Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Geoffrey Blok (1933-7)

Geoffrey Blok (later Block) was a student at Magdalene College, Cambridge from 1933 to 1937. Unlike other Jewish students who were members of the College in the interwar period, his experience of Magdalene was not entirely positive. A failure in empathy on the part of a senior don perhaps underestimated the pressures upon a young man from a high-achieving family in the challenging years of the nineteen-thirties.   

Although I have a long-time interest in the history of the College, I had not come across Geoffrey Blok until I began to write about Magdalene's connections with British Jewry in 2024.[1] It soon became clear, first, that there had been a failure in his relationship with his Director of Studies and, second, that there was a considerable amount of material both about his involvement in Jewish student politics and about his subsequent and apparently very different career.[2] His student experience and later activities arguably form a case study of the pressures upon Jewish identity in twentieth-century Britain. This Note expands and supports the discussion in the main essay. He changed his surname by deed poll to Block in 1942.

Born in 1914, Geoffrey David Maurice Blok was the only son of a noted intellectual couple who were active in London-based Jewish organisations. His mother, Buena Sarah Blok (née Pool), had won the gold medal for chemistry at University College, London in 1900. She had published scientific research papers and also lectured on Jewish topics. His father, Dr Arthur Blok, was an electrical engineer who had made some of the equipment used by Marconi to send the first transatlantic radio message in 1901.[3] Dr Blok was employed as a civil servant at the Patent Office, and was prominent in the Jewish advocacy and philanthropic organisation, B'nai B'rith. An active Zionist, he was seconded by the British government in 1924-5 to establish the first technical college in Palestine.[4] It is not clear whether young Blok accompanied his father on this mission, but it is likely that the family travelled on the continent, for the teenager became impressively fluent in French and German.  At Cambridge, he followed in the family tradition, becoming active in the Schechter Society, a discussion group which was small enough to gather in a student's rooms.[5]

Geoffrey Blok won an Entrance Scholarship in History from St Paul's School in December 1932, and came into residence the following October.[6] Many middle-class professional Jewish families sent their sons to St Paul's, partly because it did not operate classes on Saturdays, but mostly to benefit from its strong academic tradition.[7] However, its elitist culture carried the risk of turning out hothouse products who confused sleight of hand intellectualism with genuine profundity of thought. There were elements of this weakness in Geoffrey Blok, who may have felt under pressure to adopt the pose of a Jewish savant. Curiously, the don with whom his relationship failed to flourish was Magdalene's History Fellow, F.R. Salter, who should have known what it was like to belong to a minority: he was a stout Congregationalist in an Anglican community, and an active Liberal in a Tory micro-world. Salter was also famed for the close and sometimes intrusively friendly interest in his students. Like Blok, although thirty years earlier, Salter was a product of St Paul's.

One of the smallest and also least well endowed of Cambridge colleges, Magdalene in the nineteen-thirties was not a very dynamic institution. However, although socially conservative, it was very far from being anti-Semitic. Between 1928 and 1937, three Jews were elected to its small Fellowship, despite dons being alarmed that the first of them, the mathematician Samuel Verblunksy, had never made a telephone call or ridden in a taxi.[8] Magdalene also admitted a steady stream of Jewish undergraduates. R.L. Goodstein had preceded Blok from St Paul's as an Entrance Scholar in Mathematics two years earlier, and was heading for a brilliant degree and a career in research. Clifton College, a public school which welcomed Jewish boys, was evidently confident of their reception at Magdalene. The latest of its pupils, Bernard Waley-Cohen, arrived at the same time as Blok, and would go on to become one of the youngest Lord Mayors of London. Despite a disappointing examination performance (like Blok, he had aimed to graduate in History), he remained a loyal member of his College. In the summer of 1933, Magdalene bent its already flexible entrance procedures to find a place for Maurice Goldhaber, who had won a place to do research at the Cavendish Laboratory after fleeing from Nazi Germany, but needed a college affiliation. Several Jewish members of interwar Magdalene were enthusiastic about their experience and remained in contact with the institution. The difficulty encountered by Geoffrey Blok arose from personality rather than ethnicity, although a more empathetic understanding of the pressures upon a young Jewish man from a high-achieving family – especially in the mid-nineteen-thirties – might have been helpful.

Copies of two letters held by the Magdalene Archives throw some light on Geoffrey Blok as an undergraduate. Although they are unsigned, internal evidence strongly suggests that they were written by his Director of Studies in History, Frank Salter. The first was sent to Blok himself following a disappointing second-year examination performance in 1935. The second, written two years later, was a reply to an unidentified correspondent who had requested a report on the young man's employability.[9] The 1937 letter was written in an era when a conscientious academic felt an obligation to provide an enquirer with a candid assessment and, hence, provided a much sharper picture than the anodyne defamation-avoiding formulae employed in such missives today. In 1937, Salter reported that he could "certainly recommend" Geoffrey Blok: "his shrewdness, enterprise and gift for languages would certainly carry him far". The young man also "bore an excellent moral character during his time as an undergraduate here".[10] Blok had made a positive contribution to the undergraduate community. Although he was "obviously not an athlete" and was ruled out of most games by a knee injury, he had taken up rowing, a strenuous activity still regarded as a badge of college patriotism. Salter was strong on social work, and he praised Blok for twice taking "an active part" in training camps for the unemployed. He homed in on another important point too: Geoffrey Blok did not simply interact with his fellow Jews through the inter-collegiate Schechter Society. Salter's obituary in the Magdalene College Magazine would note that, in addition to seeming to know everything about his students, "his perceptive eye was quick to memorise who walked about together". He had observed that Blok "got on well with a clever group of contemporaries who liked and respected him". This was almost certainly an allusion to a coterie of students around the dominant personality of John Bennett, a History Scholar a year ahead of Blok, who achieved the remarkable feat of a starred First in both parts of the Tripos. A grammar school boy from Romford, Bennett was the key figure in a group of undergraduates who reacted against the conformist and public-school ethos of the nineteen-thirties Magdalene, some of them middle class – like Geoffrey Blok – others rebels against their own privileged backgrounds. They called themselves the Adullamites, after the Biblical cave of the discontented, and claimed to be members of a revolutionary organisation, STRACA, the Society for Tendentiously Resisting All Constituted Authority.[11] With strong personalities and apparently contrasting approaches to their studies, Blok and Bennett might easily have become rivals, but in the conservative atmosphere of interwar Magdalene, they found values in common.

Geoffrey Blok adopted an ambitious approach to undergraduate study, which was evidently aimed at carrying off a First in History in his final examinations. Salter's correspondence indicates that Dr Blok had a hand in the planning. (Jewish parents are not unique in micro-managing their children's careers.) By the twentieth century, Cambridge Honours degrees were acquired in two segments, an arrangement that allowed students to change subjects after Part I, although colleges carefully monitored their choices to avoid examination disasters.  In most subjects, such as History, Part I was taken after two years, leading to an intensive third year of study for Part II. However, it was possible to take the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos at the end of first year. Although his Entrance Scholarship was in History, Geoffrey Blok elected to study French and German for Part I, and then switch to History. The intention was obviously to devote two years of profound study to mastering a syllabus that most undergraduates covered in one, with the aim of achieving First Class Honours in his final examinations. While Cambridge History students were expected to read tomes in continental languages, it is unlikely that many did so: a candidate who had taken Part I in French and German would have additional opportunities to impress the Tripos examiners. The first part of the plan worked successfully. In the summer of 1934, Geoffrey Blok achieved a First in French and an Upper Second (II / i) in German. Notably, he also scored distinctions in each in his oral examinations. Unfortunately, at that point, the strategy began to come apart. In his second year, he duly began to read for Part II History, but he seems to have taken his foot off the accelerator. No doubt the final examinations seemed a long way off. More to the point, by October 1934 the threat to German Jewry from the Nazis was becoming ever more insistent, repellent and menacing. Blok became increasingly active in the Schechter Society, holding a series of offices and eventually serving as President during his final term.[12]

The annual examination cycle of the History Faculty made no provision for an undergraduate who was taking two years over Part II so, in the Easter Term of 1935, Magdalene set a series of practice examination papers to measure Geoffrey Blok's progress. As Salter frankly reported to him, the outcome was "definitely not good": had it been a University examination, Blok would have been lucky to have obtained an Upper Second ("a very low 2.1"). His answers on Medieval History were "definitely poor". On a paper about the Modern State, he "gave the impression ... of trying to cover up by clever writing a somewhat inadequate supply of actual material". It was one thing for Salter to complain that "you have rather let things slip this year", but his frankness verged upon brutality: "although a relaxation from your strenuous first year was to some extent legitimate, you have over done it. You will certainly have to work tremendously hard and unremittingly for the next twelve months". At this point, a sympathetic teacher should surely have softened the reprimand, offering encouragement and support. Salter, after all, was renowned for his paternalistic interest in his undergraduates, intensive teaching would have been feasible since there were never more than a couple of dozen young men studying History, and an Entrance Scholar would normally be regarded as an asset to be nurtured and developed. In fact, Salter urged him to switch back to the Modern Languages Tripos, and here came the killer blow:  "I am still not sure how much aptitude you have for historical thinking, whereas it is quite clear that you have real linguistic ability". In slightly patronising tones, he added that, "if you regret the idea of giving up History", there were opportunities to study historical themes in Part II Modern and Medieval Languages through literature and political thought.[13]

Not only was this harsh advice, it was not very sound. If Geoffrey Blok had indeed wasted his second year, then he would simply tackle the Part II syllabus on the same basis as other undergraduate historians, cramming the work into three terms. It was hardly fair to dismiss a young man's aptitude for historical thinking when it was admitted that he had managed to bluff his way to an Upper Second, however weak, in the practice papers. Even Salter grudgingly accepted that his overall performance in the second year examinations was "able up to a point but not distinguished". A more positive attitude might have taken that as something on which to build in his final year. Most notable of all was the absence of any sign of empathy, any kind of understanding that a young man from a family active in Jewish affairs was likely to be distracted from his books by the persecution of his people that was unfolding in Germany. Firm and friendly advice might have confronted the issue, telling Geoffrey Blok that the way to help his co-religionists was to work for the best degree he could achieve as a step to a career in which he might exercise influence on behalf of European Jews. 

In his 1937 assessment, Salter recognised the failure of relationship as a shortcoming that prevented him from offering a full appreciation. "I was never much attracted by him, probably through my own fault and certainly not through any anti-Semitic prejudice". He found Blok "rather 'jaunty' with the appearance at any rate of being pleased with himself." The older man was sufficiently troubled by his own negative impression – he admitted that the barrier between them helped explain "why he did not get intellectually as far as might be expected" – to make a longhand addition to the typed text: "I fancy his 'conceit' is a mannerism, possibly a form of self defence. But it is a drawback."

Frank Salter was a Gladstonian Liberal stranded incongruously in the twentieth century. He had even stood for parliament in 1924: despite having Asquith as a speaker at an election rally, he had come bottom of the poll.[14] He was certainly no anti-Semite.[15] As his Magdalene obituary made clear, he was a person of "charm, humour and real kindliness", who could be an inspirational teacher – but there were flaws. His affection for humanity in general could be punctuated by a distinct intolerance towards anyone who ventured to disagree with him. He was stronger on principle than on proportion. A.C. Benson, who had recruited Salter from Trinity, quickly found him "bluff and provocative ... intensely conscious of righteousness and just judgement". His bulky frame could be intimidating, while his "exuberance and quick appraisal of what people were like (and he was nearly always right) could lead him in to remarks which to some seemed unjustifiably intrusive, implying criticism a little too near the bone". This "precipitancy of speech" could cause offence and, in rare cases, lasting resentment.[16] There can be little doubt that this happened in his relationship with Geoffrey Blok.

Blok resisted the pressure to change back to Modern Languages, but it could hardly have helped his third-year study to know that his Director of Studies had no confidence in his ability: in 1937, Salter wrote he was "never any[where] near getting a first in [H]istory because ... he rather rushed at the subject without adequate humility of approach". Geoffrey Blok remained active in the Schechter Society, even hosting a meeting of the discussion group in his Magdalene rooms shortly before his Part II examinations in 1936. He graduated with an Upper Second (II / i), and also won a College essay competition,[17] the latter perhaps a riposte to Salter's lack of faith in him. Although he duly took his BA that summer, he returned for a fourth year of further study, probably as a vehicle to continue his increasing activism in the Jewish student movement. From Salter's 1937 reference, it is clear that the outcome was disastrous – he failed the examination he had entered for – but his choice of subject was not revealed.[18] Characteristically, Salter hoped the setback might reduce Blok's conceit in himself. It is sad that so experienced a don should have perceived the possibility that Blok's affectation of superiority was a cover for insecurity without connecting this with the challenges involved in the young man's sense of identity.  Arguably, it is never easy to be Jewish, but the mid-nineteen-thirties were a time of particular threat. The personal gulf between Salter and Blok was more complex than the petty resentment of Professor Alfred Newton that alienated Walter Rothschild from Magdalene fifty years earlier, but it was perhaps equally damaging. Like Arthur Cohen, Geoffrey Blok had evidently assumed that he could cruise towards examination triumph. Cohen found Magdalene too relaxing; for Blok, the censorious Nonconformist disapproval of his Director of Studies probably made the College too discouraging.[19] Salter did not succeed in overcoming the barrier, and there is no evidence that he even made the attempt.[20]

Geoffrey Blok was by now active in the Inter-University Jewish Federation (IUJF), for whom he co-authored a report on Jews in British higher education. In 1937, he enrolled for further study at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he became involved in fund-raising in support of a Jewish Students' Common Room.[21] In the IUJF, he initially held the grandiloquently titled office of Honorary Foreign Secretary, a post that seems to have carried a remit to defend communities abroad. In November 1937, there was criticism of Jewish medical students in Poland, who were reported to procure corpses for dissection from non-Jewish sources, a practice that aroused dark echoes of the blood libel, a virulent (and enduring) medieval belief that Jews committed ritual murder of Christian victims. Geoffrey Blok explained to readers of The Times that "strict Jewish law forbids the desecration of a human body". However, in 1929 the Polish government had legislated to permit the seizure for medical research of "corpses of any religious community, even without the consent of the relatives. The Jewish religious authorities willingly enjoined acceptance of the Bill on their flocks. Their attitude was that though Jewish teaching does not permit the dissection of dead bodies, if the law of the State requires it[,] it must be obeyed, for obedience to the State is a prime maxim of Jewish law." Blok praised "the ready cooperation of the Jewish authorities in the cause of peace", insisting that the dissection issue had "ceased to be a just cause of ill-will ... for it is no longer true that Jews do not allow Jewish bodies to be used for dissection". There was perhaps a certain element of special pleading in his account, but it was effective in emphasising that Jews were law-abiding and rational people.[22]

Geoffrey Blok was elected chairman of the IUJF at its annual conference in December 1937, and promptly issued a plea on behalf of David Frankfurter, who had been imprisoned in Switzerland for the assassination of the local Nazi chief, Wilhelm Gustloff. Frankfurter, who came from Yugoslavia, had been studying in Germany when Hitler came to power and, as Geoffrey Blok reminded the readers of the Manchester Guardian, he "could not bear the sufferings and humiliation of his brethren". The death penalty had been abolished in the canton of Berne, where he was tried, and he had been sentenced to eighteen years' imprisonment. In the face of Nazi anger that he had not been put to death, there was little chance of remission, but the IUJF conference responded to concerns about Frankfurter's health and called for clemency. "Without identifying itself in any way with his act" – so Blok insisted – the IUJF wished to show that "Jewish youth has not forgotten the man who was moved to carry out his purpose solely through brooding over the terrible injustices inflicted upon his people".[23]

There is some mystery surrounding Geoffrey Blok's wartime experience. In 1942, he changed his name by deed poll, making a single-letter amendment to Geoffrey Block.[24] Although this minor alteration was no doubt convenient, it is possible that he was redefining himself, moving away from the shadow of his father, who was becoming one of the patriarchal figures in British Jewry. I have not traced Geoffrey Block as subsequently prominent in any Jewish organisation. A brief biographical note of 1960 stated that he served in the Royal Artillery throughout the Second World War.[25] However, on changing his surname in 1942 he described himself as a Lance-Corporal in the Intelligence Corps. There is a further clue on his student record card in the Magdalene Archives, where somebody had noted his address in March 1944. Since this was an Army postbox, it did not reveal his actual whereabouts, but it did indicate that he was a Corporal in 110 Special Wireless Section, Royal Signals.  The Special Wireless Sections monitored German communications. Given the difficulties of listening in to enemy messages, especially in battle zones, the task required personnel who were virtually bilingual, and here Block's fluency would have made him an asset. 110 Section seems to have accompanied the Eighth Army through the Desert and into Italy, before regrouping in England in preparation for the Normandy campaign – timing which could explain why he was in touch with Magdalene in March 1944.[26] The following year, Geoffrey Block published a guide to military aircraft called The Wings of Warfare, which suggests that he may have also been involved in specialist work on aircraft recognition, the vital split-second decision that determines whether an approaching aeroplane is friend or foe.[27] Personnel engaged in sensitive Intelligence projects, such as the work of Bletchley Park, were banned from discussing their wartime experiences for two decades after 1945, and perhaps the reference to service with the Artillery – to which Geoffrey Block's unit might well have been assigned – was a cover for secret work. It is interesting to note that he apparently never rose above the rank of Corporal. In the First World War, it was practically automatic that Cambridge products – whether or not they were graduates – were offered commissions. World War Two was fought on slightly more democratic lines, but Geoffrey Block was evidently not seen as officer material. Perhaps this reflected endemic anti-Semitism, but perhaps his sometimes off-putting personality ruled him out. Or it may simply be that his language skills made him too good at the job he was doing to risk promotion. Army careers did not always reflect fairness and merit.[28]

After the war, Block became interested in town planning, possibly the result of his earlier studies at LSE. He became a critic of the Attlee government's policy of solving the housing crisis by building New Towns, condemning the programme for being over-ambitious and under-resourced. Fourteen New Towns had been designated but, by 1950, shortages of skilled labour and materials meant that little progress had been made on any of them. Indeed, no slum-dwellers had been rehoused at all: at Basildon, for instance, there were only thirty men at work. "The new towns are making painfully slow progress because a large and ambitious programme has been launched without proper coordination with other sectors of the national economy. ... At present we merely have plans for a number of new towns which are proceeding at an impossibly slow pace." Block argued that it would have been better to have concentrated on one or at most two schemes, which would have provided actual homes and no doubt taught useful lessons for future projects.[29] In the debate that followed, experts generally endorsed his claims, although his preference for two New Towns rather than fourteen could itself be faulted as a London-based perspective that failed to take account of the political need to demonstrate awareness of the problems of Scotland, Wales and the English regions.

In nineteen-forties Britain, there was an exceptionally close association between Jews and the Labour Party. A record number of twenty-eight Jewish MPs gained election to the House of Commons in 1945: twenty-six were Labour, one was a Communist, while Daniel Lipson, the Independent member for Cheltenham, had been first returned at a by-election eight years earlier after the local Conservative Association had refused to endorse him, allegedly because of an anti-Semitic whispering campaign.[30] It might have seemed that Geoffrey Block conformed to a standard profile of a Jewish socialist intellectual. He had studied at the London School of Economics, powerhouse of the British Left. He argued for broad coordination of national resources to boost house-building. He lived in a flat near Hampstead Heath. However, by the early nineteen-fifties, he was working for the Conservative Political Centre (CPC), and in February 1955, he was appointed head of its home affairs department. The CPC had been established after the party's heavy defeat in 1945 to undertake policy research and provide political education: in short, it was designed to give the Tories the kind of informed firepower that Labour received from the Fabian Society.[31]

Geoffrey Block produced a series of publications that were treated with respect, even by political opponents. His continuing interest in urban planning was shown in a 1954 pamphlet, The Spread of Towns. "One does not usually look to party publications for a clear analysis of such a complex problem", commented the fervently Liberal Manchester Guardian, which praised the publication as "the most lucid, informative, and discerning treatment of the subject that has yet appeared in so small a compass".[32] The Conservatives were positioning themselves as the party of the private motorist. Block favoured the construction of a modern road network, but argued against the creation of a National Roads Board, since such a body would still have to face the problem of prioritising the various projects. One of his own priorities was the upgrading of road transport in Wales, even though a north-south highway could hardly be an economic proposition.[33] There were also publications on topics as varied as the licensing laws and the role of party labels in local elections. Traditionally, Conservatives had contested local elections as Independents, but this was changing. Block argued that party labels gave councillors access to party research, but he criticised the caucus politics practised by Labour, which compelled its representatives to follow the party line.[34]  

His 1963 publication, Britons on Holiday, which emphasised the importance of the tourist industry, was an example of think-tank research breaking new ground in the policy agenda. The Times was initially alarmed at the thought of treating the national tradition of an annual break by the seaside as a "problem", like juvenile delinquency or the promotion of exports, but it was won over by the barrage of statistics mobilised by Block. Holidays were big business: in an era when the survival of sterling depended upon a healthy balance of payments, the tourism sector ensured that British people spent their cash at home. Some of Block's suggestions sounded like plain common sense, such as his plea to reduce congestion on the beaches by extending the holiday season: "if everyone in England and Wales decided to go to the seaside simultaneously each would be entitled to a strip of coast three and a half inches wide" – which, The Times pointed out, "is just what it feels like on August Bank holiday". Other proposals were alarmingly interventionist for a Conservative theorist, such as his demand for regulation of caravan sites. But, here again, the case was strong: four million people took caravan holidays each year, and effective planning controls were needed to ensure adequate standards of sanitation.  Once again, Geoffrey Bloch viewed the issues through the eyes of the motorist. Seaside resorts could no longer assume "that they can be a concentrated entertainment factory for a captive audience". Car-owning families liked to tour, and tourist boards were needed to supply them with regional information.[35]  

In 1960, he had received the OBE "for political services". Four years later, on the eve of a general election that would end thirteen years of Tory government, he produced CPC publication number 305, A Source Book of Conservatism.  A detailed bibliographical study was followed by an outline history of the party since 1832, dealing with such topics as its name, its adoption of blue as a campaign colour, the role of leaders like Peel and Disraeli and the rise of the 1922 Committee. The Manchester Guardian thought the publication was "attractive but rather expensive" – ten shillings and sixpence (52 and a half pence) was a lot to pay when Penguin were producing paperbacks and three and six.[36] In the event, the book was something of an elegy for the middle-of-the-road Toryism that was now swept aside by Harold Wilson's Labour party. No longer a backstage policy-maker, Geoffrey Block now became an occasional commentator on legal and constitutional issues through the letters column of The Times. He reproved the government for its attempts to thwart the redistribution of parliamentary constituencies: people had finally moved to the suburbs and safe Labour seats in the inner cities were threatened by boundary changes. Predictably, he opposed the use of the referendum to settle the question of British membership of the European Economic Community. It was indeed true that the statesmen of yesteryear had talked about holding national plebiscites on controversial topics like Irish Home Rule and the powers of the House of Lords, but – Block insisted – the real precedent was that none of them had ever gone through with the threat. He even explored an abstruse question of punctuation to determine whether an official document had used a hyphen or a dash.[37] It was in character that, in 1985, when he was retired and into his seventies, he should have become a contestant on BBC radio's general knowledge quiz, Brain of Britain.[38]

His private life, his beliefs and personal religious practice remain largely unknown.[39] His postwar career was barely noted by the Jewish Chronicle: he seems to have been reported as attending only one event associated with the faith in which he had been raised.[40] Two final reflections seem permissible. First, Geoffrey Block had moved a considerable distance from public involvement with the issues that had concerned Geoffrey Blok, even if his private opinions and loyalties may have remained unchanged. Second, the ability that he showed in his research work for the Conservative party casts doubt on F.R. Salter's opinion that he lacked "aptitude ... for historical thinking". Of course, a quarter century of increasing maturity, coupled with the experience of a world war, may have stimulated Geoffrey Block's intellect, but it is difficult not to regret that his ability was not more fully harnessed at Magdalene.

I appreciate the friendly interest in the Magdalene material on shown by many members of the College, but (as always) I must stress that my various narratives and speculations are the result of a personal interest in Cambridge history and are neither commissioned nor endorsed by the institution. Around thirty Internet essays and notes relating to the history of Magdalene College are listed on:

ENDNOTES  I am grateful to Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield for his comments on drafts of this Note.

[1] It is planned to add the larger essay, "Magdalene College, Cambridge and British Jewry", to the martinalia section of in the summer of 2024.

[2] I am grateful to the College archivist, Mrs Katy Green, for providing copies of material about Geoffrey Blok from the Magdalene Archives.

[3] The Encyclopaedia Judaica Year Book 1982, 193, states that Arthur Blok operated the equipment at the Cornish end of the first transatlantic communication.

[4] Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History;, The Palestine correspondent of a New York Jewish newspaper thought Dr Blok had "assimilated the best traditions of British administration without losing his interest in things Jewish". New Palestine, 13 March 1925. The Haifa Technion is now also known as the Israel Institute of Technology. Arthur Blok was also an enthusiastic collector of marine and freshwater shells, and is regarded as an important figure in conchology.

[5] The Schechter Society had been formed in 1902. Soon after Blok's time, it merged with other student organisations to form the Cambridge University Jewish Society. R. Loewe, "Cambridge Jewry: the First Hundred Years", in W. Frankel, ed., Gown and Tallith … (London, 1989), 13-37, esp. 19; Jewish Chronicle, 24 May, 6 December 1935; 31 January, 20 March, 19 June 1936.

[6] He was awarded a £60-a-year Scholarship in December 1932. The Times, 17 December 1932.

[7]  Loewe, "Cambridge Jewry: the First Hundred Years", 18. F.R. Salter, Magdalene's Director of Studies in History, was a former pupil of St Paul's, and later wrote a history of the school.

[8] A product of the Central Foundation School in Islington who came to Cambridge from University College, London, Samuel Verblunksy was the son of an East End tailor. Unlike most of Magdalene's Jewish students, he did not come from a privileged background.

[9] The letters were dated 25 June 1935 and 21 September 1937.

[10] If the comment referred to sexual morality, it was perhaps a less resounding endorsement than it seemed. Male undergraduates in that era had very little access to women and hence few opportunities to sin. A Magdalene student who graduated in 1931 was sure that all his friends left Cambridge as virgins. P. Cunich, et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge 1428-1988 (Cambridge, 1994), 246.

[11] Magdalene College Magazine, 1967-8, 2; R. Hyam, Understanding the British Empire (Cambridge, 2010), 269-72.

[12] Jewish Chronicle, 24 May, 6 December 1935; 31 January, 20 March, 19 June 1936.

[13] Magdalene renewed his Scholarship, which was subject to confirmation at the end of second year. The Times, 27 June 1935. But he was required to come into residence for part of the Long Vacation to catch up with his studies.

[14] Salter contested the Borough of Cambridge. Asquith spoke for him in the Town Hall after being entertained to dinner in the Magdalene Combination Room, where "much champagne" was consumed:

[15]   In his 1921 book on Karl Marx and Modern Socialism, Salter wrote with empathy of the difficulties faced by the young Karl Marx. Even as the atheist son of a convert to Christianity, he faced institutional prejudice as an ethnic Jew. Salter closed his book with a quotation from Mazzini: "Wheresoever a man is tortured through error, injustice or tyranny, that man is your brother." (256)

[16] D. Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise... (London, 1980), 263; Magdalene College Magazine, 1967-8, 3. According to legend, Frank Salter once decided to stage a dramatic walk-out from a College meeting after being outvoted on an issue of principle. The venue was a handsomely panelled room. Two identical doors were set into the woodwork, one of which gave access to a cupboard. To emphasise his moral outrage, Salter angrily slammed the door behind him on his departure. Unfortunately he had chosen the wrong exit, and had to be rescued by his colleagues. There is a photograph of Salter as a young man in I was one of the last undergraduates to encounter Frank Salter, when he was in his late seventies and only occasionally appeared in Magdalene. I recall him with affection.

[17] The Times, 22, 27 June 1936.

[18] Salter seems to have believed that Blok was aiming at a career as a financial journalist. It is possible that he opted to take the Economics Tripos, which required hard work and technical competence.

[19] Cohen and Rothschild will be discussed in "Magdalene College Cambridge and British Jewry".

[20] Salter was in fact very friendly towards undergraduates, some of whom he invited to take part in Easter vacation reading parties at his holiday home in Cornwall. The downside of this culture of informal socialising was that Magdalene had become too big for all its undergraduates to receive elder-brother treatment, thereby emphasising the exclusion of those who were omitted.

[21] Jewish Chronicle, 12 March, 14 May 1937; 22 April, 6 September 1938, 15 August 1939. The 12-page report, G.D.M. Blok and H.C. Schwab, A Survey of Jewish Students at the British Universities, was published by the Inter-University Jewish Federation in 1938. I have been unable to consult it.

[22] The Times, 26 November 1937. One source for the blood libel in medieval Europe was the murder of a child in Norwich in 1150, which local clergy alleged was a ritual killing by Jews. E.M. Rose, William of Norwich.... (Oxford, 2016), has argued that the story was invented as part of local factional manoeuvring during the anarchic reign of King Stephen, and that there is no evidence of popular anti-Semitism either causing or caused by the allegation.

[23] Manchester Guardian, 17 January 1938. The Nazis renamed a cruise ship, launched to provide holidays for party faithful, Wilhelm Gustloff. At the time, Hitler restrained protests within Germany to avoid alienating international opinion before the Berlin Olympics, but the killing of Gustloff was used in 1938 as a pretext for Kristallnacht. Frankfurter was released from prison shortly after VE Day in 1945.

[24] London Gazette, 20 October 1942, 4574.

[25] G.D.M. Block, Free and Sober... (London, 1960), 2.

[26] The website of the Royal Signals Museum ( is a way in to a subject that is still covered in mystery. Special Wireless Sections are not mentioned in R.F. Bennett, Behind the Battle: Intelligence in the War with Germany, 1939-1945 (London, 1999). The elder brother of John Bennett, Ralph Bennett was a young History don at Magdalene in the 1930s who worked in Intelligence at Bletchley Park in the Second World War and later became the historian of 'Ultra'.

[27] G.D.M. Block, The Wings of Warfare … (London, 1945). The book dealt with military aircraft engaged in the Western theatre of war, i.e. not the Russian front or the Far East. I have been unable to consult it.

[28] An entry for Geoffrey Block in the 1967 edition of Who's Who in Translating and Interpreting is a pointer to his likely postwar employment. I owe this information to Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield.

[29] The Times, 16 August 1950.

[30] G. Alderman, Modern British Jewry (Oxford, 1998 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1992), 335. Lipson had only recently joined the Conservatives from the Liberal party, via support for the National Government, and this may have been an element in opposition against him. The voters of Cheltenham obviously did not share the prejudice of the Tory grandees, since they greatly increased his majority in 1945, against the Labour tide.

[31] The Times, 10 February 1955. Block succeeded Peter Goldman, another Cambridge-educated Jew from a slightly later student generation. Goldman became the Conservative candidate in the 1962 Orpington by-election, usually regarded as the start of the "Liberal revival": a Tory majority of 14,000 was overturned and a Liberal MP elected by 7,000 votes. Standard accounts play down the possibility of prejudice against the candidate's ethnicity. Another Jewish Conservative intellectual from the same period was Keith Joseph, who became one of the architects of Thatcherism. The CPC was merged into Conservative Central Office in 1968: P. Norton, "The Role of the Conservative Political Centre, 1945-1968", in S. Ball and I. Holliday, eds, Mass Conservatism... (London, 2003), 183-99.

[32] Manchester Guardian, 2 March 1954. Later that year, Block also commented on compulsory purchase legislation, an important adjunct to house-building: The Times, 16 October 1954

[33] Manchester Guardian, 30 April 1956; 15 July 1964.

[34] Free and Sober, the 1960 pamphlet on the licensing laws, owed its title from a 19th-century bishop who preferred "that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober". The Times, 26 April 1962; 2 September 1963.

[35] The Times; Manchester Guardian, 2 September 1963.

[36] The Times, 11 June 1960; Manchester Guardian, 25 June 1964. Unlike most general histories, A Source Book of Conservatism did not mention that Disraeli was Jewish.

[37] The Times, 6 November 1966; 25 May 1967; 28 March 1972.

[38] The Times, 21 March 1985. He was described as "former political adviser". It seems he did not get beyond the first round.

[39] In November 1964, he announced his engagement to Hazel Evans of Harrogate. He was then aged 50. The Times, 25 November 1964.

[40] Jewish Chronicle, 6 February 1987.