The University of Cambridge: Epilogue (1939-56)

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The University of Cambridge: Epilogue (1939-56)', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 307-312. British History Online [accessed 19 June 2024].

. "The University of Cambridge: Epilogue (1939-56)", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 307-312. British History Online, accessed June 19, 2024,

. "The University of Cambridge: Epilogue (1939-56)", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 307-312. British History Online. Web. 19 June 2024,

EPILOGUE, 1939–56

The Second World War had very different effects on Cambridge from the First since a real university life was maintained throughout its course. There had been a preliminary alarm in 1938 when the beginning of lectures in the Michaelmas term was postponed as a result of the Munich crisis. In the year which intervened before war broke out, members of the University had been encouraged to place their qualifications and experience on record, offers of service had been classified, and plans made for an emergency. Consequently in September 1939 the University was better prepared than in 1938. Sir Will Spens, Master of Corpus, held the important post of Regional Commissioner for the Eastern Region throughout the war. (fn. 1) Many senior members went off to the forces or to the civil service. Undergraduates were assigned to different duties by the Joint Recruiting Board, although, since the government decided not to call up men under 20 years of age, some three-quarters of the normal numbers were in residence in 1939–40. The space left vacant was more than filled up by government departments, by R.A.F. training units, and by some 2,000 students from colleges and institutions of the University of London, which remained in Cambridge until the end of the war.

Cambridge itself experienced, during these years, the same round of air-raid precautions, black-out, and steadily increasing shortages as all other places in England. The university and college buildings escaped from air raids with negligible damage, though the buildings of the Union Society were badly damaged in 1942. It is commonly believed that the German air force refrained from bombing Cambridge in the belief that this would deter the R.A.F. from bombing Heidelberg. (fn. 2) As in the earlier war, terms and examinations were allowed to men on war service, and special provisions were made, for the period of the emergency, for elections to university offices, and for scholarships, prizes, and trust funds, the unexpended income of which was paid into the War Emergency Fund, which met the cost of air-raid precautions, fire watching, and insurance. The income of the University suffered less than might have been expected because numbers remained high and the government grant was maintained at its former rate. In 1941–2 numbers had sunk to about three-fifths of normal and by 1942–3 to slightly more than half, though in that year the total number of matriculations, 2,322, was the second highest ever recorded. The apparent discrepancy between these figures and the reduced total is explained by the fact that men, in general, remained in residence only for about four terms before going off to their national service. They were also required, while in residence, to undertake part-time military training. Since the system of reserving men for higher education selected scientists and medical students for university study, they came very much to outnumber arts students, for whom, if physically fit, deferment ceased to be given in 1943. A considerable number of cadets, sent up for short courses before joining the forces, were also in residence. The complexities produced by war-time regulations were suggested by the Vice-Chancellor, Venn of Queens', who pointed out, in his review for 1943, that there were at least twelve categories of student ranging: 'from Cadets (five types), State Bursars (three types), State Scholars, ex-service applicants, the medically unfit and conscientious objectors to the more normal members of the different age groups who must in their turn, however, be split up into the various war-time courses of study, many of which are subject to rigid limitation, either through restriction of space, the regulations of the Recruiting Board, or, in the case of medical students, by edicts of the Ministry of Health.' (fn. 3)

Maintaining the teaching work of the University under war-time conditions was very difficult—in 1942, of 370 lecturers and demonstrators, only 143 remained in Cambridge (fn. 4) —but it was done somehow, in addition to the demands made on the staff by civil defence and by the Home Guard. Elections to many professorships were suspended, though several chairs were filled in the latter years of the war. Naturally expansion was severely curtailed, though important grants were made by government agencies, like the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and by industrial organizations, made more aware by war of the value of academic research. One interesting development in the arts faculties was the foundation of a chair of American history. This had been urged by the Vice-Chancellor, Benians of St. John's, in his review for 1941, both because of the intrinsic value of the study and because of the importance of drawing closer the ties with the United States. In 1943 the Syndics of the Press offered an endowment and the (Pitt) professorship of American history and institutions was founded the following year; it has been filled by the annual election of an American scholar. (fn. 5)

Before the war was over, the problems of the future were already attracting attention just as they had done in 1917–18. The official bodies of the University devoted much attention to the many reports of committees on educational subjects which accompanied the 1944 Education Act, for the last years of war and the first years of peace were a period of unexampled interest in education. One domestic problem, which had already become acute and which was to grow steadily worse, was that of the growth of the graduate staff of the University beyond the capacity of the Colleges to house it. At the same time there was growing pressure to accommodate research students. The question was being posed—at the graduate level in particular—of how far and in what sense Cambridge could remain a collegiate University. In 1944 and 1945 the ViceChancellor, Hele of Emmanuel, suggested that a graduate club might meet an immediate need, but thought that the real aim to work for was a graduate college.

The return of peace in 1945 brought similar problems to those of 1918–19, made more complicated by the continuance of compulsory military service with its natural effects on undergraduate entry. The Ministry of Labour and National Service decreed that in 1946 90 per cent. of places were to be filled by ex-service applicants where this was possible, with the result that men who left school in 1946 had, in general, to do their service first and were unable to come up before 1948. (fn. 6) Since national service has continued, this situation has perpetuated itself, and, although the post-war congestion has somewhat eased, a considerable proportion of undergraduates have continued to come up after serving their time in the forces. The problem of accommodation has remained acute, partly because of the loss of a large number of lodgings in the City, partly through the influx of civil servants produced by the development of Cambridge as a regional administrative centre, and partly because of a considerable rise in undergraduate numbers. In 1938–9 these were 5,374, in 1946–7 they were 5,865, in 1954–5 they had risen to 7,016. (fn. 7) At the same time the pressure on places has grown steadily greater, largely as a result of a more generous national scholarship policy. A decision of the Ministry of Education, which became effective in 1947, increased the number of State scholarships tenable at universities from 360 to 750, and made the holders of open college scholarships and exhibitions eligible for the supplementation of their awards to an amount equal to that to which they would have been entitled, had they won State scholarships. (fn. 8) Local authority awards have also become more generous, both in scale and in number. The number of research students has grown proportionately far more rapidly than that of undergraduates; in 1938–9 there were 389 of them, in 1946–7 578, in 1954–5 1,028. (fn. 9)

The five years after 1945 were a period of considerable expansion, followed by slowing-down and consolidation, although, because of the shortage of building materials, little of the new building programme was completed until after 1950. The Treasury grant, which, during the war years, had remained at £118,500, was raised for 1946–7 to £350,000. (fn. 10) This was increased for 1947–8 to £545,000, rising in 1951–2, the last year of the quinquennium, to £675,000, (fn. 11) though, in a period of rising prices and higher wages and salary scales, these greatly increased totals did not represent anything like a comparable increase in real purchasing power. At the same time, however, large government grants were made for special purposes, and considerable gifts were also made by the great foundations, like the Rockefeller and the Nuffield, and by industry. Two of the most important of the latter were the benefaction of the Shell group of oil companies for a professorship and school of chemical engineering (1945) and the foundation, by the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of the chair of electrical engineering (1944). The University also made important purchases of land for new developments. In 1948 the old cricket ground and fellows' garden of Corpus Christi College in Sidgwick Avenue was purchased, as well as Madingley Hall, which was opened in the following year as a residence for research students during term and as a centre for extra-mural board courses during vacations. In 1949 a site was acquired on the Madingley Road, some distance from the town, for a new veterinary school. New fields of study were also being opened up. In November 1946 the University had approved the constitution of a school of clinical research and post-graduate teaching to be known as the Medical School, and had also approved plans for closer co-operation with Addenbrooke's Hospital. There was also considerable expansion, both in Oriental studies and in Slavonic studies, for the latter of which a chair was created in 1948. An old problem which was finally solved in the same year, after an unopposed vote in December 1947, was the admission of women to fully equal status with men and of Girton and Newnham as colleges of the University. This change was marked by the admission of Queen Elizabeth to an honorary degree as the first Cambridge woman graduate. In 1949 the Training College for Women, which changed its name to Hughes Hall after its first Principal, became a recognized institution and its students members of the University. (fn. 12)

One major problem of the time was that of salary scales for university teachers. In 1948 the Vice-Chancellor, Raven of Christ's, pointed out the inadequacy of the existing scales, and criticized the Treasury view that £1,450 should be a maximum figure for professorial salaries, especially since higher salaries were being recommended for medical specialists. The following year he was able to report that the University Grants Committee and the Treasury had approved a new scale, 'which should enable us to solve our problems satisfactorily—and indeed to do more for our staff than we originally proposed'. (fn. 13) The University had already accepted in March 1948 the proposal of the General Board that a university lecturer should receive a 'prime stipend', which should be adequate payment for teaching work and sufficient to ensure to him the time for study and research. The payment of a fellowship allowance to teaching officers who were not fellows of colleges was discontinued, and was replaced by a deduction from the prime stipend if the teacher were a fellow of a college with dividend. (fn. 14) This change, and the changing financial circumstances of some of the colleges, naturally raised the whole question of the financial relations between the University and the Colleges, and, after the necessary statutory modifications had been made in 1949, a syndicate was set up to consider the problem. Its report, published in February 1951, was approved in May the same year. The principle behind this report was that the University should bear the full cost of the prime stipend of its officers and should also assist the less well-endowed colleges in their difficulties. Reserved fellowships, as created by the 1926 statutes, (fn. 15) were abolished. The University was to repay to each College the annual savings resulting from the deductions from the university stipends of its fellows on account of their stipendiary fellowships, the four wealthiest colleges (Trinity, King's, St. John's, and Caius) forgoing, for the time being, a substantial part of this repayment. On the other hand, the statutory figure which the gross contributions of the Colleges was to exceed in any year before any repayment was made to them was increased from £45,000 to £95,000. Thus the total financial burden on the University was reduced, but it was estimated that, had the scheme been in operation in 1949–50, it would, in that year, have cost the University £24,000. (fn. 16) The Vice-Chancellor, Roberts of Pembroke, in his review for 1951, commended these arrangements as likely to facilitate the election of university teachers to college fellowships and as being the logical outcome of the acceptance in 1948 of the principle of the 'prime stipend'. (fn. 17)

With the ending in 1951–2 of the post-war quinquennium it was clear that the rapid expansion of the last years had more than committed available resources, and had, in fact, produced considerable deficits. Consequently the filling of some posts was held over until the amount of the grant for the new quinquennium was known. The grant for 1952–3 amounted to £1,325,000, which enabled all established posts to be filled, but left little room for new developments. (fn. 18) Large sums had to be set aside for the new chemical laboratory, and the need to increase the wages of non-graduate staff imposed a heavy burden on the finances. Consequently, in his review for 1956, the ViceChancellor, Downs of Christ's, pointed out that future estimates showed practically no surplus of income over expenditure from the Chest, which by 1957–8 would amount to over £2,000,000 a year. (fn. 19) Nevertheless the 1952–7 quinquennium saw the completion of some important buildings and the inauguration of other enterprises. In 1952 the new engineering laboratory was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh, and in 1955 the queen opened the new school of veterinary medicine. In 1956 the first section of the new chemistry laboratory on the Lensfield site, which had been contemplated ever since the end of the war, came into use. (fn. 20) A fund subscribed in memory of Field-Marshal Smuts, Chancellor of the University 1948–50, enabled a Smuts chair of the history of the British Commonwealth to be founded (1952), the balance of the fund's income being devoted to the encouragement of Commonwealth studies in other ways. A very large private benefaction was that of Mr. Harold Samuel for £250,000 for the department of estate management, accepted by the University in January 1956. An important change in the position of the teaching and administrative staffs was made in 1954 when, in common with most British universities, the Regent House voted to raise the retiring age from 65 to 67, though the votes were very evenly divided. Corresponding changes were also introduced by the Colleges. In the same year as the retiring age was raised, New Hall, as it is temporarily called, was opened as a third foundation for women, the University having already accepted the principle that there should be increased provision for women students, though without financial assistance from university funds.

Something must now be said about the social life of post-war Cambridge and about its place in the general life of the community. One ancient tradition came to an end with the dissolution of Parliament in 1950 when, as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1948, the university burgesses disappeared from the House of Commons. The interest of Cambridge in its own past was shown by the completion in 1954 of Dr. J. A. Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses, giving the careers of all Cambridge men down to 1900, and the adoption in 1953–4 of permanent arrangements for the care of the University archives. (fn. 21) Undergraduate life settled down very quickly into its old paths; college and university games, clubs, and societies all revived in their old complexity. Among so many activities, two which are widely divergent may particularly be mentioned; the first is the greatly increased interest in religion and the marked growth of church-going, the second is the very high standard of recent Cambridge drama. The post-1945 generation was much more serious and hard-working than its post-1918 predecessor. Perhaps the increased difficulty of gaining admission has made men more studious, while the growing dependence of undergraduates on grants and scholarships has tended to level off social extremes. There are fewer really poor men and fewer rich; everyone now has his living to earn and views life a little more soberly in consequence. Whatever the reasons may be for the change, there was little of the rowdiness which had been common after 1918, the only real exception being the outbreak of hooliganism on Guy Fawkes' Day 1948, when much of the senate house glass was smashed by an explosive charge.

The main lines of the chief developments of the next decade are already fairly clear. The Cambridge Development Plan, accepted by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1954, is based on the assumption that Cambridge should remain a predominantly university town, and that, in consequence, population should be stabilized and industrial development limited. The University's needs for expansion were regarded as a prior claim on available resources, and the land west of the Backs between the Barton and the Huntingdon Roads has been set aside for future college and university developments. The main feature of the plan which led to opposition from the University and Colleges was the proposed spine relief road, which will cut off part of Christ's Pieces and most of the Jesus College hockey field, but this has also been approved by the minister, though his acceptance of the plan involves no scheme for action at an early date. (fn. 22) The first major project since the war for the area west of the river—that of a centre for the arts faculties on the Sidgwick Avenue site (fn. 23) —was approved in 1954, (fn. 24) and plans for accommodating modern languages, moral science, and English were approved by the University in Michaelmas term 1956. New buildings were also approved in 1955 and 1956 for chemical engineering on the New Museums site in the place of the old oil companies' building of chemistry, (fn. 25) and for veterinary anatomy on the Downing site.

The year 1956 may also be a landmark in the history of the University because of the acceptance by the Regent House of the view of the General Board that expansion should be considerably reduced in order to maintain the compactness of Cambridge and its collegiate character, that no new technological studies should be introduced, and that new research developments should be made in close connexion with the work of the teaching departments. The national need for scientists and technologists had already been reflected, the General Board pointed out, in the fact that all the main building schemes since the war had been devoted to those subjects. The number of students and their distribution among studies was bound to change, but the General Board's real concern was to reduce the rate of expansion of the university staff and to ensure that university teachers had as much connexion as possible with the Colleges. The extent of the problem caused by the existing division between the two is underlined by the General Board's figures. A graduate staff, which had increased by 82 per cent. between 1938 and 1954, occupied in April 1955 803 posts under the Board's supervision. Of these 42 were vacant; of the remainder 390 were held by fellows of colleges and 371 were not. While graduate staff had increased in this proportion, research students had increased even faster—by 164 per cent. (fn. 26) The Colleges, already grappling with very high undergraduate numbers, could do little to assimilate either class. Here, in the problem of the relationship between an enormously increased graduate population, at all levels, and the traditional organization of the University, lies the most serious issue of the future.


  • 1. See p. 28.
  • 2. Ex inf. Sir Will Spens.
  • 3. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1943–4, 131; see also ibid. 1942–3, 119.
  • 4. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1942–3, 119.
  • 5. The name 'Pitt' was added to the title in 1951 (Ann. Reg. Univ. Camb. 1955–6, 25).
  • 6. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1947–8, 166–7.
  • 7. Ibid. 1955–6, 420. The last figure includes about 200 students in the department of education which the earlier figures do not.
  • 8. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1947–8, 166.
  • 9. Ibid. 1955–6, 420.
  • 10. Ibid. 1946–7, 153.
  • 11. Ibid. 1947–8, 165.
  • 12. See p. 299.
  • 13. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1948–9, 194; 1949–50, 170.
  • 14. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1947–8, 764–77, 882; Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb., Supplement 1941–50, p. xii.
  • 15. See p. 293.
  • 16. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1950–1, 726–32, 1276.
  • 17. Ibid. 1951–2, 174.
  • 18. Ibid. 1952–3, 206–7.
  • 19. Ibid. 1956–7, 218.
  • 20. See p. 296 for earlier buildings on this site.
  • 21. See p. 327.
  • 22. D. Senior, Guide to Camb. Plan (Cambs. County Planning Dept.), passim.
  • 23. See p. 309.
  • 24. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1953–4, 223–32, 740.
  • 25. See p. 295.
  • 26. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1955–6, 411–22, 957–65, 1424.