Rotherham Independent College (1795-1888)

Rotherham Acedemy
Rotherham Independent College
[source: Report of the Rotherham Independent College (Sheffield, 1816), 1

(Historical account to 1860)

When the London-based committee of the Northern Education Society dissolved Samuel Walker's Academy at Northowram in June 1794, the committee of the Society expressed the view that any future efforts to train ministers for Yorkshire and neighbouring counties should be managed locally. The following month a meeting at Leeds of twenty ministers and twelve laymen resolved to establish a new academy with two tutors, and appointed a committee of ten to draw up the necessary plans. The committee reported back to a general meeting on 11 September, at which it was agreed that the planned academy should be considered a new institution and not a continuation of that at Northowram. The tutors were to be Independent dissenters and could be dismissed if they departed from Calvinist principles. A committee of twelve ministers and twelve laymen was entrusted with the management of the institution, with a general meeting of subscribers held each June to choose the committee for the following year. Only ministerial students were admitted, and applicants for admission were required to present a recommendation from their church. They were expected to satisfy the committee of their religious and moral conduct and their qualifications for entering the ministry. With the exception of those who were willing and able to support themselves, students would receive their education, board, and lodging gratis.

It was initially assumed that the new academy would be situated near Halifax, and Northowram was again suggested as a suitable location. However, the appointment of Joshua Walker as treasurer in October 1794 led to Rotherham emerging as the favoured site. Walker was a member of a wealthy family of iron manufacturers from the town, whose father and uncle had built the Independent meeting house at Masbrough. The pulpit at Masbrough was vacant at the time, creating the opportunity for the appointment of a joint pastor and academy head. After failing to obtain the services of their first two candidates, the committee focused its attention on Edward Williams, the former Oswestry tutor who was then minister at Carrs Lane, Birmingham. Williams accepted the invitation, insisting that the tutorial appointment should be held jointly with the Masbrough pastorate. Rotherham Independent Academy opened on 5 November 1795 in new premises near the chapel, erected with a loan of £500 from Joshua Walker. The plain classical structure was built on two floors, comprising a main hall, library, eight lodging rooms and fourteen studies. The property was surrounded by gardens and fields, which provided plenty of opportunities for exercise. Extensions to the building completed in 1816 added eight new studies, the same number of bedrooms, and a new library. By this date the name of the institution had been changed to Rotherham Independent College.

Edward Williams arrived in Rotherham on 30 September 1795, with the academy formally opening on 5 November. The appointment of a second tutor was delayed when the first two men approached declined the post. Maurice Phillips, a former student of Williams at Oswestry, was appointed in 1796 and remained at the academy until 1810 when Joseph Gilbert succeeded him. Williams served as theological tutor until his death in 1813, with his successor, James Bennett, holding the position until his faltering health prompted his resignation in 1828. Joseph Gilbert, who had been overlooked for the theological tutorship following Williams's death, continued to preside over the classical department until 1817. His successor, Thomas Smith, remained in post until 1850, during which time the theological department was overseen by Bennett, Clement Perrot (1829-34), and William Hendry Stowell (1834-50). Perrot's unhappy tenure was characterised by ill-discipline among the students, seven of whom resigned en masse in 1831. The incident led to a ruling by the committee stating that the theological tutor should also be considered principal, or head of the college. In January 1850 Thomas Smith resigned, apparently due to illness, with Stowell departing later the same year to become president of Cheshunt College. By this time the future of the college at Rotherham was in doubt due to financial difficulties, and in the first instance Frederick John Falding was asked to fill the vacancy in the classical department and take responsibility for the general oversight of the institution. A number of candidates were approached with a view to becoming principal and theological tutor, including Richard Alliott, the president of Western College, Plymouth, John Frost of Cotton End Academy, and Alexander Thomson of Glasgow Theological Hall. When they all declined, Falding was promoted to the post of principal and professor of theology, to be assisted by Thomas Clark as professor of languages and mathematics. Alexander Raleigh, minister of Masbrough Chapel, provided part-time instruction in sermon composition and the duties of the pastoral office. Falding remained in post until the union with Airedale Independent College in 1888. Cornelius Curtis Tyte replaced Thomas Clark as professor of languages and mathematics in 1854, a position he held until 1873. In 1855 a Monsieur Suryn was employed as a teacher of modern languages, a position held from 1857 by the Austrian-born M. Alexander Martini of Brook Hill in Sheffield.

The plan of education conceived at the foundation of the academy was for students to follow a four or five-year course. During the first year they were to study English, Latin, and the art of composition. The second year course encompassed Latin, Greek, logic, moral philosophy, and divinity. In the third year Hebrew, mathematics, and natural philosophy were added to the study of Latin, Greek, and divinity. Students in the final year focussed their attentions on divinity and church history. The more able students were to spend a fifth year perfecting their studies and studying 'the higher branches of literature' ([Williams], An Account, 24). Under Edward Williams, the logic course used Isaac Watts's Logic as a textbook, the mathematics course covered Euclid and the rudiments of algebra, and natural philosophy was based on the system of John Rowning. Williams developed his own system of moral philosophy, while the Biblical criticism course covered Carpzovios and Wolfius. Students read Lampe and Turretin on ecclesiastical history, and Marck's Medulla and Turretin's Compendium in their divinity course. Both James Bennett and William Hendry Stowell were skilled linguists, and an increased emphasis was placed on the study of both ancient and modern languages during their periods of office. Bennett provided instruction in French and German, and Stowell was insistent that Syriac was taught as preparation for the Hebrew course. Both Bennett and Stowell taught rhetoric, and tuition was provided in preaching, elocution, sermon composition, and the duties of pastoral office throughout the history of the institution.

The senior students were permitted to undertake preaching engagements in towns and villages in the West Riding, while the junior students attended prayer meetings in adjacent villages. In 1841 the college was incorporated by Royal Warrant with the University of London, although eight years later the students complained that they were not receiving suitable preparation to take the degrees of the University. Their complaint was not without grounds, since John Lockwood was the only student to have graduated in that time. The small library used by Samuel Walker's students at Northowram was purchased at the foundation of the academy, and was supplemented with help from donations worth £100 each from Thomas and Joseph Walker. At the same time, ladies from the local neighbourhood presented two new globes, and Mr. S. Marshall gave a telescope and quadrant. An orrery bought by Edward Williams was sold to the academy in January 1810. In 1816 Thomas Walker made a further donation of one hundred guineas for the enlargement of the library, and in the same year a bequest of books was received from Rev. Charles Ely of Bury. Three years later, the insurance value of printed books kept on the premises, including those belonging to the students, was placed at £700. Further donations of books were recorded from George Bennet in 1832, and from Bennet, James Montgomery and William Wilson Esq in 1835.

Most students boarded in the academy building, with a few older married men living out. Under Williams and Bennett the domestic management of the institution was the responsibility of the tutors and their wives. Williams and his wife Jane employed three female servants and one man. They provided the students with four meals a day, although they were required to find their own tea and coffee. The students were provided with soap, but were expected to buy candles for their studies and pay for their own laundry. Before leaving Masbrough Jane Williams wrote to James Bennett stating that she would leave four pigs and the more profitable of her two cows for him. Shortly before his resignation, James Bennett relinquished responsibility for the domestic management of the college, and a housekeeper was later appointed. The 1841 census return shows six female servants in residence in the college.

The academy was funded by subscriptions and donations, mainly from supporters in Yorkshire and Lancashire, particularly the West Riding. It received strong support from the Walker family, with Joshua Walker succeeded as treasurer by his son Henry in 1815. The academy found influential friends in Sheffield, notably James Boden, minister of the congregation at Queen Street, and George Bennet, who regularly embarked on fundraising trips for the college prior to his departure to the South Seas as a missionary in 1821. Through Bennet's influence, the poet James Montgomery became a supporter of the academy. For a number of years he published the college's annual reports, at least one of which he authored. An examining committee of a dozen or more men was appointed by the annual general meeting to examine the students once a year.

While the intellectual standing of a number of the tutors employed at Rotherham suggests a flourishing institution, the college was continually blighted by financial difficulties. The annual accounts usually recorded a deficit, often in excess of three or four hundred pounds. The economic climate of the 1840s exacerbated the situation, and by 1847 a balance against the college of £578 was recorded. The situation became desperate the following year with the sudden failure of railway stock, to which the funds had recently been moved. A union with Airedale Independent College was first considered in January 1850, but rejected by supporters of the Bradford institution on the grounds that the Rotherham representatives were not wholly in favour of the venture. The finances recovered during the 1850s, but a new crisis beset the institution when the boiler exploded on Christmas Eve 1860. While there were no injuries, the resulting fire caused considerable damage to the building. Further negotiations were held over a proposed union with Airedale College. When these again broke down, the decision was made to move the college to new premises in Rotherham. After much delay the new 'Collegiate Gothic' building at Moorgate was opened in September 1876.

Over 200 students had completed their studies at Rotherham by 1860. The extensions to the building carried out in 1815 enabled 24 students to be accommodated. The number in residence in a single year varied according to the state of the college finances. The depressed state of the funds in the early 1820s led to a reduction in the number of students from 24 in 1817 to 15 in 1823. During the crisis years of the early 1850s the number of students dropped to a low of just four. The most celebrated Rotherham alumnus was John Pye Smith, the future president of Homerton College. Several students in the academy would later become tutors at Rotherham, including Joseph Gilbert, Frederick John Falding, and Cornelius Curtis Tyte. Another, Thomas Hill, was classical tutor at Homerton for fourteen years prior to his death in 1820. Other men worthy of note who studied at Masbrough included the historian Benjamin Brook, the minister and antiquary Robert Weaver, the philosopher John Hoppus, and Thomas Arnold, who established a school for teaching the deaf at Northampton. The overwhelming majority of those trained at Rotherham went on to pursue careers as Independent ministers, and the college continued to operate independently until it finally joined with Airedale to form the Yorkshire United Independent College in 1888.

Simon N. Dixon


The institutional records of Rotherham Independent Academy/College form part of the Northern Congregational College archives at the John Rylands University Library, Manchester. 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 run of reports in the John Rylands Library is incomplete, but most of the missing years can be found in a second incomplete set held by the Congregational Library in London. Valuable details on the domestic management of the institution are provided by a letter of 12 July 1813 from Jane Williams to James Bennett (JRUL, NCCA, Box No. 6/6). Other manuscript material relating to the college can be found in the Congregational Library and Dr Williams's Library (New College, London).

Published sources

Gilbert, Ann, Biographical Sketch of the Rev. Joseph Gilbert. By his Widow (London, 1853).
Gilbert, Joseph, Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late Rev. Edward Williams, D.D. (London, 1825).
Hey, David, 'Walker family (per. 1741-1833)', ODNB.
Holland, John and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols. (London, 1854-56), III.
Kaye, Elaine, For the Work of Ministry: A History of Northern College and its Predecessors (Edinburgh, 1999).
McAll, S., Memorials of the late Rev. James Bennett, D.D. (London, 1863).
Owen, W. T., Edward Williams, D.D. 1750-1813: His Life, Thought and Influence (Cardiff, 1963).
Stowell, William, A Memoir of the Life & Labours of the Rev. William Hendry Stowell, D. D. , 2nd edn (London, 1860).
Wadsworth, Kenneth W., Yorkshire United Independent College (London, 1954).
[Williams, Edward], An Account of the Rotherham Independent Academy which was Opened November 5, 1795 (Sheffield, 1797).



Simon N. Dixon, 'Rotherham Independent College (1795-1888)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.