Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: prime-ministerial visits, from Gladstone to Macmillan

Five prime ministers visited Magdalene between 1841 and 1965.

 When the Duke of Wellington visited Magdalene in 1842, he was respectfully greeted as the national hero who had won the Battle of Waterloo. But he was also a former prime minister, having held the office from 1828 and 1830.[1] This note identifies five other prime ministers who set foot in the College.

Gladstone's Uncle George Gladstone's marriage to Catherine Glynne in 1839 gave him a family connection with Magdalene, since she was the niece of George Neville-Grenville, who was Master of Magdalene from 1813 to 1853. For thirty years, until 1834, Neville-Grenville double-jobbed as rector of Hawarden in Flintshire, an inconveniently distant exercise in pluralism but one that brought him close to the Glynne family, whose country estate was at Hawarden. In 1839, he was invited back to marry the Gladstones. "Great news: Uncle George is Dean of Windsor!", Gladstone reported to his wife in May 1846. The Master had been so excited by his promotion that he had rushed to Gladstone's ministerial office, at the Colonial Office in Downing Street, to tell him the news, "in a state, as you may conceive."[2] Unfortunately, this new preferment created problems for Magdalene. Queen Victoria's insistence on having her Dean close at hand was deemed to take priority over Neville-Grenville's responsibility to the College. His offer to resign was refused by the Visitor, his brother Lord Braybrooke, who had the Mastership earmarked for his fourth son, the Honourable Latimer Neville. Since the Magdalene Statutes famously insisted that the Master should be aged thirty "or thereabouts" and Latimer Neville was only nineteen, Uncle George had to bat on until his nephew reached an age of discretion, or thereabouts, which did not happen until 1853.[3] 

Three of Gladstone's five recorded visits to Cambridge took in Magdalene. He stayed twice at the Master's Lodge in Magdalene, and called to the Pepys Library on a third occasion. His first visit – on a seven-hour stagecoach journey from London – came immediately after taking his Oxford finals in December 1831, enabling him to relax for a few days with Eton friends in Trinity and King's.[4]

Gladstone 1841 The first visit to Magdalene was in November 1841. He was apparently accompanied by Catherine (since, although she is not mentioned, his diary noted that their baby son was taken into King's chapel for an afternoon service) and by his brother-in-law, Stephen Glynne. Although Gladstone had recently accepted office under Sir Robert Peel, his visit was on a Church-related matter. The Cambridge Camden Society had embarked upon a project to restore the Round Church, which would become highly controversial for incorporating the ritualistic feature of a stone altar. On his way to Cambridge, Gladstone stayed at Audley End for a few days, where he visited the local school, which was supported by his hosts, the Braybrookes, as well as the Saffron Walden Museum and the parish church, which he thought had a "beautiful interior less spoiled than most". Around noon on 22 November, the party left for Cambridge "& were most kindly rec[eive]d at Magd[alene] Lodge". The next week was spent in a busy round of Camden Society business, which included inspecting the Round Church ("St Sepulchre's" as Gladstone more formally termed it), coupled with sightseeing, socialising and the inevitable round of church services. "The time passes with exceeding interest & I shall be loth to go." He attended a Saturday afternoon service in Magdalene chapel, having earlier been given a tour of the Pepys Library. (His diary note, "Mr G visited Pepysian Library", suggests that Catherine was too busy with the baby to tag along.)

That evening, Neville-Grenville hosted a glittering dinner party at the Lodge. One of the guests, Joseph Romilly, the University Registrary, called the gathering "very aristocratical ": the Master's wife, Lady Charlotte, was a daughter of the Earl of Dartmouth, which explains why two "Lady Legges" were in attendance. J.W. Blakesley, Fellow and Tutor of Trinity, was perhaps invited because he supported the aims of the Camden Society.[5] Remarkably, the diners also included three eighteen-year-old undergraduates, all freshmen and from Trinity, not Magdalene. Two were titled. Viscount Feilding was the son of the Earl of Denbigh, a Flintshire landowner and neighbour of the Glynnes. Earl Nelson was the grandson of a sister of Admiral Horatio, whose forename he had also acquired. The third gilded youth was Frederick Peel, son of the prime minister who was Gladstone's political boss. Their presence spoke volumes for the social values of Cambridge in 1841. Romilly noted the presence of "Mr Gladstone & his very agreeable Lady (Miss Glyn [sic] that was)", and used the same formula, "very agreeable", for the company as a whole. Gladstone found the party "interesting". He also noted "some singing", probably arranged by other guests who came after dinner.

As one who remembers that gaunt, angular Master's Lodge, shortly before its demolition in 1966, I find it hard to imagine the building's inmates indulging in merriment. However, almost seventy years later, an interesting additional detail emerged: at some point during the visit, Neville-Grenville had invited Magdalene undergraduates to meet the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories. W.J. Stracey (later Stracey-Clitherow) recalled meeting "Mr Gladstone – the Master's nephew" at the Lodge. A few weeks earlier, as he returned to Cambridge for the Michaelmas Term from his home in Norfolk, Stracey had shared a stagecoach with a fascinating fellow passenger, "Mr Stephenson" the railway engineer, who had been surveying the proposed line from Bishop's Stortford to Norwich.  By the time they reached Cambridge, it was too late to travel on to London, and Stracey generously arranged overnight accommodation for the stranded traveller in Magdalene. Looking back from 1910, he marvelled that he had encountered "within the College walls two of the greatest men of the XIXth century". In 1841, it was still not possible to reach Cambridge by train. When Gladstone returned to London on 29 November, "by road & railway", he punctiliously noted that the journey took six and a quarter hours.[6]

Gladstone 1859 The Gladstone who was welcomed to Magdalene in 1841 was a High Tory politician visiting a solidly Anglican university. Two years earlier, he had published his abstruse tome, The State in its Relations with the Church, the word order of the title indicating a partnership of servant and master which (even then) some of his contemporaries thought bizarrely archaic.[7] By the time of his second visit, in 1859, he was on the cusp of conversion to liberalism – or, at least, organisational transition from Peelite isolation to a new broadly based Liberal alliance. On the one hand, he was by now MP for the Church stronghold of Oxford University; on the other, he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Palmerston's recently-formed ministry, an undoubtedly Liberal combination. Gladstone arrived in Cambridge on 31 October to attend the conferral the following day of an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, which the University had decided to bestow upon him a few months earlier. Undergraduates cheered when the Public Orator referred to his "exertions in favour of the oppressed Italians", perhaps not realising that it was their shared sympathy for Italian unity that had helped overcome his previous antipathy to Palmerston's activist foreign policy. Nor could they foresee that Gladstone's slippery progressive path would lead him to espouse the cause of downtrodden peoples whom English opinion would find much less appealing.

The degree ceremony was followed by a remarkable and probably unprecedented event, a mass meeting in the Senate House of the Universities Mission for Central Africa, summoned to consider how best to support the civilizing mission of David Livingstone. Romilly, who had never heard Gladstone speak, was "most anxious" to sample his oratorical style. "It was a remarkable rhetorical display certainly", he recorded of the thirty-minute address, but found it disappointing. Perhaps Gladstone was at a disadvantage in following another honorary graduand, "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford – one of the most devastating platform performers of his day, who could mobilise humour and summon up outrage more or less simultaneously. By contrast, Gladstone's sentiments seemed "dreamy & up in the clouds", particularly when he tried to portray Livingstone as one of Tennyson's poetic heroes.

There had been changes in the eighteen years since his previous visit. The stagecoach was a fading memory: Gladstone travelled from London by train, linking up with Catherine at Cambridge station. There was a (fairly) new Master of Magdalene too, Latimer Neville having replaced Uncle George six years earlier. Catherine's cousin had exercised the privilege – indeed, virtually the duty – of a Head of House to take a wife, and there were now small children in the Lodge, although in Gladstone's diary they were neither seen nor heard. The Master of Magdalene was taking his turn to serve as Vice-Chancellor, a post that involved extensive entertaining, an additional reason for the Gladstones to stay at the Lodge. Official lunches and dinner parties honoured the graduands: Romilly, now becoming the archetype of an elderly bachelor don, noted that both Wilberforce and the Gladstones were "very kind" to him. There was one other new feature in the visit: however intensive the hospitality, Gladstone attended morning chapel ("Magd. Chapel 8 AM") on each of the three days. In 1841, he had needed special permission to attend the undergraduate service at Trinity, and Neville-Grenville had presumably thought his presence might distract bleary-eyed Magdalene undergraduates. (It is unlikely that Catherine was encouraged to accompany him.) Even when on tour, Gladstone kept up his blizzard of correspondence, and a letter to the free trade campaigner Richard Cobden was mailed from the Master's Lodge. On his last day, Gladstone turned tourist, exploring the Backs, "diverse Quadrangles" (he never did learn to speak Cantab), as well as various chapels and libraries. He was especially impressed by the Fitzwilliam Museum, with "its magnificent engravings and illuminated Books". By contrast, Magdalene's "Pepysian Library" drew no comment, perhaps because it was the last call before the couple set off for Audley End. There, ever hyperactive and interfering, Gladstone attempted to reorder the Braybrooke collection of fine china.[8]

Four months after his second visit to Magdalene, Gladstone resigned from the Carlton Club, finally breaking his links with the Conservative party of his early years. When the next general election came around, in 1865, Anglican Oxford decided he was a lost cause, and sent him, "unmuzzled", to the radicals of Lancashire.[9] On becoming prime minister in 1868, he turned his attention to the Church of Ireland. Gladstone had entered politics to ensure that the State performed its duties to the Church. In 1869, he ended the State's relations with the Irish Protestant Church altogether, imposing not only disestablishment but also partial disendowment. To Latimer Neville, this was unforgiveable apostasy. William Ewart Gladstone would never be welcome at the Master's Lodge again.[10] He would, however, stroll through the courts of Magdalene during a third visit, in 1878.

Gladstone 1878 When the Gladstones arrived in Cambridge for a four-night visit on 26 October 1878, his career seemed in bumpy decline. Now an ex-prime minister, he had stepped down from the leadership of the Liberal party after his electoral defeat in 1874, but remained a controversial, even disruptive, figure in public life (indeed, so much so that no other Liberal would dare form a government after the party gained a majority at the 1880 election). His attacks on the doctrine of papal infallibility (which would be carefully forgotten when he needed Irish support in the eighteen-eighties) would have won approval in Protestant Cambridge, but his championing of the Bulgarians in their struggle against Turkish rule aroused less approval among the respectable classes than his support for the romantic Italians in 1859.

Gladstone himself insisted that his visit was entirely a private affair, even declining to accept an address of welcome from Cambridge Liberals. The cause that brought him to Cambridge in 1878 would have been literally unthinkable two decades earlier. His daughter Helen was studying under the auspices of a new organisation established to promote the higher education of women: Gladstone approved, although he never did master the spelling of "Nuneham College". Remarkable, too, was the Gladstones' choice of lodging, accepting the hospitality of the Newnham pioneer Eleanor Sidgwick. Her husband, and co-host, Henry Sidgwick, was one of Britain's first acknowledged agnostics, having resigned his Trinity fellowship in 1869 to escape from its associated implications of religious observance. In 1875, the Sidgwicks had built a house in Chesterton Road, a forerunner of the donnish residences that sprang up around Cambridge once Fellows were allowed to marry after 1882, which they called Hillside. It is now a student hostel, part of the Clare College residences, looking out on to the back wall of Magdalene's Cripps Court and shrouded by trees and by later buildings from the road. However, in 1878, it was the only house in the neighbourhood, and would have had a direct view across to the upturned brick box of Magdalene's Lodge. For the Gladstones, who had just been staying with the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, the middle-class residence must have been an unusual experience. One wonders how Catherine felt at being so close to her cousin's home, but no longer able to make social contact. Latimer Neville and Henry Sidgwick were separated by more than Chesterton Lane.

Acceptance of agnostic hospitality did not deter Gladstone from sampling the spiritual amenities of Cambridge, taking in Trinity, King's and Great St Mary's as Sunday relaxation. His attendance at the University Sermon may have been a compliment to the preacher, Dr James Woodford, whom Gladstone had appointed Bishop of Ely five years earlier. Worshippers at Great St Mary's were equal in the sight of God, but as members of the academic community, their seating arrangements were hierarchical. Since he was the recipient of an honorary degree, Gladstone might have located himself among the doctors, but he chose instead a less prominent pew with the MAs. Nonetheless, news of his presence buzzed around the church. At the conclusion of the service, the undergraduates streamed out to form two lines as a guard of honour. A respectful crowd followed him along King's Parade: "nothing but the fact of its being Sunday restrained the people from cheering the ex-Premier". They "surged" after him into King's, where he was rescued by Oscar Browning and taken to the sanctuary of the Fellows' Garden. Browning was a louche figure compared with Gladstone's hosts on earlier visits.

The next two days were devoted to a round of sight-seeing so frenetic that even the indestructible Gladstone was compelled to resort to an afternoon lie-down to fend off a headache. Newnham was inspected and approved, colleges, libraries and chapels were visited in what must have been quick succession. Included in Gladstone's staccato list was "Magd. Coll. & Library". The record is perhaps more interesting for what it does not say. Gladstone had found time for encounters with some of the University's heavy-hitters, such as the theologians Lightfoot and Westcott and, among College Masters, Bateson of St John's and Thompson of Trinity. The Pepys Library had no regular opening hours in that era: Magdalene undergraduates barely knew it existed. This means that Sidgwick would have made special arrangements for its inspection, perhaps urging that his guest had asked to see the collection once again. Everybody was aware that Gladstone was in Cambridge; Magdalene knew he was coming.  It was a busy time of the Michaelmas Term, and Latimer Neville must have been in Cambridge. The Master of Magdalene, it seems, chose to snub the former prime minister. [Within weeks of the completion of this essay, new evidence unexpectedly emerged about the 1878 visit. See Note 11.][11]

Salisbury 1891 Gladstone would go on to form three more cabinets. His institutional iconoclasm would become too much even for Henry Sidgwick, who broke with him over Irish Home Rule to become a Liberal Unionist. At the general election that followed the defeat of the 1886 Home Rule Bill, the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, won a massive Unionist majority. By-elections were frequent in that era and, not surprisingly, constituencies that had unexpectedly rejected a Gladstonian candidate in 1886 began to return to the Liberal fold, a trend that seemed to point to the victory of the alliance between Gladstone and the Irish Home Rulers at the next general election.   However, in January 1891, Unionists had high hopes of victory at The Hartlepools, a north-eastern industrial constituency, following the death of its MP, Thomas Richardson, a former Liberal who had defected to the Unionist cause. (His son was a Magdalene alumnus, who did indeed win the seat for the Unionists in 1892.[12]) Parnell had recently been cited in the notorious O'Shea divorce case, his party had acrimoniously split over the issue, encouraging Tory hopes that enough mud would stick to the Liberals to enable them to hold the marginal seat. On the night of the by-election, Salisbury was booked to address a party rally in Cambridge. In the circumstances, the event would have a national importance, a point expressed by a slogan displayed in the Corn Exchange: "What Cambridge thinks to-day, England will say tomorrow." Salisbury faced the challenge of speaking without knowing the outcome of the by-election. If his party won, he needed to combine triumphalism with a warning that Home Rule remained a menace. But should the next morning's papers announce a defeat (as they did), then his speech had to radiate defiance and inspire resistance.

The Master of Magdalene was "the organizer of the Conservative party in the University". He had snubbed Gladstone, but he was on the platform at Cambridge station to welcome Lord Salisbury on 21 January 1891. (The railway company had obligingly stopped a King's Cross train at Hatfield to collect the nation's leader.) Latimer Neville took the prime minister to the Master's Lodge in his private carriage and there, before the rally, "a select party were invited to meet him at dinner". The meal must have been a jolly occasion, for Salisbury was in fine form when he addressed the crowd of 3,000 cheering Tories. Noting that the civil war among the Home Rulers "had at least furnished them with a very merry Christmas", he had a great deal to say about the Parnell divorce case. The revelation that the principal Home Ruler was also a home wrecker undermined the opposition's pretensions to a monopoly of virtue. "I cannot think that the Liberal leaders have entirely justified their claim to be considered the champions of morality in this matter." Yet he warned that even if Parnell were driven from public life, his fall would come at the price of confirming that Ireland was in the grip of priestly power, a warning that Home Rule would subject the whole country, Ulster included, to the control of the Catholic Church. He made one intriguing, if sarcastic, remark which may give some clue to the conversation over dinner at Magdalene Lodge,  prefacing his attack on the Irish leader with the self-deprecating comment that "I must remember that I am speaking in a university of which Mr Parnell is a distinguished alumnus". There was some laughter at the sally, suggesting that the audience knew the story of Parnell's ignominious departure from the University. Had Parnell's undergraduate career been the subject of dinner-table banter? If so, it is to be regretted that no diarist was present. Lord Salisbury was probably in good humour when he returned to the Lodge – it seems, the only serving prime minister to spend the night in College – although, by morning, news of the Liberal gain at The Hartlepools would have been a dampener.[13]

The two early twentieth-century prime ministers who succeeded Salisbury are a mystery so far as any Magdalene connection is concerned. Both Balfour (prime minister 1902-5) and Campbell-Bannerman (1905-8) were undergraduates at Trinity, and it seems highly possible that they would have at least set foot in the precincts of Magdalene, if only as sightseers. Little is known of Campbell-Bannerman's undergraduate days, from 1854 to 1858. Shortly before his death, he claimed to have been aware of "other oldish buildings" around Cambridge, but having the privilege of being a Trinity man, he was "quite indifferent and had no desire to know" what went on in them.[14] When Balfour was an undergraduate (1866-70), there was a strong Trinity-Magdalene Etonian nexus, but Balfour was a cerebral personality who probably had little in common with those of his hearty schoolfellows who had chosen the gentle rule of Latimer Neville. In his autobiography, Balfour wrote of his Cambridge years as if they were entirely spent within Trinity, with occasional forays to King's. Having put British secondary education on a legislative footing in his 1902 Education Act, he would surely have been sympathetic to the Donaldson-Benson project to revive Magdalene. Moreover, Benson was related to him by marriage, and was invited to bicycle to the prime minister's East Lothian country estate during his 1904 Scottish holiday. The two occasionally met in London, but there seems to be no record of Balfour visiting the College. In 1919, he was elected chancellor of the University, but he took a light-touch approach to the office, and I can find no official visit to Magdalene.[15]

Asquith 1925 It was as an elder statesman that Campbell-Bannerman's successor, H.H. Asquith, visited Magdalene in March 1925. At the general election a few months earlier, Magdalene's History fellow Frank Salter had stood as the Liberal candidate for the borough. Although Salter had polled a poor third, the University Liberal Club joined with the constituency association to persuade Asquith to address a rally in support of his continuing candidature. The former prime minister was given dinner at Magdalene before the meeting. Having lost his own seat in 1924, Asquith had accepted a peerage, and Benson thought he was "pleased ... at being an earl". Lord Oxford, as he had become, was "very bluff and rosy, with a nice blunt friendly manner" and "long neat hair" (too often in later years, his hair was allowed to straggle over his collar). He was accompanied by his wife, the notorious Margot. Benson had known her slightly decades earlier, but had to remind her of their previous acquaintance. She compensated for her forgetfulness by treating him as an old friend, "with many nudges and hand-pattings" that were intended to convey sympathy in their mutual ageing process. "She is very witch-like, long face, long nose", Benson noted, but she had "real charm, and I felt her, under all her trappings, to be genuinely affectionate". The presence of a female in Magdalene, even if she was a countess, caused some problems for the entertainment of the guests, for the sky would have fallen in had anyone suggested inviting Margot to High Table. "Dinner in Combination Room, much champagne" was Benson's description of the solution. At the meeting which followed, in the Guildhall, Asquith recommended as "a wise and well-considered policy" that Britain should return to the gold standard – a measure that was adopted soon afterwards by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill. Intended to create currency stability, the gold standard in fact tied sterling to an artificially high exchange rate, damaging the economy by pricing British goods out of export markets – as the Cambridge economist J.M. Keynes had predicted. One can only hope that Asquith's misplaced enthusiasm was not the result of the Magdalene champagne.[16]

Baldwin 1930 Balfour was succeeded as chancellor of the University by Stanley Baldwin. He too had been an undergraduate at Trinity (1885-8) and had probably strolled the courts of Magdalene. (It has certainly been suggested that his energies were not totally engaged by the Historical Tripos, in which he took a Third.) At the time of Baldwin's installation, in June 1930, the Vice-Chancellor was A.B. Ramsay, Benson's successor as Master of Magdalene, whose official duties included the hosting of a garden party for the new Chancellor in the Fellows' Garden. During later visits, Ramsay also provided hospitality at the Master's Lodge. Here Baldwin became the spectator of a bizarre ritual. Ramsay never transcended his basic identity as an Eton classics master. He insisted that undergraduates reading the subject (his "boys" as he called them) should endure an ordeal called the Saying Lesson, usually inflicted at 9.30 on a Monday morning. Victims were required to stand up straight and recite a prescribed Latin passage from memory, with due attention to Ramsay's favourite accessories, eloquence and deportment.  The exercise was pretentious and pointless, as was A.B. Ramsay himself. Weekend guests at the Lodge were roped in to witness the humiliation, and one Magdalene undergraduate found the already unnerving experience compounded by the discovery that he was to declaim for the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. Baldwin, he noted, was "much younger than I expected, with sandy hair and bushy eyebrows". Proud of his own classical training, the Chancellor "thoroughly approved" of the institution, although another conscripted observer, Rudyard Kipling, an honorary fellow of Magdalene, dismissed it as "ludicrous".[17] Baldwin was to be guest of honour at the 1933 Pepys Dinner (the Pepysian Feast), a special celebration to mark the 300th anniversary of the diarist's birth. Unfortunately, political pressures – he was effectively the deputy prime minister in the National government – obliged him to cancel.

While there is no reason to assume that every one of Britain's elected leaders should have made a beeline for Magdalene, there are some notable gaps in the list of prime-ministerial visitors. Winston Churchill, for instance, was not comfortable with situations that he could not dominate. Although a prolific and successful author, he had not received a university education. Given that the Oxford experience did little to humanise the personalities of either his father or his son, this may not have been a disadvantage. He was prepared to accept starring roles in the academic firmament, as Rector of St Andrews and Edinburgh during his days as MP for Dundee, and as Chancellor of the University of Bristol, memorably conferring an honorary degree (awarded by the University) upon Robert Menzies the morning after a heavy air raid on the city in 1941. In 1920 Churchill came to Cambridge to denounce socialism in a Union debate, but there was a clear distinction between crushing oratory to a mass of undergraduates and the conversational sniping of the archetypal Oxbridge high table.

It will also be observed that Labour prime ministers were not recipients of Magdalene hospitality. This might be charitably attributed to the fact that Attlee, Wilson and Blair were Oxford graduates, but this handicap had not deterred Gladstone, Salisbury or Asquith. The truth is that Magdalene, for at least the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, was hostile territory for the Left. At an honorary degree ceremony in May 1944, A.B. Ramsay deputised for the University's Public Orator, W.K.C. Guthrie, who was on war service engaged in intelligence work. Ramsay delivered the Latin address in honour of Australia's Labor prime minister, John Curtin, who received a doctorate in law. There was something inexpressibly amusing about the Master of Magdalene praising Curtin as a champion of the Australian working class, whom he had helped to weld into a political force – sentiments so alien to Ramsay's cloistered world that it is hard to imagine how he managed to intone them with the appropriate eloquence and deportment.[18]

Macmillan 1965 I must intrude myself into the next prime ministerial visit. By the summer of 1965, in my third term at Magdalene, I was well aware that the College was a strange and exotic institution, linked by puzzlingly intrusive tentacles to the corridors of power. Even so, I did not expect, one May morning, to encounter Harold Macmillan in First Court, accompanied by his wife Lady Dorothy. It was only much later that I discovered that he was a lifelong friend (from their Eton days) of Sir Henry Willink, the Master of Magdalene, who was guiding his guests around the College. Curiously, my instinctive feeling on spotting Macmillan was one of embarrassed compassion, no doubt an inappropriate response from an insignificant freshman towards the Chancellor of Oxford University. Two weeks earlier, his grandson, a second-year student at Oxford, had died of a drugs overdose in his rooms at Balliol. Such tragedies were mercifully still rare in the mid-sixties, and the news coverage had been extensive. It could only have been painful for Macmillan to find himself in a college environment, surrounded by bustling and energetic young life (and me), and I was mildly puzzled that he should be visiting Magdalene at all. When Willink ushered the Macmillans into the Hall, to inspect the portraits, I dashed back to my rooms in Bright's Building, collected my camera and positioned myself by the window at the top of G staircase. In due course, as I had anticipated, they walked across Second Court to visit the Pepys Library which was opened specially for Macmillan's inspection, as it had been for Gladstone. My photograph shows the Master of Magdalene on the left, with Lady Dorothy wielding a fearsome umbrella, and Macmillan himself closest to the camera. Although the leaves on the pollarded trees confirm that the photograph was taken in late May, the ex-prime minister was wearing his trademark long, dark Edwardian overcoat.[19] 

Magdalene's prime-ministerial visits provide glimpses of famous statesmen in familiar locations. There is the middle-aged Gladstone at prayer in Chapel, returning as the Grand Old Man to brave hostility to his progressive politics so he could visit the Pepys Library once more. It seems a reasonable assumption that Salisbury joked about the love life of Parnell over dinner in the Lodge with the Master who – some would insist – had launched the Irish leader on his political career by expelling him two decades earlier. The panelled elegance of the Combination Room is somehow enhanced by the thought of Asquith – by then the Earl of Oxford and Asquith – drenching himself in champagne under the portraits of bygone donnish notables. The trees of the Fellows' Garden shaded Baldwin as he hobnobbed with the academic elite after his installation as Chancellor. Finally, there is Macmillan, striding ramrod-straight across Second Court, the embodiment of an Edwardian world that was receding beyond memory. The relentless masculinity of the Magdalene past is very slightly redeemed by the thought of the prime ministers' wives, Catherine Gladstone radiating charm in the Lodge, Margot Asquith chain-smoking in the Combination Room, Lady Dorothy Macmillan at her husband's side as they braved a college environment so soon after the tragic death of their grandson. The visits also throw some light on the ethos of the College itself, or at least of the political orientation projected by successive Masters – high Tory throughout the nineteenth century, vaguely Liberal in the Benson years, conventionally Conservative under Ramsay and Willink. It would be a very different Magdalene that welcomed Nelson Mandela in 2001.

ENDNOTES References are given in short form, omitting standard places of publication and simplifying easily traceable titles. For other essays on Magdalene, see "Explorations in the history of Cambridge by Ged Martin"

For a list of material relating to W.E. Gladstone on this website, see "Gladstone on" ( 


[2] A.T. Bassett, Gladstone to his Wife (1936), 71.


[4] Gladstone Diaries, i, 397-9.

[5] Gladstone, who had breakfasted with Blakesley in Trinity ten years earlier, did not mention his presence at dinner in his diary. Blakesley had been President of the Cambridge Union in 1829 (and was a founder member of the Apostles); Gladstone was President of the Oxford Union in 1830. As prime minister, Gladstone appointed Blakesley Dean of Lincoln in 1872. "I was disappointed in Blakesley," he wrote in 1894. "He was appointed because he had been awake: having got into that haven he (so far as I know) slept for the rest of his life – a not uncommon case". Gladstone Diaries, xiii, 365. Blakesley engaged in subtle sabotage to undermine E.W. Benson's attempts to bring life to Lincoln cathedral: He died in 1885.

[6] Gladstone Diaries, iii, 157-60; J.P.T. Bury, ed, Romilly's Cambridge Diary 1832-42 (1967), 226; Magdalene College Magazine, iii (March 1910), 73-4. Unfortunately, it is not clear which "Mr Stephenson" stayed overnight in Magdalene. Stracey-Clitherow's description of his companion as "the father of all railways" and his recollection that he talked of starting life as a watchmaker both point to George Stephenson. However, he acknowledged that to "recall small events which occurred 70 years and over ago is no easy matter", and his memories might have become infused by well-known traditions. George Stephenson was certainly widely consulted in connection with railway schemes until he retired in 1845. However, his son Robert Stephenson was engaged in 1841-2 in promoting a line between Great Yarmouth and Norwich, and was perhaps more likely to have been the stagecoach passenger. George had refused to send his son to Cambridge, and Robert Stephenson may have wished to experience one night of college life. According  to Magdalene legend, William Farish, who was the Jacksonian (Science) Professor, had advised the promoters of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that "thirty miles an hour was a perfectly safe  speed, and that sixty miles could be done". Farish also argued that the government should build the railways, using the profits to pay off the National Debt. E.K. Purnell, Magdalene College (1904), 176. Farish had died in 1837.

[7] The book was dedicated to the University of Oxford, which Gladstone characterised as "providentially designed to be a fountain of blessings, spiritual, social, and intellectual, to this and to other countries, to the present and future times". Cambridge might presumably have merited an honourable mention, although its Christianity was tainted by rationalism.

[8] Gladstone Diaries, v, 435-6;  M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary 1848-1864 (2000), 332-3; The Times, 2 November 1859.

[9] In fact, Gladstone was only narrowly elected alongside two Conservatives in the three-member South Lancashire constituency in 1865. The following year, one of his fellow Liberal candidates, Henry Yates Thompson, offered Cambridge University an endowment to fund a visiting lectureship in American Studies. It was rudely rejected:

[10] For an echo of Conservative and Anglican attitudes to Gladstone that probably stem from the disestablishment of the Irish Church:

[11] Gladstone Diaries, ix, 356-8; Cambridge Independent Press, 2 November 1878. Francis Pattrick (who had taught mathematics to Parnell) had been appointed Librarian in 1863, but I cannot discover whether he retained the post after succeeding as President in 1873. It is unlikely that any Fellow of Magdalene would have opened the Pepys Library to Gladstone without notifying the Master, and Latimer Neville would almost certainly have attended the University Sermon and known that he was in town. [In June 2021, the auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull offered for sale an 18th-century zoology textbook, in which was bound a much later letter, described as being "to J.A. Harvie Brown from Professor Alfred Newman of Magdalene College Cambridge". The writer discussed the edition at some length. "He also mentions that Gladstone visited the college the previous week where he planted a tree, which had been swiftly stolen." "Professor Alfred Newman" is evidently a misreading for Alfred Newton, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge, from 1877 to 1907, a Professorial Fellow of Magdalene. Harvie-Brown was born in 1844, so this letter must refer to the 1878 visit. While it casts doubt on the theory that Gladstone was snubbed, it still suggests that his appearance in College was unwelcome in some circles, and that he was ignored by the Master. Undergraduates were not permitted to enter the Fellows' Garden, until Donaldson's time (Master 1904-15), but they would have found it easy enough to break in and uproot a sapling. I am most grateful to Dr John Munns for this information. Note, March 2022: It is however possible that this source, which cannot be checked, refers to Gladstone's 1887 visit to Newnham College, where his daughter Helen was Vice-Principal. A tree planted on that occasion was indeed ripped out by male Tory undergraduates. Gladstone supplied a replacement from the grounds of Hawarden.]


[13] The Times, 21, 22 January; Cambridge Independent Press, 24 January; Bury and Norwich Post, 27 January 1891; E.K. Purnell, Magdalene College (1904), 192. Latimer Neville's last public appearance was as a member of the platform party to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Austen Chamberlain, speak at the Guildhall in November 1903. Shortly after, his doctors ordered him to take to his bed, and he died in January 1904. The Times, 27 November 1903.  

[14] Ged Martin, The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 1815-1914 (2000), 33,

[15] A.J. [Earl] Balfour, ed. E. Dugdale, Chapters of Autobiography (1930), 25-41, 50-62.

[16] P. Lubbock, ed., The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson (1926), 312; The Times, 10 March 1925. The speech may also be read in the Glasgow Herald of the same date, available via Google News Archive. Margot Asquith was the subject of a biography by Daphne Bennett, wife of Magdalene History Fellow, Ralph Bennett. It may be said in affectionate memory that she was well-equipped to understand Lady Asquith. Margot (1984)  does not mention the visit to Magdalene.

[17] K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin: a Biography (1969), 574; Magdalene College Magazine, 1992-3, 50.

[18] The Times, 20 May 1944.

[19] A. Horne, Macmillan 1894-1956 (1988), 16. It is possible that Macmillan had visited Magdalene during the previous regime. He "kept up a close friendship" with A.B. Ramsay, who had helped him when ill health compelled his early departure from Eton. H. Macmillan, Winds of Change 1914-1939 (1966), 42. A commitment to historical completeness leads me to add that Willink also escorted the former prime minister into the brewhouse-turned-bathhouse that stood between the Pepys Building and the river, presumably to use its very basic facilities. The building was demolished in 1969, and the loss of this part of the Magdalene heritage need not be regretted.