Civically-minded Cambridge University College Masters


A look back at the example of Professor Howard Marsh of Downing College through newspapers of the time 110 years ago, and a look at today.

Downing College picked up on a tweet I posted via Puffles on a meeting it hosted in 1909.

The screengrabs from the British Newspaper Archive below reveal a number of very high profile supporters for this body called ‘the Provisional Committee’ which organised this meeting to promote the election of women to a range of local organisations. The Provisional Committee is the predecessor of today’s Fawcett Society – this is its archives page in the National Archives.

From the British Newspaper Archive (£)

Professor Howard Marsh – ‘not one of Downing’s best-remembered masters’

“Um…why’s that?”

…was my first reaction upon reading the start of this post on Downing College’s website – even more so given the role of Professor Marsh not just on the issue of Indian students as the article describes, but on more. Note in the list of people at the meeting in the screengrabs above is Mrs Dutt – Anna Palme, the Swedish wife of Dr Updendra Dutt, a surgeon on Mill Road who saved countless lives in that part of town. Their son, Rajani, who went to the Perse, would go onto become one of the most prominent of British communists in the 20th century.

The archives tell us that from the late 1800s Indian students would become a familiar site in Cambridge. The article below – again from the British Newspaper Archive shows the Cambridge Moslim (sic) Association meeting at the University Arms Hotel. The association was founded by Quilliam in 1901.

100617 Cambridge Moslim Association - Muslims in Cambridge

From the British Newspaper Archive, note Professor Marsh is listed as attending this meeting alongside the Mayor of Cambridge at the University Arms Hotel – one of the most prestigious hotels in Cambridge both then (and when it re-opens in a few months time…) now. One other area where you get a feel for the number of international citizens living and or studying in Cambridge is in the list of convictions – in particular for cycling and motoring offences.

020808 Muslim Student no bike light

Cambridge undergraduate Mr Khan of St John’s College, fined for cycling without a light. The article below – an example of another meeting at the University Arms Hotel also attended by Professor Marsh gives an indication

090820 AngloOrientalCollege University Arms

It wasn’t just in that field that we find Professor Marsh active. We also find the newspaper archives showing that he kept an interest in health and social issues in Cambridge, reflecting his medical background. (His wiki page is here). In 1906 we find him active at Addenbrooke’s.

061026 Howard Marsh Downing Addenbrookes

Before the NHS, in those days Addenbrooke’s got much of its funding from voluntary donations and charitable events such as church parades. Just as it has funding issues today (for which I blame Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt in particular), Addenbrooke’s had funding crises before then as this article shows. Note Howard Marsh is mentioned on the bottom-right of the screen-grab.

One other organisation that Professor Marsh hosted at Downing was the British Women’s Temperance Association.

020801 Womens Temperance Association Downing College

It’s easy to forget today, but the temperance movement 110 years ago was ***massive***. In Cambridge as elsewhere, they ran their own cafes and small hotels – including one on Market Hill and one on Mill Road.

From the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive and the BNA, there are numerous examples of temperance events and social gatherings, many based around church-based movements. In Professor Marsh’s time, Cambridge was a very different place to what we know today. Eglantyne Jebb’s 1906 study provides incredible detail of just how bad things were with both public health and public drinking in Cambridge.

The archives also show that Professor Marsh and his second wife, Violet Hay (his first wife, Jane Perceval having died in 1896) were active in the public health and social movements in Cambridge as well. They took an interest in the care of people with mental health problems and learning disabilities – noting that this was around the time of the big Royal Commission on ‘the care and control of the feeble-minded‘ <- digitised here, it’s 600 pages and was a ground-breaking report for its time. So dense was that report that former mayor Horace Darwin, his wife Ida Darwin (who we named a hospital after), future mayor Florence Ada Keynes (The Mother of Modern Cambridge), Professor Pigou and others, wrote this summary on the Royal Commission’s report.

Both Professor Marsh and his wife Violet were members of the Cambridge branch of the National League for Physical Improvement – the latter being the hon. secretary. Both were also on the committee of the Cambridge Charity Organisation Society – which means they will have been familiar with both Florence Ada Keynes, Mary Paley Marshall, and Eglantyne Jebb.

“What makes Howard Marsh significant?”

As a college master, the newspaper archives tell us that he didn’t sit back and live a life of high table dinners, expensive wines and posh receptions in opulent surroundings. (A stereotype – but something that is very easy to slip into in Cambridge if you get into that bubble). It’s a life that is completely separate – and almost unknown to the townfolk of Cambridge who grow up under the shadow of, but locked out of the institutions that make up Cambridge University. Professor Marsh is the first and earliest example I have found so far, of a college master who fully engaged himself in the life of the town as well as that of his college and the university. In those days, Addenbrooke’s Hospital was where the Judge Institute is today – round the back of Downing College. He also threw open the facilities and grounds of his college for town society events.

“How does that compare with the college masters of today?”

Good question. I’ve not really looked into it so I’m not going to go about throwing baseless accusations.

Recently, there was a public fundraiser organised by the musical duo The Broccoli King to raise money to combat homelessness in Cambridge. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdelene College gave the opening speech.

Dr Rowan Williams at Great St Mary’s, Cambridge.

One of our local town history societies, the Mill Road History Society (you can’t get much more ‘town’ than Mill Road) has one very eminent college master and his wife as members. Yet the nature of Cambridge is that people with current or former high profiles can get on with their lives here and at the same time play a positive role in local civic societies without the media flashbulbs going off.

College Masters blocking industrial sprawl

It wasn’t just the masters – it was a cross-city alliance that blocked the rapid industrial growth of Cambridge through a public fund raising campaign for the Cambridge Preservation Society – today Cambridge Past, Present and Future. This link has a summary of their achievements. The newspaper archives listed who had donated what.

390414 CambridgePPF Donations

Partial list of donors to the Cambridge Preservation Society – today Cambridge PPF.

In that partial list, we see some huge names donating. Marshall’s Flying School – part of the family that owns and runs the airport, C H (Harold) Tetley of the tea firm, and Heffers the bookselling family. Professor Pigou gets a mention, as does Lady Maud Darwin, another prominent campaigner for equal rights – in particular for women police officers in Cambridge. Further down that list, the masters of St John’s, and Gonville & Caius donated one pound and one shilling each – the same amount as the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society.

“So…there is precedence of town and gown working together for the good of the city?”

Yes – that’s the legacy that is continued today by Cambridge Past, Present and Future

The question I’d love to see more college members and alumni put to their college decision makers is this:

“What would your decisions and actions be if the whole of the city mattered to our institution?”

Because the students seem to be leading the way – in particular the Cambridge Hub. Here’s a video I made for them a year ago.

During my childhood growing up in Cambridge, outside of the trainee teachers from Homerton College doing school placements, I can’t recall Cambridge University students and academics having much of an impact on our lives at all. In a single generation there has been a huge change – but still a long way to go.

“Who are the current college masters?”

They are listed here –  a number of people who have had very high profiles in the past. Rowan Williams being one, Former Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith another, and Bridget Kendall, the former BBC Diplomatic Correspondent all being examples.

I guess from a ‘bring town & gown together for the benefit of the city’ perspective, I see the potential role of college masters as being similar to the example set by Professor Howard Marsh. ie one of facilitation, of bringing people and institutions together, and being the host of events where participants from across the city can speak truth to power. Professor Sir Brian Heap did exactly this at an event in Cambridge at Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street a few years ago on the issue of food security. It was a cross town-gown audience of parishioners who did not pull their punches when grilling the two corporate representatives on the panel. Sir Brian sided with the audience – in particular when he felt a question had not been answered properly.

College masters as custodians not just of the colleges, but of our city and surrounds as well

One of the most difficult examples of where the interests of a college and the interests of the wider city clash is what to do with Hobson Street. I wrote a blogpost about it here where half of the eastern side of Hobson Street is taken up by Christ’s College’s very high brick wall next to a narrow pavement, killing off any decent views of the magnificent building housing Lloyds Bank on the west side. What was the old headquarters for the county council – the County Hall of 1913 (and due to the war and expansion of the state, found to be too small) ultimately found itself in the hands of Christ’s College – one of several examples of previously public buildings and areas being bought out by the colleges and taken out of public use. St John’s College’s developments on Bridge Street in the 1930s, St Catherine’s College’s takeover of The Bull Inn on King’s Parade after the Second World War are other examples.

As Cambridge inevitably expands, something is going to have to give as far as space in the centre of town is concerned. Are the college masters able and willing to play their part in facilitating what inevitably will be difficult conversations with local and national government – and with the people who make up the city of Cambridge? (Which for me also includes those that commute in to work, regular visitors and those staying here to study).


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