People and Places, The Story of St John’s College 1863-2013
The London College of Divinity in Kilburn and Highbury 1863-1946
The London College of Divinity was founded by brother and sister, Alfred and Kezia Peache in 1863. They had inherited a fortune from their father who was a businessman. Between them, they probably gave about £100,000 to the college. Certainly, we know from a summary of the accounts (1897-1902) that Kezia’s legacy helped to save the institution from financial ruin. Alfred was fondly remembered by the children of Johnians as having “had all their names and their birthdays written down in the wonderful book he always carried around with him” as he toured the country visiting curates. (1913 Jubilee Edition of The Johnian).
In 1863 the College occupied the St John’s Foundation School in Kilburn.
St John’s Foundation School, Kilburn
By 1866 it had moved to Highbury in North London. The first Principal was Thomas Boultbee who remained in post for twenty-one years. He was well known for his work on the Thirty-Nine articles. The first student to enroll was F Lewthwaite. St John’s was founded as an Evangelical College with an emphasis on biblical teaching as laid out in the Memorandum and Articles. This was underlined by the editors of The Johnian magazine who in the 1913 edition noted:
Amid the fluctuations of modern criticism, St John’s College has always stood for the sole authority of the Old and New Testaments as the basis of its teaching, while the Lord’s atoning work has been set forth for the remedy of sin, and the Holy Spirit’s influence has been recognised as the secret of higher life.
St John’s was also known to take a wide range of students, not just those who had received an academic education. This can be seen in the Admissions Register kept from 1876 which reveals that whilst some students were graduates from Oxbridge or had been schoolmasters for example, others had no former occupations or were tradesmen. From the very beginning, students were engaged in mission work and were on placements in parishes. The Principal, Dr Greenup made a reference in a Jubilee Meeting in June 1913 to “men engaged in mission work in the slums of London and that kept them in touch with actual life and was, as it were, an offset to the academic life, which they had led during the week.”
In 1884, the Revd Charles Henry Waller succeeded Boultbee as Principal, a post he held for fifteen years. Three of his children were missionaries and it was during his time that the Vigiles Missionary Union was formed. Links with the Church Missionary Society had been made in the mid 1870s. The Revd Henry Pitt said of Charles Waller:
His idea of fitness for the ministry was piety first, a sound knowledge of pastoral divinity next, and then classical ability.
Charles Henry Waller, Principal 1884-1899
Unfortunately, Waller’s time as Principal ended badly as in the late 1890s the numbers of students fell and the college struggled financially. This meant that when Albert Greenup was appointed Principal, he took no stipend for the first three years in office until numbers had improved. Albert Greenup was an examiner in Hebrew at Cambridge, London and Durham Universities. He was a keen sportsman and started the ‘famous’ Hockey Club which was popular along with cricket, football and tennis. In 1913 Arsenal Football Club moved to Highbury and rented land from the College until 1925 when roles were reversed and the land on which the College stood was sold to the Football Club and leased back to the College. Albert Greenup oversaw the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of 1913. During the First World War, (1914-1918), The Johnian and The College Magazine or Newsletter combined to form The Lion. The 1921 edition of The Lion reports that ten members of the college laid down their lives in the First World War and that a bronze memorial tablet recording their names had recently been unveiled in the Chapel.
Brass Tablet erected in the Chapel at the London College of Divinity in memory of those Johnians who lost their lives in the First World War
Following Greenup’s resignation in 1925, the Revd Thomas Walter Gilbert was appointed Principal.
From the beginning, he paid special attention to the College Chapel services. He was no believer in voluntary attendance: the man whose job it would be to lead others in worship ought not to find it irksome to worship regularly himself during his preparation. Attendance was therefore, taken for granted at all times. (Tribute to Gilbert by Rev E G Bevan The Johnian 1944).
Gilbert was popular with students because he was able to negotiate tickets for matches at Arsenal. He “took trouble to establish personal friendly relations with their great manager, Chapman, and saw to it that the privilege of free seats in the grandstand was continued to all students, even when Arsenal were playing Tottenham or Chelsea.”
Arsenal playing at Highbury, 1913 (Courtesy of ArsenalPics.com)
Just as Dr Gilbert died whilst still in office in 1942, the National Fire Service requisitioned St John’s buildings at Highbury. It was decided that the remaining students would transfer to Oak Hill College with Prebendary Hinde taking on the role of Acting Principal. In April 1943, it was agreed by the Council that Donald Coggan should be offered the Principalship but he was in Ottawa at the time so his telegram accepting the post was not received until August of that year. He was not able to start in post until the summer of 1944, by which time it had become apparent that the college would have to move to a new location because of the war damage which had been caused to the buildings in Highbury, the deterioration of the neighbourhood and the fact that the college no longer owned the land. Moreover, in 1946, there was a fire which gutted much of the Principal’s House, took the roof off the Library and destroyed some of the books.
From Highbury to Northwood 1946-1970
An appeal to raise £100,000 for a new college was launched by Coggan but for the year 1946-1947, a short lease was taken on West Acre, a Harrow School House. In 1947, a ten year lease was taken in Ford Manor in Lingfield, Surrey. Land at Northwood in Middlesex was chosen for the new premises but plans had to be modified owing to rising costs. A long delay in getting a Ministry of Works licence to use building materials explains much of the rise in costs. On 15th October 1955, the foundation stone at Northwood was laid by Bishop Llewellyn Gwynne (Johnian 1883-86, Bishop in Egypt and Sudan 1920-46). In the same month, Donald Coggan was offered the See of Bradford. He was later to become the Archbishop of York (1961-74) and Canterbury (1974-80).
In 1956, Hugh Jordan, an Old Testament Scholar, became Principal. He oversaw the move from Ford Manor to Northwood in 1957 and the Centenary Celebrations from June 1963 to June 1964. Early in 1967, Hugh Jordan had a vision of moving the college to Nottingham. He was aware that the Professor of Theology at Nottingham, Alan Richardson, had negotiated the sale of a site in Bramcote to the Church of England. Under the terms of the sale, if the Church of England was unable to develop the site within five years, it had to be sold back to the University. Jordan jumped at the chance this presented for the College to be attached to the University of Nottingham because at this time ACCM (Anglican Council for Church’s Ministry) were pressing the need for training of graduates for the Ministry in a University context. This was not possible at Northwood with King’s College, London, being too far away to make it practicable. Hugh Jordan persuaded the College Council to make the move which they agreed to but they opted not to continue with Hugh Jordan as Principal at Nottingham and accepted his resignation in 1968.
Instead, Michael Green, who became Principal in 1969, oversaw the move to Nottingham. He was just 39, was brilliant academically and something of an evangelist. He is very engaging. He became well known overseas and at home which helped to raise the college profile with the result that the numbers of graduates coming into St John’s College rose. This growth in graduates was the catalyst for the move to Nottingham.
St John’s College, Nottingham 1970 –
St John’s College, Nottingham, was opened officially by HRH Prince Charles on 23rd February 1971. By this time, the new buildings had been virtually completed. Some of the local press coverage about the Academic and Northwood blocks were non too favourable but again finance for the new buildings was tight.
The first ten years at Nottingham saw many new initiatives. In the early 1970s there was the beginning of Grove Books, known for booklets covering a wide range of theological areas including Spirituality, Liturgy and Practical Theology. There were also innovations in programmes and pathways offered. One of those was the introduction of a distance learning department in 1977, known as Extension Studies, which for more than thirty five years has offered validated and non validated programmes in mission and ministry and pastoral counselling to thousands of students across the world. On a community level, the KWON Sale, which was begun by the College Wives Group in 1972, has made a big impact, raising tens of thousands of pounds for overseas charities, through its biannual sales of nearly new children’s clothes and toys.
In 1979 Vivienne Faull came to St John’s College for deaconess training. She was not the first woman to train at St John’s College – there had been others but she was the first official Church of England candidate, as before her time, the college was not recognised for women’s training. In 1977, Janani Luwum, a Johnian, who had been made Archbishop of Uganda in 1974, was assassinated on the orders of Idi Amin. The college responded with a plan to raise bursaries in his memory for Ugandan students and planted a tree in the college grounds in his memory.
In 1975, Michael Green moved to become rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford. Robin Nixon, the Senior Tutor at St John’s College, Durham, became Principal. He was a much respected New Testament Scholar. Early in 1978 it was decided to extend the Academic Block to include a new library. Work began in September of that year but then, with no warning, Robin Nixon died suddenly, whilst having coffee in his study with students. It was a terrible shock for the whole college community. A farewell service was held in the College Chapel before the funeral and interment took place at Bramcote Parish Church. The planned appeal for the building work went ahead in early November and the money was raised. The new library was dedicated in memory of Robin Nixon in June 1979.
Colin Buchanan was appointed Principal to succeed Robin Nixon, beginning officially in January 1979. During his time as Principal, College administration underwent considerable change with a move from electric and electronic typewriters to word processing and electronic data storage and the appointment of a College Administrator. In 1985, Colin was made Bishop of Aston.
Anthony Thiselton Principal 1986-1988
Anthony Thiselton became the new Principal in January 1986. He is an outstanding academic. He came from Sheffield University with an expectation that his faculty colleagues who share his opinion that sheer theological learning would predominate. However, he found this not to be the case as the emphasis at St John’s had always been equally on pastoral theology and formation. He moved to Durham in 1988. The new Principal was an internal appointment, John Goldingay.
John Goldingay’s principalship was shaped to a degree by his wife Ann’s MS. She needed care and assistance which meant John could not easily leave the site. In 1990, it was announced that George Carey, Johnian and Chaplain at St John’s College (1970-1975), was to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He with Lord Coggan attended the Silver Jubilee celebrations in September 1995 of the move of the College to Nottingham. Women’s Ordination was passed at General Synod in 1992 with far reaching consequences for St John’s College.
In 1997, John Goldingay was appointed David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. It was on record that he thought the principalship should be no longer than ten years in length and he had kept to that word.
Christina Baxter became the next Principal in July 1997. She was the first woman Principal and the first lay person to be in that post at St John’s College. She had already been on the Faculty for eighteen years and had built a fearsome reputation as Chair of the House of Laity on General Synod. Her strengths listed in the Guardian’s 50 most powerful women in Britain supplement in May 1997 are ‘Straight Speaking. No Nonsense.’
Christina Baxter CBE Principal 1997-2012
Facing financial pressures and falling student recruitment, Christina addressed the issues with the implementation of Mixed Mode delivery of ordination training in the autumn of 1997 and the pushing through of an application by the Centre for Youth Ministry to open a regional delivery centre at St John’s College which became a reality in 1999. On 31st August 1998, Little Peaches, the onsite nursery, opened officially. Prior to this time, there had been a crèche run by parents. Christina’s national role within the Church of England and her contribution to theological education was recognised in 2005 when she was awarded the CBE.
In 2010 Christina stepped down from General Synod and encouraged the Council to step up succession planning, knowing that she would retire in the spring of 2012. In 2011 interviews were held for the post of Principal and The Revd Dr David Hilborn, Assistant Dean at St Mellitus College and Principal of the North Thames Ministerial Training Course, was appointed.
David Hilborn, Principal 2012-2018
David Hilborn began in the role officially in April 2012 and began to review many areas of the College’s life. He sought to shore up the charismatic evangelical ethos of St John’s College by underlining the mission statement:
‘To inspire creative Christian learning marked by evangelical conviction, academic excellence and charismatic life, that all who train with us might be equipped for mission in a world of change.’
David left St John's at the end of December 2018 to become Principal at Moorlands College.