Sewell, William (1804–74), clergyman, was born 23 January 1804 at Newport, Isle of Wight, second son among six sons and six daughters of Thomas Sewell, solicitor, and Jane Sewell (née Edwards). His parents were first cousins, from a prominent family; several siblings were afterwards well known, including a brother who was first prime minister of New Zealand. William Sewell matriculated from Merton College, Oxford (1822), took first-class honours in classics, and graduated BA (1827), MA (1829), BD (1841), and DD (1857). He was ordained to the curacy of Whippingham, Isle of Wight, in 1830. In 1831 he was appointed to the perpetual curacy of St Nicholas, Carisbrooke Castle, a small sinecure which he held till his death. He was successively tutor (1831), librarian, sub-rector, divinity reader, and dean (1839) at Exeter College, Oxford. He became interested in tractarianism and was an early friend of John Henry Newman (qv), John Keble, and others, but strongly disapproved when some of his acquaintances were converts to Roman catholicism. In Oxford he wrote and lectured influentially, if often verbosely, on many public questions, including education reform; he argued that the predominant role of the Church of England in schools and colleges must be perpetuated come what may.
Among his fifteen articles in the Quarterly Review are ‘Romanism in Ireland’ (December 1840), ‘Romish priests in Ireland’ (March 1841), and ‘Sketches of Irish peasantry’ (September 1841). In the summer of 1840 Edwin Wyndham-Quin (qv), Lord Adare, William Monsell (qv), and Sewell travelled to Achill, Co. Mayo, Ventry, Co. Kerry, and elsewhere in the south and west of Ireland to visit places associated with the hoped-for ‘new reformation’. Sewell wrote to Monsell on 31 October 1840: ‘Let us establish a good classical school on sound church principles, with Irish as a sine qua non, Irish masters, Irish servants’ (James, 89). His vision was of an Irish Eton and he held that ‘an Irish gentleman, well born, well educated, and with his natural tendencies modified by English association, is, perhaps, one of the most perfect specimens of civilised human nature’ (Quarterly Review (December 1840), 121). Sewell, Adare, Monsell, and J. H. Todd (qv) met at Adare Manor in December 1840 and drew up proposals for a college, modelled on the best English public schools, for Irish gentlemen. More meetings were held in January 1841. Within six months, eight governors were appointed, including the four founders. Sewell and Monsell travelled throughout Ireland in search of a site; a house was rented on a seven-year lease from Lord Boyne at Stackallen, Co. Meath, as the first location of St Columba's College (the college subsequently moved to Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin). In his opening address (26 April 1843) Sewell said: ‘Our object is proselytism’ (James, 651). Like many churchmen of the period, he managed to combine strong support of high-church anglicanism with even stronger, and even obsessive, anti-catholicism. It was originally intended that the school would teach intending clergymen the Irish language, so that they could preach to poor catholics about protestantism. Irish was also to be taught to the young gentlemen who would eventually become landlords. It was hoped that through Irish they could better deal with their catholic tenants; the assumption was that poor catholics would as a result enthusiastically join their landlords in the protestant religion.
The first term began on 1 August 1843 with seven boys paying relatively modest fees of £50 a year. Among the subjects taught were modern languages and science, music, drawing, and fencing. These features of the educational programme were novel; other aspects of school life were intended to reawaken medieval piety and religious observance, and the school's governance, with a warden and fellows, was also unusual in a secondary school. In the following year twenty-five boys were enrolled. Sewell's abilities, though considerable, did not include financial acumen; in only four years the new college was £25,000 in debt, a substantial sum at that time. The Quarterly Review in 1855 noted that St Columba's founder was singularly lacking in a sense of humour, and alleged that he had little or no understanding of schoolboys. He was also not much given to compromise; he supported the warden, R. C. Singleton (qv), in an acrimonious disagreement when less ritualistically minded Irish church authorities reduced the observance of religious fast days in the college. Sewell ceased to support the Irish project, and instead returned to England in late 1846 to establish St Peter's College, Radley, Oxford, an even more elaborately high-church institution, with Singleton as warden. In May 1847 he privately published Journal of a residence at the College of St Columba in Ireland; the historian of the college, G. K. White, draws on material from the book, but comments on how it, and other materials he used, reveal much that is unappealing in Sewell's character.
Radley College was another financial disaster; by 1861 Sewell's personal debts (including a legacy of indebtedness from his father), along with those of Radley College, amounted to over £40,000. He was asked to leave the college, and new management and generous benefactors eventually secured its financial stability. Sewell's fellowship in Exeter College was sequestrated in the aftermath of the Radley debacle, and, lacking an income and health, he did not afterwards settle anywhere permanently, though he lived for a few years in the town of Deutz on the River Rhine. Friends helped pay his debts, and he was able to return to England in 1870, residing mainly on the Isle of Wight. Sewell was a prolific writer, whose books include studies in theology and the classics, translations, and four polemical novels with religious themes; some of his work was once very popular, but latterly is unread. He died, unmarried, at the residence of his nephew in Manchester, on 14 November 1874, and was buried in St Andrew's churchyard, Blackley.