The Heckmondwike Academy
The 1924 History
The 1974 History
The 2008 History and memories
In the 18th century Heckmondwike Independent Chapel was at the centre of a crucial division in the development of dissenting religious thought, through the experiences of two men, cousins, both called Joseph Priestley.
The Priestley family lived a few miles away at Birstall. The younger Joseph, born in 1733 had lost his mother when aged six. His father, finding difficulty coping as a single parent with such a young family, agreed that the eldest child Joseph could go to live with an uncle John Keighley and his wife Sarah at the Old Hall, Heckmondwike.
John Keighley was a man of considerable property and the couple were faithful members of Heckmondwike Independent Chapel, staunch Calvinists.
After John’s death, three years later Sarah still provided Joseph with a home until her death in 1764. Mrs Keighley, although a practising Calvinist had wide sympathies; her home being “the resort of all the dissenting ministers in the neighbourhood without distinction, and those who were the most obnoxious on account of their heresy were almost as welcome to her, if she thought them honest and good men as any others”. Here the young Joseph Priestley took a keen interest in everything under discussion.
He attended several local schools but learned Hebrew in the holidays from Rev John Kirkby, the Heckmondwike Minister and when Kirkby opened his own school at the Parsonage on Hollinbank Lane, Joseph was “wholly under his care”. He had acquired a “pretty good knowledge of the learned languages” by the age of sixteen when the school was closed due to Kirkby’s increasing ill-health and because of Joseph’s “weak consumptive habit” his aunt thought it inadvisable to send him to another place of education, so Joseph conducted his own studies and enjoyed private lessons from a number of local clergymen. For two years he visited Rev Haggerston, the minister at Hopton Independent Church for two days a week to study geometry, algebra and theoretical and practical maths. He seemed destined for the Ministry but because of his recurring ill-health it was decided to send him to Lisbon as agent for one of his uncles.
Daventry Academy was opened in 1752 and Joseph’s health was so improved by then that he was admitted and was infact the first student there. Before he left for Daventry Joseph had applied for church membership but the Deacons rejected him because, in his own words “when they interrogated me on the subject of the sin of Adam, I appeared not to be quite orthodox, not thinking that all the human race (supposing them not to have any sin of their own) were liable to the wrath of God and the pains of hell for ever on account of that sin only”.
So a year later, Joseph Priestley became a student at Daventry Academy, and set on the course which was eventually to lead him to become one of the most celebrated intellectuals of his age, scientist, philosopher and Unitarian minister. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1766 and later a member of both the French Academy of Sciences and St Petersburg Academy.
Priestley had many friends, notably Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, Joseph Banks, Josiah Wedgewood and James Watt - a fair roll-call of the genius of his time. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Joseph Priestley came from his brother-in-law, the greatest of the iron-masters, John Wilkinson. “Although the product of a strict Calvinist upbringing, he was a pleasant-natured man and never let his own convictions make him contemptuous of others and even advocated the tolerance of Roman Catholics.”.
Click here to go back to the index or Click here to go back to the previous page
[b][u]The Heckmondwike Academy[/u][/b]
The older Joseph Priestley was one of the deacons or elders of the Heckmondwike Chapel; these elders were orthodox and determined to avoid a minister with even a faint hint of Arianism (denial of the Divinity of Christ) in his preaching. Many of them were involved in the cloth trade, particularly the production of carpets and blankets. They invited James Scott to move from Tockholes, near Blackburn to Heckmondwike, as successor to John Kirkby as minister.
Unorthodoxy had, by this time, become a matter of concern beyond the West Riding. The orthodox Joseph Priestley’s sister was married to Edward Hitchen, minister at White Row, the largest Independent meeting house in London. Hitchen regularly visited his wife’s family in the Spen Valley, and often spoke of “the gloomy condition” of local nonconformity.
How was the orthodox reformed faith to be handed on unless future ministers had the opportunity of an appropriate education? The first generation of nonconformist ministers had usually been educated at Oxford or Cambridge but the next generation was now debarred (as were succeeding generations until 1871). Education at Academies had been set up but by 1714 nonconformist ministerial training in the North had lapsed.
From the conversations between Hitchen and Scott and Joseph Priestley and other elders, arose the idea of reviving an academy for training ministers and itinerant preachers in the North of England; unlike the earlier academies which had not confined admission to ministerial candidates, this was to admit intending ministers only.
A meeting on 24 May 1756 formally set up the Northern Education Society and appointed James Scott as tutor to the Academy. At a further meeting on 14 June, it was agreed that no young man should be proposed until “he hath produced an account in writing of the reason of his hope, and of what he apprehends to be the principal doctrines of Christianity”. Such candidates were to be examined by local committees of ministers and laymen, and a report made to the subscribers. The Society would then provide £15 per annum for the support of each accepted student. The course was to last for four years during which time the students would live in the tutor’s household. Before agreeing to the suggestion of appointing Scott as tutor, William Fuller, a London Banker who was soon to be treasurer of the Society vetted Scott on his suitability to tutor. Scott for his part wanted guidance on the curriculum expected of an English college and sought advice, particularly from the Mile End Academy in London.
The Academy opened in August 1756. Each applicant had to give evidence of personal piety and faith. The first three students to be admitted were Richard Plumbe, Timothy Priestley (brother of the younger Joseph Priestley) and Thomas Waldegrave. As the number of students slowly increased it became impossible to house them all in the tutor’s own house. Scott’s wife Esther died in 1763. In 1768 Scott bought a small estate up the hill at Southfield, Norristhorpe.
By 1761 Scott found the running of his academy being disturbed by the visits of relatives and friends of the students. So he decided to make one day each year when their friends and relations could come along to a plain meal and lectures were then arranged to entertain and instruct the gathered company.
The annual lectures became a major event in Heckmondwike life for over two centuries and lasted for two days (in more recent times a week) with visiting preachers taking part. In the nineteenth century a fayre was held in the town and a cricket match was arranged against a team from Harrogate as part of the celebrations and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company laid on special day excursions.
Sixty seven students were admitted to the Academy when Scott was tutor (ten of these had not completed the course before Scott died in 1783). These men helped create a new climate in the Northern counties. Though the students were not supposed to preach in local churches until the final year of their course, Scott found it hard to refuse requests from struggling congregations without ministers.
After Scott’s death in 1783, the London Committee had to find another minister who could assume responsibility for the ten students still in training. They chose a former student, Samuel Walker, minister at Northowram near Halifax.
For reasons not entirely clear, Samuel Walker’s relations with his congregation and students did not prosper. By the time he resigned the pastorate in 1793, the number of students had fallen, and many of the subscribers, including William Fuller, the treasurer, withdrew their support. The Academy, therefore, was closed in 1794 and the four remaining students were placed under the personal tuition of William Vint of Idle, near Bradford.
For almost a century, Yorkshire ministerial education developed through two separate branches, Idle and Rotherham. Both claimed to be the heir of Scott’s Academy at Heckmondwike.
The gravestones of James and Esther Scott have been placed in the grounds of Heckmondwike United Reformed Church next to a sundial which was made from the stones taken from the demolition of James Scott’s Academy building from Southfield, Norristhorpe and which formerly stood in the grounds of the Yorkshire United Independent College in Emm Lane, Bradford until the building was sold.
Click here to go back to the index or Click here to go back to the previous page