Chapter 1

'The Cambridge Union: Sources and Rivals' reviews the material available for the study, and compares the Cambridge Union with two better-known student societies, its Oxford sister-society and rival (in fact the junior of the two) and the semi-secret discussion group, the Cambridge Apostles.


1:      The Cambridge Union:

Sources and Rivals



The Cambridge Union Society was founded in February 1815, the result of a merger, probably planned the previous year, of three smaller clubs which a later generation would have termed discussion groups. The idea of an openly constituted student society with its own premises was novel and bold in an English university, although the most important of the Union's three founding clubs, the Speculative, was probably an offshoot of a long-established town-and-gown debating society in Edinburgh. Renting its own accommodation meant that the Union did not have to restrict its membership, unlike most student clubs which met in undergraduate rooms and so were limited by the constraints of space. Its physical presence also offered some measure of independence from University and college authorities and made it less likely to collapse altogether in those years when, as happens to most student organisations, it descended into the doldrums. The Cambridge Union occupied rooms at the Red Lion Hotel in Petty Cury until 1831, when it decamped to premises at the rear of the Hoop Inn which were entered from Park Street off Jesus Lane. In 1850, there was a further move, this time to a converted chapel in Green Street. This proved inadequate, and was replaced in 1866 by a purpose-built debating chamber and club rooms on the present site in Round Church Street. The social amenities of the Union were enlarged by an additional wing erected in 1886.1

                While the majority of its members probably regarded the Union primarily as a convenient place to read newspapers, the purpose of the Society was to organise debates to enable its members to practise public speaking. The notion that young men might hold opinions of their own on any subject did not sit easily with the ethos of Cambridge University in the early nineteenth century. Worse still, the idea that they might express such opinions in a semi-public forum was deeply disturbing to those who wielded political authority in the era of the Napoleonic wars. In 1817, no less a personage than the Vice-Chancellor himself arrived at the Red Lion to interrupt a meeting of the Union and forbid all further debates. As Chapter Five will argue, a society with its own premises could find ways of evading this formal prohibition. Thus a student who sympathised with Greek resistance to Turkish rule could simply move that the Union subscribe to a newspaper published in Athens, and proceed to deliver a speech in general support of the Hellenic cause. Consequently, in 1821 the University decided to permit open debating under restrictions designed to prevent discussion of current politics.2 These, too, could be circumvented, since the arguments in favour of the Greeks establishing their independence in 1799, which was a legitimate subject for discussion under the "twenty-five year" rule, were remarkably close to those that still applied in 1824, the year in which the subject was debated. The restrictions were abandoned in 1830, although a fastidious faction deplored the overt politicisation of Union debates, and the Society was if anything weakened by their partial secession for about a decade.

                If one feature of its activities was that the "strength of the English language was put to the test," as a commentator wrote of the debate on Home Rule in 1893,3 the Cambridge Union could at least claim to have indirectly enlarged its vocabulary. The term "Union" was adopted in other universities, for instance at Oxford in 1826 and Edinburgh in 1889. These were clubs primarily dedicated to debating, but thereafter on campuses throughout Britain and Ireland, and in Commonwealth countries overseas, the term "student union" came to refer to recreational facilities automatically available to all undergraduates upon their enrolment at the university. It needs to be stressed that this was never the case at Cambridge, where the Union was – and remains – a private society charging its own subscription. In the mid-nineteenth century, this was probably equal to about two percent of the total expenditure of the average undergraduate – small enough to be a worthwhile investment for those who wanted access to club facilities or debates, but sufficiently large to constitute a substantial item of economy for those who did not. It is unlikely that the Cambridge Union ever attracted more than one-third of each annual intake of freshmen to the University, and it did not reach even that level of participation until the late eighteen-eighties, after the completion of the additional wing that substantially expanded its social amenities. Given the prestige of the Society, and the general level of prosperity that was necessary in a Cambridge undergraduate, the low rate of membership is a little puzzling. The Union always had its detractors, and some students were congenital non-joiners. Parnell, for instance, never became a member, and in addition was beaten up because he declined to join the Magdalene Boat Club.4

By and large, Cambridge undergraduates in the nineteenth century had little sense of political solidarity within the University. Appendix One shows that from time to time undergraduates were aroused by collective grievances, with some of the largest debates in the nineteenth century taking place not on Home Rule but on issues such as an attempt to ban boating through Grantchester Meadows. However, the Union did not see itself as a representative body entitled to negotiate with the University authorities on behalf of the student community.  On a very few occasions, the Cambridge Union sought to fill the gap in overall student organisation by taking the initiative to convene open meetings of all junior members of the University. Some of these were largely formal, as in 1892 in response to an invitation from the students of the University of Dublin to send delegates to the celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of Trinity College.5 More notable was the open debate in 1897, discussed in Chapter Three, in which twelve hundred undergraduates condemned any moves towards admitting women to Cambridge degrees. In 1885, an open meeting was convened with the aim of condemning the decision of the University soccer and rugby clubs for deciding to arrogate to themselves the right of awarding "Blues", a mark of sporting distinction hitherto monopolised by cricketers, athletes and – of course – oarsmen. A motion demanding that the assorted footballers "bring themselves again into harmony with those unwritten laws by which the social relations of members of this University are governed" was rejected by 707 votes to 466.6 It says something for the late Victorian mindset that the rowing man who proposed the motion was about to stand for parliament as a Liberal, and would become an enthusiastic supporter of Irish Home Rule.

                It may seem questionable to suggest that the debates of such a narrowly constituted society can be usefully studied as evidence of English attitudes to Ireland in the nineteenth century. Student debates, doubters will object, rarely reflect informed opinion, and those held at Cambridge can hardly be claimed to be representative of the wider community. The University was an elite institution, virtually closed to all but the wealthy and notably unwelcoming to anyone not a member of the Church of England (not to mention its exclusion of women). Moreover, as a private club, the Cambridge Union probably did not reflect even that unrepresentative elite. Not only was membership confined to a minority of the undergraduate population, but many probably joined the Union mainly for its club facilities. Thus debates were patronised by a minority of a minority of a student body that was itself drawn from a highly restricted social elite. Furthermore, it may be suspected that a vote on a motion in a debating society is evidence merely of the effectiveness of oratory: that the unformed minds of the young could easily be seduced by the brittle brilliance of a clever speech.

                Chapters Two to Four relate the Union and its Irish debates to the wider context of Cambridge University. Chapters Five and Six outline the history of the first hundred years of the Cambridge Union, while Chapter Seven argues that the debate records provide consistent evidence of opinion, and even that they can be related to shifts in attitude in the wider population. The debates themselves are discussed in the remaining chapters. Chapter Eight covers the years from 1816 to 1885. The interpretation of the proceedings in the first half of the nineteenth century is not always straightforward. In the early decades, there was a taste for debates on cultural issues, originally because the Union was strongly discouraged from discussing current affairs. In the absence of detailed debate reports, it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the way in which such motions were interpreted. One example is the seemingly innocent debate in 1827 on whether legislation was a more effective means of discouraging cruelty to animals than Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its bleak warning of the dire consequences of shooting an albatross. A surviving account indicates that some members chose to interpret this ostensibly precious topic as a demand for political concession in Ireland because the first act of parliament banning cruelty to animals had been carried by an Irish MP, "Humanity Dick" Martin, who also supported Catholic Emancipation.7 However, by the eighteen-sixties, the culture of debates had changed o a more modern tone. "You seem so absorbed in politics that you have no time for literature," a veteran of the eighteen-twenties chided his successors of 1866.8 By 1885, the Union had regularly come to grips with three fundamental issues in Irish politics, Church, Land and Home Rule.

                The most obvious reason for breaking the analysis at 1886 is that Home Rule ceased to be merely a subject for abstract debate once Gladstone brought it on to the agenda of Westminster politics. In addition, two elements specific to Cambridge make 1886 a landmark year. First, as a direct by-product of the Home Rule crisis, the Cambridge Union began the practice of inviting distinguished public figures – including Irish Nationalists – as visiting speakers. Prior to 1914, visitors were usually limited to one debate in each term, but the practice enabled Cambridge undergraduates to listen to Irish Nationalists such as John Redmond and John Dillon. Although the innovation in 1886 was controversial, it seems to have been rapidly and tacitly accepted as an appropriate way of shoring up the perennially under-represented Catholic and Nationalist viewpoint in Union debates. Secondly, the eighteen-eighties saw the development of university journalism, including the reporting of debates. Cambridge journalism could be vigorous and outspoken, but its Union correspondents took lightly any implied responsibility to accuracy or fairness. None the less, the Cambridge Review and the Granta are useful in unravelling puzzling aspects of the formal record, and from their pages it is possible to recover something of the lost world that was swept away in 1914. Chapter Nine traces the consideration of Irish issues from the tense atmosphere of the Home Rule crisis of 1886 through to dwindling and even mocking discussions of the later eighteen-nineties. Chapter Ten shows how shifting attitudes, probably associated with a slightly changing Cambridge, came to accept even Home Rule in the Edwardian period.

                The first printed record of Union debates was compiled in 1817, when the Society was defending its right to free speech against the University authorities.9 The list was incomplete, since a page had been accidentally torn out of the minutes, creating a blank in the record for much of 1815-1816. The first surviving minute book dates from 1823, and internal numbering suggests that the original volume was missing as early as 1828.10 After the resumption of formal debating, the Union published each year until 1834 a steadily lengthening account of its deliberations, which listed motions, speakers and votes back to 1815. The interruption of the publication of an annual report seems to be one of the indications of the malaise into which the Society fell in the eighteen-thirties. Brief printed reports listed debates year-by-year from 1837 to 1841, and a regular series was resumed from 1843. The annual listing of the debates was accompanied by the reports of the Vice-Presidents, who were responsible for day-to-day club facilities and (until 1902) for the organisation of debates as well. Thus with the exception of the incomplete record for the first year of the Union's history, it is possible to reconstruct a full programme of debates for the whole period.

                 Other sources of information for the history of the Cambridge Union are scattered, but a few merit special mention. In 1866, the inauguration of the Union's permanent home in Round Church Street was marked by a ceremony at which several veterans of the early years spoke nostalgically of their recollections. As a fund-raising exercise, the proceedings were printed, along with a selection of contemporary press comment. This valuable source was mindlessly recycled in 1878 as A Short History of the Cambridge Union, by J.F. Skipper, whose powers of historical selection may be measured from the fact that he managed to spread just four paragraphs over sixteen pages. Skipper added some additional information, much of which was unfortunately wrong. Finally, in 1953, an ex-President, Percy Cradock (later British ambassador in Beijing) produced a history of the Union down to 1939, in a dual capacity as author and editor. Cradock contributed an evocative account that concluded with the solemn adjournment of the debate planned for 22 January 1901 in honour of Queen Victoria, who had died earlier that day. The second part of the book comprised the reminiscences of ten subsequent Presidents, three of whom (Wilson Harris, future editor of the Spectator and the lawyers Arnold McNair and Norman Birkett) held office prior to 1914.11  Biographies of Union activists sometimes provide further scraps of information, especially if the biographer was also active in the Society. Thus Leslie Stephen, a frequent contributor to debates, chronicled the activities of his brother Fitzjames in the Union, while F.W. Maitland, President in 1873, performed the same service for Leslie himself. G.O. Trevelyan, President in 1861, similarly laid stress on the Union career of his uncle, Macaulay.12

                Reconstructing Macaulay's bombastic notes for a speech on the character of George III, Trevelyan commented that the absence of a Hansard record for the Cambridge Union was "an omission which, as time went on, some among its orators had no reason to regret". Attempts to produce a verbatim record were few and mercifully unsuccessful. William Mackworth Praed conflated and reconstructed the speaking styles of several of his contemporaries to produce an extended account of an imaginary debate on parliamentary reform, set in 1823. The speeches were interwoven with staccato verse assessments. One orator was summarised as "Public debts/ epithets/ Foul and filthy, good and great/ Glorious wars/ British tars/ Beat and bruise/ Parlez-vous/ Frenzy, frown/ Commons, Crown/ Ass and pannier/ Rule Britannia!/ How I love a loud debate!"13  A proposal in 1829 to print the opening speeches for and against each motion was not even pressed to a vote.14 Eighty years later, when a prospectus for a new undergraduate journal promised "verbatim reports of Union debates", the Granta exclaimed: "By the dust of our ancestors!"15 The historian who has endured the Hansard records of the real parliaments of Westminster and Ottawa can agree that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Recalling that Leslie Stephen, one of the greatest intellects to contribute to Union debates, once took pride in denouncing the prime minister of the day as "a contemptible sneak",16 the historian can be reconciled to the absence of a full record of proceedings. Although one of the veterans speaking in 1866 warned undergraduates that "you must not content yourselves with merely reproducing the articles in the daily newspapers",17 there can be little doubt that the content of Union debates was often derivative. The Granta commented in 1898 that one anti-Home Rule speaker "reminds us of a Times leading article" and advised him "to study the Daily Mail".18 Of a debate on agrarian issues in Ireland in 1902, it complained that "arguments fresh at eight o'clock became aged and decrepit at half-past eleven".19

                 It is only fair to note that young men of about twenty years of age had little alternative but to recycle the arguments of their elders. Leslie Stephen gave a glimpse of the Union grappling with the American Civil War, and a warning of the fate of the speaker who laid claim to special authority. "A youth surrounds himself with a vague halo of semi-official splendour on the strength of a relation having been, say, British Minister at a South American republic." Speaking "with great solemnity", one hand grasping the lapel of his frock coat, he confides "his serious doubts as to our relations with the United States", hinting "that from information which he is not at liberty to divulge (this is a dark hint at the before-mentioned Minister)", there was reason to fear that the United States government had already issued orders for the invasion of Canada. This display of pomposity, we may be relieved to read, is "received with a roar of laughter" from an audience of "honourable members" unconvinced by the speaker's pretension.20 By contrast, the value of personal experience and an original point of view may also be assessed from the contribution in 1889 of a freshman from Belfast who "proved that Home Rule ought not to be granted because an Orange friend of his was able to aim straighter with a pistol than any Home Ruler he had ever met".21

                We owe the survival of such gems to the reporting of Union debates by the slightly donnish Cambridge Review, established in 1879, and the breezily undergraduate Granta, which followed in 1889. The first debate reports in the Cambridge Review did little more than provide a list of speakers, but gradually attempts were made to convey the atmosphere of discussion as well as brief digests of speeches. When the Review experimented in 1887 with a livelier type of reporting, criticism was so severe that coverage of Union affairs was briefly abandoned altogether.22 In October 1888, however, it returned to the informal style that would be maintained at least until the First World War. From its inception in January 1889, the Granta also gave generous space to Union debates. There were alternate periods of collaboration and tension between Union activists and the Granta's managers. During the magazine's first term, a Union debate on student journalism was organised as a publicity stunt.23 Yet the relationship between student orators and student journalists was a sensitive one. "Publishing any proceeding of the Society beyond a debate, the result, and the names of the Speakers" was for long an offence against the Union's Laws, punishable by a fine of one guinea. Undergraduate journalism was usually unsigned, making it unlikely that the provision was ever enforced, but even to be suspected of being the Union correspondent of the Granta could arouse hostility: at least one sparkling debater missed the Presidency because he was thought to be the perpetrator of the magazine's barbed comments.24 The Ulsterman E.W. MacBride, the friend of the crack-shot Orangeman quoted above, became so incensed at his portrayal in the columns of the Granta that he threatened in 1892 to move a motion of censure.25 There was a major confrontation in 1897, after the Granta had published an exposé of undergraduate politics entitled "Tammany at the Union". In revenge, the Union Committee formally proposed the expenditure of one shilling a week on two copies of the offending magazine, with the contemptuous intention of destroying its circulation by making it available free in the Society's newspaper room.26 (In normal times, the Union purchased copies of the Granta at the end of each term in order to bind them for permanent preservation.) Thus the portrayal of Union debates in the pages of the Granta and, to a lesser extent, in other shorter-lived publications, was the product of a symbiosis between student journalists and student orators, held together by some degree of mutual tension.

                 Not only did these reports fall considerably short of a Hansard record, but they tended to draw inspiration from the Essence of Parliament by "Toby MP" that appeared in the weekly pages of Punch. The publication by another student newspaper, the Gownsman, of an anthology of its Union columns in book form led the Granta to comment that "most of the reports are quite naturally more of a nature of general criticisms than of analysis of arguments".27 The comment was fair, although it was a case of the pot abusing the pigmentation of the kettle. When Neil Compton-Burnett defended British rule in Ireland in 1908, the Granta abstained from summarising his remarks, simply reporting that he "struck attitudes famous in Assyriology and minced and simpered".28 However effete his body language, the brother of the redoubtable Dame Ivy went to his death on the Western Front a decade later, and there is a certain poignancy that his thoughts on Irish government, if thoughts they were, should be so totally lost. Moreover, even when attempts were made at serious summary of a speaker's argument, brevity of reporting made for inadequate coverage. Here, for instance, are two versions of an undergraduate speech against Home Rule in 1893. According to the Cambridge Review, the speaker


pointed out some more dangers in the proposed scheme. The case of Ireland was exceptional owing to its proximity, and the natural aspirations of that country were incompatible with our own safety.29


 The Granta noted that the same speaker


made some very sensible points, showing that the Federal system is not applicable to Ireland. The weight of responsibility lies, not with those who defend old institutions, but [with] those who set up new.30


The extracts suggest a rejection of the case for Home Rule that was thoughtful and coherent, but incompletely summarised. In this case, it would have been of immense interest to have had a full transcript, for the speaker was the twenty-two year-old Erskine Childers, whose subsequent conversion to Home Rule was a step on the road through Dominion status to outright republicanism. By the time of his execution by a Free State firing squad in the Irish Civil War, Childers had travelled a very long way from the despatch box of the Cambridge Union. Yet in some respects, his thinking remained consistent, notably in his rejection of any form of federation between Ireland and Britain.31 The attempt to reconstruct the arguments advanced by Childers against Home Rule in 1893 underlines the limitations of student journalism as a historical source and points instead to consideration of the debates as, at best, evidence of group opinion. The historian's consolation at the inadequacy of this form of evidence must surely be that few indeed were the Union orators whose views merit special analysis.


The Cambridge Union has been overshadowed by two other societies in England's ancient universities: the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Apostles. In both instances, it may be argued that the implied comparison has been exaggerated.

                By the twentieth century, the Oxford Union was by far the better known of the institutions.32 Bumptiously self-satisfied young politicians might be accused of an "Oxford Union" manner. Ronald Searle once caricatured a sadly serious young man as Secretary of the Cambridge Union,33 but otherwise no particular quality, good or bad, was associated with the older of the two student debating societies. Even a stern critic of the incubus of the alleged "Oxbridge conspiracy" on British life accepts the stereotype that the Cambridge Union was "more sober, in both senses of the word, than its celebrated rival, and more measured", because its members know "how to let off steam, without, for the most part, going daft".34

                However, the relationship was not always so unequal. We have it from no less an authority than John Stuart Mill that in the eighteen-twenties, the Cambridge Union was "an arena where what were then thought extreme opinions, in politics and philosophy, were weekly asserted, face to face with their opposites, before audiences consisting of the élite of Cambridge youth". Thus the Cambridge society was already "at the height of its reputation" when a "United Debating Society" was formed at Oxford in 1823.35 Cambridge promptly recognised a kindred body, and extended honorary membership to the Oxford subscribers. Unfortunately, this generous gesture was not formally notified to the sister university, whose debaters only learnt of the privilege early in 1825. Their secretary, "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, hastened to assure the Cambridge Union that the arrangement was reciprocal. However, the following year, Cambridge learnt that the "original Oxford debating society" had been "dissolved, and another formed under the name of the 'Oxford Union'". Reciprocal membership was quickly re-established, an arrangement that was extended in 1832 to include the University of Dublin Literary and Historical Society.36 Whatever their subsequent respective reputations, the Oxford Union derived its name from the successful Cambridge forerunner.

                The relative vitality of the two Unions in their early years may be gauged from descriptions of the first joint debate. In November 1829, a delegation from Cambridge visited Oxford. This was the year of the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race and just two years after the start of an annual intervarsity cricket fixture, suggesting that the excursion was part of a developing "Oxbridge" culture. However, the clash of both ideas and debating styles showed Cambridge to be superior in status and confidence. The subject chosen by the Cambridge debaters was an apparently innocuous motion arguing that Shelley was a better poet than Byron. The selection of this poetic issue had two advantages. First, it helped the three Cambridge representatives, all members of Trinity College, to secure the necessary permission to absent themselves from the university during term-time, apparently because they managed to convey the impression to the Master of Trinity, Christopher Wordsworth, that they intended to defend the poetry of his brother, William.37 Secondly, under its innocent cover, a motion in favour of an atheist made possible a wide-ranging attack on inherited institutions:


as Shelley had been expelled from Oxford and treated with much blind injustice, it would be a very grand thing for us to go to Oxford and raise a debate upon his character and powers.38


Cambridge was represented by Monckton Milnes, Arthur Hallam (all-too-soon to be immortalised himself in Tennyson's In Memoriam) and by a third speaker, Thomas Sunderland, a thundering orator and unbalanced personality who later succumbed to persistent mental illness. Nearly forty years later, an Oxford man could still recall "the astounding vigour of that Cambridge onslaught". Only Henry Manning, future cardinal of the Catholic Church, ventured to speak for the amoral Byron, but "we had not a chance of resistance....It was an universal sauve qui peut – a skedaddle." Manning himself equally found "the irruption of the three Cambridge orators" an unforgettable experience:


We Oxford men were precise, orderly, and morbidly afraid of excess in word or manner. Both Monckton Milnes and Arthur Hallam took us aback by the boldness and freedom of their manner.


Sunderland's oratory completed the rout. "It had never been seen or heard before among us: we cowered like birds and ran like sheep." The recollections of 1866 were not simply the product of the "fragrant and sweet" nostalgia that Manning found "very dear as life is drawing to its close".39 (He was to live for another twenty-six years.) There is supporting contemporary evidence from the diary of one Oxford student in 1829: "Cambridge men came & all spoke – rather astounding to us".40

                That astonished diarist was perhaps more than any other person if not responsible for, at least symbolic of the process by which the Oxford Union overtook its sister society in prestige. "The man that took me most," Milnes reported of his visit, "was the young Gladstone of Liverpool – I am sure a very superior person."41 According to legend, it was Gladstone's devastating attack on the Reform Bill in the Oxford Union that prompted the Duke of Newcastle to install him in the House of Commons as MP for the pocket borough of Newark. There is, indeed, an equivalent, if anticlimactic story for Cambridge, where J.W. Blakesley was said to have been invited to become the Tory candidate for the borough seat on the strength of his anti-Reform speeches in the Union. There the parallel ends. Technically reformed but energetically corrupt, the borough of Cambridge was in nobody's pocket. Blakesley's criticisms of Reform stemmed not from Toryism but from his own version of liberal principles. Had he accepted the Tory invitation to stand, he would not have been elected.42

                None the less, the claim that Gladstone's installation for Newark "was the fruit of his famous anti-reform speech at the Oxford Union"43 represents a simplification on the part of John Morley, who was also a veteran of the society. The Duke of Newcastle acted on the recommendation of his son, Lord Lincoln, who was not ready to enter parliament himself. Gladstone and Lincoln had been friends since their Eton days. "I have now known him for several years", Lincoln assured his father, praising Gladstone's "honest unflinching integrity of character combined with talents far above the common stamp even of those who are called clever men".44 The most the Oxford Union speech can explain is how and when Gladstone came to enter parliament through the patronage of a grandee whom he had never met. It is possible that if the Duke's offer had not been made, Gladstone would have proceeded to ordination in the Anglican Church, and so disqualified himself from election to the House of Commons. Others may suspect that politics would have diverted his path anyway. By modern values, the slave-owning Gladstones were multi-millionaires and, like his father and politically untalented brother, Gladstone would have found little difficulty in getting into parliament even if he had never opened his mouth in an Oxford debate.

                To a remarkable extent, prominence in the Cambridge Union rarely ensured a fast-track to subsequent employment of any kind. A.G. Gardiner speculated that it "was probably the fame of his political debating in the Union" that secured William Vernon Harcourt the offer of employment in 1849 as a leader-writer on the Morning Chronicle (which happened to be owned by that same Lord Lincoln who had launched the career of Gladstone).45 However, Gardiner's own account suggests that Harcourt owed his appointment to his membership of the Apostles, a society that did cultivate access to powerful patrons in the wider world. The notion of the Union as a training ground for statesmen probably flourished in part because the myth appealed to the vanity of its more ambitious members. Thackeray (whose sole contribution to a Union debate was an embarrassment) poked fun at students "who used to ape statesmen at the spouting-clubs, and who believed as a fact that Government always had an eye on the University for the selection of orators for the House of Commons".46 Almost the only authenticated example of a door being specially opened to a President of the Cambridge Union comes from the memoirs of the Labour peer, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, who was given a personal tour of Joseph Chamberlain's orchid house by its proud owner, presumably in recognition of the fact that his son Austen had been an officer of the Society.47

                The Oxford Union basked in the reflected brilliance of Gladstone's career, which was itself part of the growing supremacy of Oxford itself in mid-nineteenth-century British politics. Henry Fawcett noted in 1866 that the outgoing Liberal cabinet had included "nine first-class Oxford men, and not one who had taken high honours at Cambridge".48 As Fawcett added, the political eclipse of Cambridge was a relatively recent phenomenon, and explanation must presumably be sought in wider elite preferences, for Oxford in general and Christ Church in particular. In one sense, the decline of the Cambridge grip upon political power was curious since, until the establishment of new Honours degrees in the eighteen-sixties, the chief feature distinguishing its curriculum from that of Oxford was its emphasis upon mathematics. Cambridge University, one of its partisans claimed, was just as good as Oxford for classics, "only at Cambridge you are dosed with mathematics into the bargain".49 Thus Cambridge might have been thought to offer the more appropriate training for the government of a nation of shopkeepers. Yet both Peel and Gladstone, two of the greatest financial reformers of the century, were both products of Christ Church. Some reformers felt that the problem lay not so much in the inclusion of mathematics in the Cambridge degree as in the competitive spirit with which it was taught, which virtually required students wishing to secure a good degree to resort to expensive "coaches" to prepare them for examinations. Archdeacon Hare in 1843 described "the practice of private tuition, and the use of emulation as the one great spur to the acquirement of knowledge" as "the two great evils in our system" that were responsible for the fact "that our position relatively to Oxford has altered so much in the last twenty years".50

                Cambridge could claim seven prime ministers in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century: Pitt, Perceval, Ripon, Grey, Melbourne and Palmerston. An eighth, Russell, would have preferred Cambridge but was sent to Edinburgh because his father believed that "nothing was learned in the English universities" and that "the sciences of horse-racing, fox-hunting, and giving extravagant entertainments" constituted "the chief studies of our youth at Cambridge".51 All seven of those Cambridge prime ministers belong to the period before the establishment of the Union, although Palmerston cut his political teeth in one of its forerunners, the Speculative.

                On the face of it, the Cambridge Union did nothing to continue the tradition of nurturing prime ministers, while its Oxford counterpart proved much more successful in harnessing future statesmen. Gladstone and Asquith were both Presidents, Salisbury held Union office and it was only the outbreak of war in 1914 that aborted the rise of Harold Macmillan. By contrast, the Cambridge Union is associated with the good losers, near-misses and glorious failures who might have become prime minister but somehow did not. Austen Chamberlain managed a unique double, rising no higher than Vice-President at Cambridge and ending his career as the only Conservative Party leader in modern times not to make it to Ten Downing Street. Two Presidents, Harcourt and Dilke, may be added to the list of lost prime ministers, to be lengthened in the twentieth century by R.A. Butler. Yet the comparison may flatter the junior society. Gladstone's third cabinet contained no fewer than four former Presidents of the Cambridge Union. As Wilson Harris put it, "if the average has been equal the peaks at Cambridge have never been as high".52

                None the less, the Cambridge Union can claim some giants and a number of notable figures. Thomas Babington Macaulay was roundly criticised by his enemy, the poet and politician Winthrop Mackworth Praed, for inefficiency during his term at Treasurer in 1823, but within a decade he was directing the educational budget of Bengal to the support of teaching in English. Edwin Montagu, President in 1902, was the Secretary of State whose political reforms in 1919 helped realise Macaulay's prediction that Indian independence would mark the proudest day in English history. In this, Montagu may be thought to have atoned for his part in a campaign to block the election of C.R. Reddy, from Mysore, who was in line to become the first Asian President of the Cambridge Union in 1906, a remarkably odd excursion into colour prejudice for a Jew. 53

                Cambridge Presidents who went on to cabinet rank included C.P. Villiers, who held office in Palmerston's second ministry, Hugh Childers, Dilke, Harcourt and G.O. Trevelyan, all of whom served under Gladstone as well as R.A. Cross, Disraeli's Home Secretary in the eighteen-seventies. One of the greatest political crises in Victorian history, the Hyde Park riots of 1866, pitted head to head two Cambridge Union veterans of forty years earlier: the Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole (President in 1827) and the leader of the Reform League, Edmond Beales (Secretary in 1824). In a later generation came C.F.G. Masterman, whose Liberal credentials are hardly enhanced by his perpetration of a notably insensitive and racist joke in a Union debate on Ireland in 1887. He was followed by F.H. Maugham, who impugned the integrity of Parnell in a Union debate 1889 and served as Lord Chancellor in the cabinet that handed the Treaty Ports to de Valera fifty years later. The Attlee government of 1945, one of the most notable in modern British history, included four veterans of the Cambridge Union as cabinet ministers. Pethick-Lawrence and Noel-Baker were former Presidents. A talent for making enemies ensured that Hugh Dalton never rose beyond the office of Secretary. The fourth and perhaps most distinguished of them all was J.C. Ede of Christ's College, who spoke frequently in the Union before lack of money forced him to abandon Cambridge. Ede was something of a figure of a fun, a scholarship boy from Surrey, rare enough in the University and rarer still in the Union: the Granta dismissively reported that unless it noted to the contrary, it was to be assumed that Mr Ede spoke on every occasion.54 So far as his aloof contemporaries were concerned, he had vanished into the grim world of elementary school-teaching, but he did not disappear for good. He became a Labour MP, and adopted the name Chuter-Ede. As a junior minister in Churchill's wartime coalition he helped shape the 1944 Education Act, ensuring to others the opportunities that he had been unable to grasp himself. After the war, he served for six years in Attlee's cabinet and proved himself to be a great reforming Home Secretary.

                Presidents of the Cambridge Union also included two notable economists, A.C. Pigou and J.M. Keynes. It would surely be hard to identify anyone who exercised a greater intellectual influence over the economic life of the Western world in the half century from the nineteen-thirties than J.M. Keynes (President in 1905). A respectable crop of historians includes J.R.M. Butler, F.J.A. Hort, F.W. Maitland and J.R. Tanner, in addition to Macaulay himself. A.W. Verrall and Walter Raleigh helped make English Literature a serious subject of study. Former Presidents turned into schoolmasters with remarkable regularity. The bleak figure of Benjamin Hall Kennedy (President in 1825) ruled over Shrewsbury, before returning to Cambridge as Professor of Classics, leaving as his legacy Kennedy's Latin Primer. H.M. Butler and J.E.C. Welldon were headmasters of Harrow; E.E. Bowen gave the school its famous song, Forty Years On.

                The extent to which the Cambridge Union shaped their talents and personalities is open to doubt. Whenever Leslie Stephen encountered the claim that an English public school had "produced" a famous former pupil, he mentally substituted the phrase "failed to extinguish".55 Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury, held that the Union did "fatal mischief" to first-rate intellects,56 a claim somewhat underlined by the fact that he was succeeded by Kennedy. In later life, Cecil Raikes regretted that his success in the Union had been "rather dearly bought", blaming his failure to gain a First on the time it consumed.57 The argument advanced by Seeley for the teaching of politics in his inaugural lecture as Professor of History carried the heavy implication that the subject needed to be lifted above the Union.58  It was equally rare to find the "Union" style of  oratory, if such a thing existed,  cropping up in later life. In a famous speech to the University Senate in 1897, Maitland lampooned a proposal to establish an independent degree-granting institution to satisfy the demands of women studying at both Cambridge and Oxford, nicknaming it the "Bletchley Junction Academy" – a reference to the intersecting point of the branch railways linking the two university towns. Maitland's speech has delighted historians, but it did not make much impact on Cambridge male chauvinism in 1897.59

                Indeed, the effectiveness of the Cambridge Union as a political training ground may be measured by the fact that none of the three post-1815 graduates of the University to become prime minister ever took part in its debates. Henry Campbell-Bannerman was "not one of the academically brilliant and ambitious young men, shining lights of the Union".60 Indeed, he was not even a silent member of the Society, unlike Arthur Balfour and Stanley Baldwin. Balfour presided over an intellectual clique that met in his rooms at Trinity and showed "an unusual disregard, and almost contempt for politics". A contemporary recalled that he "was emphatically not one of those show young men who come from the Union ... and take their place as it were by right in the House of Commons". Rather young Balfour was fast-tracked into parliament by right of membership of the aristocratic Cecil clan. He delayed two years before he made his maiden speech, and spoke only then because of the insistent pressure of a politically-minded aunt.61 It may not be just coincidence that Balfour's near-contemporary at Christ Church, Lord Rosebery, should have been the exception in the Oxford list of nineteenth-century prime ministers. Although he had been a keen debater at Eton, Rosebery "never made an appearance on the larger stage". His biographer, Lord Crewe, himself at Cambridge in the eighteen-eighties, could only comment that "these things are greatly ruled by fashion, and in some periods at both the great Universities it is not the fashion to attend the Union".62

                The non-participation of Cambridge's other future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, is even more mysterious, for he had taken part in sixth-form debates at Harrow and had proclaimed to his headmaster, H.M. Butler, that he intended to enter parliament. This may have been a piece of defiance, since as a schoolboy Baldwin had fallen foul of school discipline, and suffered the indignity of a flogging. His crime was the writing of pornography, which was a sin against morality, compounded by the fact that he had sent a copy to Eton, which was an even greater offence against the good name of Harrow. Baldwin fled to Cambridge, only to find that Butler was translated to the Mastership of his own college, Trinity. The flogging headmaster was the first of seven members of the Butler dynasty to become Presidents of the Cambridge Union, and perhaps the association discouraged any desire that Baldwin might have entertained to make a mark in university debates. He was equally undemonstrative in the college debating society, the Magpie and Stump, which expelled him for failing to speak. Baldwin compounded his humiliations by emerging from Cambridge with a very poor degree, prompting his father's acerbic remark: "I hope you won't get a Third in life."63 He made his maiden speech in the Union in 1919 as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It was in character that when he returned in 1924, as prime minister, it was to warn undergraduates that "when we come to big things we do not need rhetoric", a quality to which he attributed both the French and Russian revolutions. His host on that occasion was the last of the seven Butler Presidents, "Rab", through whom Baldwin took vicarious revenge by insisting on buying him a seamy novel from the railway station bookstall.64

                Nor can the Cambridge Union lay claim to the three Commonwealth prime statesmen who passed through the University in the quarter century before 1914. Smuts was too poor to join and also too busy: he took both parts of the Law Tripos in the same year but still managed a Double First. Nehru, who was a member of the Union, was not impressed by what he heard. S.M. Bruce, later prime minister of of Australia directed his energies to the river and rowed in the 1904 Boat Race.

                Since a three-year subscription conferred membership for life,  Cambridge Union representation in high places grew by accretion. In 1895, both Archbishops were life members, Maclagan of York having spoken on Church issues in the eighteen-fifties, while Benson of Canterbury had somehow stretched his straitened finances to become a silent member. At the general election of that year, no fewer than sixty members of the Society were returned to the House of Commons, among them the Speaker, W.C. Gully, who had been President in 1855. (The Union's only Irish member, William Ewart, industrialist and Conservative MP for North Belfast, had died in 1889. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge did not produce gentlemanly Protestant Home Rulers, other than Parnell himself.) Union officers thought the size of the delegation "a matter of congratulation to both Societies",65 but in reality it merely reflected the general inter-connection between Cambridge and the social elite. As the political spectrum widened, so the Union's Westminster representation declined, to 42 in 1910, and 38 by 1914. Overall, student debates merit study as a record of opinion, not as a means of discovering how brilliant young proconsuls prepared themselves for predestined positions of leadership and still less as a process by which "striplings settled questions spoiled by men". Praed was not alone in his tongue-in-cheek appreciation. As a report in 1908 cheerfully put it, the Union had "with its customary thoroughness, managed to settle many of the problems which continue to worry the leading statesmen and politicians of the country".66

                These reservations no doubt apply equally to Oxford, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Oxford Union had undoubtedly outstripped its older counterpart in general esteem. Perhaps this was because in 1902, the office of prime minister had been held for 21 of the preceding 22 years by two of its former officers. In 1900, the Oxford President, Raymond Asquith, described the custom of "having to go over to Cambridge to speak to their Union" as "one of the most boring things one has to do". Writing with the easy arrogance of a Balliol man whose father was often hailed (correctly as it turned out) as a future prime minister, he treated the experience with distaste:


It is a detestable place to speak in, and the Cambridge orators are as repulsive a crew as I have ever seen: not one of them speaks English – I don't mean the idiom, but the dialect: they all have the manner and accent of Welsh missionaries.


Raymond Asquith was in Cambridge to oppose the proposition that "the British nation is incompetent to govern Alien Races", in which the Union agreed with him with a large majority. The only Cambridge man whom he liked was "a pure-bred Boer called Van Zijl but even he has a strong Glasgow accent".67 Van Zijl, like Smuts a few years earlier, had come from Stellenbosch, and would return to a career in politics and on the South African bench. It was to his credit that he was not deterred by the prevailing climate of jingoism that swept Britain at the time of the Boer War, but went out of his way to denounce imperial policy in South Africa. It was equally to the credit of the Cambridge Union that although its members never once endorsed his strictures, Van Zijl was elected President in 1901. Raymond Asquith notwithstanding, there was something to be said for the "Welsh missionary" spirit of the Cambridge Union.

                 By the late twentieth century, the apparent contrast between the two societies remained: Oxford Union Presidents Edward Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Michael Foot and William Hague rose to the leadership of their parties; Cambridge Union Presidents Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Clarke did not. Yet even for Oxford, the peaks were becoming less Himalayan. In the half-century following 1945, as Britain entered its egalitarian age, no fewer than eight prime ministers were graduates of Oxford. Six of these had little or no connection with the Union – Thatcher, of course, because women were not eligible for membership in her time. Douglas-Home played cricket, Blair was a member of a rock group. Oddly enough, it is a single debate that explains why the Oxford Union retained its folkloric supremacy throughout the twentieth century despite failing to keep pace with its own university as a nursery of political leaders.

                On 9 February 1933, Oxford hit the headlines when its Union resolved by 275 votes to 153 that "this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country".68 The newsworthiness of the debate owed something to the fact that the Nazis had come to power ten days earlier although at that stage both Hitler's intentions and his grip on power still seemed uncertain. Much of the publicity was generated by such critics as the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph who denounced the vote as "an outrage upon the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War". Hooligans invaded the debating chamber and ripped the record from the minute book, inspired perhaps by a manifesto issued by Randolph Churchill demanding that the motion be formally expunged from the Society's records. There is good reason to sympathise with the contemporary allegation that Winston's unpopular son had seized a patriotic "opportunity for self-advertisement", although he was supported by Quintin Hogg and, surprisingly, by Frank Pakenham, who as Earl of Longford would make a cerebral and herbivorous contribution to post-war public life. The campaign did indeed compel the Oxford Union to debate a motion one month later to expunge the King and Country debate from its records, but by this time undergraduate opinion had hardened in the face of external pressure. Churchill even attempted to withdraw his proposition, which was massively rejected by 750 votes to 138. There were elements of the precious in the whole affair: at least one of those who voted against the motion in resentment against outside intrusion to expunge the record had taken part in the assault on the minute book. There was also a certain amount of undergraduate light-heartedness, including at least one stink bomb. It was hard not to laugh when a speaker portentously announced, "I am not Hitler", and tensions were diffused when the formal reading of a report announced that the Society's Library had purchased the autobiography of the heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney, A Man Must Fight.

                Martin Ceadel concludes his charming and thoughtful study of the episode by chiding his readers for devoting so much of their time to such a trivial issue. This is a little harsh on the students of Oxford, whose frivolity of manner probably masked deeper seriousness of purpose. Yet this is not to claim that any special significance should be attributed to the King and Country debate as a contributory cause of the Second World War. Winston Churchill claimed that as a result of this "ever-shameful resolution .... in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations".69 As its wording reveals, Churchill's interpretation was hardly impartial. Randolph's defiance of a hostile Union constituted a rare occasion on which this highly prodigal son actually gained his father's unqualified admiration. Even without the element of paternal loyalty, Winston Churchill had every reason to portray the nineteen-thirties as an epoch in which he had stood alone against a misguided and defeatist elite. A.J.P. Taylor, a historian prone to magnify the causal significance of bizarre snippets, firmly insisted that there is no documentary evidence that any foreign government took the debate seriously, although this view may owe something to his personal observation that the Oxford Union was "silly".70 The most that can be said is that if the dictators did indeed base their bid for global domination on assumptions drawn from a debate at the Oxford Union, we need not be surprised at their failure.

                The controversy over the King and Country debate was a tribute to the leading position that the Oxford Union had come to hold in the public imagination. The Cambridge Union had passed a similar motion by an almost identical vote in 1927 without causing a national uproar, although it had rejected the notion of "peace at any price" in a much larger vote, 304 to 222, in 1928.71 While a refusal to hang the Kaiser back in 1919 had generated "several letters from shocked correspondents",72 by and large the British public had the sense to disregard the views of Cambridge undergraduates. The truth was that their opinion mirrored that of the wider community in its confusion. The Union endorsed pacifist motions in 1936 and 1937, but also demanded armed intervention in the Spanish Civil War.73  The Cambridge response to the outcry over the Oxford debate of 1933 was a move to debate a motion refusing to fight for King and Harper, whose garage premises inconveniently adjoined the Union building.74

The other society which has tended to overshadow the Cambridge Union is barely known in the wider world, but looms large in studies of British intellectual history.75 Founded in 1820, the "Conversazione Society" quickly became known as "the Apostles". The nickname is usually assumed to refer to its limitation to twelve resident members, a number that in fact it did not always maintain, but it may contain an echo of its original dedication to evangelical Christianity. Its founder devoted his career to a campaign to establish an Anglican diocese in southern Europe, and his political skills and career focus were sufficient to get him installed as its first bishop. Later Apostles revered the memory of George Tomlinson, bishop of Gibraltar, but it is unlikely that they would have found him congenial company. Around 1824, under the influence of the more theologically questioning spirit of F.D. Maurice, the Society changed in character, incidentally abandoning its original base in St John's to become associated with Trinity and, much later, with King's.

                The Apostles met every Saturday night in members' college rooms, and attendance was obligatory. They consumed sardines on toast ("whales"), listened to a member reading a learned paper, and then took turns on the "hearthrug" – there had to be a hearthrug – to discuss what had been said, with the intention of evolving a proposition upon which all would vote. The Apostles developed anthropologically formidable rituals of collective identity. The external world was held not to exist, so that non-members could be dismissed as "phenomena". Members did not resign, but "took wings" (usually on leaving Cambridge) to become "angels". Potential recruits, referred to as "embryos", were carefully vetted by existing Apostles, but only learnt of the society's existence on being notified of their "birth". Apostles never discussed the society with outsiders, although an individual's membership could be inferred by the realisation of the fact that he was always unable to accept invitations on a Saturday night.76 Secrecy gradually became an obsession, especially after 1855 when H.J. Roby (or, as he was known in Apostolic tradition, h.j.roby) responded to news of his birth with a refusal to waste his time on such activities.77 At one level, "the Apostles were a typical undergraduate debating club and typically silly".78 Thus James Clerk Maxwell announced that while logicians had identified seven syllogisms, "he had himself discovered 135". Unfortunately, "the great majority could not be expressed in human language, and even if expressed were not susceptible of any meaning".79 A critic in 1864 acknowledged that a few able minds had passed through the ranks of the society, "but as regards national thought or progress, its annals might be cut out of the intellectual history of England without being missed".80 It was certainly believed in Cambridge that the Apostles did not manufacture genius but rather were "very successful in catching celebrities",81 taking care to hatch only those embryos who were already marked out for academic success.

                Such criticisms miss the point that the Apostles operated at a level of seriousness far above that of the average student discussion group. Henry Sidgwick, one of its greatest figures, defined its essential quality as "a belief that we can learn, and a determination that we will learn, from people of the most opposite opinions".82 There was a world of difference between this high-minded sentiment and the joviality of the debating club in Sidgwick's own college in the same decade, which resolved in 1866 "that any person who ventured singly to differ from the intellect of the Society did not deserve a fair hearing".83 A few notable Apostles, such as Bertrand Russell and Leonard Woolf,84 paid tribute to the role of the society in their education, and especially to the lack of restriction or inhibition in its discussions.

                A paper delivered by G.E. Moore on sex in 1894 highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the Apostles.85 Moore argued that love must be mutual, a definition that ruled out sexual intercourse, since "one party is active, the other passive". Thus "for a man and woman who truly love one another copulation will be disagreeable, yet, they will share this as they share other trials and troubles". It was important that a husband should not become addicted to sex for its own sake, and commit "that monstrous unnatural vice of copulating with a woman more often than is necessary for begetting children". Moore's biographer suggests that all this may have been a tongue-in-cheek sending-up of Apostolic omniscience, although it is in line with Moore's general prurience. What is certain is, that for good or ill, Moore would not have got away with a such a discourse at the Union. (The Union did not bend the taboo banning the discussion of sex until the nineteen-twenties, turning its attention to birth control in 1924 and 1927. Even then  ¾ to quote Flanders and Swann ¾ members invited two bishops to show them the way, but not even Their Graces of Exeter and Hereford could persuade the young men of Cambridge that sex ought to be confined to procreation.86) As Leslie Stephen had written of the Union, "there is nothing which the British youth detects so soon and despises so much as an affectation of premature wisdom".87  Moore's paper may or may not have been wise, but it was certainly premature since it evidently reflected a total absence of any sexual experience.

                Thus the implied comparison between the solemnity of the Apostles and the frivolity of the Union does not tell the whole story. The secrecy surrounding the Apostles, partly defensive but also quietly arrogant, added to their mystique, especially when coupled with their rumoured questioning of all established beliefs. The Apostles became associated with the breaking of two of the great taboos, homosexuality in the era of Lytton Strachey and treachery through the later membership of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

                Of course, by no means every Apostle was so interesting or original as to be a homosexual or a Soviet spy, and many disappeared into modest careers after taking their wings. Although collectively they represent a convenient example of an intellectual elite worthy of study,88 the Apostles were neither exclusively nor comprehensively representative of the greatest brains that passed through Cambridge. Alfred Lyttelton, who was elected in 1878, was already recognised as England's greatest all-round amateur sportsman, but nobody ever saw him as a penetrating contributor to Apostolic debate. As a contemporary tactfully put it, Lyttelton "did not allow the influence of these discussions to tell permanently upon his mind".89

                On the other hand, the Apostles almost certainly vetted and rejected Monty Rhodes James, perhaps the most erudite undergraduate of all time, who was a member of an Apostolic feeder organisation, the Chitchat Club at King's.90 They also passed over Leslie Stephen, who had hoped to follow his brother, Fitzjames, into their ranks. Most striking of all, the omission of Macaulay, a great mind and still more sparkling conversationalist, was so inexplicable that one chronicler assumed that the Conversazione Society could not have been formed until after he had left Cambridge.91 Above all, recruitment was heavily biased towards the larger and more fashionable colleges. Although it was an article of faith among the Apostles that they were unconfined by space and time, their information network did not manage to leap the few hundred yards required to locate the interesting mind of Charles Kingsley at Magdalene or the penetrating intellect of Jan Christiaan Smuts in Christ's.

                By arrogating to themselves the status of a closed elite, the Apostles scored in prestige over the Union, even if the latter gave opportunities to others to claim, and sometimes to prove, a measure of intellectual ability and verbal cogency. Leslie Stephen found it a salve for the disappointment at his exclusion from their ranks. "My own intellectual ambition was satisfied by an effort or two [in fact, nine] before the more popular audience of the Union."92 Both societies were capable of being "typically silly", but the Apostles had the advantage of meeting behind closed doors. Thus A.H. Hughes-Gibb, a typical Union President of the Edwardian years, could be cheerfully cut down to size by the Granta under the nickname of Huge-Gibe, but the "chaff" with which William Vernon Harcourt confounded James Fitzjames Stephen was recalled as the giant combat of Apostolic genius.93 The Apostles, too, manipulated another advantage over the Union. Some, at least, of the "angels" remained active as well-wishers to the younger men, taking an interest (for whatever motive) in newly hatched embryos and providing a network of contacts that could help launch a promising career in Bloomsbury.  The supporting role of its "angels" probably explains why the Apostles, alone among Cambridge student clubs managed to endure without the institutional underpinning of its own premises. By contrast, lacking any such support network of former Presidents, the Union was seen as the culmination of adolescence, whereas membership of the Apostles was the first step in adult life. This can be seen in some biographies, especially those written by pious relatives anxious to deny that the revered subject ever engaged in childish amusements. Henry Sidgwick's nieces devoted several pages to his role as the Apostles' unofficial "Pope", but just one paragraph to his Presidency of the Union.94 Richard Chenevix Trench's grieving family went a step further, insisting that Carlyle's statement that Trench had been a member of "a Debating Society called the Union" was "apparently a mistake" for  the Apostles.95

                If the Apostles can be stripped of some of their mystique, and the Union forgiven some of its occasional frivolity, the two societies may be seen at least in parallel, overlapping and sometimes even symbiotic relationship. The Union had grown out of the Speculative, an essay-reading club that had met in its members' rooms, mainly in St John's and Trinity. If not an outright revival, the Apostles were at least occupying well-established but temporarily vacant ground. Individual Apostles were also often active in the Union. By August 1914, the Apostles had elected 224 members in numbered sequence. Of these, 41 rose to the Presidency and a further twelve held other Union offices.96  If the Cambridge Apostles merit collective study as an intellectual elite, it is worth noting that almost one quarter of them were officers of the Union – and others can be traced in the records of debate. The relationship waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century. The crucial transition of the Conversazione Society to intellectual openness between 1823 and 1826 was associated with an influx of prominent Union personalities. The link was broken for a time after 1830 when influential Apostles seceded in protest against the Union's defiance of the ban on discussing contemporary politics. Although young Henry Hallam was "made for a debater .... his co-apostles threw cold water on his taste"97 and discouraged him from speaking in the Union. There followed a remarkable period of convergence: between Apostle number 126, elected in 1851, and Apostle number 157, elected in 1863, there were thirteen Presidents of the Union, seven of them commemorated in the Dictionary of National Biography. Thereafter, the relationship was steady rather than intense, although a number of the more distinguished Cambridge names of the next quarter-century appear on both lists. During the two decades after the election in 1891 of the Ulsterman, Malcolm MacNaghten, already an ex-President, only two Apostles became Presidents of the Union, although one of those was J.M. Keynes. As the undergraduate population increased, so Union debates increasingly came to resemble mass meetings, while by contrast the Apostles abandoned their earlier reluctance to elect shy individuals. Thus the culture of the two organisations moved in different directions. This divergence makes even more striking the fact that during the sixty-five years between 1825 and 1890, roughly one President of the Union in every five was an Apostle. It is surely this inter-relationship, rather than the list of Union veterans who became MPs, which was a matter of congratulation to both societies.

It is not necessary to believe that the Oxford Union launched Gladstone and encouraged Hitler. Nor is it essential to envisage the meetings of the Cambridge Apostles as youthful genius in combat with eternal mysteries. Above all, it is not for their wisdom and foresight that the debates of the Cambridge Union merit attention. We shall look in vain for great insights from young men on the verge of adulthood and boys emerging from adolescence as they flash the plumage of their derivative prejudices. Yet a case can be made that their debates can tell us something about levels of interest and divisions of opinion on the issues of the time, not just among the young men of Cambridge but more widely in what most people call "the real world". The Apostles, of course, denied that any such thing existed. In this, they merely took to extremes an attitude of unworldliness that surrounded them. To appreciate the significance of debates at the Union, we must begin by exploring that strange and remote planet, the University of Cambridge.









Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. For an overview of the history of the Union, Cradock, pp. 1-81.

2. Cradock, p. 10, and see Chapter Five.

3. Gr, 25 Feb. 1893, p. 218 Prior to 1914, the publication known today as Granta was always referred to with the direct article, The Granta.

4. Ged Martin, "Parnell and Magdalene: Some New Evidence", Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 36, 1992, pp. 37-41 supplements "Parnell at Cambridge: The Education of an Irish Nationalist", Irish Historical Studies, 19, 1974, pp. 79-88.

5. MB, 25, fo. 1 (9 June 1892). A contemporary report in Oxf. Mag. (10 Feb. 1892, pp. 161-2) suggests that the Cambridge contribution to the Dublin University tercentenary celebrations was the sending of a cricket team.

6. MB, 23, fos 188-9 (5 March 1885).

7. See Chapter Seven

8. Inaug., p. 14 (Lord Houghton, formerly R.M. Milnes)

9. Statement (1817).

10. G.O. Trevelyan seems to have had access to a pre-1823 Minute Book for his biography of his uncle, Macaulay (Macaulay, I, pp. 74-5 ). Could it be that the great orator removed the item?

11. Skipper; Harris (pp. 82-90), McNair (pp. 91-4 ) and Birkett (pp. 95-105) in Cradock.

12. Leslie Stephen, The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1895), pp. 98-9; Maitland, Leslie Stephen, p. 46; Macaulay, I, pp. 74-5.

13. Macaulay, i, p. 75.

14. MB, 5, fo. 52 (17 Feb. 1829)

15. Gr, 5 Oct. 1909, p. 501. When the Gownsman published an anthology of its Union coverage, the Cambridge Review commented that "most of the reports are quite naturally more of a nature of general criticisms than of analyses of arguments". CR, 27 April 1911, p. 366.

16. Leslie Stephen, Sketches from Cambridge (1865), p. 61.

17. Inaug., p. 6. It was claimed that embarrassment could be caused when successive speakers had memorised the same newspaper article. Sketches of Cantabs, pp. 39-41. Such a misfortune apparently occurred to A.H. Locock of Trinity, son of Queen Victoria's accoucheur.

18. Gr, 26 Feb. 1898, p. 216. The speaker was William Finlay, who in 1945 was British representative on the UN War Crimes Commission.

19. Gr, 15 Nov. 1902, p. 69.

20. Stephen, Sketches from Cambridge, p. 64. Leslie Stephen, who was on the verge of his personal crisis over religion, acknowledged in later life that his Sketches were unduly "flippant". Maitland, Leslie Stephen, p. 480.

21. Gr, 8 March 1889, p. 9. The speaker, E.W. MacBride, appears frequently in Chapter Eight.

22. VPR, M 1887, p. 54.

23. F.A. Rice, ed., The Granta and its Contributors 1889-1914 (1924), pp. 8-9.

24. Recalled of R.H. Somerset of Queen's, the "Heavy Villain", by Birkett in Cradock, pp. 98-9. Somerset had worked in the office of the Daily Mail for ten whole weeks, and posed in Cambridge "as a complete man of the world".

25. The Cambridge Observer, 29 Nov. 1892, p. 1 was struck by "not so much the petty vindictiveness" of MacBride's threat "as by its hopeless silliness".

26. Gr, 27 Nov. 1897, pp. 97-8; Rice, ed., The Granta, pp. 27-8.

27. Gr, 27 Apr 1911, p. 366.

28. Gr, 1 Feb. 1908, p. 158.

29. CR, 22 Feb. 1893, p. 235.

30. Gr, 25 Feb 1893, p. 219.

31. Erskine Childers, The Framework of Home Rule (1911), pp. 198-203.

32. H.A. Morrah, The Oxford Union 1823-1923 (1923); C. Hollis, The Oxford Union (1965); D. Walter, The Oxford Union: Playground of Power (1984). The high achieving image of the Oxford Union did not always help recruitment in its own university. An objecter in 1889 argued there was "no reason why the average Undergraduate, who has no expectation of being Prime Minister, or Governor General, or Chancellor of the Exchequer should hasten to enter his name as a member". Oxf. Mag., 27 Oct. 1889, p. 29.

33. The Penguin Ronald Searle (1953), unpaginated: "The MP".

34. W. Ellis, The Oxbridge Conspiracy (1995 ed.), p. 99.

35. J.S. Mill, Autobiography (ed. H.J. Laski, 1924), p. 64.

36. MB 2, 22 Feb. 1825, Wilberforce letter of 15 Feb. 1825 and 2 May 1826, letter from Edward Villiers, Merton College, 28 Apr. 1826. MB 7, 11 Feb. 1832 for extension of membership to the Trinity College Dublin Historical Society. Edinburgh University Union was added in 1894. Oxf. Mag., 16 Nov. 1894, p. 80.

37. Cradock, p. 20.                             

38. Inaug., p. 12.

39. "Bocardo" and Cardinal Manning in Pall Mall Gazette (1866), quoted Inaug., pp. 61, 64. Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson: A Memoir (1906), pp. 31-32 called Sunderland "a very plausible, self-satisfied speaker at the Union Debating Society".

40. M.R.D. Foot, ed., The Gladstone Diaries, i, 1825-1832 (1968), p. 270. Gladstone voted for the atheist Shelley -- perhaps out of loyalty to Hallam?

41. Milnes, I, p. 75. Gladstone (Diaries, i, p. 271) recorded "I cannot help liking Milnes" although "we scarcely agreed on one point".

42. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 54.

43. J. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (3 vols, 1903);, i, pp. 88-9; R. Shannon, Gladstone, i: 1809-1865 (1982), pp. 39-40.

44. F.D. Munsell, The Unfortunate Duke: Henry Pelham, Fifth Duke of Newcastle, 1811-1864 (1985), p. 14.

45. A.G. Gardiner, The Life of Sir William Harcourt (2 vols, 1923), i, p. 51.

46. W.M. Thackeray, The Book of Snobs (1845), ch. xv. Planning a speech on colonial policy in 1823, Macaulay expected to address a Union audience "composed partly of future senators and planters".  T. Penney, ed., Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, i: 1807-February 1831 (1974), pp. 183-4.

47. F.W. Pethick-Lawrence, Fate Has Been Kind (1943), p. 36.

48. Inaug., p. 21.                                 

49. Bristed, pp. 69-70.

50. "Oxford has risen, and we have sunk." Whewell, p. 286.

51. S. Walpole, The Life of Lord John Russell (2 vols, 1889), i, p. 44.

52. W. Harris, Life So Far (1954), p. 61.

53. Harris in Cradock, p. 84. The Union elected its first Jewish President, A.H. Louis, in 1850 and a second, Arthur Cohen, in 1853. The election of individual Jews to the Presidency contrasts with Union opposition to the removal of Jewish disabilities in six of the seven debates on the subject between 1845 and 1857. Louis appears as "Salomons" in Sketches of Cantabs, pp, 44-7. According to Geoffrey de Freitas (Cradock, p. 137), members tried (not always successfully) to resist the temptation to engage in Jewish jokes during the nineteen-thirties.

54. Harris in Cradock, p. 87.

55. Maitland, Leslie Stephen, p. 35.

56. E. Miller, Portrait of a College: A History of the College of Saint John the Evangelist Cambridge (1961), p. 73.

57. Raikes, p. 17.

58. J.R. Seeley, Lectures and Essays (1870), p. 290.

59. Brooke, p. 325; VCH, p. 284. In 1904, Maitland delivered a similar speech deriding compulsory Greek. "I was ashamed of it afterwards, but I had some fun out of it at the time." C.H.S. Fifoot, ed, The Letters of Frederick William Maitland (Selden Society, 1965), p. 334.

60. J.A. Spender, The Life of the Right Hon. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (2 vols, 1923), i, p. 19.

61. B.E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour (2 vols, 1936), i, p. 28, quoting Walter Durnford.

62. Lord Crewe, Lord Rosebery (2 vols, 1931), i, p. 42.

63. K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin: A Biography (1969), pp. 15-18.

64. S. Baldwin, On England and Other Addresses (1937 ed.), p. 102; R.A. Butler in Cradock, p. 116; Anthony Howard, RAB: The Life of R.A. Butler (1988 ed.), p. 24. "Rab" appreciated that Baldwin's parting gift was "a vicarious tit for tat" against his own great-uncle. The Art of the Possible. The Memoirs of Lord Butler (1972 ed), p. 16.

65. VPR, E 1895.                   

66. Lytton, i, p. 235; VPR, E 1908.

67. J. Joliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters (1980), pp. 67-8.

68. The account that follows is based on Martin Ceadel, "The 'King and Country' Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators", Historical Journal, 22, 1979, pp. 397-422.

69. W.S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (1960 ed.), pp. 85-6.

70. A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (1965), p. 362; A.J.P. Taylor, A Personal History (1994 ed.), p. 92.

71. A.M. Ramsey in Cradock, p. 127; Howarth, pp. 147-8.

72. Geoffrey Shakespeare in Cradock, p. 107.

73. Howarth, p. 228.

74. de Freitas in Cradock, p. 139. Whereas Oxford fostered the King and Country myth, the Cambridge establishment tended to denigrate its Union. In 1943, T.R. Glover of St John's wrote contemptuously that the Cambridge Union had "decayed … abandoned very largely to Indians and Communists". T.R. Glover, Cambridge Retrospect (1943), p. 113.

75. Allen, Cambridge Apostles; P. Levy, Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (1981 ed.); W.C. Lubenow, The Cambridge Apostles 1820-1914 (1998).

76. Bristed (p. 122) did not regard the Apostles as a secret society.

77. In fact, Roby was a notable public figure, who contributed substantially to the development of English education, as shown by his contribution to the quasi-official Cambridge handbook, the Student's Guide, and his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

78. Levy, Moore, p. 66.          

79. Stephen, Fitzjames Stephen, p. 103.

80. Fraser's Magazine, quoted Macmillan's Magazine, 11, 1865, p. 18.

81. Bristed, p. 121.

82. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 4, quoting Sidgwick, p. 32n..

83.  C.L. Ferguson, A History of the Magpie and Stump Debating Society 1866-1926 (1931), p. 7.

84. [Bertrand Russell], The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, i: 1872-1914 (1967), pp. 68-70, 73-4;   Leonard Woolf, Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880 to 1904 (1988 ed.), pp. 129-30, 150-1.

85. Levy, Moore, pp. 143-146.

86. Ramsay in Cradock, pp. 125-6.

87. Stephen, Sketches from Cambridge, p. 64.

88. Lubenow, Cambridge Apostles.

89. Edith Lyttelton, Alfred Lyttelton: An Account of his Life (1917), p. 77.

90. M. Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait (1983), p. 58.

91. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 22,

92. Leslie Stephen, National Review, 42, 1903-4, p. 141.

93. Stephen, Fitzjames Stephen, p. 106.        

94. Sidgwick, p. 63.

95. Richard Chenevix Trench Archbishop: Letters and Memorials (2 vols, 1881), i, p. 2.

96. Apostles are listed in Levy, Moore, pp. 300-11; officers of the Union in Cradock, pp. 169-85.

97. Bristed, p. 125.


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