William Roby's Academy (1803-1808)


In 1803 William Roby became sole tutor of a small academy for training ministers funded by Robert Spear, a wealthy cotton merchant. Teaching took place in the vestry of Mosley Street Chapel, Manchester, with students residing in private lodgings. The purpose of the academy was to train 'evangelists with Congregational interests to meet the needs of Lancashire and Cheshire and supply candidates for the Itinerant Society' (Surman, 'Roby's Academy', 13). The cost of board and lodging for most students was paid for by Spear. The academy operated until 1808, and was dissolved when Spear retired to Mill Bank, on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, and withdrew funding. Continuity with subsequent initiatives to provide ministerial training in Lancashire is demonstrated by the involvement of both Roby and Spear in the management of Leaf Square Academy and Blackburn Independent Academy.

There are no formal records extant for the academy, so the number of students educated there cannot be accurately determined. At least sixteen men have been identified as having received some training at Mosley Street, but the total number may have been higher. Rules of the academy have survived, and candidates for admission were required to send a written account of their doctrinal sentiments, religious experience and circumstances that inclined them to join the ministry. They were expected to present testimonies to their religious character and natural abilities. Generally speaking, the students were older than at other academies, with at least seven aged over 30 at the time of admission, and at least eleven aged 25 or above. They were not expected to be bachelors, and it was later observed that 'Mr Roby's Students were mostly married men' (JRUL, NCC, Box 19, George Hadfield to Gilbert Wardlaw, 21 Jan. 1831).

The course of study provided by Roby was short but intense, lasting for two years with no vacations. The curriculum covered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, English grammar and composition, logic, biblical languages, ecclesiastical history, geography, astronomy, 'use of globes', mathematics, and natural and moral philosophy. The students read Watts's Logic, Hugh Blair's works on rhetoric and Greek, and John Hutchinson's works on philosophy. A Latin and mathematics teacher provided tutorial assistance in the evenings, and external lectures on elocution were attended. Roby delivered his own series of eighty lectures in systematic theology which students were required to commit to memory. The plan of education also had a substantial practical element, and students presented a weekly sermon to their tutor for criticism. In preaching and practical divinity Roby urged his students to be 'useful rather than showy preachers' (Robinson, William Roby, 118). Most Sundays were occupied with preaching engagements, and an account of the day's labours was delivered to Roby on Mondays. A library was provided by Robert Spear and kept at Mosley Street, but there is no record of its extent.

All of the students known to have received some of their education under Roby went on to pursue careers as Congregationalist ministers. Two continued their studies at Rotherham under Edward Williams, but for the remainder the education provided at Mosley Street seems to have been regarded as sufficient preparation for a ministerial career. After the formal closure of the academy in 1808, Roby continued to train young men for the ministry. On the value of the education provided in the vestry at Mosley Street Charles Surman wrote, 'Roby certainly seems to have fired his protégés with tremendous enthusiasm for their task and to have initiated them fully into the joy of hard work' (Surman, 'Roby's Academy', p.43).

Simon N. Dixon


No formal records of the academy survive. Some records relating to the academy can be found within the William Roby manuscripts, which form part of the Northern Congregational College Archives at the John Rylands University Library.

Published Sources

Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: A History of Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999)
McLachlan, H., English Education Under the Test Acts: Being the History of the Nonconformist Academies 1662-1820 (Manchester, 1931)
Robinson, W.G., William Roby (1766-1830) and the Revival of Independency in the North (London, 1954)
Surman, Charles E., 'Roby's Academy, Manchester, 1803-08', TCHS, 13 (1937), 41-53

Simon N. Dixon, 'William Roby's Academy (1803-1808)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.