The Cambridge Arabic Prize, 1917

Although many of its constituent colleges were almost indecently well endowed, the University of Cambridge itself attracted few benefactions in the early twentieth century.

As an institution, it seemed too remote, even abstract in its nature, to capture the loyalty of its own alumni, while the generosity of outsiders was hardly inspired by its curriculum, much of which seemed irrelevant, and its rituals, which were arcane.[1] The relative poverty of the central structure made all the more remarkable its polite rejection of the offer of a bequest in 1917 because its terms were anti-Semitic. Moreover – and unusual in academic history – the saga produced an unexpected happy ending.[2]

In March 1917, the Vice-Chancellor received notification that Mrs Louisa Logie had bequeathed £1,000 to the University of Cambridge for the endowment of a prize in Arabic, in memory of her brother-in-law, William Wright, who had been Professor of Arabic between 1870 and his death in 1889.[3] Louisa Logie had died in Cambridge two months earlier, at the age of 85. A widow for about half a century and blind for many years, she was popular and respected, "kindly and ever cheerful …. very charitable … retiring and simple in her way of life". Her husband, Donald Logie, had served as British consul in the Turkish city of Smyrna (now Izmir), securing promotion to the post of Consul-General at Constantinople between 1864 and 1867.[4] Louisa was an Irish Protestant, who owned property in Dublin until the end of her life. She was the sister of Richard Frederick Littledale, a controversial clergyman, who was both a member of the ritualist wing of the Anglican Church and a notable foe of the Church of Rome.[5] Although Littledale had been dead for a quarter of a century when she made her Will in 1915, Louisa Logie evidently shared some of his views and his tendency to strong views on religion. (For instance, she supported a community of Anglican nuns at East Grinstead in Sussex, where he had been the resident chaplain.) Following her husband's death, Louisa Logie made her home with her sister and brother-in-law. The son of an army officer, William Wright had been born in India in 1830.[6] Sent to Scotland for his education, he came to identify with St Andrews, the Fife university town where he took his first degree and was eventually buried. His education in Oriental Languages continued at Halle in Germany and Leiden in the Netherlands, and led to Chairs in Arabic at University College, London and at Trinity College in Dublin, where he met and married Louisa's sister, Emily Littledale. In the eighteen-sixties, when Louisa joined them, William Wright was employed in the Oriental Department of the British Museum. When he was appointed to the Chair of Arabic in Cambridge, Louisa came too.  The University at that time was a very inward-looking community and it was rare for academic appointments to go to outsiders. From the fact that he took a house in Station Road, a mile from the academic core, and called it "St Andrews", it might be assumed that his relationship with Cambridge was semi-detached, but he became a Fellow of Queens' (where he is commemorated by a memorial window in the chapel) and helped the University Library acquire an impressive collection of early Indian manuscripts.[7] Neither the Wrights nor the Logies had children, and Louisa eventually inherited the house in Station Road. She was noted for her "extraordinary memory" and "interesting reminiscences", and it was not surprising that she wished to honour the generosity and scholarship of her brother-in-law, even though he had died almost thirty years earlier.[8]

The problem with her well-intentioned munificence lay in the conditions attached. The Wright Prize for Arabic could only be awarded to "students born in the United Kingdom, not being Jews". The geographical restriction was not especially onerous, since Cambridge in that era attracted very few overseas students, but the prescribed ethnic bar posed more of a problem for the University's decision-making process. For some, such as F.M. Cornford in his famously acerbic 1908 pamphlet, Microcosmographia Academica, that phrase was almost a contradiction in terms.[9] Indeed, the University's quasi-official guide to undergraduate life declined to discuss its governance, because any description would "occupy much space and be difficult to understand".[10]  Broadly, the week-to-week business of the institution was supervised by the Council of the Senate, a kind of cabinet but one whose members were elected by the resident Masters of Arts. The Council had to tread carefully, since ultimate authority rested with those same MAs, who constituted the Senate.[11] As Cornford sarcastically put it, the Council of the Senate consisted of "men who are firmly convinced that they are business-like." In Cornford's academic menagerie, this was hardly a compliment, for the "Good Business Man" was "one whose mind has not been warped and narrowed by merely intellectual interests".[12] For once, the University's business managers found themselves dealing with an issue whose importance transcended the courtyards of Cambridge.

It is hardly necessary to state that every event in 1917 was dominated by the First World War. The unspoken element in the consideration of Louisa Logie's bequest lay across the Atlantic. The alliance of the United States was vitally needed to break the deadlock in the fighting.  President Wilson's message asking for a declaration of war was sent on 2 April 1917, and the Senate approved it by the necessary two-thirds majority four days later. Even so, it was still not clear how far the Americans would become involved in the trench warfare of the Western Front. "Think if the U.S. actually send a large army to our Front!", the veteran Master of Trinity College, H.M. Butler, had written on 25 March. Jewish opinion was important in shaping American public attitudes, an element that helps explain why Britain would commit itself to the creation of a Jewish "national home" in Palestine seven months later. Some of the members of the Council of the Senate, those fantasy politicians who so amused Cornford, would almost certainly have had contacts in Whitehall and friends at Westminster. There can be no doubt that one overwhelmingly firm message would have come from the corridors of power: at this vital moment in the struggle against Germany, it would be unhelpful for a famous English institution to commit itself to a prize that was barred to Jews.

Careful formulae were constructed to cushion the rejection. It was insisted that Louisa Logie was not an anti-Semite. Rather, "the original condition regarding Jews was not ... by reason of any prejudice against that people, but because the testatrix was under the impression that their presumed knowledge of Hebrew might give to Jews an undue advantage in studying Arabic." This was superficially plausible, but undoubtedly contrived. In the years before 1914, there were at most twenty-five Jewish students at Cambridge. They are not easy to identify, let alone to classify, but it seems likely that they were disproportionately drawn from the ranks of anglicised Jewry, many of them brought up in progressive or Reform synagogues which had switched to prayer in English. In other words, there was no reason to assume that they were all proficient in Hebrew. From 1895, the University offered an Oriental Languages Tripos. Most years, there were more examiners than candidates: in 1907 nobody presented for the final examinations at all. Of 44 graduates between 1895 and 1910, one – H. Loewe of Queens' – was definitely a Jew, and two more had Jewish surnames. All three sat a combination of papers in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic: Loewe and Cohen of Emmanuel were awarded Firsts, Adler of Selwyn emerged with a Third.[13] If a degree in Hebrew attracted so few Jewish students, it was hardly necessary to erect a barrier to stop them competing in Arabic.  In her Will, Louisa Logie also left £1,000 in trust to the sons of a man called William McCarthy – perhaps he had managed her Dublin property – but there was a condition here too: the boys would benefit provided they were "not priests or monks of the Roman Catholic Church". Religious intolerance seems to have been a Littledale family theme.

A recommendation from the Council of the Senate that the bequest be declined would naturally convey weight as the opinion of the Good Business Men, but it needed to be presented in a manner that would avoid any backlash among the resident MAs who constituted the whole Senate. Back in 1866, the University had received an offer of an endowment that would pay for a Harvard academic to deliver a biennial lecture series in American Studies, but a revolt among the MAs had rejected this infusion of transatlantic wisdom.[14] In response to the Logie bequest, an ambiguous formula was adopted that was open to various interpretations. The Council appreciated the goodwill to the University that had inspired the proffered benefaction, but did not feel justified in recommending the Senate "to accept and administer a bequest under the conditions attached". Cambridge does not seem to have any virulent anti-Semites (or, at least, none that have been remembered), if only because Jewish academics were even rarer than Jewish students. Nonetheless, we may be reasonably sure that the University, like the rest of the British elite, was permeated by an endemic, low-level prejudice against Jews. Hence the recommendation could be read in two ways. The high-minded might conclude that Cambridge had set its face against so blatant an act of discrimination, while those of less elevated principles could accept that the rejection was purely an administrative issue: in an age of intermarriage, secularisation and conversion to Christianity, how could the University decide who was a Jew? It seems that nobody contested the recommendation, and Louisa Logie's legacy was politely rejected.

However, there was an unexpected and pleasant tailpiece. Members of Britain's Jewish community were tactfully prepared to buy into the fairy tale that the proposed benefaction had not been anti-Semitic in intention. Nonetheless, the University's gesture of principle was "deeply appreciated" – so much so that the Jewish Chronicle organised a private appeal and raised an identical sum during the summer of 1917 to fund an award, described as a scholarship, specifically in memory of Professor Wright. In October, at the first Congregation (the term for a full meeting of the Senate), the gift was formally accepted, and the thanks of the University duly registered.[15] As an Australian Jewish newspaper concluded: "the University lost nothing in money and gained something in reputation with all right-minded people by the just act of her governing body".[16] 

For a full list of essays and notes on Cambridge history on this website:


 [1] The external funding situation would change dramatically after 1919, especially thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation: E. Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1996), 193-4; C.N.L. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge, iv: 1870-1990 (Cambridge, 1993), 169-70, 381-5. Sporadic attempts to raise cash for the University from 1897 were discussed by G. Johnson, University Politics… (Cambridge, 1994), 52-6.

[2] The story of the Logie bequest comes The Times, 14 March, 9 May, 29 June, 20 October;  Cambridge Independent Press, 17 January, 16 March 1917; J.R.M. Butler, Henry Montagu Butler... (London, 1925), 221.

[3] The value in 2024 would be about £87,000. The Vice-Chancellor (the office rotated) was T.C. Fitzpatrick, President of Queens' College – a scientist, which was unusual among the academic hierarchy.


[5] G. Herring, "Littledale, Richard Frederick (1833–1890)",   Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He was the author of many works, including Ritualists not Romanists (1876) and Plain Reasons for not Joining the Church of Rome (1880).

[6] G.J. Roper, "Wright, William (1830–1889)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[7] Information from Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses (via the Venn ACAD website).

[8] William Wright had died in 1889, and was buried in Scotland, at St Andrews.

[9] It is reprinted in Johnson, University Politics, 85-110.

[10] The Student's Guide to the University of Cambridge (3rd ed., Cambridge, 1874), 58.

[11] The Council of the Senate comprised 18 members, one of whom, the Chancellor, was ex officio and did not attend. The remainder were the Vice-Chancellor, four Professors, four Heads of colleges and eight other academics. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge, iv: 1870-1990, 258-9; D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1955), 286-7.

[12] Microcosmographia Academica in Johnson, University Politics, 99-100.

[13] R. Loewe, "Cambridge Jewry: the First Hundred Years", in W. Frankel, ed., Gown and Tallith … (London, 1989), 13-37; J.R. Tanner, ed., The Historical Register of the University of Cambridge... (Cambridge, 1917),  946-50.  Adler was ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1900 (two years after taking his BA), served as a curate in Spitalfields, a Jewish district of London, and later became head of the Society for the Propagation of Christianity among the Jews in Paris. Selwyn was a specifically Anglican foundation (Venn).

[14] Ged Martin, "The Cambridge American Lectureship of 1866":

[15] The incoming Vice-Chancellor in October 1917 was A.E. Shipley, Master of Christ's (and another scientist). In 1904, it had been said that Shipley "runs the University". In 1918, he was a member of an academic mission sent to the United States to counteract German propaganda. D. Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise ... (London, 1980), 132; J. T. Saunders / V. M. Quirke, "Shipley, Sir Arthur Everett (1861–1927)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography I am unable to discover what happened to the Wright Prize in Arabic. Clearly its endowment would hardly support a worthwhile award in the 2020s. From 2011 to 2014, the University's Centre for Islamic Studies ran several series of Wright Lectures in memory of Professor William Wright. These featured visiting speakers from around the world.

[16] Jewish Herald (Melbourne), 19 October 1917, via the National Library of Australia's Trove online newspaper archive.