Homerton’s first premises were acquired in London in 1768 – making 2018 the 250th anniversary of Homerton’s foundation – although its origins go back to the late seventeenth century. The College has always had strong ties to public service as well as to academia, and over the years has educated alumni of considerable influence, including prominent dissenting thinkers, educationalists, politicians, and missionary explorers.
A Congregational Fund was set up in London as early as 1695 to provide for the education of Calvinist ministers, and to offer an alternative to the education offered by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, from which English Dissenters were barred by law. These dissenting academies promoted a more modern curriculum of science, philosophy and modern history than the ancient universities which took a more traditionalist approach to learning. In 1730 a society was founded by 'a few Protestant Dissenters' in London for the 'education of young men for the Christian ministry', namely the Congregational church, who sponsored young male scholars to attend these dissenting academies. This became known as the King's Head Society, after the inn near the Royal Exchange (once frequented by Samuel Pepys) where they met. The Society began a series of weekly lectures, placing carefully selected students in dissenting academies in London. By 1768, it had grown to the point where the Society bought a large house in Homerton High Street, in the East End of London, to house about 12 students a year, together with a few other 'private scholars' – the first time the nascent institution had a building of its own and resident students and tutors.
The twilight years of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th were a golden age for the institution, producing some of the nation’s foremost dissenting figures, including the radical MP William Johnson Fox, and more than its fair share of missionary explorers and translators. One, Edward Stallybrass, explored some of remotest parts of the Russian Empire in his efforts to accurately translate the Bible into Mongolian, and was granted an audience with Tsar Alexander I in Moscow in 1818. Henry Mayo, another Homertonian and editor of the influential London Magazine, would often spar with London’s foremost literary critic Samuel Johnson, as recorded verbatim in the famous biography by James Boswell. Many Homerton alumni were also closely involved in the opposition movements against the slave trade and the Corn Laws, the core political debates of the first half of the 19th century.
By 1817 the institution had become known as 'Homerton Academy Society' and then 'Homerton College Society'. For a time it was affiliated to the University of London, but after the transfer of its theological function to New College London in 1850, Homerton was re-founded by the Congregational Board of Education and became solely concerned with the training of teachers, both men and women, for Board schools. The famous philanthropist, dissenter and statesman Samuel Morley MP was a key figure in this transformation, acting as treasurer of the College and overseeing the extension and rebuilding of its buildings.
In 1894 the College moved to Cambridge under the Principalship of John Horobin to get away from an increasingly industrialised East End, acquiring the buildings known as Cavendish College in Hills Road. These still form the core of the College today. Almost immediately it became women-only since a mixed College was anathema to an all-male University at that time. One influential alumnus from this period was the educationalist and social reformer Dame Leah Manning. A Labour MP in the 1930s and 40s, she organised the evacuation of orphaned or at-risk Basque children during the Spanish Civil War, saving hundreds of lives. There is a public square named after her in Bilbao, Spain.
In 1976 the College began to take men again and became an 'Approved Society' of the University of Cambridge. Students taking the Bachelor of Education degree read for the Education Tripos, undertaking subject-specific modules alongside other Cambridge undergraduates, taking a full and active part in University life, and emerging as Cambridge graduates..
In the late 1990s Homerton went through a massive programme of rebuilding and refurbishment under the leadership of Principal Kate Pretty CBE, and in 2001 it converged with the University, diversifying to cover the different academic subjects offered by the University and adding a post-graduate research community. From this point Homerton operated as a College of the University, though still governed by a Board of Trustees.
In 2007 the College made a formal submission to the University of Cambridge for full collegiate status. This was granted and Homerton was awarded a Royal Charter as a self-governing College of the University of Cambridge in 2010. The College now offers everything from Anglo-Saxon to Zoology, including – from 2016 – Medicine.
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