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    Goes to Nantwich—Starts a School—Is appointed a Tutor in the Warrington Academy—Life at Warrington.

Priestley left Needham Market in 1758. He had been there three years, and he was in his twenty-fifth year when he entered upon his work at Nantwich. Of this place he had always the happiest recollections. The meeting-house, as we learn from Partridge’s Historical Account of Nantwich, 1774, was a good, decent building, “to which appertains a convenient house for the minister.” Whether he actually occupied this house is uncertain. One account states that he boarded with Mr John Eddowes, a grocer, and sometimes showed his agility and sprightliness by leaping over the counter. Eddowes was described by Priestley as a very sociable and sensible man, and as he was fond of music his guest was—

    “Induced to learn to play a little on the English flute, as the easiest instrument;” and, he continues, “though I was never a proficient in it, my playing contributed more or less to my amusement many years of my life.”

And he adds,—

    “I would recommend the knowledge and practice of music to all studious persons; and it will be better for them if, like myself, they should have no very fine ear or exquisite taste, as by this means they will be more easily pleased and be less apt to be offended when the performances they hear are but indifferent.”

At Nantwich he found the people good-natured and friendly, and happily free from those controversies which had been the topics of almost every conversation 31 in Suffolk. He had indeed little mind for them himself. His congregation never exceeded sixty persons, and a great proportion of them were travelling Scotchmen, men, he says, of very good sense, and, what he thought extraordinary, not one of them at all Calvinistical. As there were few children in the congregation there was little scope for exertion with respect to his duty in catechising.

As the duties of his office left him ample opportunity to turn the active powers of his mind to account, he again attempted to establish a school, and this time with a success far beyond his anticipations.

    “My school,” he states, “consisted of about thirty boys, and I had a separate room for about half a dozen young ladies. Thus I was employed from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, without any interval except one hour for dinner, and I never gave a holiday on any consideration, the red-letter days, as they are called, excepted. I had, therefore, but little leisure for reading or for improving myself in any way, except what necessarily arose from my employment.”

Priestley, in truth, was an excellent teacher, and with the success which his efforts brought him there passed away the last traces of the aversion with which he had entered on that calling. He made it his study to regulate his business as a schoolmaster in the best manner, and he was able to say with truth that in no school was more business done, or with more satisfaction, either to the master or the scholars, than in this school of his.

He was no longer haunted, as at Needham, with the fear of debt, and he was able to add to his stock of books and to gratify his wish to possess some philosophical instruments, such as a small air-pump 32 and an electrical machine, which he taught his pupils to use and to keep in order, and by entertaining their parents and friends with experiments he added greatly to the reputation of his school. At that time, however, he had no leisure to make any original observations.

Such leisure as he had he gave to literature, recomposing his Observations on the Character and Reasoning of the Apostle Paul, which he began at Needham, and compiling an English grammar for the use of his school, on a new plan. This work, which was printed in 1761, had a considerable reputation in its day. David Hume acknowledged to Griffith, the bookseller, that he was made sensible of the Gallicisms and peculiarities of his style on reading it.

Priestley remained three years at Nantwich. His success there as a teacher induced the trustees of the newly-founded academy at Warrington to reconsider the desirability of engaging him as tutor in the Classical Languages and in what used to be called Polite Literature. His name had already been mentioned in connection with the Warrington Academy by his friend, Clark of Daventry, at the time of its establishment and whilst he was at Needham.

“But,” says Priestley, “Mr (afterwards Dr) Aikin, whose qualifications were superior to mine, was justly preferred to me.” On the death, on March 5, 1761, of Dr John Taylor of Norwich, the learned author of A Hebrew Concordance and other theological works, and a well-known classical scholar, the head of the academy and its tutor of divinity, Dr Aikin was appointed to succeed him, and Priestley was invited to take Dr Aikin’s place.

    “This,” says Priestley, “I accepted, though my school 33 promised to be more gainful to me. But my employment at Warrington would be more liberal and less painful. But, as I told the persons who brought me the invitation, I should have preferred the office of teaching the Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, for which I had at that time a great predilection.”

Priestley’s removal to Warrington, in September 1761, was one of the turning-points in his career, and no single circumstance in it exercised a greater influence on his life and fortunes. “The Warrington Academy for the education of young men of every religious denomination for the Christian ministry, or as laymen,” and the men who formed its tutors, played a notable part in the history of Nonconformity in England. In Taylor of Norwich; in Aikin, the father of the well-known physician and lecturer on Natural History, and of Anna L?titia, better known as Mrs Barbauld, the poetess; in John Reinhold Forster, the naturalist, who accompanied Cook in his second voyage; in Nicholas Clayton, who succeeded Aikin as divinity tutor; in William Enfield, the author of the History of Liverpool and the well-known compiler of The Speaker, who afterwards became Rector Academic?; in Pendlebury Houghton, and in Gilbert Wakefield, the accomplished editor of Lucretius, Priestley had for colleagues or successors as eminent a set of teachers as any place of learning at that time could boast of. It was at the Warrington Academy, the successor of the older academies belonging to the English Presbyterian body at Findern and Kendal, and the direct ancestor of the Manchester College at Oxford, that the free thought of English Presbyterianism first began to crystallise into the Unitarian theology, and for a time it was the centre of literary taste and activity, and of political liberalism 34 of the district in which it was placed—the Areopagus in the Athens of Lancashire, as it was called.

The Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (vol xi. p. I, 1858-59) contain “A Historical Sketch of Warrington Academy,” by Mr Henry A. Bright, compiled in great measure from a parcel of papers, letters and memoranda which had belonged to the Rev. J. Seddon, and which had been rescued from the hands of a Liverpool cheesemonger, who was using them for the ordinary purposes of his shop. Among these papers were letters of Priestley, Kippis, Aikin and others of lesser note, all of interest as throwing light on the history of the academy. I am indebted to Mr Bright’s paper for the following account of the character and fortunes of the academy. Mr John Seddon, we learn, was its virtual founder. The letters referred to, as well as the testimony of contemporaries, bear witness to “the concern which he had ever expressed for its support, honour, success; the indefatigable pains which he took for this purpose; the indifference which he showed to fame or censure, to good or evil report, so that he might serve the general designs of the institution.”

Seddon, although described as “a dullish person,” must have been a man of considerable pertinacity, patience and resource, as shown by the manner in which he steered his venture through the difficulties and dangers incident to its establishment, for he had to contend with the doubts, hesitation and luke-warmness of its professed supporters, and the “pleasing spirit of jealous rivalry” which existed between Liverpool and Manchester as to its locality. Liverpool advanced seven “excellent reasons” why the academy 35 should not be settled at Warrington; of these one of the Manchester party writes:—“Some of them are false, others dubious, and all, whether true or not, trifling and impertinent.” This “retort courteous” was naturally followed by “Remarks on a letter from the gentlemen in Manchester to the gentlemen in Liverpool, subscribers to the intended Academy,” in which “the gentlemen in Liverpool” lose their temper most completely. Every fourth word in the remarks is italicised. “The gentlemen of Manchester,” are stigmatised as “the authors of contention and division,” and are subjected to much scathing sarcasm. Evidently the omens were not very propitious, but the wordy warfare eventually spent itself. Mr Seddon got his way; the trustees ultimately settled down to business and on June 30, 1757, the academy was duly inaugurated.

Its first home, immortalised by the lines in which Mrs Barbauld bids us

“Mark where its simple front yon mansion rears,

The nursery of men for future years,”

was described, in terms eminently suggestive of the incomparable Mr George Robins, as “a range of buildings” with “a considerable extent of garden ground, and a handsome terrace walk on the banks of the Mersey, possessing altogether a respectable collegiate appearance.” The “ugly, mean, old brick house,” no longer

“A dim old mansion, hidden half-away

From a dull world grown careless of its fame,”

has been transformed into a place of quiet, old-world dignity, and is now turned to uses worthy of its fame and in harmony with its traditions.

In spite of the seeming unanimity of the trustees, and the zeal and energy of their secretary, Mr Seddon, the fortunes of the Academy were ill-starred from the outset. Dr Taylor, one of the first Arians who ministered to the English Presbyterians, and an erudite and accomplished man—an author so widely read in his day that he is even mentioned by Burns in his Epistle to John Goudie:

“’Tis you and Taylor are the chief,

Wha are to blame for this mischief”—

was ill fitted to direct the precarious existence of the enterprise, and the old scholar must have sighed often for the free and independent position, and the dear home among an affectionate people, which he had sacrificed in leaving Norwich for Warrington. Dissensions arose, in the midst of which Dr Taylor died.

Dr Taylor, as already stated, was succeeded as theological tutor by Dr Aikin, who retained that position until his death in 1780.

    “Dr Aikin,” says Gilbert Wakefield, “was a gentleman whose endowments as a man and as a scholar it is not easy to exaggerate by panegyric.... His intellectual attainments were of a very superior quality indeed. His acquaintance with all true evidences of revelation, with morals, politics and metaphysics, was most accurate and extensive. Every path of polite literature had been traversed by him, and traversed with success. He understood the Hebrew and French languages to perfection, and had an intimacy with the best authors of Greece and Rome superior to what I have ever known in any Dissenting minister from my own experience.”

Under his judicious guidance matters now went more smoothly: indeed, the eighteen or twenty years which followed constituted the golden age of the Academy, 37 and the brightest and happiest of these were the six years of Priestley’s stay.

In the year following Taylor’s death the academy moved from the house by “Mersey’s gentle current,” then, we are told, an uncontaminated stream noted for its salmon, to the new Academy, which is described as a brick building in a quiet and secluded court, with stone copings and a clock and bell turret in the centre, of no great architectural beauty, but not unpleasing with its quaint, old-world look. This, too, was celebrated in verse by Mrs Barbauld:

“Lo! there the seat where science loved to dwell,

Where liberty her ardent spirit breathed.”

It exists no longer: municipal improvements have swept it away, and all that remains of Academy Place are the houses at right angles to it where dwelt Priestley and Enfield. As to emoluments, the tutors had each £100 a year from the subscription fund, and “with respect to dwelling houses, are to be at their own expenses.” Poor students were exempted from the payment of fees, but richer ones paid two guineas yearly to each of the tutors, who might take boarders into their houses at £15 per annum for those who had two months’ vacation, and £18 per annum for those who had no vacation, exclusive of “tea, washing, fire and candles.”

If the living at Warrington was plain and the thinking high, there was a degree of decorous gaiety, of refinement, of social charm, “easy, blithe and debonnair,” pervading the little community, which, as may be gleaned from the memoirs and reminiscences of the period, impressed and delighted everyone who was witness of 38 it. Among those who had pleasant memories of the place were John Howard, the philanthropist, whose works on prison reform were printed by Eyres of Warrington under Dr Aikin’s superintendence;[6] William Roscoe, the author of the Lives of Lorenzo de Medici and Leo the Tenth, who first learned to care for botany from his visits to the Warrington Botanical Gardens, and whose first work, Mount Pleasant, was also printed there; Pennant, the naturalist, whose British Zoology and Tour in Scotland first saw the light at Warrington; Currie, the biographer of Burns, etc.

    “The tutors in my time,” wrote Priestley—(“they knew better,” said Miss Lucy Aikin, “than to usurp the title of Professors”)—“lived in the most perfect harmony. We drank tea together every Saturday, and our conversation was equally instructive and pleasing. I often thought it not a little extraordinary that four persons who had no previous knowledge of each other should have been brought to unite in conducting such a scheme as this, and be all zealous Necessarians as we were. We were all, likewise, Arians; and the only subject of much consequence on which we differed respected the doctrine of atonement, concerning which Dr Aikin held some obscure notions. The only Socinian in the neighbourhood was Mr Seddon of Manchester, and we all wondered at him.”

Miss Lucy Aikin, the granddaughter of Priestley’s colleague, the niece of Mrs Barbauld, and the accomplished authoress of Memoirs of the Courts of Queen Elizabeth, and the biographer of Addison, has left us a little sketch of that society in which the early years of her girlhood were spent.


    “I have often thought,” she says, “with envy of that society. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge could boast of brighter names in literature or science than several of those Dissenting tutors—humbly content, in an obscure town and on a scanty pittance, to cultivate in themselves, and communicate to a rising generation, those mental acquirements and moral habits which are their own exceeding great reward. They and theirs lived together like one large family, and in the facility of their intercourse they found large compensation for its deficiency in luxury and splendour.”

But we learn there were other attractions in the Warrington circle besides the tutors and their philosophy.

    “We have a knot of lasses just after your own heart,” writes Mrs Barbauld (then Miss Aikin) to her friend Miss Belsham, “as merry, blithe and gay as you would wish them, and very smart and clever—two of them are the Miss Rigbys.”

We are further told the beautiful Miss Rigbys, whose father was “provider of the Commons,”

    “made wild work with the students’ hearts; and the trustees had to insist that they must be removed from the house if any students stayed there. And so for a time they were, but Mrs Rigby’s health fortunately broke down, and the young ladies were brought back again.

    “Rousseau’s Heloise, too, had much to answer for, and at its appearance (so Miss Aikin tells me), ‘everybody instantly fell in love with everybody’; and then it was that our poetess, after winning the hearts of half the students, some one or two of whom for her sake lived (I am informed) ‘sighing and single,’ was carried off to Palgrave by that queer little man whom henceforth she was to ‘honour and obey.’”

On another occasion she wrote:—

    “Somebody was bold enough to talk of getting up private theatricals. This was a dreadful business! All the wise and grave, the whole tutorhood, cried out, ‘It must not be!’ The students, the Rigbys and, I must add, my aunt, took the prohibition very sulkily, and my aunt’s Ode to Wisdom was the result.”


Those wicked Miss Rigbys must have made the life of that “dullish person,” Mr Seddon, who acted as Rector Academi?, and who was responsible for law and order, well-nigh insupportable. On one occasion—perhaps it was to celebrate their return—they asked some of the students to supper.

    “Hams and trifles, and potted beef and other luxuries, were placed before them, and the students were asked to help the ladies. But the hams were made of wood, and the trifles were plates of soap-suds, and the potted beef was potted sawdust, and the other luxuries were equally tempting and equally tantalising.”

Nor were the Rector’s feelings likely to be soothed by such letters as the following from Mr Samuel Vaughan of Bristol, sent during the Long Vacation, complaining bitterly of the disappointment he felt as regards the Academy, and the “too great latitude allowed the students”:—

    “My son Ben’s expenses during ten months’ absence amounted to £112, and Billy’s to £59, 12s.; this should nearly suffice for the University, and of itself would to many be a sufficient objection, but in my opinion the consequence of the expense is abundantly more pernicious, as it naturally leads to Levity, a love of pleasure, dissipation and affectation of smartness; diverts the attention, and prevents the necessary application to serious thoughts and Study. When I sent my Sons so great a distance, it was with a view to preserve them from the reigning contagion of a dissipated age, to imbibe good Morals, acquire knowledge, and to obtain a manly and solid way of thinking and acting, but they are returned with high Ideas of modern refinements, of dress and external accomplishments, which if ever necessary, yet resumed by them much too soon. As one instance, they think it a Sight to appear without having their hair Frissened, and this must be done by a dresser, even upon the Sabbath. No person can more wish for, and encourage an open and Liberal way of thinking and acting than 41 myself, yet do I think that day should be kept with Ancient Solemnity, for to say the least, the reverse gives offence to many serious good People, and exhibits an Ill example at a time when Religion is at so low an ebb as to stand in need of every tie and prop (whether real or imaginary) for its support, therefore any relaxation or Innovation under sanction of such a seminary as yours may have the most pernicious tendency, for when restraints even in unessentials are removed they are frequently a clue or gradation to the fashionable levity of the Age and Irreligion.”

That the mauvais quart d’heure under the ancestral roof was not without its chastening influence on the improvident Ben is evident from the fact that the same post brought the perturbed Rector a letter from him protesting that—

    “none of us have been vicious but only gay.... Our recreations have been innocent though expensive, but they imagine that they cannot be expensive without being criminal.”

However, he expresses contrition and promises amendment, fears that he has encroached on Mr Seddon’s goodness and forbearance, and that his conduct may have acted injuriously on the Academy, etc., etc., and winds up by saying that Mr Wilkes will probably get a pardon from the Crown, and that he (Mr Vaughan) does not believe that he ever wrote the North Briton—No. 45.

Alas! Mr Benjamin Vaughan’s contrition was very short-lived, for next year that “affectionate but distressed pupil” had to confess to the Rector that he dare not show his accounts to his father.

    “My father, last year, was extremely angry at an account I gave him of £112 spent at Warrington—the present sum is £179. Bill disclaims all share in the expenses above £60. I then have £119 to answer for; I who promised such a strict amendment, and who had as many excuses last year as at 42 present. I had more journeys, more music, and yet, according to his knowledge, have spent £7 more in my present year of pennance, repentance, etc.!”

And yet Mr Benjamin Vaughan became a useful member of society, had a seat in the House of Commons, and had the honour of having dedicated to him the Lectures on History and General Policy, to which is prefixed an “Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life,” to which he had listened as a pupil and which Priestley published in 1788.

Whatever may have been Mr Seddon’s worries he had at least the consolation of a loving wife, although, it is to be feared, she too suffered much at the hands of those terrible Miss Rigbys, and even from Miss Aikin, who was somewhat of a quiz. The daughter of an equerry to Frederick Prince of Wales, she was a very fine lady, and, says Mr Bright, “spelt abominably.”

    “Among the Seddon papers is a letter which her husband wrote to her during a short absence in 1766. On the back of his letter Mrs Seddon prepares a rough draft of an answer to her truant husband. The word which puzzles her most is ‘adieu,’ and she has to spell it over three times before she can determine whether the ‘e’ comes before the ‘i,’ or the ‘i’ before the ‘e.’ The knotty point is at last settled and the fair copy written out; and this, too, her careful husband put away and preserved among his papers.”

I cannot resist quoting the last paragraph of this most charming but laborious letter.

    “Let me hear of you as often as you can; for it does me more good, and has a much stronger affect upon my spirits than either eather or salvolatiley. Adieu, my dear, except the sincerest and best wishes for your health and happiness, of one whose greatest pleasure in this world is in subscribing herself your truely affectionate wife.—J. Seddon.

    “P.S.—I shall want cash before you return; what must I doe? Pray put me in a way how to replenish. Remember me propperly to everybody.”

We cannot, however, concern ourselves at greater length with the life at the Warrington Academy, or dwell much longer on the fortunes of that seat of learning. To do full justice to the theme would need indeed the witty pen which in “Cranford” delineated the social life of a neighbouring town with such inimitable grace and charm.

The worthy Mr Seddon died in 1770, and was succeeded as Rector by Dr Enfield, a man distinguished for elegance of taste and sound literary judgment, and who, on the death, ten years later, of Dr Aikin, became chief tutor. For various reasons, which it is unnecessary to state here, the trustees eventually decided to remove the Academy to Manchester, and Warrington knew it no more after 1786.

During the twenty-nine years of its existence in the latter place some 400 pupils had passed through it—many of them noteworthy men in their day, such as Percival; the Aikins; Rigby of Norwich; Estlin of Bristol; Sergeant Heywood; Hamilton Rowan, the Irish rebel; Malthus, the political economist; Lord Ennismore; Sir James Carnegie of Southesk; Mr Henry Beaton, Mr Pendlebury Houghton and Dr Crompton.

    “In looking over the students’ names,” says Mr Bright, “I cannot but notice how many of their descendants are still the staunch supporters of the liberal dissent which was the distinguishing characteristic of the Academy. Some families, like the Willoughbys of Parkham, whose last lord was educated at Warrington, have now died out; others, like the Aldersons of Norwich, of which family the late judge was a member, have seceded to the Church of England. But we still find united the 44 lineal and the theological successors of the Academy’s students in the Rigbys, the Martineaus, and the Taylors of Norwich, the Heywoods and the Yateses of Liverpool, the Potters of Manchester, the Gaskells of Wakefield, the Brights of Bristol, the Shores of Sheffield, the Hibberts of Hyde, and the Wedgwoods of Etruria.”

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