William Sewell

March 4, 2009

Perhaps the most prominent figure in the Diary, other than Singleton himself, is William Sewell (1804-1874), the co-founder of the college and a critical figure in its early history.

Sewell was born and raised on the Isle of Wight, the second son of a family of eleven children. His siblings included Henry Sewell, the first premier of New Zealand, James Edwards Sewell, who was Warden of New College, Oxford, for over forty years, and the novelist Elizabeth Missing Sewell.

After an education at Winchester College, he attended Merton college, Oxford, and took first-class honours in literae humaniores. After a period at Merton, he was elected a fellow of Exeter College in 1827, and in 1831 was ordained and appointed as a Tutor at Exeter. From 1836 to 1841 he was Whyte’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, publishing a book of his lectures and a second book on Plato’s Dialogues. He gained a high reputation as a tutor and lecturer, widely known as “Sewell of Exeter”, and became closely involved with the argument for university reform, publishing a number of satirical pamphlets.

Sewell was sympathetic to the aims of the Oxford Movement, and published a series of polemics in their support through the 1830s. However, he strongly opposed Newman’s Tract 90 of 1841, and remained staunchly anti-Catholic. During the 1840s he became convinced of the need to establish a new type of school, one which would live up to modern standards at the same time as inculating sound religious principles in their pupils.

The first attempt was St. Columba’s College, near Dublin, which was intended to provide the Irish gentry with a school on the same level as the English public schools, one which would aid in the establishment of high Anglican principles and encourage the conversion of Irish Catholics. The end result was something of a failure, however, and he returned to Oxford to plan a second attempt. This came to fruition in August 1847, with the opening of St. Peter’s College, Radley, as described in the Diary.

After the foundation of Radley, Sewell served as preacher at Whitehall in 1850, and at Oxford in 1852, publishing a large number of his sermons, which were praised for their style. He also wrote a number of religious novels, most notably Hawkstone: a Tale of and for England in 184- (published anonymously in 1845), and was the titular editor for a series of books by his sister Elizabeth.

His later career with Radley was somewhat chequered; he served as Warden of the college from 1853 to 1861, driving the college deeply into debt before resigning. His fellowship at Exeter was sequestrated, and he travelled throughout northern Europe before settling at Deutz, on the Rhine, in 1866. He worked on a number of books, including translations of Homer, in his later years, but died leaving these unpublished in 1874. He was buried in Blackley, Manchester.


This article was adapted from the entry on Sewell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; there is also a Wikipedia entry.

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