Chapter 6

'The Union and its Debates, 1821-1914' offers a general history of buildings and activities throughout the 19th century.

6:  The Union and its Debates 1821-1914




The Cambridge Union survived its officially enforced four-year silence because it was a well-established club, occupying its own premises. As The Times noted in 1886, "the debating business is in the eyes of members only one, perhaps a secondary one, among many attractions of the Union".1 Even an ex-President could recall that he had joined the Society "for its merits as a club rather than with any thought of incursion into debates".2 To interpret those debates, it is first necessary to look at the history of that club throughout the nineteenth century.

  The Union remained at the Red Lion in Petty Cury until 1831. The accommodation was expensive – rent alone cost £52 a year and heating and lighting could treble the overall cost3 – and not always convenient. The Society occupied a reading room and had access to an adjoining chamber (in modern hotel jargon, a function room) for its debates, so long as the landlord, William Mitchell, did not need it for other purposes. A description of 1829 confirms that from earliest times, debates were conducted in mimic parliamentary format, with four rows of benches facing each other on opposite sides of the debating chamber.4  Hence the decision in 1823 that "the President should regulate his conduct as nearly as possible by the Precedents of the House of Commons" in cases where the Union's own laws offered inadequate guidance.5

 Pressed in 1826 "to provide a more commodious reading room", Mitchell agreed to build one "double the size of the existing room, to be in the constant occupation of the Union Society".6 However, there were complaints the following year that the landlord had not fulfilled the contract, and there was general dissatisfaction with the accommodation.7 Monckton Milnes remembered the debating chamber as "a low, ill-ventilated, ill-lit, gallery at the back of the Red Lion", which he described as "cavernous, tavernous – something between a commercial-room and a district-branch-meeting-house".8 His recollection was probably exaggerated, since the Cambridge Philharmonic Society seems to have taken over the Union's tenancy and even the modest standards of English provincial music presumably demanded decent acoustics. However, there is contemporary evidence that the debating room was poorly lit. In 1826, additional candles were purchased "to enable the President to read Motions &c without stooping".9

 The intrusion of non-members into the Society's premises was a recurring problem. Gate-crashing debates was regarded as "a good lark". In 1822, members seem to have over-reacted in the eviction of the obviously inoffensive Charles Taylor of Christ's. Taylor explained that he was about to leave Cambridge and had wished to observe the proceedings of "a society of whose fame I had heard so much". While acknowledging that he had been misinformed that "the admission of strangers, if not absolutely allow'd" was "customary by courtesy", he refused to apologise in the light of the rough treatment he had received. Taylor was declared "for ever ineligible" for membership.10 An equally fruitless sanction was invoked in 1826 when the Union resolved that any student committing a similar offence was "guilty of Conduct unbecoming a Gentleman & a Man of Honour".11 More heinous was the practice of "certain individuals" who secured election to the Society without any intention of paying the subscription. This was dealt with by imposing fines upon those who had proposed them for membership.12 However, early administrative procedures were so casual that it was possible for an indignant member to claim that he had paid his subscription, but no record could be found.13

 As the Boylan affair showed, in the early years administrative procedures were unimpressive. Members were reluctant to pay their subscriptions: in October 1826, it was estimated that during the two previous years, the Society had lost over £137 in this way, while in the more efficient days of 1831, subscription arrears still exceeded £134.14  In 1825, there was something of a financial crisis: a motion for better ventilation of the perennially stuffy debating room prompted Praed to comment that he was "ready to advocate any measure for 'raising the wind' in the present low state of the Society's finances".15 A special committee convened by Benjamin Hall Kennedy came to the unexpectedly optimistic conclusion that "if unusual expenditure could be avoided, the funds of the Society are fully adequate".16 Administrative procedures were gradually established, culminating in the appointment of a chief clerk in 1831 (although originally responsible for "attending to the Library and other affairs connected with the Reading Room".17) A regular bank account was established, along with printed membership lists and a proper system of issuing receipts, which could double as membership cards. By October 1827, the Union's finances were "rapidly improving".18 Contrary no doubt to Kennedy's warning, donations were made to distressed manufacturers in 1826, when Spencer Walpole persuaded the Union to double its proposed contribution to £100, and to Italian and Spanish refugees the following year.19 Healthier finances encouraged dreams of larger premises. In 1828 members discussed "the possibility of borrowing money ... for the purpose of erecting a structure suitable to the credit & respectability, and sufficient for the purposes of the Union".20 It would be thirty-six years before they were bold enough to act upon the idea.

 Instead, in 1830 a committee was established to search for "more convenient Debating and Reading Rooms, as the present are quite inadequate to the purpose for which they are intended".21 The committee quickly produced an "earnest Recommendation" in favour of accepting a proposal from Thomas Bird of the Hoop Inn, which stretched from Sidney Street to Park Street, behind the houses on the north side of Jesus Lane. Bird offered to build a room 85 feet long and 29 feet wide, with a ceiling at least 16 feet high, which would presumably improve ventilation. He also undertook to provide an additional room and to allocate a servant for the sole use of members. The rent was to be £150 a year, fixed for three years, with Bird retaining use of the debating room for five nights each week.22 It is possible that the terms were too generous. Bird defaulted soon afterwards, and his successor as landlord, William Ekin, seems never to have been happy with the arrangements, although the premises were enlarged in the early eighteen-forties.23

 The entrance to the Union, from Garlic Fair Lane (Park Street) was "not grand or imposing", but a freshman of 1846 was impressed by the club he had joined. "We have a magnificent room, I am afraid to say how long, for Debates and reading-room; also a smaller and snugger room, and ... a smoking-room, and a really excellent Library of all subjects, which is a great resource."24 By 1850, Union opinion had become less happy with the premises, and the "various inconveniences which greatly diminish their suitability". A further move was masterminded by Homersham Cox, who was approaching his thirtieth birthday and was something of a permanent student. (He also seems to have invented the phrase "British Commonwealth".) Cox argued that the growth of the Library made the accommodation inadequate. Access was "from a small obscure street" and the taproom of the Hoop was "a frequent source of nuisance". Worst of all, the Union was located "at an inconvenient distance from the largest Colleges". This was a tribute to the microscopic world of Cambridge, since Park Street was all of three hundred yards from the Great Gate of Trinity. Cox was no doubt laying it on thick. The truth was that relations with Ekin had deteriorated to the point where the Union's request for a cut in rent was met with a frosty demand for an increase.

 Best of all, alternative premises were available which met the "essential condition" of proximity to the larger colleges. For years, the local Methodist congregation had crammed in more and more converts by adding galleries to the old Dissenting chapel in Green Street. Finally, in 1849, the Methodists built themselves a new and larger church on the edge of town, and so were anxious to offload the 38-year lease remaining on the old building. By ripping out most of the galleries, it would be possible "entirely to destroy its present appearance of a Chapel", thus creating a debating chamber that would resemble the House of Commons – and all within easy strolling distance of Trinity, Caius and St John's.25

 Relocating the Union involved a good deal of disruption, and debates suffered in the autumn term of 1850. One November evening, "in consequence of the very few Members in attendance, and a Concert about to take place at the Town Hall", the planned debate was abandoned.26 In the event, the Green Street premises were never wholly satisfactory. "All the eloquent speeches delivered within its walls by attached members of the Church, and all the alterations by which it had been adapted for its purpose, failed to purify it thoroughly from its meeting-house flavour."27 Although Henry Fawcett remembered the "dingy old rooms" with affection,28 the contrast with the Oxford Union, which built its own premises in 1857, became invidious. That same year, the Cambridge Union established a Building Fund, financed from annual operating profits plus a proportion of subscriptions. It grew slowly and became something of a joke. Supporting the Southern States in the American Civil War, G.O. Trevelyan rhetorically asked: "Can the North restore the Union?". "Never, Sir", a heckler replied; "they have no building fund."29 As late as 1860, the Union's official aim was simply to rebuild in Green Street "on a scale more commensurate with the wants of its Members". "The present buildings are certainly not ornamental; and it is of the utmost importance that steps should be taken to erect handsome and permanent rooms."30 In the longer term, it was almost certainly in the best interests of the Union that so little progress was made. By the early eighteen-sixties, the undergraduate population was again rising and it became increasingly clear that the Green Street site was inadequate for development.

 In 1864, the Society purchased a larger site in Round Church Street from St John's, probably through the good offices of the Professor of Divinity, William Selwyn. A Union patriarch from the eighteen-twenties, Selwyn was especially keen to see his college complete its expensive new chapel, Gilbert Scott's "sermon in stones", and would have seen the sale as a way of supporting two worthwhile projects simultaneously. The physical and mental bounds of urban Cambridge were still very restricted, and Leslie Stephen complained that the Union had "crept into so retired a corner".31 Credit for the galvanising of the building project is conventionally given to Charles Dilke, who served two terms as President to see it to completion. It is likely that an important role was also played by another officer, Henry Peto of Trinity, eldest son of the founder of the great construction company of Morton Peto and Betts.32 Guided by Dilke, members voted in a referendum to choose Alfred Waterhouse as their architect. Unexpectedly, the buildings were ready for occupation in the autumn term of 1866, and an official opening ceremony was hurriedly arranged for a rainy day at the end of October.33  "The style is thirteenth-century Gothic", reported Leslie Stephen, adding with a touch of irony, "but this has not been strictly adhered to throughout the building."34

 The new Union was an expensive project, imaginatively conceived and boldly executed. The cost of the site alone swallowed almost all of the Building Fund. A modern-sounding appeal was launched, with circulars sent to four thousand "life" (i.e. former) members. This helped to raise £4,000 towards the total cost of £11,000. The remaining sum was covered by the issue of debentures, which threatened to burden the Society with heavy interest charges.35 Fortunately, the gamble paid off and twenty years later, at a further cost of £6,000, Waterhouse added a matching north range that would survive even Hitler's bombs. As The Times remarked, by 1886 the Cambridge Union provided "many of the conveniences that the Londoner finds at his club".36  One of these, presumably, was the nine-course banquet that celebrated the extension of 1886.

 These club facilities were probably more important to the majority of members than the debates themselves. It was claimed in 1852 that many who joined were "attracted solely by the reading room", while forty years later a Cambridge magazine waspishly insisted that the record intake in the October term "must be more due to the energy of the officers in making the club comfortable and attractive than to the excellence of this term's debates".37  Even the quasi-official Student's Guide listed the Union among Cambridge's "more intellectual recreations" because of its library and reading room.38  The Library had started to assume a formal shape in the late eighteen-twenties, after repeated complaints about irregular borrowings that amounted to theft. In 1821 the Union had reached the sensible conclusion that "the only effectual mode of preserving a library would be to hire a librarian", but unfortunately it could not afford to do so.39 In a desperate move in 1829, it was proposed that every member be required "to declare upon his honour" that he was not in possession of any library books.40

 The reading room was even harder to police. A member was expelled in 1822 for attempting to steal a newspaper.41   Six years later, J.M. Kemble, who "gave up all his time to newspapers and political essayists", deplored the "scramble" that greeted the delivery of newspapers to the reading room. In 1829 he also denounced "the infamous & felonious practice ... of tearing pages from the reviews & magazines".42 (Kemble's concern for newspapers tends to confirm the suspicions of Tripos examiners who, that same year, deferred the award of his degree because they were not persuaded that he had read any of the set books.) These pressures increased enormously in time of war or political upheaval. As the Duke of Wellington fell from office in 1830, there were complaints that "the supply of Newspapers" was "quite insufficient ... at the present extraordinary crisis".43  The problem recurred a quarter of a century later, although the Crimean War was unusual in producing not merely grumbles but a helpful suggestion:


At the present time a great number of members come into the Union in the morning merely to see what news there is from the seat of War. It would save these gentlemen a considerable waste of time, if instead of their having to wait until their neighbours have read the leading articles, correspondence & police reports, they had a single copy of the Times suspended in a frame, where several members could see at once all they wanted.44


From earliest times, newspapers constituted by far the largest single item of expenditure. The Long Vacation of 1826 was used to define an absolute minimum provision: six London dailies, the local Cambridge papers and (surprisingly) Cobbett's Weekly Register.45 By 1878, the Union was subscribing to over seventy newspapers, "embracing every shade of political and religious faith".46 The emphasis, however, was heavily metropolitan. In 1884, the list included just one Dublin daily, the Irish Times, a paper unlikely to challenge  English and Conservative preconceptions, although later the nationalist Freeman's Journal was added. Single copies of the most popular newspapers were no longer sufficient. In 1893, it was term-time practice to take in six copies of the Westminster Gazette and seven of the Daily News. Pressure to widen subscriptions tended towards the frivolous: there was an attempt in 1827 to add the Racing Calendar,47 while in 1912 the Union was criticised for refusing to take "the Pink 'Un" (or Sporting Times).48 As technology advanced, there were new opportunities to spend money. The Franco-Prussian war seems to have been the first major crisis that members followed through up-to-the-minute news agency telegrams.49 By the time of the general election of 1895, "large sums were expended" to provide a results service.50 Two years later, the Union bought its first typewriter in order to display legible transcriptions of telegrams. The typist had very hazy notions about punctuation and so added entertainment to the immediacy of the news flashes.51

A student society generated student politics, complete with rhetoric and techniques redolent of more recent and activist generations. In 1823, Praed denounced as "cowardly & unworthy of a Gentleman" an anonymous notice claiming that Union elections were controlled by an in-group, "the faction". He "most solemnly denied any inference that might be drawn from it, that a Committee sat to exercise illegal influence over the votes of the Society".52  Praed's over-reaction illustrates why outsiders sometimes dismissed the entire Union as a breeding-ground for precocious self-importance. Wright in 1827 poked fun at "the Unionic Undergraduates", experts on "all questions legal, political, poetical, historical, or metaphysical" who could be seen on debate nights to "whisper mysteriously to the President, once in every five minutes".53 Seventy years later, "leading lights at the Union" could be identified by the pomposity of their expression: even in ordinary speech, they "always said 'and so forth', instead of 'and that sort of thing'".54 Detractors claimed that "nobody outside a restricted circle of busy-bodies takes the faintest amount of interest" in the proceedings of "a Society which is made up of all the Smugs of the University".55

Within the restricted circle of Union politics, a turbulent individual could create a great deal of discord. George Yorke of Christ's was clearly the product of an unusual upbringing. Yorke's father had been imprisoned for his revolutionary views in 1795. From the point of view of a repressive government, the experience produced a salutary effect. Yorke senior married his gaoler's daughter and became an extreme opponent of political change. The father's judgement may be measured from the fact that he named his son George Charilaus Camperdown Redhead Yorke. Yorke junior persuaded himself that the Union's Treasurer, John Simpson of Corpus, should be censured for inefficiency. The President, Henry Luscombe of Clare, ruled the motion out of order. Yorke returned to the attack at the next meeting, provoking Simpson into dramatic resignation in protest against "vexatious accusations, and undeserved attacks".56 Such disorder prevailed that the evening's debate had to be abandoned, thus giving rise to the pleasant legend that Cambridge undergraduates came to blows over the rival merits of the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron.57 The term ended with a further meeting at which over two hundred members joined in the factional battle. From the chair, Luscombe rejected one censure motion on suspicion that the names of its seconders had been forged, and another on the grounds that signatures had been cut off another document and "tacked on". The following term, Yorke sought his revenge with a motion censuring Luscombe for "his insufficient & unsatisfactory discharge" of his duties, piously claiming that he wished to record "a salutary example to gentlemen canvassing for offices for which they are utterly incapacitated". The motion was rejected by 84 votes to 52.58 This was a larger turn-out than for seven of the eight debates on Catholic Emancipation during the eighteen-twenties – and the Catholic question was one of the most prominent political issues of the period.

In the late eighteen-thirties, rival factions again struggled for control. This time the battle lines were drawn between the studious and the sporting. The atmosphere was poisoned by George Smythe, a violent personality who later inherited the title of Viscount Strangford, although he had little connection with Ireland. Smythe was twice threatened with expulsion from Eton and went on to fight the last duel on English soil. In 1847, 782 of the electors of Canterbury returned him to parliament. When he sought re-election five years later, just seven of them stayed loyal. However, in his student days, he was more than a mere hearty. Along with Lord John Manners, he was one of the first Cambridge disciples of the Tractarian principles that were coming out of Newman's Oxford. He called the Cambridge Union "the nursing mother of principles, which, I hope, will knit us together through life".59 Smythe and Manners were to form the core of the Young England ginger group in Peel's Conservative party. In his novels, Disraeli portrayed Smythe first as Coningsby and then as Waldershare. "He had been the hero of the debating club at Cambridge, and many believed that in consequence he must become Prime Minister."60

The macho Smythe seems to have been predestined to clash with the mild C.J. Vaughan, a noted classical scholar, later headmaster of Harrow and later still, after a carefully hushed-up homosexual scandal, ex-headmaster of Harrow. "He left a strict injunction that no life of him should be published," the Dictionary of National Biography enigmatically recorded.61 Spotting a notice signed by Vaughan and his ally, W.J. Butler, another future cleric of an unworldly type, Smythe added the names of five racehorses or, as he explained, five more brutes and then typically quietened protests by threatening to issue challenges to duel.62  In Union elections, the reading men were usually able to defeat their opponents, "the same industry and ability that aided them in their studies, generally enabling them to triumph in the canvas". However, the sporting faction managed to block Vaughan from the Presidency in 1838 by running against him an undergraduate of St John's who had inherited a baronetcy, "a Johnian nonentity who had Sir before his name".63

Alliances in the Union's housekeeping politics sometimes crossed party lines. In 1858, "considerable dissatisfaction" at the management of the Society brought together a rising Conservative, Cecil Raikes, who later held office under Lord Salisbury, and G.O. Trevelyan, already a committed Liberal and destined to serve in two of Gladstone's cabinets. As the only "two speaking members" of the opposition, they found themselves in the pleasant position of always having "a tumultuous cheering body behind us ... without any rivals aspiring to lead the party". Although triumphant in business meetings, both Raikes and Trevelyan had to wait for electoral success. In 1857, for instance, under the leadership of a future Archbishop of Sydney, the Union elections were won by "the party who combine considerable religious profession with the lowest Radical doctrines and the most overbearing and repulsive vulgarity". So, at any rate, thought Cecil Raikes, who was on the losing side.64

The exploitation of procedural details was a hallowed device that made its appearance early in Union history. In 1821, the President, John Punnett of Clare, realised that Dr Wordsworth's compromise solution for the resumption of debating would not be popular with members. Accordingly, he railroaded through the necessary changes in the Laws on his own casting vote. Critics complained that he had not given the one week's notice of the proposals required in Law XXVIII. Punnett dismissed all challenges on the grounds that Law VII declared the President to be sole interpreter of any disputed regulation.65 Punnett spent most of his life as rector of a Cornish parish, where he wrote religious tracts. It is hard not to feel that his political talents were wasted.

Another issue of principle proved more durable. In 1833, a sabbatarian party began to press for the closure of the Union on Sundays. In 1847, they succeeded in forcing a motion through a business meeting that closed the premises until three o'clock on the day of rest. The decision was promptly challenged, on the grounds that a quorum of forty members was required to amend the Laws. Since nobody seems to have raised the point at the meeting, it is likely that the necessary quorum had been achieved. However, some of those present must have abstained, since only 37 members voted on the actual motion for Sunday closure.66 The ensuing row is reminiscent of the famous split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in the history of Russian Communism. The sabbatarians soon lost their transient majority status, but could still muster a twenty-five percent vote against all proposals to open the Union on the sabbath. Since such a motion required a three-quarters majority to become effective, the Union remained closed until mid-afternoon every Sunday.

Among those who resisted Sunday closure was Hugh Childers, who emigrated to Australia soon after he left Cambridge in 1850. There he helped to establish the colony of Victoria, extended its school system and took part in the founding of the University of Melbourne. In due course, he returned to Britain, entered parliament and in 1868 joined Gladstone's cabinet. Meanwhile, at Cambridge, a watchful religious faction kept the Union in its sabbatarian grip. Diverse strategies were attempted to prise open the doors. One was a proposal to give the Society's officers the right to admit personal friends to the building before three o'clock on Sundays. The officers would then discover that they were hugely popular from one end of Cambridge to the other. The ploy was frustrated, and the Union was still closed during the hours of Sunday worship when C.E. Childers followed in his father's footsteps to Trinity in 1868. Bringing with him a parent's recollections of the battles of long ago, the younger Childers finally found a way around the problem of the three-quarters majority. Frustrated in their head-on assaults, repealers adopted a flanking move. In 1873, they persuaded a business meeting to rule that the original vote of 1847 had been inquorate and hence invalid, a decision that could be carried by a simple majority. Thus ended twenty-six years of internecine but no doubt enjoyable controversy. Lesser rows continued to erupt. In 1891, a reporter noted that the Union found "the excitement of personal disputes … less monotonous than ordinary debates on Home Rule or Vivisection". In 1894, a member was fined for bringing his dog to a debate. His boat club friends packed a business meeting seeking to overturn the penalty, and local urchins were hired to parade the streets with sandwich boards, "Vote for Thompson and the dog." The campaign failed.67

If rival activities to debating existed within the Union, there were far more alternatives on offer outside. "There were many clubs in the University", the President of the Union commented in 1886, " – some with strange names, such as the Owls, and the Gravediggers, and some distinguished mainly by the members wearing coats of many colours."68 Names and functions of Cambridge clubs were not always precisely related: Rupert Brooke and Hugh Dalton were members of a play-reading circle called The Fish and Chimney.69 Clubs rose and fell: there was even a short-lived Atheist Club around 1815.70  "Subscriptions to these clubs are often imperfectly collected," warned the Student's Guide, "and an unfair burden is thus thrown on those who pay punctually."71 A society dedicated to the works of Browning collapsed after its Etonian secretary met the poet, concluded that he was middle-class and refused to convene any further meetings.72 A few student clubs still manage to radiate the comfortable golden haze of Victorian England. The Upware Republic met convivially between 1851 and 1856 at a riverside inn in the Fens, the Five Miles From Anywhere. Its citizens were a group of students messing about in boats to secure "a few hours' escape from the restraints of academic life".73 They included J.E. Gorst, President of the Union in 1857, and later a member of Lord Randolph Churchill's "Fourth Party", who returned to denounce Home Rule in 1887. Another was James Clerk Maxwell, Edinburgh-born and the University's first Professor of Experimental Physics.

One society, the Majlis, may have exercised some slight influence on world history. Primarily but not exclusively a meeting place for students from India, it was remembered by Nehru for its "somewhat unreal debates", in which members tried to copy the "style and mannerisms" of the Union. Another member was Hugh Dalton, who knew Nehru "slightly", but confessed that he failed to foresee his future eminence. Nehru himself recalled that "shyness and diffidence" inhibited him from taking an active role. However, other aspects of Indian independence were perhaps foreshadowed in the Majlis. Dalton remembered a Sikh student drawing a knife on a Muslim. In 1933, it was a group of Muslim students at Cambridge who coined the term "Pakistan" for their objective of a separate state. Student politics was not always irrelevant to the real world.74

A few clubs were as enduring as the Union, perhaps because they too occupied their own premises and provided members with practical facilities. The aristocratic Pitt Club "defrayed the postal-charges of its members when they wrote their letters there". Late Victorian Cambridge speculated that over a lifetime it would be possible to recoup a subscription several times over through free postage alone, but it is possible that the Pitt Club committee simply had a realistic appreciation of its members' pretensions to literacy.75  The Amateur Dramatic Club was formed in 1855, and took over the old Union premises at the Hoop Inn. The opportunities created for time-wasting, cross-dressing and disrespectful burlesque aroused donnish suspicions. In 1871, there was a move to ban the ADC, but memories of the failure to suppress the Union fifty years earlier persuaded a wiser generation of academics to prefer loose supervision of a tolerated nuisance.76

It is unlikely that any University authority could have suppressed the Athenaeum, an institution which, unlike its London namesake, had "no connection with learning, literature, or the fine arts". Limited to twenty-four members, with rooms in a Georgian house opposite Trinity, it was a haunt of "titled members of the aristocracy who had kindly consented to come up to the University and patronise the ancient institution". Athenaeum members were racing men who gathered for lavish dinners called "Athenaeum Teas" (so-called because the profoundly alcoholic meal was served at a T-shaped dining table), followed by gambling at cards. Condemned by a German princeling in 1851 as "Sodom and Gomorrah", the Athenaeum none the less escaped divine retribution to survive well into the twentieth century. On the eve of the First World War, Oliver Lyttelton was deputed by fellow members to travel to Windsor races and stake their money on a hot tip. The unfancied horse won at 11-2, netting the syndicate around £700. On his return to Cambridge, Lyttelton was met by a brass band playing, "See the Conquering Hero Comes". Athenaeum men ignored the Union, some – such as Lord Cavendish, the future Duke of Devonshire – on parental orders. Most continued their career of decorative uselessness into later life, but there were some exceptions: Lyttelton became Colonial Secretary under Winston Churchill. Cavendish was the Lord Hartington, "Harty-Tarty", of Liberal Unionism. His brother, Lord Frederick Cavendish, went on from the Athenaeum to a violent death in Phoenix Park in 1882.77

Clubs were not the only form of student recreational activity. The purposeful afternoon walk was free to everyone: Bertrand Russell "got to know every road and footpath within ten miles of Cambridge" and the poorest of reading men could be seen striding along the Grantchester Grind. On wet days, students paced the sheltered cloisters of Trinity's Nevile's Court. Even if confined to his own room, an undergraduate could engage in a form of exercise that was "a strenuous affair, taxing muscle and ingenuity alike". The game involved "making the circle of your room by climbing over the furniture along the walls without setting foot on the ground".78 Some more mature and adventurous young men sought other forms of indoor recreation. There was perhaps an element of exaggeration in the disapproving comment of the American, C.A. Bristed, in 1852 that many undergraduates "thought no more of committing fornication than a Southerner would of murdering an Abolitionist".79 None the less, it is a reminder that there were some recreational facilities that even the Union could not provide.

Organised games provided a rival attraction to participation in Union debates. Alfred Lyttelton consciously excluded the Union from his activities in order to concentrate on sporting excellence.80 It was not entirely true that the rowing fraternity consisted of "young gentlemen whose muscles were more developed than their brains".81 Charles Dilke managed to be both oarsman and orator, while a future Lord Chancellor, F.H. Maugham, rowed twice in the Boat Race against Oxford while holding office in the Union. However, to combine the two activities required remarkable time management skills. No sooner had the rowing mania taken hold in the late eighteen-twenties than it became clear that it competed voraciously with other activities in its demands. In May 1828 the Union complained "that much inconvenience is occasioned … by the Racing Day being on Tuesday Evenings", which was also debate night. The secretary of the University Boat Club, William Snow, tersely replied that his committee refused to budge:


Both Monday and Wednesday are days appointed for Cricket, and as there are many men that both pull in the boats and play at cricket, they were unwilling to give up either – and the hour cannot be changed on account of Chapel. 82


Snow did not explain what was wrong with racing on a Thursday. Enthusiasm for rowing was a nuisance that often made itself felt in later years. Exasperation surfaced in May 1855. "In consequence of the Boat-races occurring on every evening during this week, no meeting was held for Debate." 83 There is some slight consolation in noting that 1855 was the year in which William Snow was convicted of a banking fraud.

As the University became larger, so the range of alternative activities grew. Attendance at Union debates suffered most during the summer term, especially after examinations when energetic relaxation was the order of the day. A debate on Ulster suffered in June 1892 from the "rival attractions of four balls and three concerts", while in May 1914 a poor turn-out on the same topic was explained by the fact that "tennis and the river have seduced all but the faithful".84 At other times of the year, the Union could usually hold its own. When a recital by the Basque violinist Sarasate clashed with a debate in November 1890, "an unsoothed remnant of considerable size resorted to the Union" to argue over the future of Ireland.85 Where alternative activities were on offer, members resorted to Union debates presumably because they were interested in the subject to be discussed. This in turn makes it likely that, either through tribal allegiance or intellectual analysis, they already possessed opinions on the issues involved, a point of some importance for the assessment of debates as records of opinion.

It would be misleading to convey the impression that debating was the sole activity or greatest glory of student life. If anything, the evidence would suggest that the reverse was the case, with a considerable falling-off in the quality of debate after the great era of the eighteen-twenties. Ironically, during that golden age, the Union was still fettered by restrictions on subjects for discussion.

Indeed, the Cambridge Union chafed under the "1800" rule imposed upon it in 1821. It was inherently absurd to be forced to discuss, as happened in 1824, the proposition that the Greeks would have been justified in asserting their independence in 1799. In any case, it was difficult to prevent individual members from straying into more recent territory, despite the resolution in 1823 that "any mention of a Political Event of a date subsequent to the year 1800" was "a breach of order".86 In 1824, a committee was established "to consider the propriety of petitioning the Vice Chancellor for an extension of the period, to which our debates are at present restricted". The office-bearers entrusted with the task quickly decided to take "no further steps" in the matter, explaining that "they had not been influenced by their opinion as to the general expediency of the Measure proposed but by circumstances existing only at the present period".87 It is possible that these circumstances included the inconvenient fact that the University's senior members were implacable defenders of Anglican ascendancy, while the Union was equally resolute in championing the extension of civil rights to Catholics. The Senate had petitioned against any concessions on the issue five times between 1817 and 1823,  on the last occasion "by a considerable majority".88

In February 1825, as the Senate was gearing up for yet another blast against the Catholics, the Union quietly amended the restriction to refer to "a floating period of twenty years anterior to the date of discussion".89 In any case, motions on such issues as the Game Laws were routinely proposed without limitation of time.90 The dam finally burst with the fall of the Duke of Wellington's ministry in 1830. On 9 November, the twenty-year restriction was set aside, on the motion of a former President, by a vote of 112 to 83. Two days later, a special meeting had to be convened following an objection from the proctors "to discussing politics of the present day".91

The special meeting of 11 November 1830 was dominated by a procedural dispute, with "much angry discussion as to the right of the President to bring forward again a question during the same Term in which it had been once decided". Eventually, a motion was carried that "the present discussion be adjourned sine die".92 The proposer, the Earl of Kerry, was a Fellow Commoner at Trinity. Lord Kerry's grandfather, the Earl of Shelburne, had negotiated the peace treaty with the United States in 1783. His father, the Marquess of Lansdowne,  had assured the House of Lords the previous year that there were 250 undergraduates in  Trinity alone ready to sign a petition in favour of the Catholic claims, clear evidence of the wider political importance attributed to Cambridge student opinion on the issue. Lansdowne was about to join the incoming cabinet, and would remain a mainstay of Whig ministries for a quarter of a century, even though he was usually too grand to take an active portfolio. Trollope made him the Duke of St Bungay, but in real life Lansdowne declined to accept advancement in the peerage. Once again, the cause of student free speech at Cambridge benefited from the backing of a young grandee unlikely to be challenged by mere dons.93

The President, L.S. Orde of Queens', found himself in an awkward position. On 16 November, the Union rejected by 40 votes to 4 the proposition that "the extended Education of the lower Orders" was a threat to good government. Even the supporters of the motion did not take it very seriously: one of the speakers for the proposition had his contribution asterisked in the official report: "Only with regard to Scientific Knowledge."94 At the formal close of the debate, the real business of the evening began. Orde confessed "his incompetency ... any longer to maintain order in the Society" in consequence of the repeal of the twenty-year rule, and offered his resignation. This was evidently a pre-arranged manoeuvre, since it was a member of his own college who successfully moved that the resignation be refused. Fortified in office, Orde proceeded to activate the new dispensation.95

One week later, on 23 November 1830, the Union boldly decided that Wellington's ministry had not merited "the support of the Independent Members of Parliament". No doubt it would have been absurd to have wrapped this motion in some reference to 1810, a year in which everybody knew that the Duke had been otherwise engaged than in politics. Even so there was "angry and disorderly feeling" over the abandonment of the twenty-year rule, and a further attempt was made to censure Orde.96 The issue continued to divide the reading men from the aristocrats. Two theologians on the verge of distinguished careers in the Church, Charles Merivale and Henry Alford, headed a petition of 97 members warning that the "breach of the contract entered into between the University Authorities and the Society" was likely to cause the "suppression" of the Union. More immediately, they warned that discussion of contemporary events "will render unavoidable much bitter feeling and personal altercation through the necessity which it entails of discussing without any limitation the conduct of Individuals with whom many of the Members of the Union Society must be closely connected".97

  The issue flared again in November 1831, this time over whether formally to expunge the twenty-year rule from the printed version of the Union's Laws. Once again, the proposal for change was associated with a young aristocrat, W.C. Wentworth Fitzwilliam. A member of a family that was not only hugely wealthy but also benefactors of the University, "little Wentworth" (as Milnes dismissively called him) was unlikely to be a target for proctorial intervention.98 The Alford-Merivale camp collected 103 names for a further protest against the violation of "an understood compact" with the University, adding that "experience had shewn that such an alteration tends to introduce tumult into the Debates, and to lower the character of the Society". The reading men also asserted their superior claim to experience, disapproving of an attempt to settle the question in the autumn term "when many of the members are from their short residence in the University ignorant of the nature & interests of the Society".99 The aristocrats won the fight for free speech, but at a cost of division, bitterness and, for a time, the practical secession from the Union of the purists.

  "Men came from London to hear us", Bulwer Lytton recalled of the Cambridge Union in the eighteen-twenties.100 It might be expected that the breaking of the remaining shackles upon free expression would have made the succeeding decades a still greater era in Cambridge debating. In fact, the Union fell into malaise. Interest in politics waned and for a time the Society even gave up publishing its annual reports. One debate in 1839 collapsed because the proposer of the motion failed to turn up. Meetings were "sometimes adjourned in half an hour for want of speakers".101

The quality of discussion did not markedly improve when the Society passed from the hands of the fogeys of Young England to the tenants of the old Wesleyan chapel in Green Street. Leslie Stephen was admittedly writing during an uncharacteristically bitter phase of his life when he dismissed the Union of the eighteen-fifties as the training ground for stupendous bores.102 He was, after all, one of them himself, as he admitted in mellower recollection. "We made orations at the Union Debating Society; but admitted to ourselves, though we did not perhaps state in public, that we were very young and not competent to instruct the nation at large."103 More telling is the testimony of the first American President of the Union, William Everett, who bluntly dismissed the Society's debates as "death itself" and "beneath contempt". However, even Everett admitted that occasionally "there is an animated discussion, still less often a good speaker, and on very rare occasions a full house". It is however possible that Everett's verdict that Cambridge audiences "are habitually carried off their feet by the most worn-out claptrap" owed something to the fact that he was a supporter of the North in the American Civil War, and held office in 1862 when Cambridge opinion was obstinately pro-Southern.104

Perhaps the notion of the eighteen-twenties as an isolated golden age was exaggerated.105 Even the Union's critics acknowledged that in the decades that followed occasionally "an animated debate would be got up" on a controversial political issue.106 The Union still attracted passionate defenders. "I love it and reverence it," wrote Lord John Manners, "and would no more think of treating it slightingly than I would my best friend".107 Another member looked back on "brilliant debates and stirring scenes" even in those leaden years of the eighteen-thirties.108

One contributing element in the decline of Union debating may be found in a changing intellectual agenda. At precisely the moment when the Union threw off restrictions on the discussion of current events, the nature of British politics changed. Between 1828 and 1832, Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics were brought within the system, and a major reform of parliamentary representation achieved. By 1835, Peel had turned the Tories into Conservatives, but it would be a quarter of a century before the Whigs finally metamorphosed into Liberals. The old issues that had divided the social elite in the eighteen-twenties suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by a degree of consensus that lasted for thirty years. Even free trade and the fate of the Corn Laws failed to arouse much excitement among Cambridge students. When pressure for further structural change began to build up again after 1860, it came mostly from outside the political system, and hence from outside Cambridge.

By contrast, attention shifted to wholly new issues. Keble's celebrated Assize Sermon at Oxford in 1833 touched off a movement for liturgical change in the Church of England that focused serious young minds on religion.109 Theological questions were expressly excluded from Union discussion, while the social implications of the High Church movement did not easily reduce themselves to topics for debate. "We have now virtually pledged ourselves", wrote Lord John Manners in 1838, "to restore what? I hardly know – but still it is a glorious attempt".110 March 1844 saw the largest attendance at a debate between March 1832, when 181 members had narrowly approved of the poor laws, and October 1862, when 150 would divide heavily in favour of the Southern States in the American Civil War. The 1844 motion asserted that "the suppression of the Monasteries by Henry VIII has proved most injurious to this Country; and the circumstances of the present times imperatively demand the restoration of similar institutions". The fact that it was passed by 88 votes to 60 suggests that Union debates preserved a certain distance from reality throughout the Young England years.111

However, the shifting of the intellectual agenda towards questions unsuitable for adversarial discussion is not the only reason for the relative decline of the Union after 1830. The dispute over the abandonment of the twenty-year rule produced an enduring split, with the Apostles sponsoring a rival society "for the purpose of debating in a more gentlemanly manner". Called the Fifty, its membership was limited, in a fine English tradition of eccentricity, to sixty-five. It operated for several years under the leadership of J.W. Blakesley, who had been President of the Union in 1829.112 Although one undergraduate thought that he "looks like a fog and speaks like an east wind", Blakesley exercised considerable influence over serious young men as a Fellow of Trinity. "He ought to be Lord Chancellor," thought Tennyson, "for he is a subtle and powerful reasoner, and an honest man."113 When marriage removed him from Cambridge and he became vicar of Ware, Blakesley bombarded The Times with letters on social reform, giving national prominence to the by-line of the "Hertfordshire Incumbent".

One of the defectors to the Fifty was Tennyson's friend, Arthur Hallam, son of distinguished medieval historian:


And H[allam] spouts from out the pages

Of his own father's "Middle Ages"114


The Fifty was still active in 1835, but had probably lapsed by 1841, when Arthur's younger brother, Henry Hallam, formed the Historical, which had "about forty members" who conducted "tolerably lively debates".115 Its name was perhaps a tribute to the long-standing debating society at Trinity College Dublin. Members of the Fifty tended to boycott the Union, except for major issues such as the Reform Bill. Fellow Apostles discouraged the younger Hallam from speaking in Union debates, although the Dictionary of National Biography recalled his defence of Maynooth. The Historical was not an out-and-out rival, and its members "attended the Union pretty regularly so as to form the nucleus of an audience there".116 It may have been the Historical that gave Harcourt his first experience of debating. The existence of two successive independent debating societies seems to suggest that there was a swing in support away from the Union as an institution for some time after 1830, rather than a lack of interest in spouting societies as such.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of the junior common rooms created a new in-college focus for undergraduate social life.117 One by-product was that several colleges either had debating clubs of their own, or formed joint societies – not necessarily with immediate neighbours – as did Emmanuel and Caius in the Edwardian period.118 Debating was one of the activities that Non-Collegiate students pursued as a means to create their own sense of community. Their first attempt to form a society in 1874 foundered within two years. "This I do not regret", reported the Censor, but its successor in 1886 campaigned for the Non-Colls to be given a distinctive name.119 By the eighteen-nineties, college debating societies operated mainly as feeders for the Union, even if the training they provided did not always make for an easy transition.120 With the exception of Trinity's engagingly named Magpie and Stump, surviving reports hardly suggest that they flourished.121 It seems that the only advantage college societies offered over the Union was that members were permitted to smoke; Trinity, once again, operated in a league of its own by deciding in 1893 to provide members with snuff.122 In St John's, on the other hand, the most notable feature of the college debating society before 1914 was "its remarkable capacity to survive occasional lean years".123

It was fortunate that the Magpie and Stump was an expression of Trinity particularism, since it was the sole society that might have challenged the university-wide supremacy of the Union in the later nineteenth century. Attempts to open membership to King's, probably yet further evidence of the Cambridge Etonian network, were rejected in 1874 and 1877. In choosing to venerate the Magpie, its founders were probably signalling an intention to treat debating as a frivolous activity. However, the original limitation of membership to thirteen was rapidly expanded to 70 in 1873, and all restrictions were abandoned in 1887. Although it expelled Stanley Baldwin for failing to speak, Trinity's debating club made no serious attempt to ensure that loquacity was matched by political education. In January 1888, it was decided to use surplus funds to send an investigating committee to Ireland, but soon afterwards a dissenting faction forced through a qualifying motion declaring that no funds were to be considered as surplus.124 Indeed, the most notable Irishman in the club's history, Erskine Childers, actively collaborated in its most light-hearted episode. 

There is some reason to believe that as Master of Trinity, H.M. Butler hoped to make the college debating society into a serious rival (in both senses of the term) to the Union. In this, he may have been too successful. By 1892, the Magpie and Stump "had got more or less into the hands of the Trinity scholars, and had lost its popularity and interest".125 To reclaim the society for mainstream frivolity, a dissident faction got up "a Great Rag" in support of George Hamilton-Gordon, who had been expelled for failing to speak. Hamilton-Gordon's friends retaliated by nominating him for the presidency of the Magpie and Stump, in opposition to the official candidate, Childers. The election was a highly successful stunt to revive and publicise the college debating club: the "Gordon Riots" were reported in the national press, and gave E.F. Benson an idea for a novel. Slogans were chalked on walls all over Cambridge, the challengers adopting blue as their colour, in contrast with the red of the "legitimists". Both parties issued manifestos. Hamilton-Gordon offered to convey his supporters to the polls in a sedan chair. With Irish Home Rule once again in the air, Childers declared that he attached "the greatest importance to the maintenance of the Union (to which I have paid my subscription regularly)". Hamilton-Gordon's campaign manager was R.C. Bosanquet, later famous as an archaeologist. Other participants were the emerging historian G.P. Gooch and F.S. Jackson, whose varied career would make him captain of the England cricket team, chairman of the Conservative party and governor of Bengal. In an episode not mentioned in the great philosopher's autobiography, Bertrand Russell "took red chalk and ran round the town in a last-minute attempt to attract the votes of a fickle electorate". However, Trinity voters seem to have been swayed by the slogan "Speech is Childers, but Silence is Golden", for Hamilton-Gordon was elected by 127 votes to 103. The victorious candidate promptly appointed Childers as Vice-President and designated him as his successor.126 Subsequently, the Magpie and Stump abandoned expulsion for silent members, imposing instead a termly fine upon those who failed to speak. "Often I paid the fine," recalled Nehru.127

For a study of student opinion, the most important element at any debate was not the speakers, but the audience. For most debates, "this House" eludes the historian: who were they? Why were they there? One generalisation does seem possible: Union audiences were generally livelier in the earlier period, and as the century wore on they became positively supine – even though, paradoxically, they also grew in size. Major disorders were rare, and confined to the years before 1850. In 1826, the Union briefly expelled a member, Thomas Holt of Trinity, for disorderly conduct during a debate. Holt had "made use of insulting language" when called to order and replied to his expulsion with "a disorderly & abusive speech". (After he had been forcibly evicted, the Society proceeded to private business and agreed to subscribe to a periodical called The English Gentleman.) The following week, a grudgingly apologetic letter was received from the offender. Holt could not remember that he "had said or done any thing derogatory to the dignity of the society" but friends had told him that his behaviour had been "quite unjustifiable". He pleaded for the Union to "take into consideration that I was at that time in such a state as not to be accountable for any thing I might have said or done". In the face of the perennial student strategy of regarding a description of the offence (in this case, being offensively drunk) as in some way constituting its own excuse, the Union agreed to Holt's re-admission.128  A more mysterious episode occurred in 1830, when "the decency of the Society was violated in a manner too gross to be particularly recorded" by Henry Ward of St Catharine's.129 Whatever he had done to merit his expulsion, Ward went on to become an Anglican clergyman.

The factional disorder that prevented the Society from debating the respective merits of Wordsworth and Byron in 1828 was untypical. One other notably violent episode took place in 1849 during a debate on a motion declaring that Richard Cobden represented "the rising good sense of the nation". The proposer, Richard Sedgwick of Trinity, was a nephew of the famous geologist, and it was probably his relationship to a Fellow of Trinity that saved him from expulsion when he became embroiled in a scandal over a young woman. A contemporary recalled Sedgwick as "a cleverish, excitable, worthy fellow whose mind was a marvellous mixture of inconsistent opinions which he expounded with a kind of oratory as grotesque as his views". One of his highly- coloured mixed metaphors damned the clergy as "priests sitting upon their golden middens and crunching the bones of the people". His opponent, the coldly conservative and sadistically logical James Fitzjames Stephen, demolished Sedgwick's rhetoric with such devastating sarcasm that the proposer of the motion hurled himself furiously upon his tormenter. A general fist-fight erupted, in which an exceptionally distinguished part was played by a future Clerk of the Calcutta High Court, Charles Piffard. Sedgwick and his supporters were evicted, leaving Cobden to be dismissed by 47 votes to nil. Two future cabinet ministers, Childers and Harcourt, spoke in the debate and presumably also took part in the fight.130 Although Sedgwick eventually suffered a major mental breakdown, he did manage to overcome his anti-clerical feelings sufficiently to take orders in the Anglican Church and continued a family tradition by serving as perpetual curate in the remote Yorkshire village of Dent. The most venomous of radicals would have been hard put to portray Dent as a golden midden. The clash between the Sedgwickians and the Stephenites was an isolated incident. In 1891, the Union's chief clerk recalled that "no member had been expelled by force since 1849".131

Debates seem to have been livelier in the earlier period. Perhaps this was because the generally smaller attendance encouraged a more informal atmosphere. It may also be related to the probability that the average age of the audience was higher in the first half of the nineteenth century. The American, C. A. Bristed, who was active in the Union in the eighteen-forties, noted that the


English style of speaking and of hearing is very different from ours. Expressions of approbation and disapprobation on the part of the audience being frequent, the speaker aims more at points than with us, and when he has said a good thing or what he means to be such, looks out for the Hear! Hear! as a matter of course.132


One of the peculiarities of the Fifty was a rule banning its members from responding to speeches in any way.133 Interjections were not necessarily witty or profound. A speech in 1826 attacking the character of Swift was interrupted by "loud & repeated cries of No, No". Eventually, the chair ruled that "No! No!" was not necessarily objectionable, "but that the repetition in this case made it disorderly".134 Tedious speakers might face shouts of "adjourn, adjourn". In 1831, there was an unsuccessful move to give the President "a discretionary power" to terminate speakers whose "tiresome prolixity" provoked members "to such a pitch of obstreperousness" as to threaten order.135

All this seems to have disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century. An observer in 1899 suggested that an "electric-shock machine" was needed "to persuade the audience to indicate its existence as an audience".136 One regular speaker "always felt inclined to stop and beseech his hearers to hoot, revile, or even proceed to physical violence, anything rather than continue to regard him with contemptuous indifference".137 Whereas in the eighteen-forties, Union offices frequently "went a-begging" for lack of candidates,138 half a century later, Union audiences were well aware of "the power vested in them" as they "exercised a continual domination in silent and profitless self-complacency" over the aspirants who performed to win their favours.139 It was those same members, whether assertive or silently supine, whose votes determined whether motions passed or failed. A study of Union debates as evidence of opinion must seek to understand how and why they voted as they did.








Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.


1. The Times, 25 Feb. 1886.

2. Harris, Life So Far, p. 60. Rupert Brooke never spoke in a debate, but he used Union Society notepaper when writing to Katherine Cox, the love of his life. G. Knights, ed., The Letters of Rupert Brooke (1968), p. 324.

3. It is not easy to interpret early Union accounts, since Treasurers seem to have employed different accounting periods, and some figures simply do not add up. Between 16 December 1824 and 26 March 1825, income was £252-11-6 and total expenditure £153-1-8, of which £73-11-3 went on newspapers, plus a further £43-12-5 that was overdue. On 7 October 1831, income for the preceding but unspecified period was reported to be £325-9-3 and expenditure £242-7-3. The Union was thus a substantial business enterprise, but run on largely amateur lines until a clerk was hired in 1831.

4. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 43. In the early years, members spoke from their places, not from the despatch box. Backbench speakers were sometimes inaudible. Sketches of Cantabs, p. 48.

5. MB1, 16 Dec. 1823.                       

6. MB3, 22 May 1826, fos 38-9.

7. MB3, 12 Feb. 1827; MB4, 27 Nov. 1827, fo. 69.

8. Inaug., p. 8; VCH, p. 115.               

9. MB3, 11 Dec. 1826, fo. 80.

10. Laws and Transactions (1822), pp. 35-40.

11. MB3, 28 Nov. 1826, fo. 68.         

12. MB3, 30 Oct. 1826, fo. 34.

13. MB4, 10 March 1828, fos 100-2.

14. MB3, 30 Oct. 1826, fo. 34; MB6, 8 Feb. 1831, fo. 105.

15. MB2, 9 Feb. 1825.                       

16. MB2, April 1825.

17. MB6, 16 Nov. 1830, fo. 60. The post had been filled by 8 Feb. 1831 when "the Clerks Dinner time" was fixed from 12.30 to 2, fo. 105.

18. MB3, 29 Oct. 1827, fos 49-50.

19. MB3, 2 May 1826, 29 Oct. 1827, fos 49-50.

20. MB5, 18 Nov. 1828, fo. 16.         

21. MB6, 16 Nov. 1830, fo. 60.

22. MB6, 6 Dec. 1830, fos 86-7.        

23. Bristed, p. 118.

24. Hort, p. 44. Cf. Sketches of Cantabs, p. 35 for a description of the Union's club facilities c. 1846.

25. MB15, fos 55-65. VCH, p. 137.  In 1854, Homersham Cox published The British Commonwealth: or a Commentary on the Institutions and Principles of British Government.

26. Annual Report , 1851, pp. 124-5 (26/11/50). The officers and committee had failed to turn up the previous week.

27. Leslie Stephen in Saturday Review, quoted Inaug., pp. 43-4.

28. Inaug., p. 19

29. Dilke, i, p. 31.                   

30. VPR E 1860.

31. Inaug., p. 63. The historian of the finances of St John's states that "it was not the policy of the College to dispose of its land [in the town of Cambridge] in the absence of some specially strong reason for this course". Town centre sites were also sold in the mid-Victorian period for the Divinity Schools and for Ridley Hall, and the hand of William Selwyn may be suspected in both of these. The same authority also states that "no steps were taken by the College to provide for the balance of the cost [of the new Chapel] until after the work had been completed" in 1871. However, since the total cost was £98649, it seems reasonable to assume that the sale of the Round Church site to the Union was partly motivated by the growing financial burden. A benefactor agreed to contribute £1000 a year during his lifetime towards the cost of the tower, but he was killed soon afterwards in a train crash. H.F. Howard, An Account of the Finances of the College of St John the Evangelist (1935), pp. 201-2, 209-12.

32. Dilke, i, pp. 50-1. If the Peto family did advise on the project, the Union was lucky with its timing for Sir Samuel Morton Peto went bankrupt in 1866.

33. Inaug., pp. xiii-xv. "There are few who would have given it the time and attention which Mr Waterhouse has done" (p. xii).

34. Inaug., p. 40.                     

35. Inaug., pp. xiii, 84.

36. The Times, 25 Feb. 1886

37. Bristed, p. 118; Cambridge Observer,  22 Nov. 1892, p. 2.

38. Student's Guide, pp. 52, 70-1.

39. Laws and Transactions (1822), pp. 29-30.

40. MB5, 24 Feb. 1829, fo. 58.

41. Laws and Transactions (1822), pp. 40-43.

42. MB3, fo. 27 (Easter Term 1827); MB5, 9 Feb. 1829, fo. 35; Merivale, pp. 59-60. See also MB6, 11 Feb. 1832, fo. 71.

43. MB6, 1 Nov. 1830, fo. 42.

44. Suggestions Book (c. 1854), undated.

45. MB2, 16 May 1826, fo. 12.

46. Skipper, p. 16. Nineteenth-century Cambridge memoirs do not suggest that individual students bought many newspapers. Thackeray received newspapers from home, but in his day they were expensive items. For Walter Besant in the eighteen-fifties, Sunday breakfast included treat the controversial Saturday Review. Thackeray, p. 63; Autobiography of Walter Besant, p.94.

47. MB3, 22 May 1827, fo. 27.          

48. CR, 23 May, 1912, p. 459.

49. VPR E 1870.                                

50. VPR M 1895.

51. VPR M 1897.                               

52. MB2, 14 Nov. 1823.

53. Sketches of Cantabs, p. 37, also quoted Cradock, p. 44.

54. E.F. Benson, David of King's, pp. 237-8.

55. Gr, 9 Feb. 1895, p. 176. The Granta contested this criticism.

56. MB5, 18, 25 Nov. 1828, fos 18-21.

57. MB5, fo. 21; Cradock, p.20.

58. MB5, 2 Dec. 1828, fos 23-25 indicates that 247 members were present; 9 Feb. 1829, fo. 36.

59. C. Whibley, Lord John Manners and His Friends (2 vols, 1925), i, p. 59.

60. Quoted W.F. Monypenny, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, ii (1912), pp. 162-3.

61. DNB, "Vaughan, Charles John".  In a remarkable "Establishment" cover-up, the story did not reach the public domain until the publication of  Phyllis Grosskurth's biography of John Addington Symonds in 1964.

62. Cradock, pp. 29-30.

63. Bristed, p. 120. Bristed's annoyance is partly explained by the fact that he was similarly defeated for the Presidency.

64. Raikes, pp. 18-19. The future Archbishop was W. Saumarez Smith, who launched the Union's Building Fund (Inaug., p. xi).

65. Laws and Transactions (1822), pp. 26-7 (29 May 1821).

66. Cradock, p. 36; Hort, p. 58; Skipper, pp. 13-14.

67. Oxf. Mag., 13 May 1891, pp. 363-4; 28 Feb. 1894, p. 243.

68. Milnes, p. 58 (8 Dec. 1828); The Times, 25 Feb. 1886. The award of "Blues" for sporting achievement is a survival of this fancy dressing.

69. Dalton, Call Back Yesterday, p. 43.

70. Alma Mater, i, p. 62. The Atheist Club was inspired by Voltaire, whose influence in Cambridge was understandably limited.

71. Student's Guide, p. 72.

72. Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise, p. 35.  The Union had opposed the award of an honorary degree to Browning, 12/3/67.

73. A. Gray, Cambridge Revisited (1921), pp. 137-50.

74. J. Nehru, An Autobiography (1962 ed.), p. 21; Dalton, Call Back Yesterday, p. 51; P. Spear,

The Oxford History of Modern India 1740-1947 (1965), p. 363.

75. E.F. Benson, David of King's, p. 277. The Pitt Club settled in Jesus Lane in 1863.

76. Searby, pp. 711-18.

77. B. Holland, The Life of Spencer Compton, Eighth Duke of Devonshire (2 vols, 1912), i, pp. 14-15; Searby, p. 712 and note; A.C. Benson, Edward White Benson, i, pp. 74-5; Oliver Lyttelton, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1962), pp. 18-19. In the early eighteen-sixties, the Athenaeum seems to have passed through a serious phase. B and P. Russell, eds, The Amberley Papers, I, p. 230.

78. Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, i, p. 73; E.F. Benson, David of King's, p. 294. Whewell, who was an energetic rather than a competent horseman, claimed to have "personally measured the depth of every ditch in the neighbourhood of Cambridge by tumbling into it" (Whewell, p. 190). A guide to night-climbing on the roofs of Trinity was published in 1899.

79. Bristed, p. 343. Nehru (Autobiography, p. 20) wrote of his Cambridge days, "in spite of our brave talk, most of us were rather timid where sex was concerned".

80. Lyttelton, Alfred Lyttelton, p. 54.

81. Leslie Stephen in National Review, 42, 1903-4, p. 145.

82. MB3, 7/12 May 1827, fos 125-6. 

83. Annual Report 1855, p. 49.

84. CR, 16 June 1892, p. 392; Gr, 2 May 1914, pp. 278-9.

85. CR, 6 Nov. 1890, p. 68.

86. Laws and Transactions (1823), 18 March 1823.

87. MB, i, fo. 44, 30 March, 25 May 1824.

88. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iv (1902), pp. 517, 524, 530, 537, 541 (and 546 for March 1826).

89. MB2, 13 Feb. 1825.

90. E.g. the debate of 17/2/24 specifically asked: "Is the present system of Game Laws deserving of the support of Parliament?" Despite criticism from Praed, the Union decided by 85-68 that it did. But members voted by 62 to 5 in favour of "a reform in the present system of the Game Laws" on 19/4/25. The debate on the same subject on 20/5/28 was also present-focused.

 The formality of the procedure can be seen from the decision of 27 Feb. 1827 (MB3, fo. 11) to debate parliamentary reform at the next meeting. The motion, on 13/3/27, included the "twenty year" provision, apparently pro forma.

91. MB6, 9, 11 Nov. 1830, fos 52, 55-7.       

92. MB6, fo. 57.

93. Parliamentary Debates, 20, 24 March 1829, cols 1413-17. For Kerry, see Milnes, p. 57 and Macaulay, i, p. 142: "I do not know when I have taken so much to so young a man", wrote Macaulay in February 1830, calling Kerry "kind, lively, intelligent, modest … without the least affectation".  He died in 1836. In 1856, Romilly was surprised to find that Lord Lansdowne, although an elder statesman, was poor at spelling, Rom3, p. 263.

94. Laws and Transactions (1834), p. 66.

95. MB6, 16 Nov. 1830, fo. 60.         

96. MB6, 22 Nov. 1830, fo. 75.

97. MB6, Nov. 1830, fo. 83.

98. MB7, 8 Nov. 1831, fo. 39. For "little Wentworth", see Trinity College. Houghton MSS 35/100, family letter of 10 March 1829 by R.M. Milnes.

99. MB7, 29 Nov. 1831, fos 51-4.     

100. Lytton, i, p. 233.              

101. Bristed, p. 118.

102. Stephen, Sketches from Cambridge, p. 59. In 1903, Stephen admitted in 1902 that his Sketches had been "very flippant". Maitland, Leslie Stephen, p. 480. Stephen claimed that if the origins were traced of the archetypal "stupendous bore" who addressed the Social Science Association, "you will find that in his earlier days he spoke at the Union … generously bestow[ing] his tediousness upon the debating society". "the bore who has just chipped the egg-shell is as like the full-fledged bore of later life as a grampus to a whale." None the less, Union debates were "often highly amusing". Stephen, Sketches from Cambridge, pp. 59-61.

103. National Review, 42, 1903-4, p. 104.

104. W. Everett, On The Cam (1865), pp. 106-8. Cambridge seems to have treated Everett's account with some indulgence. "I rate its uses and especially its debates far higher than our young cousin from the New World", said Lord Powys at the inauguration of the new debating chamber. Inaug., pp. 2-3. The Cambridge Chronicle, 7 April 1866, called Everett "a clever man and a keen observer" and welcomed news of the publication of lectures on the University that he had delivered in Boston in "a frank and candid manner".

105. The impression of a golden age relies upon accounts of the Union c. 1823 and again c.1827-9. However, numbers voting at debates fell away sharply around 1826.

106. Bristed, p. 118.

107. Whibley, Lord John Manners and His Friends, i, p. 58.

108. Inaug., p. 3.

109. The point was made by the leading article in The Times, 25 Feb. 1886.

110. Whibley, Lord John Manners and His Friends, i, p. 66.

111.27/2-5/3/44.  The Evangelical, George Stephen, claimed in 1847 to be "familiar with the present tone of feeling among the junior classes at Cambridge ... a very large majority of those who affect conversion to Tractarian principles, are led away either by either by the seduction of pious romance, or by the far less excusable impulse of a love of notoriety". G. Stephen, The Jesuit at Cambridge, ii, pp. 325-6. His son was an undergraduate at that time.

112. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, pp. 53-4.

113. H. Tennyson, Tennyson, p. 32.

114. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 54.

115. Bristed, p. 118.               

116. Bristed, pp. 125, 188-19.

117. H.S. Jones, "Student Life and Socialibility, 1860-1930: Comparative Reflections", History of Universities, 14, 1995-6, pp. 225-46.

118. Cradock, pp. 99-100.                 

119. Grave, Fitzwilliam College, pp. 122-3.

120. See the foolish motion moved by T.F.R. McDonnell in 1897, discussed in Chapter Eight.

121. See the dismal account in Gr, 21 Nov. 1896, p. 81, reprinted in Rice, comp., The Granta, pp. 294-6. In clique-ridden King's, freshmen in 1889 formed a debating society called "The Cigarettes", Gr, 8 March 1889, p. 7.

122. Ferguson, Magpie and Stump, p. 14.

123. Miller, Portrait of a College, p. 108.

124. Ferguson, Magpie and Stump, pp. 9-10, 38-9.

125. J.R.M. Butler, H. M. Butler, p. 14; Oxf. Mag., 9 March 1892, p. 233.

126. Ferguson, Magpie and Stump, pp. 17-34.

127. Nehru, Autobiography, p. 21.

128. MB2, 18/25 April 1826. Holt was protesting against the omission of his name from the membership list.

129. MB6, 7 Dec. 1830, fos 94,96. The incident happened on the night Smith O'Brien was elected President.

130. MB14, 27 Nov. 1849, fos 231-2; L. Stephen, Fitzjames Stephen, pp. 98-9; Rom3, pp. 83, 118, 209, 450-1.

131. Dick Sedgwick had initially refused to go to Dent, but accepted the living in 1859 probably to assure his bachelor uncle of a home in eventual retirement, Rom, pp. 312-13; Gr, 24 Oct. 1891, p. 29. Sedgwick appears at "Tickler" in Sketches of Cantabs, pp. 36-50, from which it appears that he spoke with a lisp ("I would weform these wadical cowwuptions.")

132. Bristed, p. 119.   

133. Allen, Cambridge Apostles, p. 54.

134. MB3, 21 Nov. 1826, fo. 47.       

135. MB7, 8 March 1831, fo. 2.

136. Gr., 20 May 1899, p. 329.          

137. Gr., 11 Feb. 1899, pp. 178-9.

138. Bristed, p. 118.                           

139. The Snarl, 21 Oct. 1899, p. 3.