Western College, Plymouth (1845-1901)

(Historical account to 1860)

In the early 1840s Western College, Exeter suffered from severe financial difficulties and a shortage of students. After deliberation, in 1845 the governing committee of the college decided to relocate it to Plymouth. They had considered Taunton and Bristol, but Plymouth was ideally located, offering better connections and access to congregations in Dorset, Somerset, and Cornwall, as well as to the Channel Islands, and the Plymouth congregations were more positive about assuming responsibility for the ailing college.

Western College, consisting of the principal tutor George Payne and three students, thus moved to Plymouth in December 1845. Samuel Newth, a mathematician and classicist who had been minister at Brosely in Shropshire, was employed as the new classical and mathematical tutor, and arrived in Plymouth at the end of December 1845 to oversee the setting up of the college. Although the Congregational Fund Board had previously indicated that it would cease to support the college in Exeter, after a renewed appeal it agreed in early 1846 to continue to support four students with £30 each – a commitment that was upheld throughout the college's existence. The college was first based in temporary accommodation at Wyndham Square. Five more students joined the college at Plymouth, in line with the college's proposal to begin with seven to eight students and gradually to increase the number to twelve. By 1847 this objective was almost achieved, with eleven students resident in college. Following a visit to the college in June 1847, the Revd George Clayton, a member of the Congregational Fund Board, concluded that the decision to remove the college had been the right one and that its advantages were 'manifold & unquestionable'. He pointed out that not only was Plymouth's population much more numerous than that of Exeter, thus affording the students many more opportunities for development, but that the college was surrounded by several thriving churches and enjoyed the patronage of both influential ministers and their lay congregations (DWL, OD419, pp. 150-1).

The laws of the college set out that the governing committee was to be appointed annually at the subscribers' meeting, consisting of a treasurer, a secretary, and a management committee of fifteen to thirty members, half of whom should be Congregational ministers, whether subscribers or not, and the rest subscribers. The treasurer and the committee were each to produce an annual report of their proceedings, including reports on the students' progress. The course structure was modernized and made more flexible, although the college still retained its character as a Congregational seminary, whose primary aim was to supply well-trained preachers and ministers. This accounts for the fact that homiletics formed the core of the course.

Because of the previous financial difficulties of the college, in 1850 the decision was made to admit lay students, provided that, like the ministerial students and the theology tutor, they were Congregationalists and agreed to a list of eight doctrinal articles. By 1857 the college offered both a full course, which lasted five years and could be extended by another year, depending on the student's requirements and the committee's approval, and an abridged three-year course. In addition to homiletics, which was offered at every level, in the first year of the full course the students studied logic, rhetoric, and elocution with the theology tutor, while elements of universal and English grammar, classics, mathematics, and natural philosophy were taught by the classical and mathematical tutor. The students continued their studies in the last three subjects with the classical tutor in the second and third years. With the theology tutor they studied mental and moral philosophy and Hebrew in the second year, and natural theology, textual criticism, hermeneutics, evidences of Christianity, Hebrew, and New Testament exegesis in their third year. In their last two years of study the students delved further into exegesis, and took the more advanced theological subjects such as doctrinal theology, inspiration, sacred hermeneutics, ecclesiastical history, and Chaldee and Syriac languages, while studying the early Christian Fathers with the classical tutor. If they required it, students were admitted to a sixth year of study: in this case they took classics, mathematics and natural philosophy in their fourth year, and then continued with the regular course. If any of the students displayed advanced knowledge, they could enter the abridged three-year course. In this case the students took classics or mathematics and natural philosophy with the classical tutor in the first year only, and spent the rest of their time at the college under the supervision of the theology tutor. As in the full course, homiletics formed the basis of their course, in addition to which they studied logic, rhetoric and elocution, and natural theology in their first year, hermeneutics, inspiration, evidences of Christianity, and Hebrew in their second year, New Testament exegesis in the second and third years, together with doctrinal theology and ecclesiastical history in their final year.

To be eligible for either course, candidates for Christian ministry had to have completed their seventeenth year and have full letters of recommendation. For lay students the minimum age was sixteen, and each class cost 3 guineas per session. Sons of ministers were admitted at half fee, and students intending to apply for the ministerial course were admitted as lay students without fees. For graduation the minimum requirement was attendance at four classes for two sessions as well as the requisite examination.

Payne, who had run Western College at Exeter from 1829 to 1845, continued in his position as principal and theology tutor at Plymouth until his death three years later. Samuel Newth, who had graduated from the University of London, considered the expectations of the governing committee to be too low. Ignoring the request to provide a very basic level of education and following the example of other dissenting institutions which had already established a relationship with the University of London, he prepared three of his students for matriculation, all of whom passed in the first class. Despite the committee's original misgivings he persuaded them of the benefits of a formal affiliation of the college with the university, which was achieved in 1847. On Payne's death Newth was left in charge, forced to teach the college's entire curriculum for almost a year, until a new principal was appointed. Richard Alliott, educated at Homerton College and the University of Glasgow, took up his position in 1849 and remained until 1857. On Alliott's arrival Newth was appointed resident tutor. Until Newth's departure for New College, London, in 1855, Newth and Alliott worked together to improve the standard of the education they provided, and the number of students rose steadily. By the time Alliott left for Cheshunt College in 1857, twenty-nine students were being educated in the college, eight of whom were non-resident, an increase of seventeen students within eight years. The number of students remained constant to 1860 and beyond. Despite this increase in students and thus in income, the rate of expenditure was still high; by 1860 the college was still £246 in debt, with annual income having exceeded expenditure by only £15.

In 1854 Newth was succeeded by William Henry Griffith, a graduate of Coward College and later the headmaster of the West of England Dissenters Proprietary School in Taunton. Griffith did not stay long, and in 1857 two new tutors were appointed to succeed Alliott and Griffith respectively: John Moon Charlton and Frederick E. W. Anthony. Charlton, a former student of Highbury College, had fifteen years' ministerial experience, whereas Anthony had only just finished his studies at Western College. For eighteen years the two men worked alongside each other to promote the college and the education it provided. Charlton died in post in 1875, while Anthony remained until 1901, when the college moved to Bristol.

The examination reports for the last years of the period under review show that the education provided by the college was of a very high standard, with only the scientific subjects considered satisfactory rather than excellent. Although the college was primarily intended to train ministers for churches in the west of England, by the mid-1850s it was attracting students from all over the country. A few of the students eventually conformed, and some became Methodists. The majority, however, became Congregational ministers or missionaries. A total of sixty-one students are recorded as having been educated in the college between 1845 and 1860. The surviving reports list ministerial students only. In 1857 over a quarter of the students (eight out of twenty-nine) were lay; if this was typical then the overall number of lay students for the period between 1845 and 1860 was above eighty. Amongst the more prominent students were Frederick Anthony, college tutor; Charles Chapman, principal from 1876 to 1910; Thomas Broughton Knight, tutor at the Bristol Theological Institute and the financial secretary of Western College from 1890 to 1905; and the Congregational historian Bryan Dale.

In 1852, on the hundredth anniversary of founding of the Western Academy by John Lavington, the Centenary Fund was established to raise funds for a new and better building. By 1858 a site in Mannamead, Plymouth, was chosen, and in 1860 the works began. By 1861 the new Gothic building was erected, at a cost of £6,500. In 1863 the Bristol Theological Institute was established, and in 1891 for financial reasons amalgamated with Western College. In 1901 Western College moved to Bristol, first to temporary accommodation, and in 1906 to a new building in the Arts and Crafts style.

Inga Jones


The main surviving letters and papers relating to the Western College are contained in the Congregational Library and New College Library collections at Dr Williams's Library. They include the letters and papers directed to Joshua Wilson (Congregational Library II.c.48) for the years 1847 to 1860. The minutes of the Congregational Fund Board (DWL, OD420-21) are the most important source of information for the running of the academy and its students and tutors. The printed reports of Western College (Plymouth, 1857-76) in the Northern College Collection, John Rylands University Library, 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

Brockett, Allan, Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875 (Manchester, 1962).
Dale, R. W., History of English Congregationalism, ed. A. W. W. Dale, 2nd edn (London, 1907).
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).
Pyer, John, 'Memoir', in George Payne, Lectures on Christian Theology, ed. Evan Davies, 2 vols. (London, 1850), I.

Inga Jones, 'Western College, Plymouth (1845-1901)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, October 2011.