Almost a university? Cumbrian higher education in the 19th century (Background: St Bees)

Statue of St Bega, at St Bees

From 1816 to 1895 St Bees boasted a higher education college for theological students awaiting ordination.  A bid by its third principal to award its own degrees was unsuccessful.

When the University of Cumbria achieved university status on 1 August 2007, there was rejoicing across the county that it now had its own institution of higher education.  Few recalled how close Cumbria had been to having its own university 160 years earlier.

 St Bees College, in the village of that name, was established in 1816 under Bishop George Henry Law to cater primarily for impecunious theological students.  The training they received was much respected, and the quality of the staff was high.  In 1847 its third principal, Richard Parkinson, applied for a Charter of Incorporation, with the power to confer degrees in Theology. He would even have been prepared to pay for a larger and nationally recognised institution from his own means.  The initiative failed for a variety of reasons, including his refusal to have a governing body, the Council, that included lay as well as clerical members.  This failure was all the more galling when an equally specialist and smaller institution, St David’s College at Lampeter, was granted the right to confer its own degrees in 1852.  

The closest St Bees came to being a degree-awarding institution was in 1876 when, with St Aidan’s Lichfield and the Queen’s College Birmingham, it was one of this group of three colleges to be associated with the University of Durham and to have its diploma recognised as qualifying for a Durham bachelor’s degree.

St Bees closed its doors in 1895 when dwindling numbers and new government regulations brought it to an end, but it is fascinating to consider what could have been had St Bees been able to develop, like other tiny and infant higher education institutions in the mid-19th century, into a thriving university for the North West of England.

Marion McClintock
1 April 2024

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Trevor Park, St Bees College: a short history (St Bees; Bega Publications, 1982 and 2008)

Photo of statue of St Bega at St Bees by Bill Shannon

To find out more about the history of the Township of St Bees, click here