Chapter 7

'Oratory and Opinion' tackles the relationship between debating and the elusive concept of 'opinion'.

7: Oratory and Opinion

The Cambridge Union was a debating society, "little pifflers spouting big piffle", as a later detractor put it.1 Consequently, the historian cannot simply take for granted that the results of its sometimes juvenile proceedings constitute a serious record of opinion. Did votes in Union debates simply represent the verdict of a studio audience on a weekly oratorical beauty contest? The argument offered in this chapter is that the Cambridge Union existed primarily as a training ground for public speaking, in which inspiring oratory was unusual and persuasive debating rare. Consistent patterns of voting on major issues can be identified throughout long periods, usually well beyond the average span that any individual student spent at Cambridge. Accordingly, debate records can be treated as evidence of opinion.

There was no single style of speaking that could be identified with the Cambridge Union, and fashions varied throughout the century. Indeed, the turn-over of personnel in a student community meant that the quality of debates could change very quickly. Many of the participants in the first inter-varsity debate in 1828 had been at Eton together, yet the delivery of the Cambridge delegation astonished their Oxford hosts. Standards could drop very suddenly: in 1891, the Vice-President's report complained that debates had suffered from "a considerable falling off in interest, and the speaking has not been of so high an order as is usual in this Society".2 The following year, a reporter lamented that "with one or two exceptions, there is really nobody at all at our Union now who has the smallest idea of even making an indifferent speech". In 1899, "contempt for style" was said to be endemic.3

Style included not only speech but also body language, which could range from the violent to the languid. Praed sarcastically claimed to "be somewhat afraid of the knock-down arguments" of an opponent "when I see how much the table of the house has suffered from the fist of the honourable gentleman". Yet he was equally capable of lampooning Macaulay for speaking "with his arms and his metaphors crossed", while Leslie Stephen archly suggested that practice at debating could "enable the orator to attain that last pitch of perfection at which he knows what to do with his hands".4 A reporter in 1902 regretted "the increasing tendency" of Union speakers to solve that particular problem by speaking "with their hands in their pockets, a practice never becoming, and in a young speaker savouring somewhat of arrogance".5

Even among shifting fashions, individuals had their own mode of delivery. Recalling the Union of the eighteen-twenties, Benjamin Hall Kennedy distinguished between the styles of Cockburn, the lawyer, and Praed, the poet. Cockburn engaged in minute preparation, rehearsing his contributions in detail, and could sometimes be seen "in the most retired part of the Trinity grounds, slowly pacing and moving his lips, as if reciting to himself". The end product would be a speech of "great fluency, power, and precision". Praed, on the other hand, although sufficiently well-informed "to escape any semblance of shallowness or incoherence" managed to give the impression that he was simply speaking with discursive wit on the spur of the moment, in a display of "instinctive readiness". Merivale also recalled distinct styles. Kemble was notable "for his stores of information". Sunderland unleashed a "copious flow of rhetoric, enlivened by much incisive wit and by well-wrought bits of flowery declamation". Another lost talent was William Horne, who died on his twenty-fourth birthday. His contributions to debates were "precise and logical deductions of the utilitarian school".6

Although there was no single "Union" style, the required posture of shallow omniscience perhaps encouraged the less positive quality of a Cambridge Union attitude. A practised speaker might adopt different approaches at different times. A speech by Keynes in support of Home Rule was judged to be "one of the best examples of the undemonstrative school; quiet, fluent and logical", but Wilson Harris recalled a peroration in which Keynes roused the Union to fever pitch with a witty appeal "to all right-thinking persons, when the division came, to 'go streaming through the noes'". Unfortunately, a style that amused "right-thinking persons" within the confined world of Cambridge might be experienced in a very different way by outsiders. A.P.W. Plumtre, a Canadian who studied under Keynes, doubted whether the Union's influence upon his mentor was "for the best". "I have seen the Union debating style, with its fluency, its flippancy, its intentional controversy, and its unintentional condescension, used in international arguments with people accustomed to more suave and courteous ways of talking - and with very bad effects." As a Union orator, Keynes "was devastatingly successful and obviously enjoyed it" but when he used the same techniques in other contexts, "he probably hurt more people than he knew or meant to". Like Keynes, Plumtre was both a civil servant and a scholar. Keynes was a product of Eton; Plumtre of its transatlantic equivalent, Upper Canada College. It is noteworthy that this thoughtful Canadian assessment should have so firmly singled out the Cambridge Union, rather then privileged education or superior intellect, as the source of a flaw in an English genius.7

Some speakers probably never overcame their natural disadvantages, however compelling their arguments. Perhaps G.H.R. Barton of Clare was related to the Wicklow gentry family of that name, for he spoke like an Irish unionist when he opposed Home Rule in 1892. His warnings fell on deaf ears, a reporter noting only that he "talked prettily of demons of rapine and murder, but was otherwise dull".8 Despite repeated attempts, the soporific delivery of George Epps of Emmanuel never won the ear of the Union. He suffered from the additional disadvantage of sharing his surname with a well-known brand of cocoa, advertised with the slogan "grateful and comforting". The phrase was too great a temptation for Union scribblers to pass over, and his speech in support of Home Rule in 1906 was soon dismissed. "Mr Epps talks sound common sense, but the temptation to listen to him is easily resisted."9 It was in character that Epps crowned a worthy career by rising to the post of Government Actuary.

Union speeches are best analysed under three headings: oratory, public speaking and debating. Oratory dazzles and may be suspected of disguising flawed arguments to bamboozle the unwary into endorsing illogical propositions. At the other end of the spectrum, debating is the art of dissecting an opponent's argument in order to demonstrate its fallacies, a process that seeks to persuade rather than to overwhelm. There is plenty of evidence that the Cambridge Union was disappointing on both these headings. Rather, it operated principally as a forum for the encouragement of cogent public speaking. Most debates were nothing like a continuous logical engagement with the proposition under discussion but were rather a series of individual performances in which participants concentrated on the articulation of their own views. In short, the more the deficiencies of the Cambridge Union are recognised, the more plausible it becomes to regard its votes as evidence of opinion rather than the outcome of gladiatorial oratory.

A persistent criticism of the Union was that it tended "to encourage volubility of speech where there is abundance neither of knowledge nor of ideas".10 Praed poked fun at one speaker of the eighteen-twenties for "panting and blowing like a courier", riding his personal hobby horse. "Off he goes! Mounts at Magna Carta, breakfasts with the Long Parliament, dines with William and Anne, and finds himself comnfortably at home in the state of the nation." To his embarrassment, Charles Merivale found himself confusing basic facts about the life of Mary Queen of Scots when he denounced her execution in his maiden speech in 1827. He was equally surprised that "their fallacy was not discovered. Indeed, I believe one might practise very considerably on the credulity of the house, if one chose." Inaccurate information was almost certainly matched by erroneous logic. As a fin-de-siècle critic put it, "if skilfully delivered, a fallacious argument has much more effect than the most weighty utterance monstrously mumbled".11 The Times had taken a more indulgent view in 1886. It was true that some speeches were "all flashiness" and that "a Union audience likes fluency, smart hits, and well-rounded periods". However, many undergraduates were "fairly proficient students of politics" and so were "neither likely to talk nonsense nor to be moved by it". The second part of the statement was perhaps more plausible than the first. "A shallow rhetorician may be applauded, but a large part of his youthful audience is quite capable of taking his measure."12 Hugh Dalton immodestly claimed that the Union made him "almost too fluent", but many of his contemporaries distrusted him and he failed to become President.13

Monckton Milnes was disappointed to hear "a great deal more declamation than argument" when he attended his first debate, on Catholic Emancipation, in 1827. By contrast, Thackeray reported "some excellent speaking" on the same issue in 1829.14 Yet, as Chapter Eight shows, the division of opinion on the Catholic question remained remarkably stable in Union debates throughout the eighteen-twenties. We must assume either identical levels of declamation and excellence in all eight debates between 1822 and 1829, or conclude that most speeches bounced off minds that were already made up. Dilke was unimpressed by G.O. Trevelyan when he attended his first debate, on the American Civil War: his verdict of "mere flash, but very witty" had much to do with the fact that Trevelyan supported the South while Dilke was a fervent partisan of the North.15 Trevelyan carried the day, or rather the Confederate cause triumphed, by 117 votes to 33. A year later, with entirely different speakers, the Union again voted in favour of the South, this time by 66 votes to 18. In two debates, the result was statistically identical: 78 percent of a Cambridge audience supported the Southern states.16 It seems unlikely that the flash or wit of any single speech was sufficient to upset opinions already formed. Undergraduates who were sufficiently interested in the American Civil War to attend a Union debate on the issue had probably already determined which side they supported. Certainly Trevelyan did not always sway the Union. As a freshman, he had delivered "a most eloquent speech" demanding "condign punishment of the Indian mutineers", but the motion was rejected by almost two to one (70 votes to 36), a result which even its proposer generously conceded gave "a very high, and at the same time just, idea of the sense and manliness of the Cambridge Union".17

If oratory had swayed Union audiences, we should expect to encounter violent swings in voting and inconsistency in motions passed or rejected. In fact, there seems to be only one example of a dramatic see-saw, over State payment of Catholic priests in 1846-47. This may have been the result of the debating skills of young Henry Hallam, but probably it cannot be entirely dissociated from the crisis of the Irish Famine.18 Moreover, if students were capable of being swayed by the bulk or the cogency or the passion of the speeches delivered, we should expect to find progressive causes in general triumphing far more often than was the case. "A great majority of Union orators are almost invariably desperate Radicals", wrote Leslie Stephen, whereas most undergraduates were "Conservatives of the most orthodox type". One hallmark of English conservatism, at least until the Thatcher era, was its marked distrust of the theoretical, sometimes extending to complete repudiation of all forms of logical argument. Hence, at Cambridge, "against this solid Tory phalanx all the rhetoric of fiery Radicals and premature Republicans spends itself in perfect harmlessness".19

The collision between radical rhetoric and conservative resistance can be seen in debates relating to Ireland, especially in the late nineteenth century. In 1890, the "main object" of one advocate of Home Rule "seemed to be the wearing down of his opponents by a system of oratorical blockade".20 None the less, he failed to make any impact upon an ingrained unionist majority. Another example can be found in a debate of 1903 on the trial of Colonel Arthur Lynch. The Australian-born Lynch had fought for the Boers in the small but politically significant Irish Brigade, where he had also clashed with the gigantic ego of John MacBride. Lynch's gesture had secured him a by-election victory at Galway in 1901, quickly followed by prosecution for high treason and sentence of death. His cause was passionately championed by the Union's Secretary, J.C. Arnold of St John's. "We felt, as we seldom feel in the Union, that we had a born orator in our midst." However, "all his persuasiveness could not prevail against the settled conviction of the House". The Union consigned Lynch to his fate by 118 votes to 30, a very large majority in the teeth of Arnold's undoubted tour-de-force.21

After the First World War, the programme of the Cambridge Union began to be dominated by "big-name" visiting speakers who provided "less a debate than an exposition of a thesis by an outstanding master of it".22 Were pre-1914 undergraduates swept off their feet by the seductive arts of the veteran public figures? In fact, the practice of regularly inviting outsiders to speak at debates was a late-Victorian innovation and, as outlined in Chapter Nine, mainly a controversial by-product of the Irish Home Rule crisis of 1886. On one occasion in 1874, special arrangements had been made "to enable a non-member of the Society to take part in the Debate", so that an old Bengal hand could warn against the principle of competition for admission to the Indian Civil Service.23 The first set-piece visitor debate occurred in February 1884, when H.M. Hyndman and William Morris urged the adoption of "an ordered socialistic system in every department under the control of a completely democratic State". However, Hyndman was a life member of the Union, and valued his standing as a Cambridge man, while Morris equally was eligible to speak at the Union as a member of the sister society at Oxford: one of his first works of art had been the frescoes with which he decorated the original Oxford Union debating chamber in 1857. Hyndman was pleasantly surprised to find that as many as 58 Cambridge students were prepared to back his cause. More to the point, six times as many Cambridge students resisted the pleas of the distinguished visitors, and the motion was heavily defeated.24

Opinions varied on the desirability of introducing "set speeches" by prominent visitors to an undergraduate forum. The Times disapproved when the Oxford Union copied the Cambridge experiment in 1888 and invited Lord Randolph Churchill and John Morley to duel on Home Rule. Both had been members of the Oxford society, but the start of the debate was delayed by a skirmish as anti-Randolphites alleged that the Tory Democrat had been struck off for failing to pay his subscription.25 However, when the rising Liberal MP Frank Lockwood came to Cambridge to denounce Lord Salisbury's Irish policy the following year, a university journalist commented that "the cultivated oratory of veteran politicians serves the useful purpose of communicating vitality to debates which run the risk otherwise of degenerating into a reiteration of trite commonplaces and stale conventionalism".26 The fact that it was Home Rule that encouraged both the Cambridge and Oxford Unions to experiment with outside speakers is itself testimony to the extent to which Irish issues were seen to be external to the student world.

At the core of the explosion of anger by C.V. Stanford, Cambridge's Dublin-born Professor of Music, in 1887 was the allegation that the Union was being turned into a platform for Irish nationalists.27 Once the practice of inviting guest speakers began, both sides insisted on representation by external champions. In fact, anti-Home Rulers were never able to muster their biggest guns, although in fairness it should be said that they were hardly needed. In contrast to later decades, it was not easy to lure leading politicians to address a student audience. John Redmond cancelled at the last moment in 1894, although he made amends with a tremendous performance the following year. Dillon spoke in 1886 and again in 1909, while Swift MacNeill made a personal pilgrimage in 1913 for a repeat performance of a motion on Home Rule similar to one he had proposed in 1873. In addition, Sir Horace Plunkett spoke in favour of the establishment of a Catholic university in Ireland in 1903. Prior to 1914, the most prominent public men evidently concluded that the risks of addressing a mercurial audience of young men outweighed any possible advantages.

What was the impact of visiting speakers? "Judging from the comparative closeness of the division," wrote the Granta of the Home Rule debate of 1895, John Redmond "must have made converts." Home Rule had been defeated by 237 votes to 180, whereas there was usually "a two-to-one Unionist majority in a large House".28 Perhaps: Redmond was to register an even greater triumph at Oxford in 1907, when his "thrilling" speech was thought to have been responsible for a Home Rule triumph, a majority of 133 votes in a division of 585. "It is doubtful if the Union has ever heard or will ever hear again a speech that will have such an influence on its hearers," wrote an Oxford reporter.29 However, examined more closely, Redmond's impact on Cambridge opinion was probably not overwhelming. Out of 417 votes registered under his spell at Cambridge in 1895, 43 percent were for Home Rule. In the two previous debates in February 1893 and March 1894, the proportions had been 31 percent in a house of 389, and 34 percent in a division of 394. Dillon's visit in 1886 had caused a similar blip, a "swing" to Home Rule of about ten percent.30 When the Congress leader G.K. Gokhale spoke in 1906, he seems to have increased the vote in favour of Indian nationalism by about 13 percent.31 It was probably true at Cambridge, as has been claimed of Oxford prior to 1914, that some students thought it discourteous to vote against a visitor.32 Indeed, as late as 1933, one of the contributing elements to the Oxford vote in the "King and Country" debate was that the pacifist C.E.M. Joad was the sole guest speaker.33 In some cases, the "swing" to the unpopular cause might be explained simply by the increased attendance attracted by a distinguished visitor.

Prior to 1914, visiting speakers remained the exception at Cambridge, not least because the Union was primarily seen as a forum for undergraduate debate. One President from Edwardian times complained half a century later that the subsequent practice of inviting "every star in the contemporary firmament seems better calculated to produce a good stage-show than to provide a training ground for native talent".34 The Union grudgingly approved the principle of inviting outsiders in 1887, "provided that the necessary arrangements are submitted to the House for approval". An ambitious short-list was compiled, consisting of the Irish Nationalists, Thomas Sexton, T.P. O'Connor, Justin McCarthy, and their opponents, Colonel Saunderson, T.W. Russell and Leonard Courtney.35 (It is revealing that even the young optimists of Cambridge did not expect to secure Parnell.) It quickly became clear that public figures were not consumed with enthusiasm to address the Cambridge Union, so permission was granted to consider other names "provided they be men to whom the Committee feels sure the House could not personally object".36 The issue arose again in 1901 over an unauthorised approach to Lloyd George, then deeply unpopular because of his opposition to the Boer War. Critics called it "unfair and extraordinary" to extend an invitation "before the permission of the House has been obtained".37 When Lloyd George did appear in 1904, he proved more acceptable, sweeping the Union into one of its few recorded votes of no-confidence in a Conservative government, albeit at a moment when it was difficult for all but the most fervent of Tories to feel much loyalty to the Balfour ministry. "I must have heard him, and helped to swell his majority", Wilson Harris wrote half a century later, "but of the great occasion I remember precisely nothing at all".38 Another Edwardian recalled that "we did not attach overmuch importance to Visitors' Debates".39

However, even if the prominent politicians exercised only a relatively slight influence, deference towards authority could take more subtle forms.40 The pre-1914 world was characterised by respect towards even marginally calibrated seniority. When the freshman Bertrand Russell received a social call from J.E. McTaggart, he was so overwhelmed by the presence of a former President of the Union that he could not summon up the courage to invite McTaggart into his rooms.41 Wilson Harris recalled "the reverential haze through which a freshman views the achievements of his seniors": during his first term, he was awe-struck by the President of the Union, the "majestic" Edwin Montagu (an adjective that Montagu himself would have endorsed).42 Norman Birkett found himself "under a kind of spell" in 1908 on encountering F.D. Livingstone, who "had the prestige that belonged to ex-Presidents".43 In this case, the hero-worship is especially noteworthy. Birkett was a mature student, twenty-four years of age when he came to Cambridge, not a star-struck adolescent. Moreover, he was not the product of a public school and so had escaped the prefect culture that undoubtedly underlay much of the hierarchy of undergraduate life.44

Cambridge Union memoirs occasionally recall examples of outstanding oratory from across the years, such as Charles Merivale's confession that John Sterling's "vehement oratory carried our youthful judgments away with it". These do not always bear close scrutiny. Sometimes it appears that the impact of the dazzling speaker was confined to the writer of the memoir. On other occasions, the motion that occasioned the tour-de-force resulted in a division that reflected votes in more humdrum debates on the same question. Edward Bulwer Lytton recalled of the eighteen-twenties that "the greatest display of eloquence" came from "the renowned Macaulay", who was "some years our senior". A speech by Macaulay on the French revolution was etched in his memory "as the most heart-stirring effort of that true oratory which seizes hold of the passions, transports you from yourself, and identifies you with the very life of the orator, that it has ever been my lot to hear". The only contribution by Macaulay that squares with Lytton's reminiscence was delivered in February 1823 in a debate on the political conduct of Mirabeau. There were only three speakers, all for Mirabeau, and one of them was W.M. Praed, an equally formidable performer. None the less, the vote was tied at 33 votes on each side: half of those present were unmoved by the oratorical torrent, and voted for a point of view that nobody had bothered to expound.45 Oddly enough, Lytton recalled one other speech by Macaulay, on the liberty of the press, as "a failure". This was delivered in December 1824, after Macaulay had become a Fellow of Trinity, and on that occasion his side won by a margin of almost three-to-one, 71 votes against 24.46

Similarly, two brilliant speeches by young ex-Presidents from the Edwardian era were recalled with delight but probably made relatively little impact on the actual vote. Birkett remembered a speech on tariffs by A.C. Pigou, President in 1900, which "annihilated" the opposition and "ended with a peroration ... which roused the House to the wildest enthusiasm". Pigou spoke twice against Tariff Reform while Birkett was at Cambridge, in May 1908, the year he succeeded Marshall in the Chair of Economics, and in February 1910. Free trade was victorious in both, carrying the day by 131 votes to 115 on the first occasion, and by 182 votes to 153 on the second.. A contemporary report confirmed that he was a dazzling speaker, even suggesting that it was cruel to match him against mere undergraduates.47 But Tariff Reform was a "swing" issue: free trade carried the day five times in the seven debates on the issue between 1908 and 1913, and even Pigou could only achieve majorities of 52 and 54 percent in 1908 and 1910. True, he did better than another ex-President, J.M. Keynes, who helped free trade to a narrow three-vote victory in a house of 301 in November 1910 (with Hugh Dalton and Philip Noel-Baker in support). However, it had not always been so. In 1903, in company with two other formidable ex-Presidents, J.E. McTaggart and E.S. Montagu, Pigou had been unable to stem the flood of support for Joseph Chamberlain's recently launched protectionist campaign, going down on that occasion to defeat by 255 votes to 195.48 There is no doubt that Pigou was a devastating speaker as well as a brilliant economist. Yet this did not alter the fundamental fact that those who attended debates on the tariff question because they supported protection regarded him as brilliant but also wrong.

F.D. Livingstone continued to speak at the Union after his Presidency in 1907. His father was a Canon of Liverpool Cathedral, a background that probably explains both his Toryism and his explosive opposition to Irish Home Rule. Livingstone was a formidable speaker. "His very grocer's bill becomes a matter of immense importance to all his hearers", commented the Cambridge Review after he had denounced Liberal policy towards Ireland in 1908.49 The following year, he went head-to-head with John Dillon. Arnold McNair, who spoke alongside Dillon, recalled that Livingstone "was so effective that I had the sensation that he was actually 'punishing' our guest physically". A contemporary reporter doubted whether any summary could do justice to Livingstone's speech: "the reply he made to the arguments of the other side must have won back the votes of many waverers". However, the division at the end of the debate produced a tie: 184 votes on each side. Perhaps Dillon and Livingstone had cancelled each other out?50 However, when the Union returned to Home Rule one year later, the audience was one-third the size, the speakers were all undergraduates and nobody produced any fireworks - but the result was another dead-heat, this time 56 votes against 56. The Granta thought it "a strange coincidence" that two consecutive debates should have produced exactly the same result.51 The precise balance may indeed have been accidental, but the medium-term trend of student opinion was evidently towards Home Rule, and 1909-1910 seems to have been the cross-over point. Three debates between 1906 and 1908 produced majorities against Home Rule between 51 and 54 percent, with attendances varying between 142 and 280. Two debates in 1912 saw opposition to Home Rule drop to 43 percent in a House of 427, and 48 percent when the attendance was just 73.52 Oratory entertained and sometimes entranced, but it does not appear to have made dramatic conversions.

During his first year at Cambridge, Charles Dilke defined the ideal Union style as:


common-sense discussion in well-worded speeches with connected argument, the whole to be spoken loud enough to be heard, and with sufficient liveliness to convince the hearers of the speaker's interest in what he is saying.

"So far as this is oratory," he added, "it is cultivated (with very moderate success) at the Union."53 This, it might be said, was not oratory but rather public speaking, and it was the mere act of addressing an audience that was often cited as the chief value of the Union. Debating was "the very best school in the world for teaching a man to speak in public", pronounced the Granta in 1895.54 "The training in speaking which the Union has provided generations after generation has been of incalculable value to thousands of its members", wrote one ex-President.55 It is significant that in 1866, at the time of the inauguration of the premises in Round Church Street, celebrations of the value of the Union concentrated not upon the cut-and-thrust of debate but on the simple mechanics of "the powers of utterance". Speaking in the Union, Milnes told his successors, "will give you that faculty of prompt and precise diction which is indispensable for political success, and advantageous in every profession".56

Henry Fawcett took the argument a step further: the Union helped undergraduates "to think while you are speaking and to frame your ideas in suitable language".57 Bulwer Lytton recalled that when he first spoke in debates, he "was hurried away into imperfect articulation" by the "tumultuous impetuosity" of his thoughts.58 "The groundwork of many speeches is a rumble of inarticulate sounds", wrote Leslie Stephen, "from which a few half-finished sentences detach themselves at intervals." Mastering "the art of putting together tolerable connected sentences in public is worth something on its own account; but indirectly it leads to a good deal more." Cogent expression of ideas was a long step towards comprehending their meaning.59

All this helped to prepare young men for social and political leadership. The Pall Mall Gazette hailed the Union as "a very useful introductory discipline for men who are to engage in public life".60 As Lord Powis put it, Englishmen lived in "a country in which not only all the national, but all the local business is conducted by representative assemblies .... whom, to influence, you must persuade by discussion".61 Lord John Manners looked back on the Union as the educational highlight of two and a half years at Cambridge. "If ... I have gained no distinctions, and have squandered away, as I fear I have, a very large sum of money, I have still the consolation of thinking that I have acquired confidence and a certain knack of speaking in public which may be useful to me in after life." For Manners, an additional benefit was that public speaking helped him to curb a stammer.62 A decade later, Lord Aberdeen's son, Arthur Gordon, found that speaking in the Union helped him to overcome his shyness.63

The career of every Union debater began with the ordeal of a maiden speech. Officially, in keeping with parliamentary custom, maiden speeches were treated with indulgence and sympathy, but "if you can't think of a word, everybody begins to stamp".64 Even in a supportive atmosphere, maiden speakers were often forced to recognise that they were not born orators. Bulwer Lytton spoke first in a business session. "My speech was short, but it was manly and simple, spoken in earnest, and at once successful." Since his intervention had been in defence of a maligned officer, Lytton found himself immediately welcome among "the leading men of the Union. ... I had emerged from obscurity into that kind of fame which resembles success in the House of Commons." Over-confident in his sudden popularity, Lytton decided to speak in a regular debate, but "I fairly broke down in the midst of my second speech". This he regarded as a blessing in disguise. "I set myself to work in good earnest, and never broke down again".65 Monckton Milnes reported that his maiden speech "was nearly a failure". He was so "dreadfully nervous" that he felt ill. "I was applauded & complimented, but it was ill-delivered – another attempt may be more propitious."66 By contrast, Thackeray, two years later, resolved never to repeat the experiment. "I have made a fool of myself! ... I spouted at the Union." Some "malignant daemon" impelled him to speak on the character of Napoleon. "I got up & stuck in the mud at the first footstep then in endeavouring to extract myself ... I went in deeper and deeper still .... & blustered & blundered, & retracted, & stuttered".67

Harcourt's description of his maiden speech probably refers to a meeting of the Historical, but the experience seems typical enough:

I am sensible enough that I broke down, though my friends were very good-natured and said "a successful first attempt" and all that. The truth was that ... not having the least idea I should lose my wits I went down without my notes, and found all at once as soon as I got on my legs that my heart was ... in my stomach. However I was determined not to sit down and worked off as well as I could.68

A notable failure was that of Henry Labouchere, later the conspiratorial "Labby" of late Victorian politics, whose self-appointed role as intermediary between Parnell and the Liberals was not always entirely helpful to either. At the start of his academic career, such as it was, Labouchere arrogantly believed that he could take Cambridge by storm and without effort. He was quickly disabused. He sat down to write a prize poem, only to find that his muse did not flow. In his second term, a Union debate on the English Civil War seemed to provide an opportunity for him to shine. "I went to the Debating Society and commenced a speech in favour of the regicides," he recalled, "but, to my astonishment, entirely broke down."69 The truth was that Labby had to come to terms with a great deal of personal baggage, and Cambridge was not the place for him to sort out his problems. Despite bringing humiliation upon himself in the Cambridge Union, he went on to become an effective performer in the House of Commons.

Given the attrition rate, the Union needed a steady flow of maiden speakers to ensure its own renewal. Thomas McDonnell had a personal mission to defend all things Irish, but as an officer of the Union he was also conscious of his responsibility to encourage new recruits. Noting that the "one regrettable feature" of the October term of 1897 was "the almost total absence of promising maiden speeches", he issued a general appeal to members, reminding

those gentlemen who are thinking of postponing their debut at the Union till a late period in their first year, that for the Society's benefit as well as their own, they should beware lest other interests and pursuits may compel them to lose sight of so honourable an ambition.70

Happily, the following year, it was reported that "several very promising maiden speeches have been made".71 The Granta's "Union Jingles" of 1892 suggested that maiden speeches were not always promising. "Freshman rose / Chairman bowed / Out there goes / Such a crowd...". The ordeal is dragged out in staccato verse: "Till at last / Sounds of feet / Thick and fast / In retreat – Foes and friends / All and each / Fly – thus ends / Maiden speech."72 A steady infusion of maiden speakers was necessary for the health of the Society, but they did little for the cut-and-thrust of its debates.

Bulwer Lytton made steady progress after his embarrassing debut but "it was long before I could be called a good speaker."73 The next stage in public speaking, and for most Union speakers probably the highest level of perfection, was to learn how to present a point of view in a manner that made it acceptable to "an assembly every member of which is intellectually and by cultivation on a level with the speaker, before which he cannot presume, and which he dare not attempt to cajole, misinform, or despise".74 As the Granta emphasised in 1895, a speaker could not adopt "the easy and almost contemptuous familiarity that he might use before a small gathering with all the members of which he was intimately acquainted." Not only was it necessary for speeches to be carefully prepared, but the speaker "must clothe his thoughts in language appropriate both to the subject in hand and to the mixed and critical audience he has to address".75 In the opinion of a hostile reporter, a speaker who got the tone of the house wrong was responsible in 1902 for an uncharacteristic if narrow vote against landlordism in Ireland. Opposing the motion, the Etonian A.B. Geary of King's, flatly stated that Irish tenant farmers had no grievances deserving of sympathy. Advanced to a select circle of fellow reactionaries, Geary's sentiments would no doubt have produced grunted agreement. Unleashed as an ex cathedra pronouncement to 150 members of the Cambridge Union, Geary's attitude aroused more resentment than assent.76 As Leslie Stephen had put it: "It is odd how different a speech sounds when it is made in public and when it is made to your private chairs and tables."77

If the first target of successful public speaking was to advance opinions in a manner that made them attractive to others, then the highest stage of Union achievement was to proceed to actual debating. The Times in 1886 insisted that the "real triumph, in a Union debate" was won by the speaker who might lack "external graces of speech … but who can take his opponent's argument to pieces and quietly demolish it".78 Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such speakers were rare. Norman Birkett remembered the Scot, H.D. Henderson, "as the best pure debater that I heard in my time". "[R]elentless, pugnacious, inexorable," Henderson seemed to latch on to an opponent "and certainly would never let him go until he had reduced him to the equivalent of pulp" – and "all done with consummate grace and ease" coupled with "a most radiant and indulgent smile".79 Henderson, who was President in 1912, was a person of no ordinary talents. He later became Professor of Economics at Oxford and was elected Warden of All Souls shortly before his death in 1951. In much the same way, in the nineteen-twenties R.A. Butler stood out because "he debated – a none too common occurrence in Union 'debates'".80 "There is probably very little real debate in the Union," Dilke conceded in 1898, adding there had been "little in my time". He did however offer the consoling thought that the House of Commons was just as disappointing.81

We may therefore dismiss any assumption that the term "debate" referred to the continuous engagement of two integrated lines of argument for and against a proposition. It was rare for speakers on either side to be precisely balanced, and in the earlier decades some members liked to indulge in explanations of their refusal to back either point of view. The Cambridge Union was a good training ground to learn one of the great truths of politics, that allies can prove a greater threat than opponents. A dull speaker could be sufficient to destroy a good case: Hort assured himself that he lost his motion on Macaulay's History in 1849 because another member had "cleared the house by speaking".82 Student debaters could be remarkably discursive, using "the avowed subject" as "a pretext for something else – when the orator says, for example, that to appreciate the character of Charles I, it is necessary to form a distinct opinion as to the merits of Mr. Bright's present agitation".83 The Cambridge Review was glad when J.M. Keynes spoke on Home Rule in 1903, since Ireland gave him "fewer opportunities than usual of discussing the Education Act or the Disestablishment of the English Church", obsessional topics to a committed Nonconformist.84

An account by Monckton Milnes of a debate in 1829 indicates the extent to which discussion fell short of a true meeting of minds. The motion asked "Will Mr. Coleridge's Poems [sic] of the Ancient Mariner, or Mr. Martin's act tend most to prevent cruelty to animals?" and it had passed into Union folklore by 1866 as an example of the precious style of the Society's early years. This was unfair. Coleridge's poem, with its dramatic warning of the dire consequences of killing wildlife, had been published in 1798, and was on its way to making the albatross a symbolic image in common speech. Richard Martin, "Humanity Dick", was a Galway landowner with half a century of legislative experience on College Green and at Westminster. A founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he had succeeded in 1822 in carrying the first parliamentary enactment for animal rights, banning "the cruel and improper treatment of cattle". Thus, at its core, the motion embodied a key issue, whether human behaviour was best modified through education or by compulsion.

The debate began well, "with some very deep poetical criticism by a friend of Coleridge's", but this was followed by the attempt of "a great unpoetical Kingsman ... to turn the poem into ridicule". Milnes then spoke, in defence of Coleridge, but without taking sides on the motion. He was followed by the thunderous and unstable Thomas Sunderland, who denounced both camps "in a most absurd strain of hyperbolic radicalism". The people, he concluded, could only appreciate poetry if they were properly educated, and this would be impossible without the overthrow of aristocratic government. Then J.C. Symons of Corpus tried to shift the focus of discussion to Humanity Dick, whose political career had crashed. After losing his Galway seat at the general election of 1826, he had been forced into bankruptcy and fled to the cheaper pastures of Boulogne. Symons assured the Union that "he knew Mr. Martin very well" and that he "had been much hurt by the aspersions cast upon him in that Society". It was "absurd to compare his senatorial abilities" with Coleridge's "silly production". This was followed by a "clever Utilitarian speech" from Joseph Carne, also in defence of Martin and the principle of legislation. The debate was concluded by "a very superior man", J.W. Blakesley, who gave "a most eloquent commentary upon the poem itself", which "so won the hearts of the House, that when he read the last verse the cheering was tremendous". Coleridge won by two votes in a division of 92. Alas, however, for the cause of poetry, it was an Irish issue, one not even mentioned in the debate, that determined the outcome. Humanity Dick had lost his Galway seat partly because he had championed Catholic Emancipation. Late in the evening, members of the Tory Brunswick club "arrived in full orange badges to vote against Martin". The Coleridge-versus-Martin motion generated a memorable evening, but it could hardly be called a true debate.85

If debating had formed the predominant element in the proceedings of the Cambridge Union, we might expect to find evidence that some members changed their minds as a result of exposure to argument, even on an issue as contentious as Irish Home Rule. Such evidence is remarkable for its absence: dramatic conversions may have taken place on the road to Damascus, but they did not often occur in the vicinity of Round Church Street. While debating is ostensibly a logical activity, it is also adversarial. "Very few men are made wiser by being publicly convicted of having reasoned ill," warned James Stephen,86 a maxim that his son Fitzjames might well have pondered. Fewer still were prepared to admit that they had been so convicted. Palmerston noted that a debate on the existence of ghosts during his Edinburgh years "ended exactly as all our debates have as yet and I fancy always will". The combatants "exhausted all our arguments on each side of the Question ... & we each retired more strongly than ever confirmed in his own opinion, and more convinced that the other was wrong."87 The Nationalist MP for Galway, Stephen Gwynn, formed part of a formidable Home Rule team when he visited the Union in 1911, although he might have made an even bigger impact had he mentioned that his grandfather, Smith O'Brien, was the only President of the Cambridge Union ever to have been sentenced to death for treason. "Rumour has it that not a few members changed their opinions ... as a result of the speeches for the motion," wrote one student journalist. "We are loth to credit this report, which would signify a severe breach of the highest Union traditions."88 Remarkably, there seems to be only one traceable case of a student admitting that he had changed his mind about Ireland under any circumstances. C.V. Barrington of Trinity announced in January 1887 that he "had been a Home Ruler but the Plan of Campaign had brought about his conversion to the Unionist ranks".89 Since his father was a land agent in Tipperary, this was hardly surprising. The real mystery would lie in the motives – perhaps of youthful idealism or rebellion – that had seduced the young Barrington into the Parnellite camp in the first place.

Overall, the striking degree of consistency in Cambridge Union votes on most Irish issues suggests that they were not audience evaluation of "the art of logical fencing" but records of opinion. Since the evidence can easily be reduced to percentages for and against a particular proposition, it is useful at this point to confront the implied similarities with modern opinion polls.90 In contemporary Britain, pollsters rarely work with fewer than one thousand respondents, and would generally frown upon reducing to percentages any sample below eighty. Where five percent of the population (or "universe") to be sampled constitutes an identifable minority, for instance by ethnic origin, pollsters are not content with simply interviewing fifty people from that community, since those respondents might not be typical. Rather, they seek to identify a larger and more representative cross-section, whose overall responses are mathematically reduced to equal fifty people out of the thousand total. Pollsters must also face the challenge of dealing with don't-knows, non-respondents and those who choose, for whatever reason, to disguise their true allegiance. Even with the most sophisticated forms of sampling, one poll in every twenty will produce a "rogue" result, a distortion of more than three percent.

Since divisions in the Cambridge Union rarely counted more than two hundred members, it would seem that the "sample" fell far below a safe minimum. Furthermore, it is necessary to distinguish between a "random" sample and one that is merely haphazard. Random sampling by pollsters does not involve simply picking people with a pin, but rather selecting respondents from within social or occupational or regional categories according to a consistent method – knocking at every fifth house, or calling every hundredth person in the telephone directory. By contrast, attendance at Union debates must be regarded not so much as random asaccidental. An undergraduate might be persuaded by a friend to attend a debate at the last minute or decide to remain in college because an essay had to be written. Thus, if two dedicated foes of Home Rule were prevented from joining one hundred other students for a debate, there would be a one percent "swing" towards the nationalist cause in the final division. A Union audience was a genuinely random gathering, in the colloquial sense of the word, too small and too casually assembled to inspire the trust of a pollster.

None the less, the consistency of Union voting is remarkable. Thus the fact that four of the six Home Rule debates within an eighteen-month period of 1886-1887 produced hostile majorities of between 56 and 60 percent suggests a remarkable consistency in houses that varied from 108 to 271. The remaining two debates rejected Irish devolution by majorities of 66 and 67 percent. One advantage of voting in the Cambridge Union was that it effectively eliminated don't-knows. There were some experiments during the Edwardian period in the way that votes were registered, but for most of the century the division was taken at the very end of the debate, by which time those undecided had presumably departed. However, the major difference between Union votes and modern opinion polls must lie in the nature of the "sample". Pollsters prefer a carefully selected minimum of two thousand respondents to capture an accurate snapshot of public opinion across the whole of modern Britain simply to take account of class, ethnic and regional diversity. Vastly smaller numbers of Cambridge students produced consistent responses. The most obvious explanation for this is that they constituted a remarkably homogeneous group.

Cambridge students constituted a statistically consistent "universe" for the simple reason that they were in no way typical of the community at large. For precisely that reason, "it would be unwise, to say the least, to assume that the Junior Intelligence of England, or even of Cambridge, is to be accurately adjudged from the debates of the Union Society".91 R.A. Butler recalled of the nineteen-twenties that "we were not representative of University undergraduate opinion", adding, "we were not intended to be".92 One of the few comparisons that can be made between Union opinion and the sentiments of Cambridge students at large comes from the division at the mass meeting on women's degrees in 1897, as discussed in Chapter Three. This suggests that active debaters were marginally less reactionary than the undergraduate population as a whole. More broadly, there would seem to be no intrinsic reason to suggest that Cambridge opinion represented anything more than the prejudices of a privileged and very small minority. How, then, can their debates be studied to throw light upon British attitudes to Ireland?

The fact that Irish questions were debated at all – or, conversely, ignored – itself constitutes historical evidence of some value. Because the nineteenth-century Union was not dominated by big-name visiting speakers, it was unnecessary to organise the programme of debates far in advance. Members suggested motions for debate and where more than one topic was on offer, the house itself selected the subject for discussion at the next meeting, although this practice appeared "to have fallen into disuse" by 1860.93 Notice of debate was given simply by displaying the motion on the Society's notice-board six days in advance. Occasionally, there was a broad range of choice, as on one occasion in 1883 when thirteen rival motions were on offer.94 Sometimes, a bee would escape from somebody's bonnet for lack of alternatives: in 1891, David Dodge from Minnesota failed to persuade the Union that a recent lynching in New Orleans had been "perfectly justifiable".95 At other times, apathy ruled. "It seems hard that the duty of providing for the weekly Debate, should always fall upon the Officers", they complained in 1860, warning that "the Debates must materially suffer, if a more general interest be not taken in them, than has of late prevailed".96 This was one of the reasons for William Everett's irritation with the Union. "Anyone is at liberty to propose a subject; but there is so little eagerness to assume this post, that it generally falls to the officers to bell the cat, or else do it themselves."97 In 1864, as the Society was about to build its own premises, the Vice-President could still regret "that so few Members are found ready to propose subjects for discussion".98 Eventually in 1902, when the President assumed control of the organisation of debates, the programme came under the more formal control of the officers – and there were, in any case, by then more debates. Either way, for the purpose of assessing topicality, it does not much matter whether subjects for debate were chosen by members because they wished to discuss Ireland, or arranged for them in the belief that Ireland would attract an audience. Appendix One gives a general overview of the most controversial issues in the half century before 1914 when politics had come to dominate the Union agenda. Table Eight calculates the largest division on an Irish question in each academic year as a percentage of those voting in the most numerously attended non-Irish debate. Not surprisingly, there were peaks of interest in 1880-82, during the decade of the first two Home Rule crises, and again in 1912-14.

There are some limitations in assessing the selection of motions. For much of the century, Union debates occupied less than half the year: in an age of slow travel, student activities tended to commence not at the start of term, but towards the end of the months of October and January when the latecomers had arrived. From 1880, some debates were also held in the Long Vacation, but these were poorly attended and notably frivolous. The choice of motions was subject to two other restrictions. One was laid down in the Laws of the Society: topics "of a theological nature" were expressly excluded. Since it was possible to debate the political implications of a religious issue, perhaps it was simply good taste that ensured that the Cambridge Union never confronted the underlying English assumption that Irish social problems were somehow caused by adherence to the Catholic Church. Another limitation was that many public events did not easily lend themselves to adversarial discussion. The Cambridge Union barely discussed the Irish Famine, but this does not necessarily prove that members were indifferent to suffering (although the Oxford Union memorably declined to vote money for famine relief).99 More telling was the relative lack of interest aroused by the political issues arising out of the effectiveness of government response to the catastrophe. Nor was there much sense in debating questions on which there was obviously an overwhelming consensus. The Union debated the existence, role and composition of the House of Lords thirty times between 1860 and 1914, because a hereditary upper house aroused strong feelings, for and against. It would be misleading to conclude that Cambridge students did not care about the monarchy simply because the same period saw only five motions in favour of the republican principle, one of which carried the saving clause "England, of course, excepted".100 Members of the Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of a State dowry for Princess Louise in 1871, and rearranged debate night to avoid a clash with her wedding day. In 1886, they prevailed upon the vacuous Prince Albert Victor to perform the opening ceremony for their new building. If debates on the monarchy were rare, it was because critics of the institution were scarce. Thus although Cambridge Union attitudes to Irish questions may irritate modern observers, some credit should be given for the fact that enough interest was aroused and opinion sufficiently divided to permit their discussion at all.

One device that may make it possible to relate Cambridge Union votes to wider public attitudes is to relate divisions on Irish issues to those on mainstream party-political questions. This form of "triangulation" needs to be approached with some caution, since it assumes the existence of a detailed set of attitudes uniformly shared across the membership. That this may not always have been true can be seen from two debates from 1852. In the first, Leslie Stephen proposed a motion that baldly demanded the abandonment of "the British Possessions at the Cape of Good Hope". Half a century later, he commented acerbically that there would have been no Boer War had his policy been adopted. In this case, straightforward rejection was not enough for the Cambridge Union, and by 28 votes to 11, members insisted upon an amendment demanding "that more energetic measures for subjugating the Kaffirs should be immediately adopted". Two weeks later, the Union resolved, this time by 30 votes to 16, that "a speedy emancipation of their slaves by the Americans would be right, practicable, and politic". This was an equally uncompromising sentiment, since on this occasion members rejected a milder amendment stating that immediate emancipation "though just, is not politic". Thus within a fortnight, the Union had resolved by almost identical majorities to subjugate one black community in South Africa, while liberating another in the United States, both policies to take effect immediately. Of course, mid-Victorians did not equate colonialism and slavery, and some might have argued that the substitution of imperial conquest for the rule of chiefs and witch doctors would prove as great a boon to the average Xhosa as the abolition of slavery would be to the ordinary Southern black. However, it is impossible to know how many of the 39 members who butchered Stephen's motion were among the 46 who recorded their views on American slavery. Only two members spoke in both debates: one wanted to keep the Cape but free the slaves, while the other opposed both motions.101

Thus it would not be safe to assume identical profiles of opinion across what were essentially secondary issues. More revealing is the relationship between attitudes to Ireland and positions on major issues. Cambridge undergraduates cared far more about the Church than they did about the colonies, and so it is of some importance to note that during the eighteen-sixties, many of them came to feel that upholding a Protestant Established Church in England did not require them to impose its counterpart in Ireland. A more consistent comparison may be found in the forerunners of the later ritual of debating "No Confidence" in the government, which demonstrated the truth of W.S. Gilbert's dictum that every child born into the world alive was either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative. From the death of Palmerston in 1865 through to the outbreak of the First World War, the Cambridge Union held 75 debates in which divisions can be tabulated into pro- and anti-Tory columns, as shown in Tables Three to Seven. Of these, 64 registered Conservative majorities, and with remarkably consistent patterns. In 41 out of the 58 endorsements between 1865 and 1903, Conservative support was over 60 percent, rising above 70 percent on four occasions. Thereafter, their share of the House only once touched 59 percent. Liberal successes were transient: they carried the day in four out of nine debates between 1881 and 1884, but never pushed the Tory share of the division below 46 percent. Liberals managed a narrow win in a small house in 1902, and a more comfortable margin thanks to Lloyd George's visit in 1904. There were five Liberal victories out of eleven debates between 1907 and 1911 but, generally speaking, the Union remained steadily though not overwhelmingly Conservative until 1914.

In this, it was obviously out of step with the electorate at large, although it is worth noting that the Cambridge student community adapted in rough parallel to the expansion of the political nation. A provincial shopkeeper's son like Norman Birkett, President in 1910, would probably not have reached the chair half a century earlier, but no more would David Lloyd George, a Criccieth solicitor, have become Chancellor of the Exchequer. By relating votes on Irish issues to the overall Liberal/Conservative divide, it is possible to supply some sort of benchmark to Union debates.

The debates of the Cambridge Union can be subjected to endless theoretical analysis, but in the last resort the proof of this particular pudding must lie in its own consumption, in an examination of the debates themselves. It is time to travel back into the past, to the large, low, gloomy, airless room at the back of the Red Lion Inn. It is early evening as members gather, their faces indistinct in the candle-light as they take their seats on the opposing rows of benches. From the chair, the President makes his announcements and moves motions for formal business before calling upon the honourable opener to open the evening's discussion:

'Tis pleasant to snore at a quarter before,

When the chairman does nothing in state,

But 'tis heaven! 'tis heaven to waken at seven,

And pray for a noisy debate.102

It was such on an evening, in March 1816, that the Cambridge Union first turned its attention to Ireland.



Abbreviations are listed at the close of the Preface.

1. White, Cambridge Life, p. 137.

2. 2. VPR E 1891.

3. Oxf. Mag., 7 Dec. 1892, p. 151; Gr., 20 May 1899, p. 329.

4. Praed's squib, quoted Macaulay, i, p. 75n; Inaug., p. 50.

5. CR, 8 May 1902, p. 300.

6. Lytton, i, pp. 246-7; Merivale, p. 65. Praed satirised the different speaking styles of his Union contemporaries in the early eighteen-twenties: S. Waterlow, ed., In Praise of Cambridge (1912), pp.104-13. Cf. R.A. Butler in Cradock, p. 119: "In Parliament one is apt to hear it said that a speech full of quips, jokes, and aphorisms is typical of the Union style." But Butler did not recall such speaking at Cambridge.

7. Gr., 16 May 1903, p. 294; Harris in Cradock, p. 86; A.P.W. Plumtre, "Keynes at Cambridge", Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 13, 1947, p. 368.

8. Gr., 16 June 1892, p. 399.

9. Cradock, p. 98; Gr., 20 Oct. 1906, pp. 21-2.

10. Inaug., p. 15. Lord Houghton (Monckton Milnes) went on to rebut this charge.

11. Merivale, p. 98 (letter of 11 March 1827); Praed in Waterlow, ed., In Praise of Cambridge, p. 110; Gr., 20 May 1899, p. 329.

12. The Times, 25 Feb. 1886.

13. Dalton, Call Back Yesterday, pp. 51-2.

14. Milnes, i, p. 51; Thackeray, p. 38.

15. Dilke, i, p. 31.

16. 28-29/10/62; 27/10/63. By 14-21/2/65, when the South was clearly losing the Civil War, the vote was still 76 to 29, a 72 percent level of support for the Confederates. Given the regular turnover in the student population, only a minority would have attended both debates.

17. Raikes, p. 18 (letter of 10 Nov. 1857, referring to 27/10/57).

18. This episode is discussed in Chapter Eight.

19. Inaug., pp. 45-6.

20. Gr., 8 Feb. 1890, p. 185.

21. CR, 12 Feb. 1903, p. 185. Lynch's sentence had already been commuted to imprisonment by the time of the debate. In the First World War he took part in recruiting campaigns for the British Army.

22. A.M. Ramsey in Cradock, p. 125.

23. 12/5/74.

24. 5-12/2/84. The 58 votes for socialism were balanced by a massive 399 against. Moreover, one of Hyndman's supporters, F.S. Oliver, later became an exponent of consumerist capitalism as an employee of Debenham and Peabody, and switched his intellectual enthusiasm to imperialism. As the first leader of a British socialist party, Hyndman had plenty of scope for disappointment in life. It is striking that he recorded his greatest regret as his failure to play cricket for Cambridge. "I declare that I feel at this moment, fifty years later, my not playing

for Cambridge against Oxford in the University Cricket Match as a far more unpleasant and depressing experience than infinitely more depressing failures have been to me since."

H.M. Hyndman, The Record of an Adventurous Life (1911), p. 20. It is a statement that surely merits inclusion in any discussion of the failure of the British Revolution.

25. Morrah, Oxford Union, pp. 265-6.

26. CR, 14 March 1889, p. 272.

27. The episode is discussed in Chapter Eight.

28. Gr., 2 March 1895, p. 231.

29. Hollis, Oxford Union, p. 143.

30. See Appendix II and Table 5.

31. Gokhale was an early Indian nationalist. His visit on 31/10/05 resulted in a 72 percent vote in favour of "Government on more popular lines" (161-62). An undergraduate debate (5/11/07) on a motion supporting the "movement towards associating the people of India with the management of their own affairs" produced a 60 percent affirmative vote (96-65).

32. Walter, Oxford Union: Playground of Power, p. 39.

33. Ceadel, "King and Country Debate", p. 400.

34. Harris in Cradock, p. 90.

35. Secretary's MB 1885-87, 31 Jan., 30 May 1887.

36. Secretary's MB 1885-87, 8 June 1887.

37. Gr., 18 May 1901, p. 335.

38. Harris in Cradock, p. 88.

39. Arnold McNair in Cradock, p. 92: "our main function was to afford adequate opportunity to our own members to debate".

40. A story by Birkett illustrates just how profound was this "prefectorial" form of deference. An announcement by the joint Emmanuel and Caius debating society that the American anti-alcohol campaigner, Mrs Carrie Nation, would address a debate drew a large audience. It soon became clear that the purported Mrs Nation was a Caius undergraduate in drag, and the audience began to barrack. The President of the Union, Arnold McNair, who was privy to the plot and tried to save the day by rebuking the audience for its discourtesy to a lady. "Such was the position of McNair that when I said those words I felt suddenly ashamed myself -- but it was a Caius undergraduate all the time." (Cradock, pp. 99-100).

41. Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, i, p. 63. According to his own account (p. 56), Russell was unusually deficient in social skills. As a scholarship candidate at Trinity in December 1889, he "was too shy to enquire the way to the lavatory". Consequently he walked each morning over a mile to perform the necessary bodily functions at the railway station before returning to tackle his examination papers. The story is hard to believe. In 1889, six years before the installation of the Cambridge sewerage scheme, the lavatories should have been easy enough to locate in so large a community as Trinity.

42. Harris in Cradock, p. 83. Encountering the "sour-faced" Edwin Montagu at a reception in Trinity in 1905, Leonard Woolf was tempted to take him aside "and inform him that he is not another Dizzy [Disraeli]". Woolf, Sowing: An Autbiography of the Years 1880 to 1904, p. 199.

43. Birkett in Cradock, p. 96.

44. As late as 1938, the public school ethos was so oppressive in Clare that a disgruntled member of the college predicted the introduction of staircase prefects. Howarth, p. 157.

45. Merivale, p. 65; Lytton, i, pp. 232-3 (18/2/23).

46. Lytton, i, p. 233 (14/12/24).

47. 20/5/08; 22/2/10; Birkett in Cradock, p. 97.

48. 8/11/10; 3/11/03.

49. CR, 30 Jan. 1908, p. 200.

50. McNair in Cradock, p. 93; CR, 19 June 1909, p. 484.

51. Gr., 7 May 1910, p. 349.

52. Appendix II and Tables 6 and 7, pp. 271-2.

53. Dilke, i, p. 33.

54. Gr., 9 Feb. 1895, p. 178.

55. Harris in Cradock, p. 90.

56. Inaug., pp. 15-16.

57. Inaug., p. 20. G.F. Browne recalled Fawcett as "a sledge-hammer orator at the Union". Leslie Stephen thought Fawcett's Union experience helped him to overcome a "boyish tendency to stilted rhetoric". Browne, Recollections of a Bishop, p. 231; L. Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett (1885), p. 30.

58. Lytton, i, p. 231.

59. Inaug., p. 50.

60. Pall Mall Gazette, quoted in Inaug., p. 72.

61. Inaug., p. 4.

62. Whibley, Lord John Manners and His Friends, i, p. 54. Recalling his undergraduate days in the eighteen-eighties, T.R. Glover said that "men cultivated style and in some cases learnt to speak in such a way that their rising was not followed by the immediate exit of the assembly … the Union too was education". Glover, Cambridge Retrospect, pp. 131-2.

63. J.K. Chapman, The Career of Arthur Hamilton Gordon First Lord Stanmore 1829-1912 (1964), p. 5. He appears in Sketches of Cantabs as "Alexis Gorgon".

64. [R.C. Lehmann], Harry Fludyer at Cambridge (1890), p. 15. Lehmann was President of the Union in 1876.

65. Lytton, i, p. 231.

66. Trinity College, Houghton MSS 35/88, undated family letter, cf. Milnes, p. 53.

67. Thackeray, p.p. 45-6 (family letter, 22 March 1829).

68. Gardiner, Harcourt, i, p. 36. Harcourt's maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1869 does not support the argument that the Cambridge Union was an effective training ground for statesmen. One journalist criticised his "tedious" delivery and complained that "his apparent confidence in himself verges upon ... self-conceit" (i, p. 211).

69. A.L. Thorold, The Life of Henry Labouchere (1913), p. 21. After two years at Cambridge, Labouchere had gambled away £6000. He contemptuously defied University regulations by passing a note to a friend during his Little-Go examination (on which he was said to have wagered £300 on his passing) and haughtily insisted that it was insulting to be asked to explain his behaviour. He conducted himself "in a reckless discreditable manner" when summoned before the Vice-Chancellor's court, and was suspended for two years, effectively a sentence of expulsion from Cambridge. Thorold, Life of Labouchere, pp. 21-5; Rom3, p. 102.

70. VPR M 1898.

71. VPR M 1898.

72. Gr., 23 April 1892, p. 272. Wilson Harris made his maiden speech during his second term at Cambridge, in the Arthur Lynch debate. Nervous, Harris spoke too fast. As the Granta reported: "Mr Harris passed and who shall measure his speed?" But it was from such unpromising novices that the Union culled its future stars. Just over two years later, Harris was elected President.

73. Lytton, i, p. 231.

74. Inaug., p. 5.

75. Gr., 9 February 1895, p. 178.

76. Gr, 15 Nov. 1902, pp. 69-70. Chapter Ten suggests that other factors may have influenced the outcome of the debate. Despite Geary's surname, no immediate family link to Ireland has been traced.

77. Inaug., p. 47.

78. The Times, 25 Feb. 1886.

79. Birkett in Cradock, p. 102.

80. A.M. Ramsey in Cradock, p. 122.

81. Dilke, i, p. 34 (1898).

82. Hort, i, p. 106.

83. Inaug., p. 49.

84. CR, 14 May 1903, p. 298.

85. Trinity College, Houghton MSS 35/153, family letter of Feb. 1829, and cf. Milnes, i, pp. 60-1 where Kemble is given as "Campbell". The debate took place on 17/2/29. Cf. Inaug., p. 26.

86. Memorandum of 17 Nov. 1841 on dealing with the legislature of New Brunswick, P. Knaplund, James Stephen and the British Colonial System (1953), p. 260. In 1920, a student journalist criticised a Union speech by Kingsley Martin as "a series of superior sneers". C.H. Rolph, Kingsley: The Life, Letters and Diaries of Kingsley Martin (1973), p. 75.

87. Bourne, Palmerston: The Early Years, p. 29.

88. Report in Gownsman, pp. 67-8.

89. CR, 26 Jan. 1887, p. 165.

90. The following section is based upon R.M. Worcester, British Public Opinion: A Guide to the History and Methodology of Public Opinion Polling (1991), esp. pp. 121-80. Cambridge Union voting did not always eliminate "don't-know" voting. Thackeray cast a vote in a debate on the French Revolution "[t]hough in truth I knew little about it". Thackeray, p. 42.

91. White, Cambridge Life, p. 140.

92. R.A. Butler in Cradock, p. 120.

93. VPR M 1860.

94. VPR E 1883.

95. 28/4/91. The motion was defeated by 42 votes to 35.

96. VPR M 1860. (cf n. 93)

97. Everett, On the Cam, pp. 106-8.

98. VPR E 1864.

99. Morrah, Oxford Union, pp. 106-7, 113-14; Hollis, Oxford Union, pp. 72-3. The point at issue was not whether money should be raised for Famine relief, but whether the funds of a society dedicated to other purposes should be voted for that purpose. Dufferin was able to raise about £1000 in direct subscriptions from his Oxford friends, and contributed a further £1000 himself. A. Lyell, The Life of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava (1905), ch. 2.

100. 28/11/71.

101. Leslie Stephen in National Review, 42, 1903-4, pp. 140-1; 26/10/52; 9/11/52.

102. Lines by Praed, quoted Lytton, i, p. 239 and in Waterlow, ed., In Praise of Cambridge, p. 104.

Copyright © 2021 Ged Martin. All Rights Reserved.
Joomla! is Free Software released under the GNU General Public License.