The Preface and '"Going Up to Jesus": A Note on Terminology' explain some Cambridge terms.















Ged Martin







© Ged Martin 2000


All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.


The author, Ged Martin (Gerald Warren Martin), asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.








Although long dormant, my association with the Cambridge Union dates back to my own student days. As a result, I owe thanks to many people who, over many years, have encouraged and helped me in this project. I take this opportunity of mentioning in particular: Terry Barringer, Colin Coates, Sandra Fairing, Peter Freshwater, Nigel Hancock, Ronald Hyam, Gordon Johnson, Dermot Keogh, J.J. Lee, Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Ian Martin, Christopher Nott, Grace Owens, James Sturgis, Barry Thoday and the late Roland Thompson. I apologise to those whose name are omitted. As always, my deepest thanks will be expressed in private. My scholarly debt to the many historians of Cambridge in whose steps I tread will, I hope, be evident from the text. Thanks are due to the members of the Modern History seminar at the University of Edinburgh and to the Historical Society of University College Cork for opportunities to discuss the project at earlier stages. My debt to the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge goes far beyond the present work.

            Thanks are due to the Cambridge Union Society and to Cambridge University Library for access to the records of the Union, and to the Master and Fellows of Trinity College and the staff of the Wren Library for permission to cite the Houghton MSS. I also acknowledge with appreciation the remarkable resources of the National Library of Scotland.


A Note on Sources and Abbreviations follows '"Going up to Jesus"; A Note on Terminology'.


"Going Up To Jesus":

A Note on Terminology


The present study is the product of three related interests. The first is a sometimes exasperated enthusiasm for Cambridge University, which is reflected in the four chapters that constitute Part One of the book. The second stems from a wish not simply to explore the history of the Cambridge Union as an institution, but from the desire to establish the extent to which its debates may be interpreted as evidence of opinion, both within the narrow world of student privilege community and the wider community. The three chapters of Part Two discuss both aspects of the question. The debates on Ireland, which are the subject of the four chapters of Part Three, are explored in more detail and form part of a longer-term study of British perceptions, and misconceptions, of nineteenth-century Ireland. Perhaps the confidence is misplaced, but this study assumes that readers interested in Cambridge University during the nineteenth century will possess an outline knowledge of the history of Ireland in the same period, or should at least be familiar with the main events of what textbooks used to call the "Irish Question". By contrast, those who may approach the book from the other direction may be forgiven for feeling perplexed and alienated by the vocabulary and tribal traditions of an English university. Chapters Two and Three attempt an explanation, but those of us whose thought patterns have been shaped by modernity, whatever our national origins, will find much about Cambridge as it emerged from its ancien régime that we can never fully penetrate. A few preliminary notes on terminology may be useful.

            Wherever possible, arcane vocabulary has been by-passed. For instance, Honours examinations are referred to as the Tripos (plural Triposes to indicate various subject degrees) because Cambridge still uses the term. Authorities generally trace its origins to a three-legged stool, but who sat on the stool and why, are matters of unresolved controversy beyond the realms of this enquiry. In mathematics, the top class of examination candidates were called Wranglers, but there seems no reason not to use here the internationally recognised equivalent, First Class. Officially the three Cambridge terms (that is, periods of formal study) are Michaelmas, Lent and Easter. Anyone steeped in the culture of Ireland will have some difficulty in recognising a Lent Term that starts in January and an Easter Term that finishes in June. The first and third terms were often referred to as the October and summer terms, and it seems simpler to refer to the middle period as the January or winter term. The process by which Oxbridge academics came to be called "dons" is as obscure as obscure as the etymology of the Tripos. Certainly nowadays few specimens of the breed radiate the hauteur of the Spanish grandees from whom the word derives, but it is used as for its convenience. In reference to the colleges, the well-established terms of Master and Fellows are used, to refer respectively to the head of the institution and the academic staff or voting members. As Chapter Two seeks to clarify (or so it may be hoped), two colleges did not call their chief executive "Master", and a handful of the University's member institutions managed to evade calling themselves "colleges". Hence the collective term for the former was "heads of houses". One Oxford college, Christ Church, called its Fellows "Students", which causes confusion to this day, but happily that problem does not impinge here. We have enough.

            Colleges are usually referred to by short title. Thus King's College is normally "King's" and so on. Again, Oxford demonstrates that there are levels of eccentricity undreamt of beside the Cam. Christ Church does not bear the label "College", but New College can never be correctly mentioned without it. The closest that Cambridge managed to fool outsiders was the transformation of the anciently-named St Peter's College to the more domestic Peterhouse. The unwary should however take note that Trinity Hall, a very small piece in the puzzle, is nothing to do with Trinity, which is a very large segment of Cambridge.

            Some colleges endure yet further abbreviation. In colloquial usage, Corpus Christi and Sidney Sussex both drop their second element. By contrast, Gonville and Caius is simply "Caius". And here we come to further hurdles of pronunciation. John Keys (some prefer Kees) was inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance to re-found Gonville Hall in 1557. To proclaim his own enthusiasm for the new learning, he rendered his surname into Latin. Four and a half centuries later, the pronunciation obstinately preserves the original form. Another trap for the unwary is Magdalene, which even so notable a poet as Rupert Brooke rhymed with "dawdle in".1 A plea in mitigation might point to Thurles and Youghal, Ballina and Drogheda (not to mention Dun Laoghaire) and mildly suggest that Cambridge is not unique. A note on the pronunciation of two of the surnames that appear in these pages may also be helpful. The intimidating William Whewell was known to students as "Billy Whistle" because - if we are to judge from Cambridge oral tradition - his name not only rhymed with "fuel" but its opening consonant preserved the aspiration characteristic of the North. Although there was nothing overtly religious about William Mackworth Praed, his surname was pronounced in a manner redolent of prayer, in the past tense.

From an Irish point of view, the nomenclature of the colleges is confusing both geographically and culturally. In the Cambridge context, Clare and Pembroke are colleges, whereas in Irish discourse they would refer respectively to a county and a ferry terminal. Life is too short to explain how Cambridge's Clare College and Ireland's Banner County can trace their name to the same medieval family. More confusing is the fact that the largest college at Cambridge, Trinity, bears the same name as the core institution of the University of Dublin. Like Oxford and Cambridge, Dublin's university was intended to become an institution that would embrace a range of component colleges. In the event, only the one college was ever founded. In the pages that follow, "Trinity" refers exclusively to the Cambridge college, while occasional allusions to its Dublin namesake are made in full. More generally, those familiar with Ireland may find it odd that names more often associated with churches and religious orders are in Cambridge routinely, and with little respect, applied in an aggressively secular context. It is said that a proud parent who announced that his son had gone up to Jesus received from friends in Ireland not congratulations on academic achievement but condolences in his bereavement.

Confusion in terminology extends to the central focus of this study, the Cambridge Union itself. No doubt this student debating society chose wisely when it turned its back on the cumbersome names of its predecessors, the Speculative and the Anticarnalist, but simplicity was achieved at the price of clarity. It was bad luck that "Union" should so very quickly have become a byword for revolutionary organisations. Social eminence seems to have obviated any identification with trades unions, but did not prevent occasional confusion, both then and since, with the local workhouse. A key-word search on the computerised index to The Times throws up an episode from 1841, "Insurrection at the Cambridge Union". The historian hurries away to the newspaper file half-hoping to find an O'Connellite confrontation, only to discover that the story refers to a mutiny by paupers against workhouse conditions. Right down to 1948, when the last vestiges of the Poor Law system gave place to the welfare state, down-and-outs occasionally arrived at England's oldest student debating society seeking food and refuge.

These are amusing confusions, but a central problem in terminology remains. The underlying factor in almost all Cambridge student debates on Ireland was the question of constitutional relationship between the two islands. In happier times, Erskine Childers made the Cambridge Union into a pun on that larger union brought about in 1801. In this study, the terms "union" (describing the structure of British-Irish government from 1801 to 1922) and "unionist" (a supporter of that relationship) are used sparingly and spelt in lower case, except in quotations.

The Cambridge Union elected three "junior" officers each term. Until 1852, the three were styled President, Treasurer and Secretary. In that year, the post of Treasurer was changed to a longer-term basis by a senior member of the University. At student level, it was replaced by a new office, that of Vice-President. The three officers generally succeeded each other without much to-do. Here, as so often, the Cambridge ethos was different from that of Oxford, where the Union created four student posts, ensuring that progression to the Presidency often involved diamond-shaped electoral contests between the Librarian and Treasurer. In the first half-century of the Union's history, Presidents were as likely to be young BAs as undergraduates. Indeed, a few incumbents served a second term, although usually not consecutively: Charles Dilke in 1866 was the last. Members generally rose to the Presidency on the strength of their standing as public speakers, and the Society's silent and reactionary majority proved remarkably open-minded in electing candidates whose radical political beliefs were invariably rejected in the divisions that concluded each debate. One notable exception was William Smith O'Brien in 1831 who never spoke at all. Smith O'Brien came into residence at Cambridge as what we should now call a mature student, having already served a term as an MP at Westminster. It is a pity that he never addressed the Cambridge Union. Of course, had he done so he would at that stage of his career have preached the most rigid Toryism.

This study covers a period just short of one hundred years, from 1815 to 1914. Perhaps it may too easily imply that the century under review constituted a coherent unity, that Cambridge in the year of Waterloo was much the same as the Cambridge that marched off to the battle of the Marne. Common sense would prompt us to suspect that this could not be so. The University underwent major changes that effectively made the eighteen-sixties into a watershed, a caesura paralleled in the history of the Union by the construction of its permanent home in 1866. Veterans of the eighteen-twenties who attended the inaugural ceremony on that occasion spoke of a very different world that had existed forty years earlier. In the formal sense, members of the Union seem to have been largely indifferent to their Society's past. The sole attempt to appeal to a tradition on an Irish issue was the work of a visitor from Oxford, Swift MacNeill, who proposed the Union's first-ever motion on Home Rule in 1873 and arranged to return in 1913 to celebrate its fortieth anniversary. In reality, MacNeill's belief that he had carried the day back in 1873 was mistaken and his "tradition" was manufactured pretext designed to enable a Nationalist and Protestant member for a Donegal constituency to attack the legitimacy of Ulster unionism. Yet, as Chapters Two and Three will argue, the changes that seemed so seismic within Cambridge may appear to outsiders little more than minor modifications, that barely changed the composition of the University in terms of class, gender or religious affiliation. It can hardly be doubted that even these reforms were purchased at the price of emphasising the appearance of changeless continuity, so that student debaters formed their ideas and thrashed out their disagreements within an academic microcosm that was dominated by a comfortable sense of continuity. In that sense at least, the Cambridge of 1914 was much the same as the same as it had been a century before. Fundamentally, the conundrum is philosophical as much as historical: is it possible to attribute characteristics of any kind, including those of continuity, to an abstract institution?  If there was stifling continuity in the traditions of the place, Cambridge was to some extent constantly refreshed by the counter-balancing enthusiasm of its annual infusion of youth. "The world was so interesting then", Leslie Stephen recalled of his undergraduate days forty years later.2  That was a theme which animated Union debates from the time of George IV to the reign of George V. Nor should we forget that the Ireland that moved in and out of the Cambridge student world between 1815 and 1914 was also greatly changed and fundamentally the same.

            One final word by way of disclaimer. Historians are not responsible for the material that they study. The nationalist prejudice in the debate records of the Cambridge Union is capable of irritating an Irish reader, just as nineteenth-century Cambridge exudes a social exclusivity that is equally alien to an English author who had the good fortune to be born into a more democratic (and probably transient) age of wider access to higher education. In many respects, the first hundred years of the Cambridge Union belong to a remote era entirely alien to the twenty-first century world. Yet in others, some of the attitudes reflected in its debates remain to complicate relations between Britain and Ireland to this day.






1. C. Hassall, Rupert Brooke (1972 ed.), p. 251, in a 1911 parody of A.E. Housman.


2. Leslie Stephen in National Review, 42, 1903-4, p. 131.


















The archives of the Cambridge Union have been deposited on loan to Cambridge University Library. The printed Annual Reports are bound as Laws and Regulations. These include the termly Vice-Presidents' Reports (VPR). An accompanying series of Minutes Books (MB) is valuable for the proceedings of business meetings and for debates between 1834 and 1843 for which the printed reports are incomplete. This series is supplemented by the occasional Suggestions Book and, for the later nineteenth century, separate Minute Books for committee proceedings (Secretary's MB). I am grateful to the Standing Committee of the Cambridge Union Society, to Barry Thoday and Sandra Fairing and to the Reverend Nigel Hancock for their help in relation to the Union archives. I also thank the Master and Fellows of Trinity College for access to the Houghton MSS.

            Biographical information has generally been omitted from the Endnotes, except in cases of direct quotation. The major source for nineteenth-century Cambridge students is the monumental Alumni Cantabrigienses, Part II, compiled by J.A. Venn in six volumes between 1940 and 1954. Later personalities often appear in Who's Who, and its posthumous compilations, Who Was Who. For British and Irish public figures, information has been taken from the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and from H. Boylan, A Dictionary of Irish Biography (1978). The source of biographical information can usually be deduced from the context.

            Dates of debates are given in the Endnotes in a simple system of day/month/year. A hyphenated date indicates that a debate was adjourned to a second night. In the citation of books, the year of publication is given in the initial reference. The addition of "ed." after the date means that a second or subsequent edition, often in paperback, has been cited. Place of publication has generally been omitted. Frequently used sources are abbreviated as follows:


Alma Mater                 [J.F.M Wright], Alma Mater: or Seven Years at the University of Cambridge (2 vols, 1827).

Bristed                         C.A. Bristed, Five Years in an English University (2nd ed., 1852).

Brooke                         C.N.L. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge: iv, 1870-1990 (1993).

Catholic Cambridge   M.N.L. Couve de Murville and P. Jenkins,

Catholic Cambridge (1983).

Cornford                      F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica: A Guide to the Young Academic Politician (1908) in G. Johnson, University Politics: F.M. Cornford's Cambridge (1994).

Corrie                          M. Holroyd, ed., Memorials of the Life of George Elwes Corrie (1890).

CR                               Cambridge Review

Cradock                       Percy Cradock, Recollections of the Cambridge Union 1815-1939 (1953). Pages 1-81 are an evocation of the Union before 1901 by Cradock, followed by reminiscences of twentieth-century Presidents.

Dilke                            S. Gwynn and G.M. Tuckwell, The Life of Sir Charles W. Dilke (2 vols, 1917).

DNB                            Dictionary of National Biography

EVC                            D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge (1955).

Gownsman                  G.E. Jackson and P. Vos, eds, The Cambridge Union Society: Debates April 1910-March 1911 (1911).

Gr                                The Granta

Gunning                        H. Gunning, Reminiscences of the University, Town and County of Cambridge from the year 1780 (2 vols, 1854).

Hort                             A.F. Hort, Life and Letters of Fenton J.A. Hort (2 vols, 1896).

Houghton MSS            Trinity College, Wren Library, Houghton MSS (correspondence of Richard Monckton Milnes).

Howarth                       Cambridge Between Two Wars (1978).

Inaug.                          The Cambridge Union Society: Inaugural Proceedings (1866).

Johnson                        see Cornford.

L-G                              E. Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (1966).

LVC                             D.A.Winstanley, Later Victorian Cambridge (1947).

Lytton                          The Life, Letters and Literary Remains if Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton by His Son (2 vols, 1883).

Macaulay                    G.O. Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (2 vols, 1978 ed.).

Maitland, Leslie Stephen

                                    F.W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906)

MB                              Minute Books of the Cambridge Union Society.

Merivale                       J.A. Merivale, ed., Autobiography of Dean Merivale (1899).

Milnes                          T. Wemyss Reid, The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton (2 vols, 1891).

Moultrie                       Derwent Coleridge, ed., Poems of John Moultrie (2 vols, 1876 ed.).

Oxf. Mag                     Oxford Magazine (most citations are to the regular Cambridge Letter).

Palmerston-Sulivan Letters

                                    K. Bourne, ed., The Letters of the Third Viscount Palmerston to Laurence and Elizabeth Sulivan 1804-1863 (Camden Fourth Series, 1979).

Raikes                          H.St.J. Raikes, The Life and Letters of Henry Cecil Raikes (1898).

Rom1/Rom2/Rom3      Romilly's Cambridge Diary. Volume 1 (1967), covering 1832-42, ed. J.P.T. Bury; vols 2 (1994) and 3 (2000), covering 1842-17 and 1848-64, ed. M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles.


Secretary's MB            Secretary's Minute Book, Cambridge Union Society.

Sidgwick                      [A. and E.M. Sidgwick], Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (1906).

Sketches of Cantabs   "John Smith" [J.D.Lewis], Sketches of Cantabs (1849).

Skipper                        J.F. Skipper, A Short History of the Cambridge University Union (1878).

Statement                    A Statement Regarding the Union, an Academical Debating Society, which existed at Cambridge from February 13th 1815 to March 24th 1817, When it was Suppressed by the Vice-Chancellor (1817).

Student's Guide           The Student's Guide to the University of Cambridge (2nd ed. 1866).

Thackeray                   G.N. Ray, ed., The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, i, 1817-1840 (1945).

VCH                            The Victoria History of the Counties of England: Cambridge iii: Cambridge (1959).         

VPR                             Vice-President's Termly Report, Cambridge Union Society. The letters M, L and E which follow stand for the Michaelmas, Lent and Easter Terms.

Whewell                       Mrs Stair Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell (1881).