There’s nothing new under the sun, especially in education, as Dick Evans demonstrates in his latest dig through the archives.
Academies are all the rage these days, with schools turning into them, large businesses making them up for their own workforces and Sector Skills Councils jumping on the bandwagon left, right and centre. It may be salutary, therefore, to remember the existence of a small number of dissenting academies during the eighteenth century that made a lasting contribution to scientific and technical education, particularly through their former students and tutors.
The Academy founded in Warrington, which flourished from 1757 to 1786, is a good example of the type. Like many others in different parts of the country, it was funded and supported by the newly affluent industrialists – in this case from Warrington and beyond – who were disillusioned by the standard of education provided by Oxford and Cambridge universities. In a spirit of independence and robust local pride barely imaginable today, these worthies perceived both the examinations and the resultant value of degrees from the two ancient universities as questionable – although they did make an exception for the mathematics course at Cambridge which had tutored Sir Isaac Newton.
The motivation for publicly-minded business people to sponsor academies two hundred and fifty years ago would still be recognisable today. They did it in order to introduce into the curriculum subjects that would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of commercial and industrial practices and processes. Warrington Academy – which quickly became known as “the Athens of the North” – offered subjects such as chemistry, electricity, logic, magnetism, optics and pneumatics as well as more traditional subjects such as ethics, philosophy, mathematics and theology. In its 29 years of existence the Academy taught over 400 students, of whom fewer than one in five studied theological subjects in order to enter the church. Never financially sound, the Warrington Academy was finally dissolved in 1786 as a result of continuing financial problems and suspicions from religious bodies.
But its influence continued to live on after its closure through the subsequent achievements of its former students and tutors. Joseph Priestley, the son of a cloth dresser from Leeds who became a dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, educator and political theorist and a noted chemist generally credited with the discovery of oxygen, was a tutor during the 1760s. He had also formally been a student at the Daventry Academy, an active member of the Lunar Society and noted chemist. Thomas Percival was one of the first students enrolled at Warrington Academy, before going on to become a founder of the Manchester Academy, the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and a noted medical practitioner and researcher.
Thomas Percival was one of the small group of supporters who made sure that after its closure in 1786, the Warrington Academy library, equipment and money realised from the sale of its building were used to assist the newly-opened Manchester Academy, founded that same year. The Manchester Academy continued the honourable tradition of dissent by opening its doors to laypeople as well as people wishing to enter the church and teaching subjects other than theology. Meteorologist and physicist John Dalton, best known nowadays for his pioneering work in the development of modern atomic theory and his research into colour blindness, was appointed teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy there in 1793 and remained in the post until the Academy was relocated to York ten years later.
Dick’s ‘History of technical education’ is available as a free download on the ‘Extras’ page of the T Mag website at tmag.co.uk. and on the website www,technicaleducationmatters.org
(Note the current website massively expands on the history of Technical Education and Training is again freely available on www.technicaleducationmatters.org.