Wesleyan Theological Institution: Northern Branch, Didsbury (1842-1940)

(Historical account to 1860)

Within five years of the establishment of the Wesleyan Theological Institution the premises leased for it at Hoxton Square had proved inadequate. A temporary solution was found in the location of a preparatory branch at Abney House, Stoke Newington, but by the time of the 1839 Wesleyan Methodist Conference it was clear that a more permanent solution was required. An initial sum of £55,000 was made available from the denomination's Centenary Fund for the establishment of premises for ministerial training in two locations, one in the vicinity of London and a second near Manchester. A sub-committee consisting of northern members of the management committee of the institution was formed, and the 1840 Conference heard that premises had been obtained at Didsbury, a suburb to the south of Manchester. The late eighteenth-century building received substantial alteration, and two tutors' houses and a college chapel were also built, with the work completed by September 1842. The Richmond branch of the institution would not be ready for another year, and as a result the Hoxton establishment was transferred to Didsbury, including the house governor, three tutors, and six students.
The teaching staff at Didsbury consisted of a theological tutor, classical tutor, and usually an assistant tutor. The house governor was employed to take responsibility for the pastoral care and spiritual development of the students, as well as the domestic management of the house. John Hannah, the theological tutor at Hoxton, transferred to Didsbury with William Thornton, classical tutor, Theophilus Woolmer, assistant tutor, and Philip Turner, house governor. Turner stayed for a year before returning south to assume the same responsibilities at Richmond, and was replaced by John Bowers, president of Conference in 1858. Bowers and Hannah both provided the institution with long service, Bowers dying in post in 1866, and Hannah resigning shortly before his death in 1867. Jonathan Crowther succeeded Thornton as classical tutor in 1849, and was replaced seven years later by John Dury Geden. Assistant tutors included John Hebb, Benjamin Hellier, George William Olver, and Charles Kelly. Specialist assistance was occasionally obtained from external lecturers: in 1845 Jonathan Barber delivered a series of elocution lectures, and science lectures were delivered by William Sturgeon in 1844 and William Crawford Williamson of Owen's College in 1856.
The substantial classical building at Didsbury provided accommodation for as many as forty students. During the first decade numbers varied between 32 and 35, although financial difficulties affecting both branches of the institution led to a reduction during the mid-1850s. Just 13 students were in residence at the start of the academic year 1853-4, and numbers did not recover fully until they reached 38 in 1858-9. By 1860 over 230 men had been admitted to study at the Northern Branch of the institution. Candidates were all on the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion's list of reserve, which involved evidence of their conversion and their call to the work of the ministry. The full course lasted for three years, and students were expected to remain for a minimum of two.
The establishments at Didsbury and Richmond were two branches of a single Wesleyan Theological Institution. A general committee of management was appointed each year consisting of the president and secretary of Conference, president of the Institution (Jabez Bunting until his death in 1858), tutors from both branches, treasurers, secretary, general secretary of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and the local branch secretaries and treasurers. The management of the separate branches of the Institution was entrusted to local sub-committees, also appointed by Conference. The Ecclesiastical Board, renamed the Board of Discipline after 1846, was made up of members of the branch sub-committee and dealt with disciplinary matters. A number of local businessmen stand out among the early managers of the Northern Branch, including Peter Rothwell, an engineer from Bolton, James Heald, banker and MP for Stockport, and John Burton, branch treasurer for many years. The finances of the two branches were treated jointly, with the proceeds from donations and subscriptions shared between them. The institution was not financially self-sufficient during its early years. Expenditure regularly exceeded income, leading to the accumulation of debts in excess of £1,700 by 1853. These were only eradicated through the provision of a further grant from the Centenary Fund in 1855.
The basis for the theology course at Didsbury was John Hannah's Letter to a Junior Methodist Preacher (1836). Hannah divided the subject into four parts: evidences, doctrines, duties, and institutions of Christianity. His suggested readings included Watson, Wesley, Fletcher, Doddridge, Wardlaw, Paley, Butler, and Chalmers. He also provided classes on the Greek New Testament, and lectured on ecclesiastical history, Biblical interpretation, Biblical antiquities, preaching, and the 'Claims, Doctrines, and Practices of Popery' (Report, 1845, xv-xvi). In order to provide the students with a firm grounding in Wesleyan theology Hannah read aloud from Wesley's sermons and sections of Edmund Grindrod's A Compendium of the Laws and Regulations of Wesleyan Methodism (1842). The classical and assistant tutors taught Greek, Latin, English grammar and composition, geography, mathematics, physical science, logic, mental and moral philosophy, and rhetoric. The importance of hymnody to Methodist worship is reflected by the instruction provided to students in singing. Steps to establish a library were taken at outset, with an initial allowance of £50 for the purchase of books in 1842. Supporters of the institution donated a number of books, particularly during the first few years, and the annual reports record a total of approximately 319 titles (743 volumes) given by 1860. Subscriptions were taken out to a range of periodicals, including The Times, Quarterly Review, Edinburgh Review, Dublin Review, Churchman's Monthly Review, Eclectic Review, Christian Observer, Evangelical Magazine, and Missionary Register.
A strong emphasis was placed on practical training for the ministry. Each student was allocated a district in one of the neighbouring villages where they were expected to conduct weekly household visits. Bowers, in his report for 1849, stated that 800 families were visited each week, with a religious tract left with each one. The students also undertook preaching engagements, covering thirty circuits by 1848. A proposal for German to be introduced into the curriculum was rejected in 1857, with Bunting commenting that such an innovation would 'be viewed by our people at large with extreme jealousy' in the light of the controversy surrounding Samuel Davidson at Lancashire Independent College (Johnson, 58). Students received an annual examination on their academic progress, conducted by prominent local ministers or heads of other Wesleyan educational institutions such as John Manners, headmaster of Wesley College, Sheffield.
Students were boarded in the college building at Didsbury, where they were placed under the care of the house governor. A matron or housekeeper was employed, a post held in succession by Miss Wylde, Miss Goodwin of Carnarvon, and Elizabeth Lee of Rossington, Yorkshire. At the time of the 1851 census the house was occupied by Bowers, his wife and seven daughters, the assistant tutor Benjamin Hellier, thirty-one students, a housekeeper, nurse, under-nurse, cook, two under-cooks, three housemaids, a laundress, and two house servants. Among Bowers's daughters was Elizabeth, aged 23 at the time of the census. In November 1851 it was discovered that a student, Robert Pearson, had 'clandestinely commenced an intimacy which was virtually a matrimonial engagement' with her, and subsequently induced her to elope with him to Gretna Green (Wesley College, Bristol, Ecclesiastical Board Minutes, A1/3/1, 23 Jan. 1852). Pearson was dismissed from the institution for breaching the rule prohibiting students from getting engaged. At the same meeting another student, John Bond, was dismissed when it was found that he too had entered into an engagement with Elizabeth. The minutes of the Board of Discipline record other periodic breaches in the rules of the institution, including an occasion in June 1854 when nine second and third year students were censured for visiting the theatre in Manchester. Other recreational activities were also discouraged. In February 1858 a request from students to have an area set aside 'for their use in such athletic exercises as will conduce to their health & physical vigour' was declined on the grounds that such activity was inappropriate for candidates for the ministry (Wesley College, Bristol, Subcommittee Minutes, A1/2/1, pp. 408-9).
At least three-quarters of those who studied at Didsbury went on to become Wesleyan Methodist ministers, and all except a few of these remained within the denomination throughout their lives. Among the more celebrated alumni of the Northern Branch were Marshall Randles, later tutor in systematic theology at Didsbury, the historian Luke Tyerman, Gervase Smith, William Tindall, Richard Roberts, and Peter Mackenzie. Ministerial training continued to take place at Didsbury until 1940, when what had become known as Didsbury College was requisitioned for use as a military hospital. After the war the decision was taken not to return to Didsbury, and the college was transferred to a site at Henbury Hill, Bristol, where it was renamed Wesley College, Bristol in 1967. In 2010 the Methodist Conference voted to close the college. The Didsbury buildings still stand, and are currently used by Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education.
Simon Dixon


The Methodist Archives and Research Centre at The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester, holds the central records of the Wesleyan Theological Institution. The records of the Northern Branch of the Institution are held by Wesley College, Bristol, including subcommittee minutes (A1/2/1), minutes of the Ecclesiastical Board (A1/3/1), and John S. Workman's notes on John Hannah's theology and Biblical criticism lectures (D4/4-6). 

Published sources

Brash, W. Bardsley, The Story of Our Colleges 1835-1935 (London, 1935).
Brash, W. Bardsley and Charles J. Wright, Didsbury College Centenary 1842-1942 (London, 1942).
Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland http://dmbi.wesleyhistoricalsociety.org.uk/.
Johnson, Dale A., 'The Methodist Quest for an Educated Ministry', Church History, 51 (1982), 304-20.
-----, The Changing Shape of English Nonconformity 1825-1925 (New York, 1999).
Minutes of the Methodist Conferences (London, 1838-1862), VII-XIV.
'Opening of the Northern Branch of the Wesleyan Theological Institution at Didsbury', Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 21 (November 1842), 926-8.
Reports of the Wesleyan Theological Institution (1834-1860).
Venables, Edmund, 'Hannah, John (1792-1867)', rev. Tim Macquiban, ODNB.


For a modern photograph of the main Didsbury building, now part of the Manchester Polytechnic School of Education, search https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/.

Simon Dixon, 'Wesleyan Theological Institution: Northern Branch, Didsbury (1842-1940)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, September 2012, revised April 2015.