Airedale Independent College (1800-1888)

including The Independent Academy at Idle (1800-1826)

(Historical account to 1860)

The Independent Academy at Idle was established in 1800, following the failure of Samuel Walker's academy at Northowram in 1794 and a short-lived arrangement, ending in 1796, whereby four of Walker's students were educated at Idle by the local minister William Vint. The populous manufacturing region around Bradford was then without an Independent academy for the first time since the mid-eighteenth century, resulting in a shortage of preachers to supply congregations in the area. On receiving information of the impact of this upon the denomination in the West Riding, Edward Hanson, a London-based native of Yorkshire, provided £60 a year to fund the training of two ministerial students by Vint at Idle, a manufacturing village five and a half miles to the north east of Bradford. When Hanson died in 1806 his will provided the academy with an annuity of £150 a year. Hanson's contribution was supplemented by local donations and subscriptions collected from 1802 onwards. The academy was renamed Airedale Independent College in 1826, and remained at Idle until 1834. In 1829, Mary Bacon of Spring House, Horton, arranged for the conveyance to the college of estates at Fagley and Undercliffe near Bradford, in accordance with the wishes of her late sister, Sarah Balme. The two women were daughters of the Bradford worsted manufacturer and Congregationalist John Balme. The Fagley property was intended to provide a rental income for Airedale college, while that at Undercliffe was to be the site of a new academy building opened in March 1834. The geographical constituency served by the academy was defined as the area of the West Riding of Yorkshire around Bradford, Halifax, and Leeds, as well as the North Riding, Durham, and Northumberland. However, the committee were at pains to stress that the institution was not designed to compete with the Rotheram Independent Academy, established in 1795. Airedale Independent College continued to exist until 1888, in which year it merged with Rotherham to form the Yorkshire United Independent College.

The academy was originally established in premises owned by Idle Upper Chapel, which were occupied rent-free until 1821, after which the annual rent was £20. In 1802 four studies were added to the house, with a further three built the following year. In 1809 a new academy house was built at a cost of £437 4s., including a loan of £100 from the Upper Chapel. Further enlargements were made in 1816 and 1825 in order to accommodate increased numbers of students, who were boarded in the academy building, although by the end of the period at Idle the accommodation was causing dissatisfaction. In 1827 Thomas Rawson Taylor wrote to a friend describing the academy house and its surroundings in unflattering terms. The town itself was a 'dirty, grovelling, manufacturing village, without one single charm' (Taylor, Memoir, 50). The academy building comprised the tutor's apartments, a large hall used for dining which also housed the library, two communal dormitories, and a study for each student. Taylor's own study was five feet and ten inches square, containing a desk, stool, his clothing, bookshelves and pegs for his coats and shoes.

The foundation stone of the new college building at Undercliffe was laid by John Holland of Halifax on 20 June 1831. John Clark of Leeds, whose most significant work had been the Leeds Commercial Buildings, provided the design for the impressive Grecian-style edifice. The premises provided accommodation for twenty students, who now had a separate bedroom each as well as their own study. The budget for the project was a relatively modest £3,300. Revd Metcalfe Gray of South Shields, who studied at Airedale from 1868 to 1873, described how the imposing portico opened into a large hall, to the right of which were the Principal's apartments, and on the left were the dining room, library, and servants' quarters. A passage from the centre of the hall led to the theological tutor's classroom on one side, and the classical and mathematical classroom on the other. At the end of the corridor were glass doors leading to twenty studies, with a staircase providing access to the dormitories above.

Airedale Independent College
Airedale Independent College, built 1831 [source: Dr Williams's Library, MS NCL/L64/1/7]

The academy was funded by voluntary subscriptions, donations, and benefactions, most of which were obtained from the towns and villages of the West Riding. In addition to the gift of the Fagley and Undercliffe estates, a further donation of £8,000 was made by Mary Bacon in 1845, providing an annual dividend of £240. Occasional grants were received by Airedale students from Lady Hewley's Trust, following the conclusion of the chancery case involving the fund in 1849. The management of the institution was vested in its subscribers, who appointed a committee from within their number at an annual meeting. Under the trust deed of 1849 conveying the Undercliffe estate to the college this was amended, so that subscribers of a guinea a year or donors of £20 or more could attend the annual meetings. They were responsible for appointing a treasurer, secretary, and committee members. From 1829 the committee was to consist of the treasurer, secretary, and tutors of the college, the minister of Horton Lane church, Bradford, and twenty-one others, one third of whom were required to be ministers.

Throughout the early history of the college, the committee adopted a cautious approach to finances. Under constant pressure to provide students to supply local congregations, they resisted the impulse to expand beyond their means. Between 1802 and 1806 the number of students in the college never exceeded five, rising to eight by the end of the decade. Following the completion of the new building at Idle in 1809 a maximum of ten students were accommodated, and subsequent additions to the academy house allowed this number to increase to fifteen by 1817 and a maximum of eighteen from 1825 onwards. The new building at Undercliffe was designed to accommodate twenty students, and was full to capacity for most of the decade after it opened. A financial crisis led to a reduction in the number of students to twelve in 1845. Matters were alleviated by Mrs Bacon's donation of the same year, after which numbers fluctuated between a low of fourteen  and a peak of twenty-two. Students were expected to become ministers of the Independent denomination, and were required to subscribe to the doctrines of the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism. The course of study was initially set at four years, and increased to five in 1826. Students received their board, lodging, tuition, and use of the library free of charge.

The original plan of the Independent Academy at Idle stated that students were to receive tuition in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, English composition, logic, rhetoric, geography, church history, and theology. In 1821 the teaching of astronomy and French was reported, while the 1829 trust deed added that mathematics and natural philosophy should also be taught, time permitting. During the college year ending in June 1830, £20 was paid for lectures on elocution by the political reformer and lecturer John Thelwall (1764-1834). While the academy was located at Idle, students had access to both the academy library and William Vint's own substantial collection of books. Following Vint's death and the relocation to Undercliffe, the college library was deemed highly deficient, comprising little more than 1,000 volumes, a number of which were regarded as of little value. The annual college reports contain regular appeals for donations of books or money with which they could be purchased. Following the death of Thomas Rawson Taylor in 1835 the college inherited his large library. The lists of books donated printed in the annual reports indicate that the committee's appeals for help were being heeded, and the state of the library improved as a result. However, in 1852 the library was still regarded as unsatisfactory, and an appeal was launched on the initiative of the Revd Jonathan Glyde of Bradford to raise a minimum of £200 for the purchase of books. By 1854 it was reported that the appeal had been a success, raising the sum of £350. The college also failed to acquire much scientific apparatus during its early years. As late as 1841 the only equipment owned was an air pump. In December of the same year it was resolved to take out a subscription to the Bradford Mechanics Institute, although this arrangement was terminated a few years later when the college encountered financial difficulties.

Throughout the period at Idle, the academy was inextricably linked to its sole tutor, William Vint. Having studied under Samuel Walker at Northowram, Vint became minister at Idle in 1790 and soon established a reputation as a popular preacher. Under his pastorate the local chapel was rebuilt and expanded to accommodate the growing congregation he attracted. As academy tutor, he was responsible for the entire curriculum, while his wife, Sarah, undertook the domestic management of the household. In 1829, with Vint's health beginning to deteriorate, two senior students, Joseph Stringer and Thomas Rawson Taylor, were employed to assist him. Stringer's services were called upon again in 1833, by which time he had become Vint's son-in-law. Vint died on 13 March 1834, ten days after the academy moved to Undercliffe. His successor as theological tutor was Walter Scott, the minister of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, where he had provided tuition to about seventy students in preparation for their admission to the Independent academy at Hoxton (later Highbury College). Scott was appointed to teach divinity, Biblical criticism, intellectual and moral philosophy, and Hebrew. At the same time Thomas Rawson Taylor was chosen to assist him in the classical and mathematical departments. When Taylor died the following year, he was replaced by William Benton Clulow.

In September 1842 a sub-committee was appointed to converse with Clulow over his 'opinions on the Christian Sabbath' (Airedale College Minutes, 19 Sept. 1842). Clulow subsequently offered his resignation, which was initially refused on the basis that his views, though unorthodox, did not compromise his ability to act as classical tutor. However, when he tendered his resignation for a second time in June 1843 the committee resolved to accept. Clulow was succeeded by Daniel Fraser, and in 1848 the income generated by Mrs Bacon's donation allowed a third tutor to be appointed. At this point, the departments of tuition were redefined so that Walter Scott was to be responsible for all branches of theology, comprising church history, the Hebrew, Chaldee, and Syriac languages, sermon composition, theological essays, and New Testament criticism. Fraser, as classical tutor, was to teach the Latin and Greek languages. Henry Brown Creak was appointed to oversee the philosophical department, covering grammar, rhetoric, logic, composition, mental and moral philosophy, mathematics, geography and natural philosophy. When Scott retired in 1856, at the age of 77, he was replaced as theological tutor by Fraser. The vacancy created in the classical department was filled by Richard Griffiths Hartley, who remained in post until 1862. Creak would continue to teach mathematics and philosophy until his death in 1864. Fraser resigned in 1876, by which time he had lost the confidence of the committee.

In addition to their academic studies, students were expected to engage in itinerant work. This was particularly the case during the early period in the history of the academy, when the demand for students to conduct services in the towns and villages of the West Riding regularly exceeded supply. On a number of occasions lay preachers, unemployed ministers, and students from the nearby Horton Baptist Academy were called upon to serve Independent congregations, because William Vint could not meet the large number of requests for assistance. The annual report for 1819 gave a detailed account of eighteen congregations that had been gathered or revived as a result of the labours of students sent out from Idle. The following year it was recorded that students from the academy were regularly supplying fifty congregations.

Many of the alumni from Idle and Airedale attained local rather than national significance as Independent ministers. For example, one of Vint's first students, James Scott, was chiefly responsible for reviving the congregation at Eastwood before moving to Cleckheaton. Another, Robinson Poole, increased the number of hearers at Honley from 200 to 350. Other Idle and Airedale students who would develop noteworthy careers as ministers included James Parsons, 'the most remarkable pulpit orator of his time' (ODNB) whose sermons in York attracted considerable crowds. One of Vint's later students was the denominational historian John Waddington, whose five volume Congregational History was completed in 1880. Among those educated at Undercliffe was the Welsh Congregationalist minister, educationalist and temperance campaigner Evan Lewis. A near contemporary of Lewis was the mathematician Robert Harley, whose work on algebraic equations earned him election to the Royal Society in 1863.

Simon N. Dixon


The principal archival collection for the Independent Academy at Idle and Airedale Independent College is held at John Rylands University Library as part of the Northern Congregational College Archives. The most important evidence for the life and management of the academy is the committee minutes, which survive in full, and the printed annual reports. The minutes of the subcommittee responsible for overseeing the development of the Undercliffe building also form part of the collection.

Published sources

An Address to the Friends of Christianity Especially Such as Reside in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on the Establishment of the Academy (Idle, 1824).
Fraser, Lucy A., Memoirs of Daniel Fraser (London, 1905).
Hamilton, Richard Winter, An Address, Delivered to the Constituents of Airedale College, on the Public Laying of the Foundation Stone of their New Institution at Undercliffe, near Bradford June 20, 1831 (London, 1831).
Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: A History of Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999).
Matthews, W. S., Memoirs and Select Remains of the Rev. Thomas Rawson Taylor (London, 1836).
Priestley, Joshua, Mental and Moral Excellence and How to Obtain It: Memorials of John Hessel, 4th edn (London, 1861).
Reports of Airedale Independent College (1825-1860).
Reports of the Independent Academy at Idle (1802-1825).
Turner, J. Horsfall, Nonconformity in Idle, with the History of Airedale College (Bradford, 1876).

Simon N. Dixon, 'Airedale Independent College (1800-1888)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.