary (1752-65), Bridport (1765-79), Taunton (1780-94), Axminster (1796-1827), Exeter (1829-1845)

The Western Academy was established in 1752, following a meeting of Congregational ministers in Exeter concerned at the lack of an academy in the West of England educating ministers on evangelical principles. The first tutor was John Lavington Jr of Ottery St Mary in Devon. The Congregational Fund Board was to take a key role in the running of the academy by providing financial support and appointing the tutor. In February 1752 the Board agreed to support four students at the new academy. On Lavington's death in 1765 the academy moved to Bridport, Dorset, where the new tutor James Rooker was minister. It migrated to Taunton, Somerset, in 1779 when John Reader was appointed tutor, and to Axminster, Devon, in 1796 on James Small's appointment. From 1752 to 1827 the location of the academy was determined by the location of the congregation where the tutor was minister. In 1829 it was re-established in Exeter with George Payne as tutor. Originally named in the Fund minutes as the 'Academy in the West of England', from about 1794 it began to be called the Western Academy, and from about 1832 Western College.

Ottery St Mary (1752-65)

John Lavington was the eldest son of the orthodox Presbyterian minister of the same name who had been involved in the Exeter controversy between 1717 and 1719. Lavington trained for the ministry under John Eames and Thomas Ridgley at Moorfields. He served first as minister at Broadway, Somerset, then at Luppitt, Devon, and after briefly supplying Bridport in Dorset in 1751 he became minister of the Presbyterian congregation at Ottery St Mary in Devon, where he remained for the rest of his life.

As the only tutor Lavington was responsible for all the teaching. Little is known about the four-year course, but since it was intended solely to prepare students for the ministry Hebrew, Old and New Testament studies, and theology were probably the main subjects taught. Joseph Wilkins, one of Lavington's first students, described his tutor as 'a very good linguist, especially in the three learned languages, . . . and well skilled in the various branches of theology' (Wilkins, 'Lavington's Observations', 225). Lavington used Johannes Marck's Christianae theologiae medulla for his theology lectures. His course of 96 lectures lasted three years. The lectures themselves, covering the 'Principal Doctrinal Truths' including 'The Vast Importance of the Trinity' (DWL Wes 5, Lect. 24), 'Of Decrees of God', 'character and works' (Lect. 25), 'Of Election' (Lect. 27), 'Of Eternal Election' (Lect. 28-30), as well as the use of Marck, provide clear evidence of Lavington's orthodox views. The lectures were used by Lavington's successors. Thomas Reader began to make his own copy immediately on his appointment as tutor in 1780, and it was transcribed in turn by one of his students, Samuel Rooker. An incomplete copy of Lavington's lectures on Jewish Antiquities also survives. These lectures were clearly used by Reader and as a result copied by his students. A total of twenty-three students were educated by Lavington, including Samuel Buncombe, who for many years conducted a school at Ottery St Mary. By providing grammar and classical learning he prepared many of the students who entered the Western Academy. The importance of Buncombe's work was recognized by the King's Head Society, who agreed to provide £10 a year for up to six students. Lavington died on 20 December 1764.

Bridport (1765-79)

In January 1765, following Lavington's death, the Fund decided to continue the academy and named as his successor Jonathan Wheeler, minister at Axminster and a former student of Samuel Parsons at Clerkenwell Green and of Eames at Moorfields. Wheeler refused the post, however, and in March the Fund chose James Rooker, who accepted it. Rooker, born in Walsall, Staffordshire, in about 1729, had been educated at Bedworth by John Kirkpatrick. In 1750 he became minister at Bridport in Dorset, where he remained for the rest of his life. With Rooker's appointment the academy moved to Bridport, where it remained until his resignation in 1779. By 1769 the academy was housed in newly built premises near the East Bridge in the town. According to Densham and Ogle, Rooker 'made no money out of his students, on the contrary, he was probably a poorer man for the work' (Densham and Ogle, Congregational Churches, 53).

In 1820 Joseph Chadwick, one of Rooker's students, gave Joshua Wilson an account of the four-year course. The students were taught Hebrew and had to translate a few verses from the Hebrew Bible each week, but they were clearly expected to have acquired their knowledge of Greek or Latin before they entered the academy, for little attention was given by Rooker to either subject, beyond expecting his students to translate a few verses of the Greek New Testament every morning, and a portion of Turretin's system of theology from the Latin each week. Many of the students who attended the academy had received a classical education from Samuel Buncombe at his preparatory academy in Ottery St Mary. Teaching consisted principally of Rooker reading weekly lectures from 'Dr Watts' Logic, ... Dr Watts' Geography & Astronomy, Dr Gibbons Rhetoric, Rowning's Natural Philosophy, & Mr Lavington's Divinity Lectures'. The students had to make copies of these lectures for their future use. During the first year students wrote short essays on set subjects. Only in the final year did they preach in public. Rooker, like Lavington before him, was clearly entirely orthodox. Chadwick described his tutor as 'a very pious character, rigidly attached to all the Sentim[en]ts commonly called Calvinistic, but at the same time very humane & compassionate, & peculiarly attentive to the comfort of the students, when under any mental or corporal indisposition' (DWL, L54/4/71). Rooker did not leave any of his own lecture notes, and he published only one sermon, The Nature and Importance of Contending Earnestly for the Faith, which was given in Taunton in April 1771. Rooker resigned as tutor in November 1779, having suffered a paralytic stroke, and died not long afterwards in early 1780. By the time of his death twenty-five students had attended the academy, a comparatively modest number over a period of fourteen years. In January 1772 the Congregational Fund Board had resolved 'In consideration of a Deficiency in the Number of Students in the Academy at Bridport', and the want of ministers in Wales, to support an additional student at Abergavenny at the expense of Bridport (DWL, OD407, 6 Jan. 1772).

Taunton (1780-94)

Following Rooker's resignation, the Congregational Fund Board decided in November 1779 to appoint Samuel Buncombe as his successor , but Buncombe declined. Thomas Reader was invited instead and accepted, and the academy moved to Taunton. Reader was born in 1725 at Bedworth, and like Rooker he was educated at John Kirkpatrick's academy. Reader served as minister at Weymouth in Dorset and Newbury in Berkshire before settling at Paul's Meeting in Taunton in 1771. An outline of the subjects taught by Reader can be found in the annual report he submitted to the managers of the Congregational Fund in 1791. The students had lectures on divinity and composition throughout the four-year course. In addition, in their first year they studied ethics and pneumatology; in their second year natural philosophy, history, rhetoric, and Jewish antiquities; and in their third and fourth years they continued their studies of rhetoric and Jewish antiquities, but were also taught geometry and astronomy. Nothing is known of Reader's teaching except that he used Lavington's theology lectures, of which he had made his own copy. The students studied Greek, Hebrew, French, and in their final year Syriac. Robert Crook, who was in his first year, had already read through Genesis in Hebrew, and had begun to learn French. Reader told the managers of the Congregational Fund that he saw little hope of adding to the subjects taught without an additional tutor. He published eleven works, but none of them were directly related to his work as tutor. During the fourteen years in which he conducted the academy he only educated twenty-one students, so that in the opinion of Bogue and Bennett 'the reputation, or at least the usefulness of the academy, declined under this tutor' (Bogue and Bennett, History of Dissenters, IV, 275), though in fact the numbers were little different from those taught by Rooker. His students included his successor, James Small. Reader died in June 1794 aged 68. By the end of the academic session, in the summer of 1794, only one student, James Wheaton, remained.

Axminster (1796-1827)

It took almost eighteen months to appoint a successor to Reader. The Congregational Fund Board in December 1794 first nominated George Harvey, a former student at Homerton Academy and minister at Sherborne, Dorset, but he declined. Nearly a year later, in November 1795, the Board appointed James Small, who accepted the post, and the academy reopened at Axminster in 1796. It was agreed that Small's students were to be allowed £20 each. James Small was born in Taunton in 1759, and was educated by Buncombe in his preparatory academy at Ottery St Mary between 1780 and 1782. He then entered Reader's academy at Taunton, which he left in 1786. Shortly afterwards he settled at Axminster, where he was ordained the following year. In the same year he married James Rooker's daughter, Martha.

By January 1798, Wheaton was Small's only student, and he was soon to complete his course. The Fund's managers therefore resolved to discontinue the academy, though they allowed a further £40 to enable Wheaton to complete his studies under Small if he chose to do so. The decision to end their support for the academy was reversed within the year. The Revd Joseph Saltren of Bridport, the secretary of the Western Calvinistic Association, later known as the Devonshire Association, wrote to the Board expressing the association's interest in 'concurring with the Fund and Kings Head Society for the Support of the Academy under the Care of the Rev. James Small at Axminster' (DWL, MS OD415, 3 Dec. 1798). The Fund agreed to continue the academy, in the first instance for a year, granting Small an allowance of £25. They also agreed to support the two candidates recommended by Saltren, 'upon receiving proper Testemonials of their Faith, Experience and Motives for entering into the Ministry, with a Recommendation from Mr. Small' (DWL, MS OD415, 3 Dec. 1798). The extent of the support given by the Western Association is unclear. The King's Head Society was concerned only with grammar education, and agreed 'to allow £10 p[er] Ann[u]m toward the Education of two Students' in 'Grammar Learning' with Small (DWL, MS NCL 110, pp. 124, 136). In terms of managing the academy, the Association appears to have been responsible for minor matters and immediate concerns, while the more important issues were deferred to the Fund Board's judgement in London. For its part, the Congregational Fund Board continued to support the academy beyond the trial period of one year, with students receiving £20 a year. The academy's popularity gradually increased, and in 1812 seven students completed their course in the same year. In 1817 the Association wrote to both the Congregational Fund Board and the King's Head Society with a proposal to enlarge the academy by employing a tutor in classics and belles lettres to lessen Small's workload and to enlarge the academy. Joseph Turnbull, who was in fact appointed classics tutor at Wymondley Academy the following year, was named as a fit person to be tutor. This proposal was not acted upon, and after a few years the academy's numbers began to fall again. During the 1820s a number of Small's students conformed to the Church of England: six out of fifteen students educated between 1823 and 1827. By late 1826 only a few students remained, and in January 1827 Small tendered his resignation. The following April it was accepted by the Board, which regretted 'that circumstances have occurred to make him think such a step to be necessary' (DWL, OD 418, 2 April 1827). It was agreed that he would retire at the end of the year. During the last months he had only one student, J. K. Field, who completed his studies at Axminster in December 1827, and on 7 January the Board confirmed the official termination of its relationship with Small. He educated a total of fifty-four students, the most celebrated of whom was the missionary Richard Knill. Following Small's retirement Field finished his studies at Tavistock with William Rooker, the son of James, with the continued financial support of the Fund.

None of Small's lectures or lecture notes have survived, and there is no evidence that he published anything, though he is known to have been a keen mathematician. It is likely that the course, which still lasted four years, was structured in a similar way to those under his predecessors. He dedicated almost half his life to training young men for ministry. In 1829 over thirty of his former students presented him with a silver basket and plate as a token of their 'grateful memorial of his kindness; and attention to their improvement, while preparing for the Christian ministry' ('Miscellaneous Intelligence: Western Academy, Axminster', 286). Small died in 1834.

After seventy-five years under the auspices of the Congregational Fund Board the Western Academy closed. Although it had not realized the hopes of its founders to become the main dissenting academy in the west of England, and an alternative to London, it nevertheless provided a regular, if limited, supply of Congregational ministers for the western congregations. The average number of students resident was four to five, with at least two students leaving the academy each year to begin their settlements. In peak years such as 1789 and 1822 as many as five to seven students completed their course. Across the seventy-five years of the academy's existence the numbers appear to have been steady. The majority of the students settled in the west, mainly in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, and Hampshire, though a few went further afield, to Kidderminster, Bishop's Stortford, and London.

Exeter (1829-1845)

Western Academy, Exeter

Western Academy, Exeter [source: DWL, MS NCL L64/1/4]

In 1829, shortly after the academy at Axminster closed, a new academy was founded at Exeter, with the same ambition to establish an institution in the west that might rival its counterparts in London and the north. Following Small's resignation, the academy's governing committee published an appeal in the 1827 report for financial assistance to save their institution. This appeal proved successful, with many existing supporters doubling their subscriptions and donations, and in November 1828 a general meeting of subscribers and friends was called in Exeter to discuss the structure and scope of the academy. It was unanimously decided to put the academy under the supervision of two tutors, to modernize and broaden the scope of the curriculum, and to relocate it to Exeter. An executive governing committee was elected, with Joseph Saltren, secretary of the Devonshire Association, as treasurer. The committee offered the position of resident and theological tutor of the new institution to George Payne, theological tutor at Blackburn Independent Academy. Payne accepted and resigned his position at Blackburn by mid-January 1829.

Together with two of his students, John Edwards and James Gregory, Payne moved to Exeter, where two houses were rented in Alphington Terrace as temporary accommodation for the academy. Enough money was raised in the next three years for a more permanent and appropriate building, and in 1832 Marlfield House, Pennsylvania, was purchased for £2,450. It was about this time that the academy adopted the name of Western College, although in the minutes of the Congregational Fund Board it appeared as Western Academy for another decade. In 1837 the Board decided to renew its support of the academy by agreeing to fund four students a year with £30 each. However, by 1844 the institution again found itself in severe financial difficulties, with only three resident students, and only one student a year completing the course since 1840. In June 1845 the Board decided not to continue its support beyond the end of the year. It did not exclude its future involvement, should a new institution be formed that would be 'favorable to future prosperity' (DWL, OD420, CFB Minutes 1839-1856, 2 June 1845, p. 113).

John Pyer, a Devonport minister, in a letter of 20 December 1844 to John Blackburn, minister at Claremont, Pentonville, questioned the appropriateness of the college for the purposes of supplying the West Country with Congregational ministers: in his opinion the churches of the west required 'good, sound, laborious, lively preachers of Christ's gospel, rather than profound scholars', thus implying that the course was unnecessarily scholarly in nature (DWL, MS NCL/L52/6/54). He suggested a number of changes for reviving the academy, among them a curriculum streamlined to fit its purpose, and the relocation of the college. He thought Exeter strategically a poor choice for training Congregational ministers. For him, Plymouth stood out as the best place for such an institution, because of its location at the centre of West Country Congregationalism, and the benefits and opportunities that the numerous and growing congregations within easy reach would afford the students. This letter was written in anticipation of a conference of western ministers to discuss the fate of the institution in early 1845. Judging by its outcome, Pyer's ideas were adopted and the academy relocated again, this time to Plymouth - despite the explicit decision of 1829 to put an end to the academy's migratory nature. In December 1845 the college, still under the headship of Payne, moved to its new premises in Wyndham Square, Plymouth.

Payne remained the academy's principal throughout its period at Exeter, and as such bore the brunt of the academy's teaching responsibilities, consisting of theoretical and practical divinity and associated subjects. He was assisted by the resident tutor for classics and mathematics, who besides these subjects also taught English language and grammar and natural philosophy. In the academy's sixteen years at Exeter four classical tutors were employed: Daniel Currie, a former Axminster student, who took up the position in 1829, and who died in post in 1831; Jonathan Glyde, a former Highbury student, who left in 1835 to become a minister at Horton Lane, Bradford; John White Pope, who stayed on as a tutor for three years following his completion of the course in 1836, and who then went on to become a minister in Dorchester in 1839 and later a private tutor at University College, London; and finally Orlando Thomas Dobbin, an Irishman who had received his education at the Hoxton Independent Academy and Trinity College, Dublin, and who was tutor from 1840 to 1845; he later joined the Church of England and became the principal of Hull College.

A total of thirty-one students were educated at Western College in its sixteen years at Exeter. Almost all of them became Congregational ministers, several became Congregational missionaries, and a few eventually conformed or joined other denominations, such as John Poole, who became a Particular Baptist and was appointed secretary of Bristol Baptist Academy.

Inga Jones and David L. Wykes



The main records are the Congregational Fund Board and King's Head Society minutes held in Dr Williams's Library (DWL, MS OD455, MSS OD405-20, MS NCL 108-10). The Wilson Papers contain student lists and other information about students (DWL, MS NCL L54/4), while the report from Thomas Reader to the Congregational Fund Board, dated 27 December 1791 (NLW, Add MS 383-D, p. 75), and the letter from the Western Calvinistic Association to the King's Head Society in 1817, contain important information about the academy (DWL, MS NCL 538/8/1-2). Lavington's lectures can be found in 'Theological Lectures, from Marck's Medulla, & c. By the Rev. Mr. John Lavington of St Mary Ottery Devon Transcribed & studied over again ... By Thos. Reader Between Aug. 11th 1780, & Nov. 8th 1783' (DWL, WES.5-7); his 'Expository Lectures on the scripture account of the travels of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, with practical remarks', volume 1, are in the Congregational Library (CL, II.d.63). John Pyer's important letter is in the Blackburn MSS in the New College Collection at Dr Williams's Library (MS NCL/L52/6/54-55). The printed reports of Western College for 1837-60 are located in Plymouth & West Devon Record Office. Those for 1856-76 are in the Northern College Collection, John Rylands University Library. They provide extensive information on the regulations, curriculum, and examination procedures of the college. They also contain lists of ministerial students, including students in college at the time of each report.

Published sources

Bennett, James, The History of Dissenters: During the Last Thirty Years, (from 1808 to 1838) (London, 1839).
Birrell, Charles Morton (ed.), The Life of the Rev. Richard Knill, of St Petersburgh: Being Selections from his Reminiscences, Journals, and Correspondence, with a Review of his Character, by the Late Rev. John Angell James (London, 1878).
Bogue, David, and Bennett, James, History of Dissenters, from the Revolution in 1688, to the year 1808, 4 vols. (London, 1808-12), IV.
Brockett, Allan, Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875 (Manchester, 1962).
----- (ed.), The Exeter Assembly: the Minutes of the Assemblies of the United Brethren of Devon and Cornwall, 1691-1717, Devon and Cornwall RS, n. s., 6 (Torquay, 1963).
'Miscellaneous Intelligence: Western Academy, Axminster', Congregational Magazine, 12 (May 1829), 286.
Dale, R. W., History of English Congregationalism, ed. A. W. W. Dale, 2nd edn (London, 1907).
Densham, William, and Joseph Ogle, The Story of the Congregational Churches of Dorset: from their Foundation to the Present Time (London, 1899).
Johnstone, J. C., 'The Story of Western College', Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 7 (1916-18), 98-109.
Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999).
'Memoir of the Late Rev. James Small, Formerly the Tutor of the Western or Independent Academy, at Axminster', Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, n. s., 12 (1834), 265-9.
Pyer, John, 'Memoir', in George Payne, Lectures on Christian Theology, ed. Evan Davies, 2 vols. (London, 1850), I.
'Religious Intelligence. Associations: Western Association', Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 5 (1797), 339ff.
'Religious Intelligence: Removal of the Western Academy from Axminster to Exeter', Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, n. s., 7 (1829), 158-9.
'Samuel Buncombe', Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 2 (1794), 309-17, 337-9.
Sell, Alan P. F., 'Walsall Riots, the Rooker Family and 18th Century Dissent', Transactions of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, 25 (1983-4), 50-71.
Short, Basil, A Respectable Society: Bridport 1593-1835 (Bradford-upon-Avon, 1976).
'Thomas Reader', Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 2 (1794), 441-8, 485-94.
Toulmin, Joshua, The History of the Town of Taunton: in the County of Somerset (Embellished with Plates) (London, 1791).
Wilkins, Joseph, 'Lavington's Observations on the Epistle to the Hebrews', Protestant Dissenter's Magazine, 2 (1795), 225.
Wykes, David L., 'Lavington, John (c. 1715-1764)', ODNB (2004).

Inga Jones and David L. Wykes, 'Western Academy (1752-1845)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, October 2011.