The colleges and halls: Fitzwilliam House

Pages 497-499

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.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


In this section


Fitzwilliam House is the title both of the body of graduates and undergraduates long known as 'NonCollegiate', and of the building in Trumpington Street which has been their headquarters since 1874. The society was founded as a result of suggestions made by the university commissioners of 1850. In order both to increase the numbers of undergraduates and to reduce the cost of residence for some of them, it was proposed to revive on a small scale the system, which had been universal before colleges existed, of matriculating certain students simply and directly as members of the University without membership of a college. Academic opinion was hostile to the scheme in both universities, but more so in Cambridge, and the Cambridge Commissioners unlike those for Oxford did not recommend it. Nevertheless external authorities favoured the scheme. A bill was introduced into Parliament in 1867 for creating non-collegiate bodies, but failed to complete its first committee stage. (fn. 1)

Opponents of the idea urged that even considerable saving of expense would rarely tempt good students to become, much less to remain, 'noncollegiate', that many who came would migrate to colleges in search of scholarships and other advantages, that the remainder might thus be chiefly 'the poor and dull boys' even in an intellectual sense 'the residuum of the University', and that noncollegiate status might mean socially 'a markedly inferior position', which lacked 'the great social advantage of cohesion', and in particular much of that 'self-respect engendered in colleges by esprit de corps.' It was also pointed out that a non-collegiate institution would have to be administered by members of colleges, who might put the interests of their colleges first, and that it would not be able to attract funds for scholarships and exhibitions.

In 1868, however, Oxford yielded, and in the next year Cambridge after rejecting one scheme accepted another, and an Order in Council of 13 May 1869 approving the necessary statute, (fn. 2) brought into existence the Cambridge 'Non-Collegiate' community, with the Vice-Chancellor instead of a master, a censor instead of a tutor, and instead of a college council a board, which apart from the censor was an entirely external body. While the Oxford institution was heavily subsidized by the University, Cambridge decided to make the new body as self-supporting as possible. The University's commitments were strictly limited to the guarantee of an annual sum, not exceeding £100, to meet any deficit. This guarantee was only called upon during the first two years of the society's existence and then for a total of less than £38.

The Board first met on 2 June 1869, and three days later Ralph Benjamin Somerset of Trinity College was appointed the first Censor. He described his charge as 'here, there, and nowhere in particular', (fn. 3) and urged as one means of 'recognizing more distinctly the status of the students as members of the University', the occupation of some University building. (fn. 4) He and the Board, seeing from the first the mischief of 'social isolation', encouraged the men to meet together and form clubs. (fn. 5) In 1874 rooms were hired in the present building, then known simply as 31 Trumpington Street, and a boat club, cricket club, and debating society were formed. A common room was furnished and with the aid of a grant of £50 from the University a library was started. In the same year the Company of Clothworkers offered an annual exhibition of £50.

Meanwhile the men remained scattered about in lodgings. They had few common obligations and those such as involved only occasional and casual contact between them. The chief were to report annually on their work and to sign attendance books five times a week. Poor, obscure, and marked off from other undergraduates by their title which made their distinctive characteristic seem to be the lack of something generally considered an essential feature of university life, they found it hard to organize and maintain any continuous corporate life. What they did achieve in this direction was constantly imperilled by the ceaseless migrations to colleges, taking away every year from a third to half of the men in residence. For any distinction, academic or athletic, often meant for a 'Non-Coll.' ready admission, or even invitation, to a college. Men lacking any such recommendation but feeling the drawbacks of noncollegiate life, or thinking that the negative title might handicap them on going down, were greatly tempted to migrate if and as soon as they could afford any extra expense. Inevitably, therefore, a non-collegiate generation was liable to lose by its third year not only all its outstanding but also all its comparatively well-to-do members. So in 1886 over a hundred members petitioned the Board to have its name changed into some 'positive' title, but this the Board could not achieve.

By 1887 the Board had saved £2,000 and with a further £1,000 lent by the University bought the freehold of numbers 31 and 32 Trumpington Street. Gifts from the University and private benefactors, especially Tristram F. C. Huddleston, the Censor, and his two predecessors, enabled this debt to be repaid by 1890. (fn. 6) The society then proceeded to raise further money for reconstruction, which was not finally paid for until 1905. Dining had started as early as 1882, when, at the request of the men, a hall dinner was organized at the Bird Bolt Hotel. Ten years later, on 29 October 1892, the opening of the reconstructed building was made the occasion of a celebration, when 83 sat down to dinner in Fitzwilliam Hall. The name was suggested by the Amalgamated Clubs, presumably because it faced the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Hall became not only the centre of the non-collegiate body, but also a symbol of, and an aid to, the development of corporate life. At the same time permission was obtained from Earl Fitzwilliam to use for the boat flag the Fitzwilliam arms, with the University arms in chief. In 1896 St. Edmund's House became the first of the present Attached Houses, which came to include Cheshunt College, Wesley House, and Westminster College.

The appointment of William Fiddian Reddaway as Censor in 1907 was a most significant event in the history of the society. Ten years' work as a history lecturer had given him an intimate and deeply sympathetic understanding of non-collegiate hardships, needs, and aspirations. Farsighted and inflexible in purpose, Reddaway sacrificed his personal interests without stint. Undeterred by indifference, misunderstanding, or obstruction, he deliberately set himself so to raise the status, foster the esprit de corps, and increase the happiness of his men that membership of the non-collegiate body (to him always 'Fitzwilliam Hall') would be no longer a badge of honourable poverty, but a positive source of pride. In particular he strove to minimize the effect of migration, making men think it, speaking generally, as an ungracious desertion, and to develop corporate life for all who wanted it, leaving others entirely free to stand aloof. So academic and athletic clubs flourished and multiplied and dining in hall became a regular though voluntary custom. The Fitzwilliam Magazine (founded 1908) recorded successive acquisitions of a playing-field (1908); a chapel (1913); a hostel, consisting of additional rooms in the Hall, which with neighbouring lodginghouses bought or leased for the purpose accommodated a nucleus of Fitzwilliam men interested in corporate activities; a Fitzwilliam Trust largely financing this corporate venture; and after the First World War two exhibitions in memory of fallen students. When in 1924 a new Censor, W. S. Thatcher, one of Reddaway's own Fitzwilliam pupils, took office, he found himself the head of a body with honourable traditions, and faith in the eventual fulfilment of its high aspirations.

In 1919 the Hall was recognized by the Board of Education as a college for the purpose of the award of maintenance grants, and both the society and the University began to look forward to a measure of self-government for Fitzwilliam. The desirability of developing the Hall as an independent body was strongly urged upon the Royal Commission on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but the report of the Commission published in 1922 was disappointing. Although admitting that the noncollegiate system had never flourished, it recommended that Fitzwilliam Hall should not receive independent status, because there were still a large number of men for whom the cost of University education should be kept to a minimum. (fn. 7) The society henceforth received a grant of £1,000 a year from the University Grants Committee, and the name of the building and the clubs was changed by the University, against the wishes of its members, to Fitzwilliam House. (fn. 8)

This setback in the development of the society led to a fall in numbers. Nevertheless it was found possible in 1928 to raise £1,000 for the building of a new pavilion, and in the same year the Fitzwilliam Society began to hold annual meetings, which have continued ever since. Within the terms of the Commission's decision, the University did what it could to help, and the whole organization was assimilated so far as possible to that of a college, although under the statute of 1869 the Board was not able to raise fees high enough to accumulate funds for providing residential buildings. In 1934 the University at last replaced for official purposes the old negative title of 'Non-Collegiate' by that of Fitzwilliam House. A Censor's building fund was thereupon started and in 1937 this was widened to a Fitzwilliam Appeal Fund.

The Second World War brought the complete disbandment of the House, the building being let to Addenbrooke's Hospital and Bedford College; but in 1946 an intake of over 400 men raised the House to the fifth largest body in the University. They included about 100 research students for whom club facilities were made available in a house in Fitzwilliam Street. The new policy in education extinguished the class of poor undergraduates for whom the society had been originally intended, and in 1952 the University approved the policy of encouraging the corporate life of the House and building new administrative and residential accommodation. (fn. 9)

No immediate progress with buildings could be made, but in 1954 proposals were approved for abolishing the old non-collegiate system, and for converting Fitzwilliam House into an Approved Foundation bound to limitation of the number of its undergraduates and the performance of certain functions hitherto performed by it as an institution of non-collegiate students. (fn. 10) An appeal has brought in £20,000, including a gift from King's College towards endowing a scholarship in the name of W. F. Reddaway. By the end of 1955 the society seemed to have started on the road which would eventually lead to full collegiate status. Mr. Thatcher resigned from the Censorship, after 30 years in office, in 1954. No new appointment was made to the office but he carried on for a further year as Senior Tutor. In February 1958 it was decided that Dr. W. W. Grave, formerly registrary, should become Censor on 1 January 1959. (fn. 11)


Portraits of the second, fourth, and fifth Censors hang in the hall, the Reddaway portrait by de Laszlo, and that of Thatcher by Edward Halliday.

Arms and Seal.

The arms, Lozengy, silver and gules (the arms of Fitzwilliam); in chief the arms of the University, were first adopted in 1887, by permission of the then Earl Fitzwilliam, by the Fitzwilliam Boat Club, and thereafter by all Fitzwilliam organizations, and so by usage came to be regarded as proper to Fitzwilliam Hall or House. They are used for example in the University Calendar. The first seal was a small oval, a belt with the legend non-collegiate students board. The present seal is circular, 1 in. in diameter, with the arms of the House surrounded by the legend . fitzwilliam house. cambridge.

List of Censors

Ralph Benjamin Somerset: 5 June 1869.

Francis George Howard: 24 Oct. 1881.

Tristram Frederick Croft Huddleston: 4 Feb. 1890.

William Fiddian Reddaway: 6 June 1907.

William Sutherland Thatcher: 5 Aug. 1924.


  • 1. See Rep. Univ. Educ. Bill Ctee. Evid., H.C. 497 (1867). This account is partly based on a leaflet, Fitzwilliam House 1869–1954, published by a group of resident M.A.s.
  • 2. See a collection of official papers, flysheets, &c., connected with this question, and made by the then registrary, H. R. Luard, and now in the University Registry.
  • 3. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1889–90, 667–70.
  • 4. Ibid. 1873–4, 371.
  • 5. Ibid. 1870–1, 40; 'Non-Collegiate Memoranda', 1874, a pamphlet in Camb. Univ. Libr. (B. 56. 20), shows a room available at certain hours under the management of a committee.
  • 6. The result was the restoration to a large extent of the original facade of 'a very pleasing example' of red-brick domestic architecture, dating from 1729 or earlier, which had been disfigured by shops. During the next 50 years further reconstruction occurred but without affecting the external appearance of the building.
  • 7. See p. 292.
  • 8. See p. 294.
  • 9. Camb. Univ. Rep. 1951–2, 1336–7 (Rep. of Council of the Senate), Grace passed 17 June 1952; ibid. 1527.
  • 10. Ibid. 1954–5, 281–3 (Rep. of Council of the Senate), Grace passed 27 Nov. 1954; ibid. 449.
  • 11. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1957–8, 847.