Daventry Academy (1752-1789)


After the death of Philip Doddridge the academy moved from Northampton to Daventry, where Caleb Ashworth was minister. In his will Doddridge had named Ashworth, one of his former students, as his successor in the academy and, he also hoped, his pulpit at Northampton. Ashworth, however, was aware that Samuel Clark, Doddridge's assistant, 'was not sufficiently popular and Calvinistical' to be acceptable to the Northampton congregation, but 'he knew too well the value of Mr Clark as an assistant tutor to part with him, and therefore determined to remain at Daventry', 'which it is well known, was the principal reason of the removal of the academy from Northampton to Daventry' ('Brief Memoirs of Clark', 618). The death of Doddridge also marked a change in the management of the academy, with the Coward Trustees assuming responsibility for its regulation and finances. Before the academy could move to Daventry, a new building to accommodate the students had to be built, which accounted for the delay. The academy moved to Daventry on 9 November 1752 with twenty-seven students.
Ashworth followed Doddridge's method and plan of education, using Doddridge's lectures in his own teaching. The first three years were also intended to provide a lay education. A timetable for the academic year 1752-3 shows that at that date the course lasted four years and involved a six-day week. Divinity, ethics and philosophy were the principal subjects. Details for the first year are missing, but Clark appears to have been responsible for teaching for the first three years and Ashworth for the final year. Students in the second year studied algebra and pneumatology. In the third year they covered ethics and (what seems clear from later syllabuses) natural philosophy with Clark, and Jewish antiquities with Ashworth, and in the final year studied evidences of Christianity, schemes of divinity, Jewish antiquities, and homiletics with Ashworth. Following Doddridge's method, the lectures began with a proposition, followed by a series of demonstrations and opposing arguments which the students were expected to examine through further reading. Priestley found 'The general plan of our studies . . . exceedingly favourable to free enquiry, as we were referred to authors on both sides of every question, and were even required to give an account of them' (Priestley, Theological and Miscellaneous Works, I i, 23-24).
Doddridge's practice of appointing a former student to fill the post of assistant tutor continued at Daventry. Clark resigned in 1757 and was succeeded by Thomas Tayler (1757-61), and he in turn was followed by Noah Hill (1761-71). In 1767 the work was divided with the appointment of Thomas Halliday as classics tutor (1767-70). Hill continued as tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy. Thomas Belsham, who entered the academy as a student in 1766, wrote that he was 'indebted for all that I know of classical literature' to Halliday. By comparison 'Mr. Hill taught Mathematics very well as far as he went. Of Logic and Mathematics he knew but little, and was not at all ambitious of improving himself or his pupils, or of doing any thing more than go over the same routine continually' (Williams, Memoirs of Thomas Belsham, 78). When Halliday left the academy in August 1770, Belsham succeeded him in the Greek class, and a year later, when Hill left, he was appointed tutor in mathematics, logic, and metaphysics. No replacement as classics tutor was made until Hugh Worthington Jr was appointed at the start of the 1773-74 session, the duties being undertaken by one of the senior students, adding significantly to Ashworth's responsibilities and concerns. Worthington only served for the first part of the session. He was followed by Benjamin Carpenter, who was tutor for a few months before the appointment of John Fuller (1773-76), who had been a student at Mile End. His successor was John Taylor (1776-82), a Daventry student.
When Ashworth died in 1775, Belsham continued at the academy until the appointment of Thomas Robins. Robins had been named by Ashworth as his successor, but was at first very reluctant to accept the post because of its demands. Belsham resigned as assistant tutor in 1778 to become minister at Worcester, and was succeeded as tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy by Timothy Kenrick (1778-84), later tutor at Exeter. William Broadbent was classics tutor for two years (1782-84), in succession to Taylor, and then followed Kenrick as tutor in mathematics, natural philosophy, and logic, moving with the academy to Northampton in 1789. His successor as classics tutor was Eliezer Cogan (1784-87), later a prominent Greek scholar, and he in turn was replaced by Robert Forsaith (1788-97), who also moved with the academy in 1789. The system of assistant tutors at Daventry was deficient. Orton felt 'a young man, just taken out of a class in the Academy, is by no means fit for such a post' (Palmer, Letters to Dissenting Ministers, II, 187). They were only paid £40 a year until 1788, when it was increased to £60. The duties were arduous, the salary inadequate, and the position never sufficiently important to secure the services of a well-qualified tutor. Hoxton Academy had three tutors, Warrington four, but Daventry only one, with the help of one, later two assistants.
Robins was forced to resign as theology tutor in June 1781 because of the complete loss of his voice, having unwisely attempted to preach three sermons in one day with a heavy cold. He was compelled to take a shop as a bookseller and druggist in order to support himself. Samuel Palmer of Hackney, the editor of the Nonconformist Memorial, appears to have been first considered before the Coward Trustees turned to Belsham. The situation was not attractive to him. He told a friend: 'Not to mention the abatement of salary, and the utter want of society in that neighbourhood, the temper and spirit of the people are utterly averse to what I approve' (Williams, Memoirs of Thomas Belsham, 187). He was also unhappy at the Daventry congregation's treatment of Robins and the assistant tutor John Taylor. There were further difficulties caused by the mismanagement of the academy by the Coward Trustees, and the discipline of the students was lax. Belsham met the trustees to ask if they would move the academy to Worcester, but they declined because of the expense and their concerns about the dangers that a cathedral city might represent. Belsham's considerable reservations were only overcome by a sense of duty and the persuasion of his friends. Orton was certain that 'the care of the Academy is of much more moment to our interest, and to the concerns of religion among us, than the care of any particular congregation' (Williams, Memoirs of Thomas Belsham, 196).
The course, originally lasting four years, was extended to five, and perhaps the second assistant tutor was appointed in 1767 to help with this change. The introduction of a fifth year offered a clearer distinction between the first three years intended also to provide a lay education, and the final two years intended for students for the ministry only. The content described by Belsham in 1783 was similar to the earlier course. In their first year students learnt Rich's short-hand, and studied geography, logic, the first six books of Euclid, as well as classics and Hebrew. In the second year they studied civil government and the British constitution as well as algebra and pneumatology, and in the third year conic sections and natural philosophy, including mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics and 'the new discoveries upon Air, Optics, Astronomy, and Electricity' (Williams, Memoirs of Thomas Belsham, 225), as well as ethics and the evidences of revealed religion. Students in the fourth year continued to study conic sections and natural philosophy, but also included divinity and ecclesiastical history. Greek, Latin and Hebrew were studied throughout the first four years. The final year had critical lectures on the New Testament, Jewish antiquities, and lectures on ministry. Two or three orations a week were delivered by the students. Many of their essays survive.
Belsham proved to be more innovative than either Ashworth or Robins. He updated the theology course, the subject having advanced considerably since Doddridge's time. He collected all the passages from the Old and New Testament relating to the person of Christ, to which he added comments from the leading Trinitarian, Arian, and Socinian writers, to provide his students with an impartial view of the subject. To Belsham's dismay, he unintentionally converted most of them to Unitarianism, and in time himself. One of his students calculated that all but six or so of the forty divinity students had become Unitarians by the time Belsham resigned. Belsham also changed the philosophy course. He continued to use Doddridge's lectures, but from student notes it is clear that he added references from modern works which were strongly influenced by Joseph Priestley and necessarian ideas.
Priestley's diary provides an account of academy life during the early years. He shared a bed chamber but had his own closet for private prayer and preparation, the choice of room being determined by seniority. Thomas Johnstone, as the most junior student in 1784, found his choice was limited to a room known as 'Pandemonium' under the stairs. There are references to a number of student societies, including a weekly literary club or debating society, dating from at least 1754. The minutes survive between 1779 and 1798. Pastimes included walks to Borough Hill, and visits to neighbouring ministers and friends for tea. In Priestley's day students met in each other's rooms to talk about their studies, to read together, and to sing hymns, as well as for more light-hearted amusements, such as an evening 'capping one another out of the scriptures' ('Priestley's Journal', 84). Johnstone sang and played Handel and Corelli on the flute and violin with Eliezer Cogan, who as the senior student had the best rooms in the academy. Cogan also helped Johnstone with his Greek in private. A surprising degree of fun is recorded by Priestley: 'our poet society drunk the two shillings they got for the books … Were very merry'; and the following day, 'Afternoon, dissected a cat. Everything succeeded very well. Pelted one another with the parts. I threw a [piece of] carcass into Jackson's face, and he emptied a chamber pot upon me' ('Priestley's Journal', 87). The line between high spirits and general ill-discipline was not always observed, and standards slipped during Ashworth's later years, and possibly also under Robins.
The Coward Trust paid the salaries of the tutors and met the costs of repairs, and the purchase of books and scientific equipment. They purchased Doddridge's library and philosophical apparatus from his widow for £150, probably as a means of helping her financially, and insured them for £500 in June 1767. The scientific equipment continued to be repaired and updated: £10 was spent on repairs to the apparatus in 1759, with further sums in 1766 and 1767 towards its improvement, and for buying books. In 1783 Belsham could describe the apparatus as very complete in mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, electricity and gases; its principal defects were optics and astronomy. At this date the academy library consisted of about 3,000 volumes, being especially strong in theology, and comparatively weak in classics and belles lettres.
The Coward Trustees also provided exhibitions for poorer students intending to enter the ministry, supporting a total of 36 students at Daventry. The Presbyterian Fund supported 56 ministerial students. Ten had grants from both funds, usually after the student had been dismissed by the Coward Trustees because they had reached the age of twenty-two, the limit set by Coward. A further 9 received an award of £32 per year from the Trustees of Mrs Jackson's Trust for periods ranging from one to five years. These were students who were not helped by any of the other funds. In all 91 ministerial students were supported, nearly half the total, usually for five years. In addition 73 of the students (nearly two-fifths) received a grant in their fourth or fifth year from a distribution made about every three years by the trustees of Dr Williams's Trust. Every ministerial student had to provide a testimonial from a neighbouring minister, and they were examined as to their proficiency in Latin and Greek, and their serious spirit and sense of religion, but there was no religious test of faith. Although William Coward intended his benefaction only to favour Calvinists, his trustees made no effort to enforce this requirement at Daventry. Nor did the tutors 'impose restraints on freedom of inquiry, but encouraged and assisted their pupils in the exercise of private judgment' (Kenrick, Exposition, I, p. vi).
The 27 students who moved to Daventry in 1752 included 19 of Doddridge's former students, and another 8 who had entered the academy since his death. All but three were divinity students. The following year, with the closure of Caleb Rotheram's academy at Kendal, four students transferred to Daventry, including Rotheram's son. A further 246 students entered the academy between 1752 and 1788, including Priestley, the first new student at Daventry, who was admitted in November 1752. Two-thirds (182) of the 273 students were intended for the ministry (the status of a handful are unknown). The 86 lay students formed a significant proportion of the total, but more than half entered during the final twelve years, a large number (33) following the closure of the academies at Warrington, Carmarthen, and Hoxton; indeed, nearly a third of all students entered Daventry after 1783. There is information on the geographical origins of about two-thirds of the students. Under Ashworth the largest number came from Lancashire and Cheshire, a major centre of dissent, but competition from Warrington Academy is evident after 1758. Four Daventry students transferred to Warrington shortly after it opened, and three more in the 1770s, perhaps because of unease about the discipline and teaching at Daventry. Daventry students were also drawn from Northamptonshire, Devon and Cornwall, where Taunton Academy, long in decline, finally closed in 1759, and from the growing manufacturing region of the west Midlands, and London. Yorkshire was surprisingly under-represented throughout the history of the academy. A handful of students were from Wales, Ireland and Holland, and one from Jamaica, but none from Scotland. Under Belsham the largest number of students was from London, nearly all of them lay students.
Undoubtedly the most celebrated and notorious student was Priestley. The most distinguished lay student was William Smith, MP, who played a crucial role in advancing the interests of dissent in parliament between 1790 and 1830. Among the notable ministers educated at Daventry were Hugh Worthington Jr, minister of Salters' Hall, London, Radcliffe Scholfield and John Corrie, ministers of Old Meeting, Birmingham, John Kentish of New Meeting, Birmingham, William Shepherd of Gateacre, Liverpool, and Thomas Northcote Toller, for forty-five years minister of the Independent church at Kettering. A number of Daventry students were tutors at other academies: William Enfield at Warrington, Robert Gentleman and his assistant Benjamin Davis at Carmarthen, John Corrie, classical tutor at New College, Hackney, William Stevenson, classical tutor at Manchester New College, and private secretary to Lord Lauderdale, and William Bull, theology tutor at Newport Pagnell. A number gave up the ministry for business, including Halliday, Joseph Dawson, who was proprietor of the celebrated Low Moor Iron Works, and George Lee, editor of the Rockingham Whig newspaper. Lay students included future manufacturers Thomas Hawkes, Thomas Kinder, and Hans and William Busk. At least eight former students acquired MDs, including James Johnstone, physician of Worcester Infirmary, and his brother, Edward, physician of the General Hospital, Birmingham. Their brother Lockhart was a barrister and a bencher of Gray's Inn. Other prominent lawyers included Thomas Lee, who held the key post of Low Bailiff of the Manor of Birmingham on behalf of the dissenters, and the three Wainewright brothers, Robert, Clerk in the Court of Chancery, John, a solicitor at Furnival's Inn, and Reader, a barrister-at-law and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Josiah Cottin retired from the army as lieutenant colonel of the Tenth Light Dragoons.
Attempts were made in summer 1783 by the supporters of Warrington Academy to re-establish their institution by uniting it with Daventry, but the Coward Trustees having initially expressed interest rejected the proposal. A major obstacle was control of the proposed new academy. With the closure of the Carmarthen Academy at Rhyd-y-gors in 1784 and the resignation of two of the three tutors at Hoxton as well, liberal dissent faced a crisis. Both Daventry and Hoxton were full and so unable to admit any students from Carmarthen. In July 1785 the Warrington Trustees tried to recruit Belsham, and only a sense of duty prevented him from accepting their offer. Belsham was increasingly convinced that Daventry was the wrong location for the academy. The same year he also received an invitation from the congregation at King Street, Northampton, to be their minister, providing him with an opportunity to suggest the academy should move to Northampton. The Coward Trustees rejected this on the grounds of expense. The trustees, having decided to close their academy at Hoxton, failed to come to any decision over the purchase of additional buildings at Daventry to accommodate the extra students. Belsham was forced to find the accommodation himself. He believed that faced with a series of major challenges the trustees had not taken a single important decision. In 1789, having adopted Unitarian opinions, Belsham resigned as tutor and the academy returned to Northampton where John Horsey, the new tutor, was minister.

David L. Wykes


The principal records for Daventry Academy are held in Dr Williams's Library. Details of the management of the academy, including the appointment of tutors, admission of students, financial arrangements, and disciplinary matters, are contained in the minutes of the Coward Trust (DWL, MS NCL/CT1-2). References to the academy, including payments made to students, can be found in the Presbyterian Fund Board Minutes, 1752-96 (DWL, MS OD72-74). Student notes of lectures by Ashworth and Belsham can be found in Dr Williams's Library and in the Belsham collection in Harris Manchester College. Belsham's description of the curriculum in 1783 (published by his biographer) is in Serjeant Heywood's Warrington papers in the Unitarian College Collection in John Rylands Library.

Published sources

Belsham, Thomas, 'A List of Students Educated at the Academy at Daventry under the Patronage of Mr. Coward's Trustees, and under the Successive Superintendence of the Rev. Caleb Ashworth, D. D., the Rev. Thomas Robins, and the Rev. Thomas Belsham', Monthly Repository, 17 (1822), 163-64, 195-98, 284-87.
'Brief Memoirs of the Rev. Mr Samuel Clark, late Minister at Birmingham', Monthly Repository, 1 (1806), 617-22.
Kenrick, Timothy, An Exposition of the Historical Writings of the New Testament, . . . with Memoirs of the Author, 3 vols. (London, 1807), I.
'Memoir of the late Rev. Eliezer Cogan', Christian Reformer, ns. 11 (1855), 237–59.
Mills, Simon, 'Joseph Priestley and the Intellectual Culture of Rational Dissent, 1752-1796', unpublished PhD thesis, University of London (2009).
'Memoir of the late Rev. Noah Hill', Monthly Repository, 10 (1815), 186.
Palmer, Samuel, Letters to Dissenting Ministers and to Students for the Ministry from the Rev. Mr. Job Orton, 2 vols. (London, 1806).
-----, 'Memoir of Dr. Caleb Ashworth', Monthly Repository, 8 (1813), 693-96.
Priestley, Joseph, The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, ed. J. T. Rutt, 25 vols in 26 (London, 1817-32), I i.
Rail, Tony, and Thomas, Beryl (eds.), 'Joseph Priestley's Journal while at Daventry Academy, 1754', Enlightenment and Dissent, 13 (1994), 49-113.
'Recollections of Mr Belsham, at Daventry', Christian Reformer, 16 (1830), 97-104.
Thompson, John Handby, A History of the Coward Trust: The First Two Hundred and Fifty Years, 1738-1988 (London, 1998).
Williams, John, Memoirs of the Late Reverend Thomas Belsham: Including a Brief Notice of his Published Works, and Copious Extracts from his Diary, together with Letters to and from his Friends and Correspondents (London, 1833).


David L. Wykes, 'Daventry Academy (1752-1789)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2012, revised May 2013.