History of Magdalene College Cambridge on www.gedmartin.net

Material about Magdalene College Cambridge on www.gedmartin.net represents the results of my own interest in the history of Cambridge University, and does not imply any official endorsement by the College.

Of course, I appreciate the friendly interest in the website shown by many past and present members of the College.

History of Magdalene

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: names and spellings reviews episodes in the history (and prehistory) of the College around the years 1428, 1476, 1542 and 1818. It proposes John Hore of Childerley as founder in 1428 of the hostel for monks studying at Cambridge (perhaps in a converted inn), reconsiders the construction of First Court in the 1470s, offers some suggestions about the refounding and naming of Magdalene in 1542 and proposes an explanation for a long-running mystery of the addition of the final letter -e to the College's name, which, it is argued, happened in 1818.


Magdalene College Cambridge in Mid-Victorian Times was the result of my interest in the university experience of Charles Stewart Parnell (see below). A re-examination of the nineteenth-century College confirmed that it was hardly a dynamic institution, but argued that it was perhaps not as ludicrously bad as it has sometimes been portrayed.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: From a College Window. Glimpses of Magdalene (1906) consists of extracts from A.C Benson's 1906 collection of essays, From a College Window.  Radical views on education and religion were packaged alongside reassuring reflections on the mainstream of life, which the author claimed to witness from the detached viewpoint of his academic oasis. In fact, he had only come to Magdalene a few months before, and the seasoning of descriptions of actual College life was sparsely sprinkled through the text. Extracts of that descriptive material may create a portrait of an academic environment in Edwardian times.


"Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: was jugged wallaby served at High Table?" examines a Cambridge legend dating from around 1910 that tells of a sign in the window of a butcher's shop: "Wallaby. Reserved for the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College." This strange story was in fact true.


Magdalene College Cambridge and the First World War was written in 2014, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The peaceable College community depicted in Benson's From a College Window was suddenly seared by the disruption of its routines and the slaughter of its members. I attempted to write an unemotional and 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 Notes: the origins of the Lutyens Building tells the story of the first building in Benson Court, occupied in 1932, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and planned as the first stage of an imposing 3-sided courtyard open to the Cam. It is generally accepted that Magdalene was fortunate in failing to raise enough money to complete the project. This essay suggests that the lavishly-conceived 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 giving an artist's impression of the buildings when completed.    


Magdalene College Cambridge in 1964: a reminiscence in photographs offers some unconventional and distinctly amateur glimpses of the College sixty years ago, with a commentary on aspects of student life.


Magdalene People

Two personalities associated with the College have particularly interested me.  Charles Stewart Parnell entered Magdalene in 1865, and was rusticated (briefly expelled) in 1869 after becoming involved in a fight outside the railway station. He never returned, and went on to lead the movement for Irish Home Rule.

The reorganisation of the College archives in the early 1990s revealed, through account books, that he had in fact been absent from Cambridge for two years. This was discussed in Charles Stewart Parnell at Cambridge: New Evidence (1992).


The Cambridge Academic Record of Charles Stewart Parnell challenges the negative tradition that he was a poor student. In reality, he performed at least competently in first- and second-year examinations, despite an uninspiring curriculum.


Magdalene College Cambridge in Mid-Victorian Times (above) explores the College as Parnell would have known it. I have also attempted a wider reinterpretation of Parnell's career, Charles Stewart Parnell: Economics and Politics of a Building Trade Entrepreneur, 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.


The departure of Charles Stewart Parnell from Cambridge, 1869 reviews the circumstances of Parnell's rustication in 1869, attempting to assess his subsequent claim that he was a victim of anti-Irish prejudice.


Edward Charles Hamilton: the person Parnell punched lifts the veil on Parnell's antagonist in the fight that led to his rustication. Hamilton came to a bad end. 

Charles Stewart Parnell, Cambridge University and the fable of Daisy In 1905, Parnell's sister Emily claimed that he had been expelled from Cambridge after the suicide of a young woman whom he had allegedly seduced. Despite its repudication by Magdalene soon after publciation, it took the rest of the twentieth century to eradicate this nonsense from Parnell biography.

Recollections and reconstructions: accounts of the departure of Charles Stewart Parnell from Cambridge University, 1869  Various versions of the street fight and court case that led to Parnell's rustication were published in the decades after his death. This essay examines them to illustrate the challenges faced by historians in assessing such evidence. 

Parnell at Cambridge: the shreds and patches of a 1914 lecture examines a lecture delivered in 1914 by an eccentric Irishman, Carolan McQuaid, who collected various stories about Parnell's time at Magdalene. Most are fabulous, but it is just possible that Parnell was one of the first students to attempt to ride a bicycle in Cambridge. (He fell off.)

Arthur Christopher Benson was the son of an Archbishop, the author of the words of Land and Hope and Glory, Master of Magdalene for ten years (1915-25) and a lavish benefactor of the institution, whose ethos still seemed to hover over the College in my student days in the 1960s.

In a substantial two-part essay, I attempted to take stock of modern biographical interpretations. A.C. Benson and Cambridge: I, 1862-1884 emphasises the baleful and damaging influence of Benson's intimidating father, and explores the religious crisis that almost overwhelmed him while he was an undergraduate at King's.


A.C. Benson and Cambridge: II, 1885-1925 covers his years as a master at Eton, and his subsequent return to Cambridge (and to Magdalene).  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 Dr Crippen. Discussions are also attempted of his sexuality, his views on religion and his mental health.


A.C. Benson in images is an attempt to approach Benson through the visual theme.


Benson's invocation of Edwardian Magdalene in From a College Window is noted above.

Other essays and notes discuss members of the College community.

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: James Bradbury and the Battle of Almanza (1708) deals with an engagement that has dropped out of the national memory. (Britain lost.) James Bradbury may have been Magdalene's first fatal casualty in warfare.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Pompey the Little and Mid-Eighteenth Century Magdalene attempts to identify two characters drawn from the College in an unpleasant satire from the 1750s.


William Wellington Willock and the founding of Canterbury, New Zealand signposts readers to a biographical essay on a Fellow of Magdalene who emigrated to become a pioneer settler in New Zealand.  


The full study, The Iron Priest: William Wellington Willock and the vision of Anglican Canterbury, written jointly written with Professor Jim McAloon of Victoria University of Wellington, is on the Project Canterbury website.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Walter John Whiting and the Battle of Chillianwala (1849) recalls a Magdalene clergyman who was briefly a national hero for rallying British soldiers at a battle against the Sikhs in India. The episode, of course, appears in very different light today.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Robert Edgar Hughes, the Yachting Don, and the Baltic Campaigns (1854-55) is a more substantial essay about the bizarre adventures of a Fellow of Magdalene during the Crimean War of 1854-56. An intrepid yachtsman (and also a clergyman), he twice sailed to the Baltic, where British and French fleets limited their activities to blocking any Russian incursion into the Atlantic. Casting himself in the role of an instant amateur expert on naval strategy, Hughes thought the Allied admirals were unduly cautious. In an entirely unauthorised and recklessly irresponsible gesture, he attempted to provoke the Russians by sailing his tiny yacht under the guns of Sveaborg, the fortress that defended Helsingfors (Helsinki), the capital of the Tsar's dependency of Finland. The Russians ignored the performance, and it is unlikely that the Allied navies would have come to his aid had Hughes and his boat been sunk.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Magdalene undergraduate was the world's top batsman reveals the little-known cricket record established by W.N. Roe, who entered Magdalene in 1879. Roe 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: S.S. Nehru (1905-8) outlines the career of another forgotten member of the College, Shri Shridhar Nehru, a student from 1905 to 1908, who overlapped at Cambridge with his (Trinity) 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. His impressive career represented an alternative way of easing the British out of India, by capturing control of the Raj from the inside. He achieved a great deal, but was probably hampered by his inconvenient surname.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Geoffrey Blok (1933-7) explores the student experience of an ambitious student from a high-achieving Jewish background. It forms part of a wider study of Magdalene and British Jewry.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Louisa Duffy, bedmaker and linguist commemorates an impressive College employee. 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 the College's honour by acting as interpreter. She merits an honoured place as the godmother of the study of German in Magdalene.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: James Stearn, the Head Porter who died of grief forms a tailpiece to the story of the College and the First World War. James Stearn died in 1919, shattered by the death of his son while serving in the Royal Navy.


Magdalene Miscellanea

Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: the visit of the Duke of Wellington, 1842 describes the summer day in early Victorian England when the Iron Duke dropped in to a Magdalene garden party. He arrived quoting Jonathan Swift, possibly the earliest known example of the study of English Literature in the College.


Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: prime-ministerial visits, from Gladstone to Macmillan notes five other visits to the College by past, present or future British prime ministers. 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: the Steeple Ashton connection explores Magdalene's connection with a village in Wiltshire. Cambridge Colleges owned the rights to appoint Anglican clergy to country parishes – for long, a form of patronage that actually ensured 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.


See also Explorations in the history of Cambridge by Ged Martin, which (for instance) includes participation by members of the College in the Union Society, and the role of its senior members in the University's refusal to accept an endowed Lectureship in American Studies in 1866.


Further additions to www.gedmartin.net of Magdalene-related material are planned.