William Sewell was Sub-Rector of Exeter College, Oxford when the Oxford Movement began, (usually dated from Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833). He knew Keble, Newman and Pusey, and was fervently interested in the revival of Catholic principles in the Church of England but he maintained a moderate position in face of what he considered ‘romanizing’ tendencies. After the publication of Tract 90 in 1841, he withdrew from close association with the Tractarians, publishing a rejoinder Letter to Dr Pusey, which was influential in moderating extremism among them. However, many of the ideals of the Oxford Movement remained dear to him, particularly as they could be applied to his greatest passion: the belief that the Church, which was suffering from a wasting sickness, could only be revived and strengthened by education. He stated long after its foundation in 1847 that he ‘first began to brood over the creation of a Radley’ in 1832, and from then onwards the vision of a new kind of school which would revolutionize education in the interests of the Church began to form.
He believed that religious training would be the starting-point for all the necessary reforms in school life. However, this was not to be achieved only by verbal instruction – the whole apparatus of the school was to be directed towards the same end. Most schoolboys of the time lived in surroundings that were bare and plain: they should be fed instead on the beauties of nature and art. They lived a life detached from all adult contact except in the hostile atmosphere of the classroom: instead they should at all times be subject to a man who did not think that classroom teaching was the only responsibility of a schoolmaster. Many schools were too big: instead, they should be of such a size that the needs of the individual could be met as in a large family. The soul needs privacy for it to develop fully: therefore the boys should have their own cubicles rather than large, open dormitories. The curriculum should be widened to include subjects such as music, which fills aesthetic needs, and the value of good manners in conversation. There should be in schools, both order and freedom, discipline and self-government, decency without luxury, and dignity without ostentation. And the whole should benefit society: the new education was to start with the gentry, but the profits of the school for the rich should finance the schools for the poor. The school should also pay its tithe: every tenth place should be free to a needy pupil.
The opportunity to put these ideas into practice arose when Sewell was approached by Viscount Adare, son of Lord Dunraven, in 1839, concerned about the Protestant church in Ireland. Sewell went to Ireland in 1840, toured the country, and became convinced that the Protestant clergy needed to learn the Irish language in order to better minister to their parishioners and that to achieve a better educated clergy, Ireland needed an Eton of its own. St Columba’s College was the result of these two ideas. It was founded in 1841 by a group which included Sewell and Lord Adare, with the Primate of Ireland, Lord J G Beresford, Archbishop of Armagh, as the Visitor. Nugent Wade, Rector of St Anne’s, Soho, was on the London committee. Sewell raised funds for the new College from every possible source in England and Ireland, throughout 1840-41. After an extensive search, a house called Stackallan, not far from the Boyne, was taken on a seven year lease. In August, 1842, Dr Maturin was appointed Warden, but had to resign the office immediately. The senior Fellow already appointed, Robert Corbet Singleton, was invited to take up the post temporarily.
St Columba’s College opened on 1st August, 1843, and by the end of the first term there were seven boys. The constitution of St Columba’s was that of an Oxford college: there was a Warden and seven Fellows, with eight governors and the founders in the background. Sewell imagined a small and intimate society of devout and cultured men, working for love with no thought of pecuniary gain. The Warden was to be the first among equals, supported by a loyal band of colleagues. The Fellows were to act as elder brothers to their pupils, sharing their work and their play, and their simple meals and supervising their moral welfare, creating the atmosphere of a large family. This seems to have worked out at St Columba’s for a couple of years, but it broke down very rapidly when tried at Radley.
The second principle imposed upon the College was that daily life should be conducted in strict accordance with the Book of Common Prayer. Full Matins and Evensong were sung daily, all members of the school singing the chants. A chapel was constructed out of an old coach house and elaborately adorned. The feasts and fasts of the church were strictly observed. According to the statutes, fasts must be observed by Warden and Fellows, but not by boys. This Fasting Statute of St Columba’s proved extremely troublesome. Sewell stated that it was, in the end, “the rock on which St Columba’s split”.
Many other aspects of Sewell’s vision for a broader education took shape at Stackallan. The curriculum, although based on Classics and religion, also included Irish, practical arithmetic, music, drawing, modern languages (French, Italian and German), modern history and physical science. Fencing was provided for all, and there was an arrangement for ‘gymnastic exercises’ which included rowing on the Boyne. All these later re-appeared at Radley under Sewell’s own wardenship, 1853-1861. Special emphasis was laid on musical training under the direction of Edwin Monk.
Sewell stayed at Stackallan for the winter of 1844-5, during which time he kept a diary, later published as Journal of a residence at St Columba’s. The journal was published as propaganda to support the founding of Radley: it evokes a novel community, a kind of monastic Arcadia, and describes the pattern Radley was to follow.
Sometime during 1845-6, a serious breach arose between Sewell and the governors of St Columba’s. It was later claimed that he was held primarily responsible for a financial crisis that resulted in debts amounting to £25,000 which were paid off by the Primate of Ireland in 1847 on condition that Sewell had no further connection with St Columba’s. However, there are some discrepancies in the dates.
In 1846, trouble over the Fasting Statute became acute. The point at issue was whether Fellows should be allowed to observe fasts at their own discretion. The Primate and the governors supported the Fellows, while Singleton as Warden was uncompromising in defence of the statute. Singleton, grieved and disappointed at what he considered a shameless betrayal of a vital principle, resigned in May 1846, together with Monk and Robert Gibbings, who was to join the staff of Radley in 1853. Singleton left St Columba’s on 30th June 1846. Sewell supported him wholeheartedly and insisted, despite strong discouragement from the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, in giving Radley a Fasting Statute very similar to that which had split St Columba’s.
Singleton was highly praised by Sewell in his Journal of a residence at St Columba’s: ‘The warden has acted with great judgement and forbearance as well as firmness. But with all his strictness he is the most tender-hearted, affectionate creature – quite like a child. The manner in which he has kept the Fellows together, and brought them to their present state of harmony, is wonderful. They all seem to look up to him with great awe, and yet to love him very much. And the discipline of the school he has managed in the same way.’ In addition, Singleton had spent nearly all his private income, £400-500 a year, on the college.
St. Columba’s later moved sites, and is now at Rathfarnham. Its early history is described fully in G.K. White’s A history of St. Columba’s College, 1843-1974 (1980).
This article was adapted from AK Boyd’s The history of Radley College, 1847-1947 (1948). The relationship between Sewell’s educational ideas and those of his contemporaries, such as Arnold of Rugby, are explored in the most recent history of Radley College by Christopher Hibbert – No ordinary place: Radley College and the public school system, 1847-1997 (1997).