Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Friday, 13 April 2012

Opening Up the Ivory Tower - Ancestors at Cambridge

Opening Up The Ivory Tower

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes
[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Ancestors Magazine 2008]

For the last eight centuries, hundreds of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest and brightest young people have lived and studied among Cambridge University’s ancient courtyards. It’s possible that your ancestors were among them. If you would like to find out more about your academic forebears, there’s never been a more auspicious time to do so because next year, 2009, the university celebrates 800 years of existence. It was in 1209 that a group of scholars from Oxford fell out with local townsfolk. Some moved to East Anglia to set up a rival academic institution. In honour of this great occasion, there will be an ambitious year-long programme of events in the Cambridge itself, across the nation and around the world (see panel).

The 800th Anniversary Year

In 2009, Cambridge University will celebrate its 800th anniversary. Events will focus on the best aspects of its rich history and will also look forward to the future. The University will reflect on the myriad achievements, milestones and world-changing ideas born within its walls from the establishment of the fundamentals of physics to the discovery of the structure of DNA: from the transformative thinking of great Cambridge philosophers, poets and artists, to the groundbreaking work of its many Nobel Prize winners.

Planned events for 2009 include a concert in London, a Winter Light Finale and a series of talks, discussions and debates based around ‘800 years of Cambridge ideas’. Events paying tribute to that landmark will also be a strong feature of the University’s famous Science Festival, as well as its new Festival of Ideas.

If you would like more details about any of the planned events, please contact Sarah Collins, Communications Officer ( or 01223 748995).

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Was My Ancestor at Cambridge?

Traditionally, students who graduated from Cambridge came from a narrow range of backgrounds. Until the University Test Act of 1871, students were required (at the end of their period of study) to subscribe to the 39 articles of the Church of England – doctrines that differentiated the Anglican faith from both Calvinism and Catholicism. This meant that, before the last quarter of the nineteenth century,  the vast majority of students came from Church of England backgrounds. A few non-conformists did study at Cambridge but were not allowed to take their degrees. The same is true of a few Jewish students (including members of the Rothschild family) and some Catholics (who were allowed to study at the University only after changes in the law made in 1793).    

The class backgrounds of Cambridge students have varied over time. The medieval student body was dominated by sons of the East Anglian yeomanry and their urban equivalent. From the sixteenth century onwards, the student population came increasingly from the ranks of the aristocracy and gentry. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the class background of students has been gradually widening to include members of the middle and lower classes. Female students did not study at Cambridge until 1869 when a few were able to attend the newly-founded Girton College (for more about women at the university, see below).

Famous graduates of Cambridge include Isaac Newton, William Wordsworth,  and Charles Darwin. Over 80 Nobel Prize Winners have passed through the university’s   hallowed halls and other former students include eminent politicians, musicians, writers and thinkers. Your ancestor may have been one of these, or he or she may have been one of the many other private individuals who have gone out, often quietly and unsung, to try to transform the world.

Where do I start?

If you are interested in finding out more about an ancestor who studied at Cambridge, it is important to be aware that the University is administered both through a central system and through individual colleges (of which there are currently 31). You may know or suspect that your ancestor attended Cambridge but you may not know to which of the many colleges he or she belonged. The university archivists can search for this information on your behalf, but it may be easier for to consult one of the printed sources below (depending on the time period in which you are interested). These sources should be available in all good reference libraries.

University Records

Students Pre-1900

To discover more about an ancestor who attended Cambridge before 1900, the easiest method is through the following book:

J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses : a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900. 6 [10] volumes. Cambridge University Press. 1922-1954.
This book gives data from both central University and College sources.  It will tell you, where known, the date of his matriculation [enrolment] as a member of the University, his college and his date of graduation. It also provides information on a student’s career after leaving university where this was known.

Since Autumn 2008, there is also an online version of this publication, enhanced to include women students at

Search for Cambridge Alumni Online

You can do a quick search for Cambridge alumni between 1261 and 1900 at in the part of the site entitled ‘Directories and Members’ lists’. The specific website address for this is  This list (taken from original data by Venn, J. A.,  Alumni Cantabrigienses, CUP, 1922-1954) includes all known students, graduates, and officers at the University of Cambridge, England, from 1261 to 1900. It can be searched under name, date of birth, date of death or keyword. Every entry offers important information which may include any of the following: notable accomplishments, occupation, birth date, birth place, other schooling, spouse's name, parent's names, siblings and other important associations.

Students 1901-1912

For this period, there is following published source:

B. Benham and C.J. Stonebridge, The book of matriculations and degrees: a catalogue of those who have been matriculated or admitted to any degree in the University of Cambridge from 1901 to 1912. (Cambridge University Press, 1915).

For each student, this provides simply the name, college, date of matriculation (i.e. formal enrolment) and degree. There is no further biographical information included and, for extra detail, enquirers should contact the college concerned.

Students from 1913-mid 1960

If your ancestor attended the university during the early to mid twentieth century, you should contact the archivists directly at Cambridge University Archives, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR ( There is no single published source for this period and the university archivists tend to answer all alumni enquiries themselves rather than invite scholars in to consult the original records. This is because the main record series comprises a great many abbreviations and vocabulary peculiar to Cambridge. The archivists feel that it is easier for them to extract data on behalf of family history researchers than to be on hand to explain the abbreviations each time somebody visits.

Students from the mid 1960s onwards

If your ancestor was at Cambridge after the mid 1960s, then his or her records will have been computerised. To find out more contact Student Administration and Records, 10 Peas Hill, Cambridge CB2 3PN; e-mail:, but be aware that much of this information will be subject to Data Protection.

College Records

If you are to understand anything at all about your ancestor’s time at Cambridge, you must get to know something about his/her college. Today each college has a website which will tell you something about its history (see full list of websites below). The college is where your ancestor will have slept, dined and socialised for a period of three years at least. During that time, the college will have been responsible for his/her welfare and at least some of his/her tuition – in the form of small group or one-to-one tutorials (known as supervisions). You may find out something about your ancestor’s intellectual predilections since each college had – and in many cases, still maintains -  its own well-defined cultural and/or political outlook. King’s college, for example, has long been associated with left-wing views.

The variety of sources held by individual colleges varies enormously. Most hold comprehensive institutional archives but these are of little direct relevance to the family historian. More personal information about individual students comes in many shapes and forms and may include some or all of the following:

·       handwritten (and later typewritten) matriculation registers

·       photographic records – including matriculation and graduation photographs in which your ancestor might appear. There may also be photographs of sports teams and other societies

·       records of the college societies and student organisations to which your ancestor might have belonged 

·       War Memorials listing those members of college who died in the First and Second World Wars

·       collections of articles and ephemera about the college in the past

·       college magazines and websites which may contain information such as recent obituaries, lists of Fellows and articles on important former members of the college.

If your ancestor was particularly famous, then the college may hold his or her collected papers. Christ’s College archives, for example, includes the papers of Charles Stuart Calverley (1831-1884), poet; Charles Darwin (1809-1882), naturalist; Douglas Rayner Hartree (1897-1958), mathematical physicist; John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), botanist; Henry More (1614-1687), theologian; William Henry Denham Rouse (1863-1950), classical scholar; and Charles Lesingham Smith (1806-1878), mathematician; among others.

The records of three colleges  - Queens’, Trinity and Girton - which might be of use to a family historian are featured here. To find out about records of genealogical interest held at other colleges, you should contact the relevant college archivist or librarian. A full list of colleges and their contact details appears below.

Some general tips
When contacting a college archivist or librarian and asking them to do a search on your behalf, make sure that you give as much and as accurate information about your ancestor’s name as possible. For female students who might have had several surnames in their lifetimes, this is especially important. Make sure also that you give as much date information as possible. The date of birth or the date at which the student ‘went up to’ [started at] Cambridge are particularly useful. If you have the date of your ancestor’s death and know the age at death, this can help the archivist or librarian estimate the dates between which your ancestor was a student at the college.

Searching the Cambridge archives for your ancestors may give you numerous other family history leads. For example, College War Memorials may help you to date a death and discovering which college an ancestor belonged may enable you to find out which school he or she previously attended. King’s College, for instance, was orginially to be a college specifically for boys from Eton and it was not until 1865 that the first non-Etonian undergraduates arrived to study there.

But do remember that there is some information about your ancestor’s time at Cambridge that you are unlikely to discover. Colleges will generally not, for example, divulge information about the social background of individual students or their behaviour whilst at Cambridge, for example. And, in most cases, you are unlikely to find out which room your ancestor inhabited or which career he went on to do from college records. Remember also that recent records on students at Cambridge will be subject to Data Protection.

Queens’ College

Contact details:
College Librarian
Queens’ College
Silver Street
Tel: 01223 335549

Queens’ College was first founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (the Queen of Henry VI) and then refounded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville (the Queen of Edward IV). It straddles the River Cam - its two halves joined by the famous ‘Mathematical Bridge.’

The college holds matriculation registers from 1886 – 1988. These may be consulted by the public on request. Unfortunately, individual student files, going back to the 1860s (though not complete until the 1950s), cannot be accessed by anyone other than the student him or herself.

The annual magazine, Queens’ Record, began publishing obituaries of college members in the 1990s, though some articles in earlier issues also cover outstanding personalities who graduated at Queens’. Recent copies of The Record are available on the college website.

A comprehensive list of the Fellows of Queens’ College is available on the College web site.

The Queens’ College War Memorial listing the names of those members of College killed in the First and Second World Wars can be viewed in the Chapel at times when the College is open to the public, or by special request.

The Queens’ Archive (some of which predates the founding of the College in 1448) containing documents on all aspects of the college’s history – though not particularly on individual student members - is held in the University Library.

A useful book on the history of Queens’ College is John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge 1448-1986, Boydell Press, 1987.

Trinity College

Contact details:
College Archivist:
Trinity College
Tel: 01223 338488

Trinity College, founded by Henry VIII in 1546, was an amalgamation of two smaller (even older) institutions: Michaelhouse (est.1324) and King’s Hall (est.1317). Today, most of the college’s major buildings date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Trinity is situated in central Cambridge and its huge and impressive courtyards ensure that it is one of the most visited of the Cambridge colleges.

Admissions registers survive for Scholars, Fellows and Officers from 1560 and for ordinary students from 1635. The earliest contain only the name or signature of the individual and the date admitted. By the nineteenth century, however, the admissions books contain details such as father's name, address, school and tutor's name. College admission records have also been published in five volumes by W.W.R. Ball and J. Venn in Admissions to Trinity College Cambridge. The first volume of this contains useful lists of senior College officers.

If students committed major breaches of discipline the matter came before the Master and Seniors and any sentence such as ‘rustication’ (a general term for disciplinary action) was entered in the ‘conclusion books’ which run from 1601 to 1882.

Room rent books can be used to discover who occupied each room in the period 1825 to 1900 and printed residents lists give similar details for the twentieth century.

There are a good series of college (not university) examination records running from 1801 to 1914.

In some cases College clubs and societies have deposited their records with the College Library. The most notable of these is the Boat Club whose records run from the 1820s.

The college archivist advises that, in many cases, it is difficult to gain anything but a skeleton knowledge of an individual's time at Trinity. But, there are some exceptions, for example, where a student’s letters home have been donated to the college. It is always worth asking if such sources exist.

See also: George Macaulay Treveleyan, Trinity College, Cambridge: A History and Guide, Trinity College, 1962.

Female Students

Remember that for most of history, the majority of the Cambridge colleges did not accept women. Female students attended the all-female colleges of Girton (from 1869) and Newnham (1872). Although they took examinations from 1882 onwards, it was not until 1947/8 that women were able to become full members of the university and have their degrees recognised.

The originally all-male colleges started to admit women in 1960 and the last college to become co-educational was Magdalene College in 1988. Today, although Girton college now accepts men, Newnham, Lucy Cavendish and Murray Edwards Colleges do not.

Girton College
Contact details:
College Archivist
Girton College
Tel: 01223-338897

Girton College, situated two and a half miles outside Cambridge in Girton village, was established in 1869 by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon. It was the first residential college for women in England and was originally all female. The first male Fellow arrived in 1977 and male undergraduates have been admitted since 1979.

The archives at Girton chart the history of women's campaign for equal rights in higher education. There are copious institutional records, but of more interest to family history researchers are the wide range of personal papers concerning members and supporters of the College from before its foundation to the present day.

Quite a lot of information exists and, if your ancestor was at Girton, you should consider visiting the archives (by appointment only). There are two privately published registers (volume 1 1869-1946 and volume 2 1944-1969) which provide  a surprisingly rich depth of biographical information relating to students and which are indexed. These include: names, date and place of birth, parents' names and occupation(s) [in the earlier years it is just the fathers' occupations which are listed], marriage and family, education (including Girton and details of degree(s), courses of study, prizes and scholarships), career, publications, voluntary work, hobbies, interests, honours, and date of death. Staff (Mistresses, Fellows and Research Fellows) have entries at the end of the volumes.  A third volume of the Register (1970-2000) is in preparation but although it will follow the same format, it is unlikely to be as consistent as the first two volumes which were compiled at a time long before data protection legislation.

From 1882 until 1969, membership of societies was also recorded in the College magazine The Girton Review.  There is an archival series of Student Tutorial files from 1913. These sometimes include information about the membership of college societies. You can even discover the room in which your ancestor lived (from 1896)

If a visit to Girton is impossible, you can contact the archivists by email, phone or letter and they will do a limited search on your behalf for a fee. In the cases of some students, it is possible that there is even more information – such as obituaries, and news cuttings. A number of research projects have been undertaken on such matters as the careers undertaken by Girton students on leaving the college. These too can be consulted.  You will have to pay a fee for the photocopying of any of the above sources of information.

An outline of the range and scope of Girton’s archive holdings can be found at and an electronic search of the personal papers held at Girton can be conducted via Janus, the Cambridge union catalogue for archives at . Not all holdings are catalogued on Janus yet, and none of the institutional papers are as yet catalogued in this way. The work to complete this is an on-going project.

See also: Girton College, Girton College Register, 1869-1946, Cambridge, 1948; B. Megson, J. Lindsay, Girton College, 1869-1959, An Informal History;  W. Heffer for the Girton Historical and Political Society; (n.d.)  ; Barbara Nightingale Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College, 1922, Hyperion, PR, 1976; Barbara Stephen, Girton College, 1869-1932, CUP, 1933; Marilyn Stratherne, Girton: Thirty Years in the Life of a Cambridge College, Third Millennium, 2005.

What was Cambridge Like?

Every college in Cambridge has a distinct atmosphere of its own. Discovering more about the particular college, its rules and regulations, its architecture, hierarchies, and societies will give you some idea about the flavour of your ancestor’s time there. 

If you have the time and the inclination, you might want to steep yourself in the wider archives of a particular college. Otherwise, there are many books on individual colleges and on the university as a whole. Some of these are suggested in the reading list below.

Another method of finding more about your ancestor’s time in Cambridge would be to discover which famous people attended the university at the same time as him or her. Reading their autobiographies and memoirs will give you an insight into the kind of life experienced by your ancestor in the ivory tower. An example of this is Gwendolen Freeman’s relatively recently published autobiography: Alma Mater, Memoirs of Girton College, 1926-1929, Girton, 1990.

Remember that affiliation to Oxbridge colleges – just as to certain public schools -  usually ran in families (often across many generations). Once you have located your ancestor in the records, you may hazard a guess that brothers, sons, father and grandfather (or, less often of course, daughters, sister, mother and grandmother) also attended the same college. A little help from the college archivist should help you locate the records of these students as well. Such research can potentially provide information on many branches of your family tree all at once. In this way, searching for ancestors in the ivory tower can be an immensely satisfying line of genealogical enquiry.
Useful Addresses

Cambridge University Archives
Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR
00 44 1223 333147

Student Administration and Records
10 Peas Hill

Useful Books

W.W.R. Ball and J. Venn in Admissions to Trinity College Cambridge. Macmillan, 1911
B. Benham and C.J. Stonebridge, The book of matriculations and degrees : a catalogue of those who have been matriculated or admitted to any degree in the University of Cambridge from 1901 to 1912. Cambridge University Press, 1915.

Gwendolen Freeman, Alma Mater, Memoirs of Girton College, 1926-1929, Girton, 1990.

Girton College, Girton College Register, 1869-1946, Cambridge, 1948.

Hewison, Robert (1983). Footlights! – a hundred years of Cambridge comedy. Methuen London Ltd. 

Elisabeth Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge. CUP, 1996.

Barbara Nightingale Stephen,  Emily Davies and Girton College, 1922, Hyperion, PR, 1976.

Barbara Stephen, Girton College, 1869-1932, CUP, 1933

Marilyn Stratherne, Girton: Thirty Years in the Life of a Cambridge College, Third Millennium, 2005.

George Macaulay Treveleyan, Trinity College, Cambridge: A History and Guide, Trinity College, 1962.

John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge 1448-1986, Boydell Press, 1987

J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses : a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900. 6 volumes Cambridge University Press. 1922-1954.

Useful Web Addresses  A history of Cambridge University On the role of the colleges A list of the Cambridge colleges with links to each college website. Cambridge Alumni Website

University Collections: University of Cambridge, Museums, Collections and Libraries. Cambridge University Library

Other Online Resources: Cambridge Department of Manuscripts and University Archives The institutional repository of the University of Cambridge established in 2003 to facilitate the deposit of digital content of a scholarly or heritage nature. University of Cambridge digital image collection University of Cambridge Electronic Resources national gateway to descriptions of archives in UK universities and colleges Access to more than 1,800 catalogues of archives held throughout Cambridge
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