Dissenting Academies and the Green

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Dissenting academies were founded in the second half of the 17th century as a response to the passing of the ‘Act of Uniformity’ (1662), that required Anglican ordination for all clergy.

Ministers of the church who disagreed with the tenets of Anglicanism were debarred from the clergy and consequently many found themselves unemployed. Some of these dissenters became Unitarians, which was one of a number of non-conformist sects. Non-conformists were debarred from attending the universities of Oxford or Cambridge – then the only universities in England and as a result, some dissenters set up their own academies offering a university-level education to people who, like themselves, dissented from the Anglican Church. These academies came to be known as ‘dissenting’ academies but what is so striking about them is that, except for a few exceptions, dissenting academies conformed largely to the academic norms of the period, adhering both to prevailing models of the curriculum and conventional modes of instruction. Whilst the people who founded them and who attended them may have been dissenters, the academies themselves were in most respects, ‘conformers’.

Newington Green was already a centre for non-conformists when Charles Morton opened his ‘Dissenting Academy’‘ on the North side of Newington Green in 1667. Morton’s academy was well respected as a seat of learning at which the level of instruction was on a par with that of the universities of the time. Morton’s Academy educated important figures such as Daniel Defoe, author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1719), Moll Flanders (1722) and the currently topical ‘A Journal of the Plague year’ (1722), and Samuel Wesley, whose son, John Wesley, founded the Methodist movement.

Portrait of Daniel Defoe (National Portrait Gallery London)

These two ex-students wrote about the syllabus at Morton’s academy: Defoe wrote that the syllabus contained; “Latin but also Greek, Hebrew, Logic, Mathematics and Science”1 In other words, the subjects taught at university. According to Irene Parker, non-university subjects were also offered, including: “French, Italian, Geography, History”2, to which the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) has added ‘religion’. The ODNB considered Morton’s Academy as “probably the most impressive of the dissenting academies [prior to 1685], enrolling as many as fifty pupils at a time”. It even possessed “a bowling green for recreation”3. Samuel Wesley recorded in his notes that experimental work was carried out at the academy using scientific instruments4, suggesting that not all teaching relied on textbooks. The ODNB records that lectures were given in English, not Latin. Defoe praised Morton for using his mother tongue.5 By changing the language of his lectures from Latin to English, Morton opened up the world of knowledge to scholars who had not been to a grammar school where they would have obtained a grounding in Classics. This linguistic shift not only gave access to University subjects to non-Latin speaking students, but in doing so, challenged the Anglican Church’s overall grip on university education.

Morton left Newington Green in 1685 and settled in New England – where he subsequently became vice-president of Harvard College – although the academy he founded continued to operate until 1706. Perhaps due to the reputation of the Academy he founded, other academies were attracted to the area. For a brief period, Thomas Rowe’s Academy occupied premises in Newington Green (1679-1683). It later moved to Ropemaker’s Alley in Moorfields where Isaac Watts joined as a student in 1690. Watts lived in Stoke Newington for most of his life, writing the hymns that made him famous, (such as “O God our Help in Ages Past”) and books of logic that were widely circulated. He was well-known as a writer of verse for children; Lewis Carol satirised Watts’ poem ‘Against idleness and Mischief’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Portrait of Isaac Watts (National Portrait Gallery London)

A third dissenting academy was set up in Newington Green in 1750 by the Reverend James Burgh, author of a book on education entitled ‘The Dignity of Human Nature and Thoughts on Education” (1754). This book is full of advice on how to ‘improve’ children’s minds, for example, “All methods of education ought in general to be directed to the improvement of some good tendency or the correction of some wrong turn in the mind”6. Fortunately, Burgh preferred persuasion to coercion, believing that children were not naturally bad, as some educationalists of his period seemed to believe. His views on women’s education were somewhat at odds with those of Mary Wollstonecraft, whom his widow helped to find a house to rent on Newington Green for her girl’s school in 1784. He believed that Women should be educated for life at home, rather than for an active life outside the family.

Burgh became involved in the early 1760s with a group called the Honest Whigs, a club that met on alternate Thursday evenings in a coffeehouse. Other members of the group included Richard Price, minister of the Newington Green Unitarian Church and Unitarian supporter Joseph Priestley, who had been educated at a Dissenting Academy in Daventry, Northamptonshire.7.

Portrait of Richard Price (1784), by Benjamin West.

Joseph Priestley by Ellen Sharples(1794)

For over 150 years – that is until the University of London, which accepted students from all religious backgrounds, was established in 1836 – dissenting Academies provided University level education to non-conformists, including Unitarians, around Newington Green.

1 Irene Parker. (1914) Dissenting Academies in England; their rise and progress and their place amongst the educational systems of this country. Cambridge University Press p63

2 ibid p63

3 ibid p59

4 ibid p59

5 ibid 61

6  James Burgh. (1794) The dignity of Human Nature London, C. Dilly. p77

7 Dictionary of National Biography (1896) vol XLVI p362

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