Wymondley Academy (1799-1833)

Following the closure of John Horsey's academy at Northampton, the Coward Trust set about the task of establishing a new institution for training ministerial students. In January 1799 a surveyor, Joseph Greated of Ely Place, Holborn, was asked to place a newspaper advertisement seeking a large house with a kitchen garden and three or four acres of land within thirty or forty miles of London. After two Coward Trustees had been robbed by highwaymen on their return from viewing premises at Oakingham, Berkshire, a 'Commodious Family House' with a garden and meadow at Wymondley, Hertfordshire, was identified. The purchase of Wymondley House was finalised in June 1799, and by the time modifications designed by Greated were complete the total cost of acquiring and renovating the building came to £4,258. In August 1799 the Coward Trustees resolved that the new establishment should be 'described and Directed to by no other Title than Wymondley House' (DWL, MS NCL/CT2, p. 116), although most contemporary and historical accounts refer to it as either 'Wymondley Academy' or 'Wymondley College'.

Wymondley Academy
                H. S. Storer, A Distant View of Wymondley College, Herts [source: DWL, MS NCL/L64/1/5]

The new academy was under the management of the four trustees of William Coward (1648-1738), who at this time were Revd Thomas Tayler, Revd Noah Hill, Revd Thomas Urwick, and Joseph Paice Esq. For the first twenty years at Wymondley the office of theological tutor was held by William Parry, previously minister to the Independent congregation at Little Baddow, Essex. On the recommendation of the Rotherham tutor, Edward Williams, John Pye Smith was invited to complete his studies at Wymondley and assist Parry in the instruction of students in classics and mathematics. However, his appointment was abandoned after he made the introduction of a probationary period for new students a condition of his acceptance. The position went instead to William Ward, a former Homerton student, who had been minister at Uppingham. Ward fell out with Parry and resigned in 1804. His successor, William Brown, fared little better in the post, and he left in 1807 following complaints against him from the students. Henry Forster Burder and Alexander Bower then held the position for a year each, before the appointment of John Bailey in December 1809. Bailey was already providing preparatory training for grammar scholars supported by the Coward Trust, a function he continued to fulfil at his home in Hitchin while serving as classical tutor at Wymondley. He died in post in 1818, and was replaced temporarily by William Day, a former student, whose employment was terminated after a few months when Parry provided the Trustees with 'exceedingly painful & disgusting accounts' of his colleague's moral conduct (DWL, MS NCL/CT3/1, p. 38).

Parry died on 8 January 1819, and was replaced by John Atkinson, former headmaster of Mill Hill School and classical tutor at Hoxton from 1801 to 1807. Like Parry before him, Atkinson struggled to maintain discipline among the students under his charge, and in February 1821 the trustees informed him that his continuation as tutor was incompatible with the effective running of the academy. The next day he suffered a 'paralytic seizure' from which he never recovered, dying shortly afterwards. His replacement was Thomas Morell, Independent minister at St Neots, Huntingdonshire, who brought much needed stability to the academy. He remained at Wymondley until 1833, and served as theological tutor of its successor institution, Coward College. Morell was assisted at first by Joseph Turnbull, who had briefly had sole charge of the academy following the death of Parry. The trustees considered Turnbull's appointment unsatisfactory, and elected to replace him in September 1822 with Revd Robert Lee, formerly of Downing Place, Cambridge. Lee's employment was terminated two years later following a 'moment of weakness' with a maidservant while his wife was away (DWL, MS NCL/L53/2/78). His successor, William Hull, stayed until 1832, when he accepted an invitation from the congregation at Baker Street, Enfield, after learning that his services would no longer be required when the academy relocated to London. Richard Cotterell Evans supplied the classical department during the final year at Wymondley.

Under Parry, students at the academy studied divinity, pneumatology, ethics, natural philosophy, Jewish antiquities, general and scriptural chronology, logic, geography, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and algebra. The theology course was based on the lectures of Philip Doddridge, which students were expected to study closely. As at Northampton, the length of the course was five years. Morell, who had published a number of historical works, added a course of lectures on general history to the curriculum. He also lectured on belles lettres, and established a course on the history of philosophy and science. A request from William Hull to introduce the teaching of German literature in 1827 was rejected by the Coward Trustees. On occasion, external lecturers were employed to run classes on different subjects. William Trew, who had taught elocution at New College, Hackney, delivered lectures at Wymondley in 1805 and 1822. When he first arrived at the academy Morell felt ill-equipped to teach natural philosophy, so students attended lectures held by John Jackson. Charles Frederick Partington, a popular science lecturer, provided a similar service between 1827 and 1829.

Students had access to the extensive library that had been started by Doddridge and included books acquired by the later academies at Daventry, Hoxton, and Northampton. In 1812 David Bogue and James Bennett described the collection as 'thought to be the most valuable among the dissenters' (Bogue and Bennett, IV, 271). In August 1807, after news had reached the trustees of fires at Chudleigh, Devon, and Stevenage, a 'small Engine & Buckets' were bought to protect the library and furnishings (DLW, MS NCL/CT2, p. 143). Scientific apparatus was also transferred from Northampton, and added to at Wymondley. In 1825 Morell welcomed the acquisition of a solar microscope among other items, and regarded the apparatus to be 'in a very complete state', noting that it contained 'a great variety of excellent & valuable instruments in all departments of Philosophy' (DWL, MS NCL/L53/2/109). Partington praised the standard of apparatus at the academy when he visited to deliver scientific lectures in 1828 and 1829.

The number of students at Wymondley varied. At the time of the trustees' visitation of 1803 there were 9 in residence. In 1810 the number was 13, and in October 1819 the house was full, with 18 students. Resignations and expulsions had reduced the number to four at the time of Atkinson's departure, although numbers recovered under Morell. Over 130 students entered the academy during its time at Wymondley. They boarded in the academy house, and the majority had their board, lodging, and tuition paid for by the Coward Trust. The terms of William Coward's will excluded those aged over 22 from receiving a regular grant, and the Jackson Trust often provided support for older students. The domestic management of the institution was the responsibility of the theological tutor and his wife. Students admitted on Coward's Trust were expected to be 'well instructed in the true Gospel doctrines according as the same are explained in the Assembly's Catechism and in that method of Church Discipline which is practised by the Congregational Churches' (Thompson, Coward Trust, 5). In 1821 Morell repeated the demand of John Pye Smith that candidates should be admitted initially for a probationary period of three months. This time, the trustees acceded to the demand in the hope that it would bring to an end the disciplinary problems that had prevailed under Parry and Atkinson. However, they did not change the rules for admission in order to test a candidate's religious beliefs.

The Wymondley academy was the scene of frequent student unrest, division, and ill-discipline. Under Parry the institution developed a reputation for heterodoxy, which led to reluctance among local congregations to permit the senior students to supply their pulpits on Sundays. For their part, students who held heterodox views complained that they were discriminated against. The obituary of James Whitehead, who arrived at Wymondley in 1809, stated that he was one of five or six students who held heterodox views. The group believed that they were treated by Parry, Bower, and the other students as 'intruders', and complained when one of the tutors had referred to them as 'eating the bread of dishonesty' (Christian Reformer, (1859), 259). In his first report to the trustees, Morell provided brief comments about the religious views of his students. He found one to be 'decidedly orthodox' although not 'a decided dissenter', two to be far removed from 'what I conceive to be the essentials of Christianity', and a fourth whose 'religious zeal and ultra-orthodoxy' required moderation (DWL, MS NCL/L53/1/76). Expulsions, resignations, and defections to the Church of England occurred throughout the Wymondley period, with significant breakdowns in discipline occurring in 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1833. However, Morell's tenure generally witnessed an improvement in the reputation of the academy and a greater degree of harmony among its students.

Among the first intake of students at Wymondley was William Harris Murch, theological tutor at Stepney Baptist College from 1827 until 1843. Another student who became a Baptist was Thomas Steffe Crisp, principal of Bristol Baptist College for over forty years. Henry Griffiths, later president of Brecon Memorial College, entered the academy in 1829 and completed his studies at Coward College. John Deodatus Gregory Pike, who later achieved prominence as a minister of the New Connexion of General Baptists, spent four years at Wymondley but departed before the end of his course when he and his two brothers were asked to leave in 1806. Thomas Binney's attendance at the academy was interrupted when he resigned over the expulsion of two fellow students in 1820, although he returned following Morell's appointment. Edward Miall, the journalist and Liberal politician, spent three years at the academy, resigning in 1831 to accept a call to the pastorate at Ware, Hertfordshire. A number of students went on to become Unitarian ministers, including John Philip Malleson, James Whitehead, and Noah Jones. Often, a student's religious position changed after he had completed his studies. However, the fact that there were so many different views among the students was due partly to the lack of strict religious tests governing admission to the academy.

The academy remained at Wymondley for thirty-four years. In 1819 an invitation was received from the managers of the short-lived Bristol Theological Institution to relocate to Bristol, but the suggestion was never seriously entertained. The first suggestion that the trustees were planning to remove the academy from Wymondley appears in the minutes of the Coward Trust for December 1831. It was felt that moving to London would allow them to take advantage of the teaching available at the newly founded London University. While Morell entertained initial doubts about the scheme, he was won over and at the end of May 1832 suitable new premises were found in the capital for what became Coward College. Teaching continued at Wymondley House until 1833, after which the house was sold. The building, which later became a boarding school for boys, still stands and is now divided into residential flats.

Simon N. Dixon


The archives of the academy at Wymondley House are exceptionally rich, and form part of the New College, London, collection at Dr Williams's Library. Details of the management of the institution, including the appointment of tutors, admission of students, financial arrangements, and disciplinary matters are contained in the minutes of the Coward Trust for the relevant years (DWL, MS NCL/CT2-3). A wealth of correspondence survives, including that of William Parry (DWL, MS NCL/431/1-52, MS NCL/411/1-21), John Atkinson (DWL, MS NCL/469/1-25), and William Hull (DWL, MS NCL/471/1-37). Three large volumes of Coward Trust papers contain further valuable information, including tutors' reports on student progress and correspondence to and from the trustees, tutors, and students (DWL, MS NCL/L53/1-3).

Published sources

Dale, R. W, History of English Congregationalism (London, 1907).
Nuttall, Geoffrey F., New College, London and its Library (London, 1977).
The Christian Reformer, or, Unitarian Magazine (1859).
Thompson, John Handby, 'Parry, William (1754-1819)', ODNB.
Thompson, John Handby, A History of the Coward Trust: The First Two Hundred and Fifty Years 1738-1998 (Cambridge, 1998).


For a modern photograph of Wymondley House search https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/.

Simon N. Dixon, 'Wymondley Academy (1799-1833)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, June 2011.