Explorations in the history of Cambridge by Ged Martin

The history of Cambridge is one of my interests. Over the decades, I have written about University life in the nineteenth century, the debates of the Cambridge Union, and episodes relating to Hughes Hall, King's and (especially) Magdalene. In addition, I have tried to understand some of the people connected with those institutions. 

Personalities studied include Charles Stewart Parnell (who was at Magdalene, although not very happily), and A.C. Benson, an Etonian product of King's who later became an important influence on the shaping of twentieth-century Magdalene.

Some of the discussions have been published in books or journals, and are included on the Published Work section of website, www.gedmartin.net. Others are included in the Martinalia section of draft and unpublished essays and notes (https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3)

This note provides a list, with brief comments on their subject matter, and links to the website. There are 43 articles, chapters, essays and notes. 


In The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 1815-1914 (2000), I attempted an assessment of the relationship between the University and the Town, and an evocation of undergraduate life and study.            

"Going Up To Jesus": A Note on Terminology: 


The Town and the University: 


The Undergraduate World: https://www.gedmartin.net/the-cambridge-union-and-ireland-1815-1914-chapter-3

A short chapter discussed the University of Cambridge as an "English" (rather than "British") institution.

Cambridge, Catholicism and the Irish: 


During the Easter Term (April and May) 1815, the University of Cambridge effectively closed down as an undergraduate institution, in response to a local epidemic, loosely referred to as the "Cambridge fever". This essay explores the course of the outbreak, and examines the decision-making processes through which the University determined its responses. Some reference is made to later health crises, such as the outbreak of typhoid at Gonville and Caius College in 1873. Some thematic connections are suggested with the challenge of 2020.

The Cambridge fever: the closure of Cambridge University during the Easter Term of 1815: 


In 1866, Masters of Arts (who then exercised ultimate authority) voted to reject an endowment that would have supported a visiting lecturer in American Studies. It is not one of Cambridge's stellar moments. The article was published in the Journal of American Studies (1973).

The Cambridge American Lectureship of 1866: 


Hughes Hall is now one of the University's largest colleges for postgraduates and mature students. It began on a small-scale, on the fringes of Cambridge, with the aim of training educated women for the classroom. The story of its first decade is based on chapters 1-5 of Hughes Hall Cambridge, 1885-2010 (2011).

The Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers: the founding decade 1885-1895: 


The Cambridge Union 

The Cambridge Union Society was formed in 1815, but grew out of earlier essay-reading clubs. The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 1815-1914 begins by placing it in the context of two other societies, the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Apostles.

The Cambridge Union: Sources and Rivals: 


The Union led a bumpy and partly underground existence until 1821.

The Early Years of the Cambridge Union: 


An evaluation of its debates requires some assessment of its various phases – as a student society, with a constant turnover of active members, its ethos could change considerably within a short time – and of its physical moves around the town, culminating in the opening of the core of the present building in 1866.

The Union and its Debates 1821-1914: 


One obvious objection to studying debate records as evidence of opinion is that immature students might be easily swept off their feet by sparkling but superficial speeches. The evidence does not bear out this concern.

Oratory and Opinion: https://www.gedmartin.net/the-cambridge-union-and-ireland-1815-1914-chapter-7

Debates on Ireland are discussed in three chapters, with a tailpiece taking the story to the 1921 Treaty. Opposition to Home Rule gradually declined, as Irish devolution ceased to seem threatening.

The Irish Debates 1816-1885: 


Gladstonian Home Rule 1886-1898:  


Ireland in the New Century: 


Tailpiece: War 1914-18 and Troubles 1919-21: 


The Conclusion asks some wider questions about political leadership and political biography.

Conclusion: https://www.gedmartin.net/the-cambridge-union-and-ireland-1815-1914-chapter-11

An appendix and tables provide further information about levels of interest aroused in various topics, and the longer-term division of opinion upon major issues. Analysis begins from the 1860s, when political themes came to dominate student debates.

Appendix: numbers voting at Cambridge Union debates 1863-1914: 


Tables: https://www.gedmartin.net/the-cambridge-union-and-ireland-1815-1914-tables

Magdalene College in peace and war

My interest in the education of Charles Stewart Parnell led me to re-examine nineteenth-century Magdalene. It was hardly a distinguished institution, but it was perhaps not as ludicrously bad as it is sometimes portrayed.

Magdalene College Cambridge in Mid-Victorian Times: 


Louisa Duffy (née Freeman) escaped from a violent childhood in Castle Street to become lady's maid in Germany during the 1870s. After returning to Cambridge, she became a Magdalene bedmaker. When three German professors were billeted in the College during an international conference in 1898, she saved Magdalene's honour by acting as interpreter.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Louisa Duffy, bedmaker and linguist: 


In 2014, I decided to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War with an essay on its impact upon Magdalene. I attempted an unemotional, understated account, which I hope conveyed the bizarre horror and terrible waste of the conflict. It is an essay that perhaps has some value beyond the specific institution, and it has certainly attracted considerable interest.

Magdalene College Cambridge and the First World War: 


An additional note (November 2021) outlines the story of the head porter, James Stearn, who was shattered by the death of his son in the Royal Navy.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: James Stearn, the head porter who died of grief


The first building in Benson Court, occupied in 1932, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, as part of an imposing 3-sided courtyard open to the Cam. It is generally accepted that Magdalene was fortunate in not raising enough money to complete the whole project. This essay suggests that the  scheme was  intended to entrench the College as an institution dominated by young men from rich backgrounds. Hence the real objection to it was not so much aesthetic as social and political. The text is illustrated with pictures from the 1928 Appeal document intended to show the buildings when completed.     

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: the origins of the Lutyens Building:


Charles Stewart Parnell and Cambridge

The classic interpretation of the university education of Charles Stewart Parnell is that he wasted four years at Cambridge, leaving under a cloud without taking a degree. The re-organisation of the Magdalene archives in the early 1990s revealed, through account books, that he had in fact been absent from Cambridge for two years.

Charles Stewart Parnell at Cambridge: New Evidence (1992):


Far from being a poor student, he performed at least competently in first- and second-year examinations, on an uninspiring curriculum.

The Cambridge Academic Record of Charles Stewart Parnell: 


I have also attempted a wider reinterpretation of Parnell's political motivation, arguing that his support for Irish tenants made sense in terms of his economic interests. Although he was a landlord, his income came not from rents but chiefly from operating sawmills and quarries, which depended upon prosperous customers. This review includes discussion of the financial problems Parnell encountered at Cambridge

Charles Stewart Parnell: Economics and Politics of a Building Trade Entrepreneur:


A.C. Benson

Arthur Christopher Benson is remembered, if at all, as the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, and the author of the words of Land of Hope and Glory. As Fellow, Master and lavish benefactor of Magdalene, he left an enduring mark upon the College, although – as the years pass by – it can be difficult to pinpoint his precise influence on the institution today.

In a substantial two-part essay, I attempted to take stock of modern biographical interpretations. In Part I, I emphasise the baleful and damaging influence of Benson's intimidating father, and explore the crisis that almost overwhelmed him while he was an undergraduate at King's.

A.C. Benson and Cambridge: I, 1862-1884:  https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/284-benson1

Part II deals with his years as a master at Eton, and his subsequent return to Cambridge.  His copious writings, in books, newspapers and magazines, are used to illustrate his ideas on such unexpected subjects as socialism, reincarnation and the hanging of Crippen. Discussions are also attempted of his sexuality, his views on religion and his mental health.

A.C. Benson and Cambridge: II, 1885-1925: 


Perhaps Benson's best-known book was his 1906 collection of essays, From a College Window.  Radical views on education and religion were packaged up alongside reassuring reflections on the mainstream of life, which the author claimed to witness from his academic oasis. In fact, he had only come to Magdalene a few months before, and the seasoning of descriptions of College life was sparsely sprinkled through the text. It seemed worth extracting that descriptive material to create a portrait of an academic environment a century ago.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: From a College Window: Glimpses of Magdalene (1906):


(It should be stressed that the title "Magdalene College Cambridge Notes" refers to my notes about Magdalene history, and does not imply any official or endorsed status in relation to the College.)

The remaining Magdalene College Cambridge Notes deal mainly with people associated with the College, many of them forgotten.

Magdalene in the 18th century

The Battle of Almanza has dropped out of the national memory. (Britain lost). Bradbury may be the first Magdalene casualty in warfare.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: James Bradbury and the Battle of Almanza (1708):


Pompey the Little was an unpleasant satire from the 1750s. This note seeks to identiy two characters drawn from Magdalene.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Pompey the Little and Mid-Eighteenth Century Magdalene:


Magdalene people from the 19th and early 20th centuries

A Fellow of Magdalene who emigrated to become a pioneer settler in New Zealand is discussed in an essay jointly written with Professor Jim McAloon of the University of Wellington.

The Iron Priest: William Wellington Willock and the vision of Anglican Canterbury: 


There is also a linking introductory note to Willock:

William Wellington Willock and the founding of Canterbury, New Zealand:


The Iron Duke dropped in at a summer garden party in the Magdalene gardens in July 1842. He arrived quoting Jonathan Swift.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: the visit of the Duke of Wellington, 1842:


Five other prime ministers visited the College. A photograph shows Harold Macmillan being escorted to the College's unedifying (and since demolished) lavatories. He survived the experience and was later awarded an Earldom.  

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: prime-ministerial visits, from Gladstone to Macmillan:


Once a national hero, a Magdalene clergyman rallied British soldiers at a battle against the Sikhs in India.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Walter John Whiting and the Battle of Chillianwala (1849):


Robert Edgar Hughes is the subject of a substantial essay. A clergyman and Fellow of Magdalene, he was also an adventurous yachtsman. During the Crimean War (1854-6), he twice sailed to the Baltic, where British and French fleets blocked any Russian incursion into the Atlantic. Hughes, an instant amateur expert on naval strategy, thought the admirals were unduly cautious. In a provocative and entirely unauthorised gesture, he sailed his tiny yacht under the guns of Sveaborg, the fortress that defended Helsingfors (Helsinki).

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Robert Edgar Hughes, the Yachting Don, and the Baltic Campaigns (1854-55):


W.N. Roe came up to Magdalene in 1879. He had attended a school for orphans of clergymen, and was simply not the sort of person who lodged in the College's snobbish collective memory. This seems a pity, since, for fourteen years, he held the unofficial record for being the world's highest-scoring batsman. Many a Magdalene cricket team might have drawn inspiration from his feat.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Magdalene undergraduate was the world's top batsman:


Shri Shridhar Nehru was a student at Magdalene College Cambridge from 1905 to 1908, overlapping at Cambridge  with his cousin Jawaharlal Nehru, later first prime minister of independent India. S.S. Nehru had already taken two degrees from the University of Allahabad when he entered Magdalene at the age of seventeen. He later won a place in the Indian Civil Service, the British-dominated elite administrative cadre that ran the sub-continent. He achieved a great deal, but it is likely that his career was hampered by his inconvenient surname.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: S.S.Nehru (1905-8):  


Magdalene's Wiltshire connection

Cambridge Colleges owned the rights to appoint Anglican clergy to country parishes – for long, a form of patronage that guaranteed some kind of turnover among Fellows. Magdalene, a poor institution, had very few "advowsons". Steeple Ashton was the plum among them. This essay explores the 300-year connection with the Wiltshire village.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: The Steeple Ashton Connection:  


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