Education and Daventry -a Successful Chemistry
Byline: Chris Upton
Biographies can sometimes throw up the unexpected. While researching an article on the life of Joseph Priestley I came across the surprising fact that he was educated at Daventry. This seemed curious for two reasons: firstly, because he was born and brought up in Yorkshire, and secondly because Daventry is not a place I associated with academic excellence. With radio masts, perhaps, but not with great centres of learning. How so ?
The answer has much to do with the restrictions on higher education in the 18th Century. Tell anyone from this period that fifty per cent of school-leavers would one day be going to university and it would be hard to stop them laughing. The two English universities welcomed only a tiny minority of the sons of the upper classes. And the proportion was made even smaller by the Test Act of 1673, which prevented anyone who was not a practising member of the Church of England from attending. It really didn't matter if you were a Dissenter, a Roman Catholic or a Jew: the gates were firmly barred against you.
So what happened if your parents happened to be Presbyterians or Quakers ? One solution was to take the high road to Scotland, where the universities were comfortably Calvinist and beyond the reach of the Act. The arrival of top-up fees will not be the first time that Scotland has stolen an academic march over England. South of border, however, all roads led to Northamptonshire. In 1729 the noncomformist preacher and hymn writer, Dr Philip Doddridge, opened an Academy in Northampton, a place that rapidly won a reputation among dissenters. When Doddridge died in 1751 - no doubt tired out after writing 400 hymns - the Academy was taken over by one of his former pupils, Caleb Ashworth.
In the following year Ashworth moved the Academy to Daventry, taking over a house in Sheaf Street. The first student registered at the new centre was Joseph Priestley himself. …