Charles Stewart Parnell at Cambridge: New Evidence (1992)

In 1974, I published 'Parnell at Cambridge: The Education of an Irish Nationalist' (Irish Historical Studies, xix, 72-82). This discussion was based on the assumption (itself derived from information supplied by Magdalene College Cambridge to R. Barry O'Brien) that Parnell had spent four fruitless years at the University, between 1865 and 1869. By 1991, reorganisation of the College Archives made it possible to quarry new material from account books and other official records. These threw fresh, and startling, light upon the subject. The new findings were summarised in an article in Magdalene College Magazine and Record, xxxvi (1992), 37-41, which is reprinted below, with some small editorial changes.



Magdalene College Magazine and Record, xxxvi (1992), 37-41

Magdalene's decision to mark the centenary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell by establishing a Fellowship in Irish Studies has provided the trigger for new research into the Irish leader's Cambridge years. We still do not know as much as we might wish about his time at Magdalene, and the new answers prompt some equally puzzling questions. Yet considering that Parnell came up to Magdalene a withdrawn young man of nineteen, whom few could have picked out for later distinction, it is remarkable that so much of his undergraduate life can be reconstructed.

The outline facts and the deductions which they seemed to justify have appeared straightforward. Parnell came up in October 1865. Magdalene was not a large college, and academically it was not a distinguished one either. As the Spectator commented in 1904, the 1860s was 'a time when if a man were requested, in consequence of persistent failure to pass exams, to withdraw from another College, he was cheerfully permitted — at any rate, if he possessed the right social qualifications — to find refuge at Magdalene'. The low academic standards probably suited Parnell, whose schooling had been patchy. The social tone may equally have been unfortunate, and biographers have seen here a clue to the paradox that a man who was himself a Protestant and a landlord should have become the leader of a movement which was overwhelmingly Catholic and peasant. (Parnell, it should be said, was through no fault of his own, not a very wealthy landlord, and his Chapel fines at Magdalene confirm that he was no very zealous believer.)

Certainly, there are scraps of evidence which paint a picture of a young man at odds with his fellow undergraduates. A.T. Wirgman, who came up in 1866, called Parnell 'a taciturn sort of man whom nobody knew very well'. Magdalene's official historian, E.K. Purnell, was three years Parnell's junior, but as near-namesakes they were occasionally confused. Purnell recalled that the future Irish leader seemed 'to have had few friends in the College'. Samuel Sproston was a preposterous snob who arrived at Magdalene in 1867 — unannounced, to be admitted on the say-so of a friend who was a third-year undergraduate. Sproston could not even bring himself to utter the hated name when he damned Parnell as `keen about nothing'. It seems that Parnell was unpopular with some of his contemporaries for his refusal to join the Boat Club. Parnell's brother John recalled that there had been 'many quarrels, which often resulted in blows': on one occasion five undergraduates attempted to wreck Parnell's rooms. (College tradition is probably correct in stating that he occupied what is now the Parnell Room of Magdalene College Library, but the archival record cannot confirm this.) Magdalene men of that era were handy with their fists, and took so prominent a part in Town-Gown fighting that the muscular bargees on the Cam affectionately referred to Magdalene as 'our college'. Parnell himself once tried to intervene in a fight outside the College gates in order to protect his maths lecturer, G.F. Pattrick. The circumstances of Pamell's departure from Cambridge are also well known. On the evening of Saturday, 1 May 1869, he became involved in a fight outside Cambridge Railway Station with two men named Hamilton and Allen. Solemn biography has portrayed Edward Charles Hamilton as a local worthy, for Hamilton styled himself as a 'merchant'. Less imposing was his admission in court that he 'dealt in manure', and the truth would seem to be that the two men were, in Michael Davitt's words, 'drunken drovers'. (They were probably also Scots, a fact which should not be held against them, but which may help to explain why comments which they claimed were cheery greetings, seemed menacing to Parnell: it was, after all, a Saturday night.) A policeman arrived, refused a shilling bribe from Parnell (the going rate, the Irish leader later claimed, was a sovereign) and noted down names. Hamilton took his case to an enterprising local solicitor, who was also a town councillor, and decided to sue. The case came to court on 21 May, and we may suspect that the local jury eagerly grasped an opportunity to vent their dislike of the loutishness of the Victorian student. Twenty guineas damages were awarded against Parnell, and to cap his discomfiture, five days later a College Meeting decided to rusticate him until the end of term. He never returned, and it is tempting to date the beginning of his career of political defiance from that moment.

Much of this story I was able to untangle for publication in the Magdalene College Magazine and Record  back in 1969, an earlier Parnell centenary year. At that time, it was not easy for the earnest researcher to find a way through Magdalene's archives: there were piles of uncatalogued letters and old account books, full of arcane fines and deductions, but little in the way of labelling, guide or explanation. By 1991, these materials had been placed in neat order, and they revealed some startling new evidence. First and most basic, it appeared that Parnell had not been in residence throughout those full four years between 1865 and 1869. He kept the Michaelmas and Lent terms of his first academic year, but did not reappear after the Easter vacation. He was in Cambridge for the whole of the academic year 1866-67, although it may be significant that he was usually one of the last undergraduates to return to residence each term. Thereafter, there is a lengthy blank. There was no sign of Parnell in the College accounts until 19 April 1869: he had come back just in time to get into the famous Station Road fight. Why was he absent for so long? The most likely explanation lies in the tangled affairs of his Avondale estate in County Wicklow. Parnell came of age in June 1867, at which point he became involved in litigation over the recovery of outstanding loans. It would not have been surprising that he should have concluded that his place was in Ireland: even in May 1869, after his return to Cambridge, he made a flying visit to Wicklow on some kind of business.

Parnell's lengthy absence from Magdalene throws other light both on his own attitudes to the place, and to the recollections of others about him. Although he was not in residence, Parnell continued to pay his 'chamber rent', and we can imagine the ground floor rooms on Right Cloister locked and shuttered for a year and a half. Then, in December 1868, he took his name off the books altogether: he had definitely abandoned his Cambridge career. Yet on 2 April 1869, he re-entered the College: in the very hierarchical account books, his name re-appears right at the foot of the seniority lists. In 1906 his brother Henry recalled a 'courteous letter' from his tutor, Mynors Bright, urging him to return. Henry thought the letter followed his brother's rustication, but given Bright's concern for the welfare of students, it would seem likely that Magdalene prevailed upon Parnell to change his mind about dropping out.

Straightaway, then, we have to dismiss sweeping notions that Parnell hated Magdalene and vice-versa. For a year and a half he clung to the hope of coming back to Cambridge, and even after formally breaking his ties with the College, he changed his mind. What then of the hostility of his contemporaries? Here we need to look hard at the temptingly vivid evidence. Wirgman, Sproston and Purnell all testified that Parnell had few friends at Magdalene, and this seemed to point to a lone-wolf Irishman, already out of sympathy with the English elite. Yet, it is hardly surprising that a student who is away for six of his twelve terms should find normal patterns of College friendships interrupted. Sproston and Purnell came into residence during Parnell's missing years: they overlapped with him only during those seven weeks of April and May 1869.

If Parnell seemed out of place, it might be because most of his contemporaries had moved on. P.F. Hoole, for instance, was with Parnell on the night of the fight. Hoole played cricket for Magdalene, and cricket was one of Parnell's enthusiasms: it may have been cricket which helped to bring him back for the summer term, never a time of year for intensive study. Hoole had graduated a few months earlier, but the College accounts show him briefly back in residence between 25 April and 1 May 1869. Perhaps he had come to clear out his rooms. At any rate, Hoole presumably explains why Parnell was at the station on that fateful night: he was seeing off one of the last of his College contemporaries, whom, presumably, he regarded as a friend. Wirgman's testimony would seem more reliable, since he came up in 1866, but we need to remember that he was writing half a century later — and a decade after E.K. Purnell had published his comment in his history of Magdalene, which Wirgman, a College patriot, would probably have read. Wirgman, for instance, remembered Parnell in a cricket match against Trinity Hall, 'batting with him as my partner ... when we both made a stand and scored fairly well'. It is a vivid glimpse, since the match took place just two days after the affray in Station Road. Parnell's aggression was evidently in full flow, for he scored a very useful 19. The Cambridge Chronicle report confirms that Wirgman played too, but — alas for the rosy recollections of autumn years — far from making a stand, he was out for a duck.

What of the 'many quarrels' with fellow undergraduates? These seem to have focused on a single issue: Parnell refused to join the Boat Club. Undergraduates did not always join: some simply could not afford to do so. Parnell's refusal was more controversial. A Boat Club members' list available twenty years ago seemed to show that Parnell did pay up in his first year 'but afterwards declined joining the Club'. This, however, was probably compiled as a retrospective record. Contemporary Boat Club accounts now show that Parnell refused to pay at all, and a vengeful secretary duly entered mounting arrears against his name each term. Those of us who do not worship at the altar of rowing can feel some sympathy with his refusal to subsidise other men's fun under the cover of College loyalty. There are some indications that Parnell had a particular horror of drowning, and the Cam in his time was both a sewer and a receptacle for dead dogs.

The Boat Club secretary was Robert Neville Grenville, one of the Magdalene `insiders' — his grandfather had been Master. He was an untypical Old Etonian, who dropped his second surname and worked for a time as a railway stoker in preparation for an apprenticeship as an engineer on the Great Western. He must have been Parnell's contemporary in Pattrick's lectures, and both men were fascinated by gadgets. Neville's Sunday treat was a healthy walk 'to inspect the permanent way of different lines leading out of Cambridge for miles'. Yet on the subject of the Boat Club, they disagreed: Neville believed that a man had a duty to support his College whether he rowed or not. Sixty years later, Neville recalled: 'I had a great wrestling match with the notorious Charles S. Parnell on the sacred college grass before I could extract his subscription'. Presumably they fought outside Parnell's rooms in Second Court, away from the gaze of porters, but Neville — like Wirgman — looked back through the golden haze of later life. Parnell never did pay his Boat Club subscription.

Parnell, then, did not get along with the rowing hearties. This is not to say that he had no friends at Magdalene. Buttery accounts show him spending fairly freely in his first term at Cambridge, which suggests that he was initially fully part of a student community. In any case, small though Magdalene was at the time, there are other recollections which indicate that with fifty men in residence, it did not necessarily function as one big happy family, nor that acquaintanceships endured in later years. Neville, for instance, confessed that he did not have 'any clue' about the later careers of his contemporaries.

What of Parnell's departure from Cambridge? Was he treated unfairly, and did the experience sour his attitude to England? Parnell was certainly unlucky, although that May evening he had perhaps drunk enough to make his own bad luck: within a few months he was to be in a police court again, this time in Ireland for annoying tourists at a hotel in Glendalough. To be rusticated for the remainder of the term on 26 May is hardly a savage sentence, but it appears the more poignant now that we know that Parnell had only just managed to get himself back to Cambridge after a two-year absence. The jury's verdict against him was disproportionate, an example of the disparity which can arise between civil and criminal law. Parnell might also have felt aggrieved at the classic double jeopardy which subjected him to College discipline as well.

Take, for instance, a case which Parnell himself would probably have remembered. In April 1867, the Hon. William Charles Wentworth Fitzwilliam, a Magdalene undergraduate, was prosecuted for obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty. A group of Oxford students had been in town for an athletics contest, and they and their Cambridge friends had engaged in a jolly midnight rampage of ringing doorbells and running away. One of the Oxford visitors had been taken into custody, and Fitzwilliam had attempted, as they would say in Chicago, to spring him. He was fined fifty shillings and costs. His solicitor, who tried to make light of the whole affair, was the same lawyer who prosecuted Parnell in denunciatory tones two years later. There is no record of any disciplinary action against Fitzwilliam by the College. The moral, it appeared, was that at Magdalene, it was better to be an English aristocrat than an Irish gentleman.

There is evidence that Parnell felt he had been badly treated. 'I was so exasperated at the animus against me because I was an Irishman that I packed up my traps at once and left the college, and never returned there again', he told a supporter some years later. The story of his rustication seems to have been the one Cambridge episode that Parnell did relate to his Nationalist followers, and no doubt he resented the treatment meted out to him. Yet we should not overlook the possibility that in political terms it was a very convenient experience, for it enabled him to gloss over the potentially embarrassing fact that for four years he had hoped to get a degree at an English, Anglican, privileged University, that he had played cricket and run up buttery bills — that in so many respects he had more in common with the gentlemen of Magdalene than with the masses of Ireland. College records throw some doubt on the notion that Parnell took an instant stand of pride and turned his back on Magdalene for ever. In fact, even after May 1869, there remained the possibility that he might return to his studies: he did not take his name finally off the College books until late in November that year. The affairs of the Avondale estate were at a low ebb, Parnell having lost a major court case over the repayment of a mortgage. That he should have kept open the Cambridge option at all in 1869, suggests that he saw rustication as an incidental complication and not a political turning point.

There is one other intriguing source which is now available for inspection in the Magdalene archives. It is a Gate Book, a record kept by the porters of young gentlemen who came in after ten o'clock at night. Undergraduates were fined for returning after ten o'clock, but as they were penalised by the hour, the porter simply listed all those arriving after ten, after eleven and so on. The Gate Book which survives for April and May 1869 thus gives some clue to Parnell's habits, but only a loose hint about his cronies: the 11 o'clock group might include a student who came in at five past, and another who rolled back just short of midnight. Even if students could be proved to have arrived at the same time, they could, of course, have merely bumped into each other in Magdalene Street.

The record shows that Parnell came in after hours over a dozen times in the brief period after his return to residence. One possibility is that he had friends in other colleges; another is that he liked to go out drinking in the town. Yet for all its tantalising vagueness, the Gate Book does give us one precious glimpse of Parnell's last hours in Magdalene. On 26 May, a Meeting of the Master and Fellows formally pronounced the sentence of rustication. Presumably Parnell was given a stay of execution to pack his traps. This enabled a group of Magdalene undergraduates to give him a royal send-off. In the early hours of Friday, 28 May, Parnell and three other undergraduates rang the bell and — we may guess — staggered through the archway sometime after 3 a.m. Four more straggled in after 4 o'clock. Such late hours rated expensive fines and were unusual, even for Magdalene men, and they were doubly so on a week-night. Parnell's fellow revellers were mainly freshmen and they could hardly have known him well. Nonetheless, if Parnell walked out of Magdalene later that day on his inexorable way to the leadership of Ireland, we now know that it is more likely that it was salutations of alcoholic goodwill rather than Saxon curses that were ringing in his ears.