25 February 1886
Yesterday there was an interesting ceremony at Cambridge, when his Royal Highness Prince Albert Victor of Wales formally opened the new buildings of this famous debating society. Founded about the year 1811, its history shows how it increased and flourished with the growth of the University, and during its existence it has included among its members a large majority of those members of the University whose subsequent successes as statesmen, orators, diplomatists, divines, judges, and in the career of literature and science have shed fame on the University. When the society was first founded it met with small encouragement from the authorities of the University, but the original founders, among whom were Lord Laugdale [Langdale], the late Chief Baron Pollock, and Baron Alderson, were men of energy and determination. All the most promising undergraduates joined the society, and it soon obtained a reputation for the vigour of its debates. For many years the society held its meetings in a room at the Red Lion Hotel, which the late Lord Houghton, on the opening of the new buildings in 1866, described "as a low, ill-ventilated apartment, cavernous, tavernous, somewhat between a commercial room and a district branch meetinghouse." In 1817 Dr. Wood, Master of St. John's, the Vice-Chancellor, prohibited the debates as being inconsistent with academical discipline. Mr. Whewell, afterwards Master of Trinity, was president, and, despite a remonstrance signed by a large number of graduates, the prohibition was enforced for some time. Ultimately a compromise was effected-viz., that there should be no discussion on political questions except such as fell within a floating period of 20 years anterior to the time of discussion. This restriction was abolished in 1830, and since that time there is no limit on the subjects of debate, except that strictly theological discussions are prohibited. In the early period of the society its most prominent members were Macaulay, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, Sir Alexander Cockburn, Mr. Monckton Milnes, Charles Austin, Dr. Whewell, and Lord Lytton. During a later period we may mention Lord John Manners, Archbishop Trench, Lord Blackburn, Sir Richard Cross, Mr. S.H. Walpole, Mr. Childers, Sir William Harcourt, Lord Justice Baggallay Professor Fawcett, Sir Charles Dilke, Mr. Trevelyan, Sir John Gorst, and Sir Richard Webster, a short and incomplete list of the many whose first oratorical efforts were made at the weekly debates. The accommodation provided by the Red Lion was soon found insufficient. The next move was to rooms now used by the A.D.C. These in their turn were found too small, and from 1850 to 1866 the society held its meetings in Green-street, in a building formerly a chapel, and now used by the Liberal caucus. In 1866 the present premises were opened, and it was done in a great measure to the energy of Sir Charles Dilke that the present ample site was secured. The growth of the University and the increase of the members rendered it necessary to provide still further accommodation, and this has now been obtained by adding to the promises erected in 1866. The additions consist of an enlargement of the library, which is now capable of affording accommodation for 60,000 volumes. A tea room 66ft. by 30ft. and a smoking room of the same dimensions have also been erected, under the superintendence and from the designs of Mr. Waterhouse, who was the architect of the original building. The additions have been incorporated with much skill and ingenuity, and, except that the new buildings have not the same appearance of age, they appear as part of the original design. The architecture is 13th century Gothic. The cost of the new buildings has been between £8,000 and £9,000.
Prince Albert Victor entered the new building shortly after 5 o'clock, accompanied by the President, Mr. E.J. Griffiths, of Downing, the treasurer, Mr. Oscar Browning, and other office bearers of the society. There were present the vice-Chancellor, Dr. Swainson, the Mayor, Mr. Alderman Redfarn, the representatives of the University in Parliament, Messrs. Beresford-Hope and Cecil Raikes, Sir George Paget, the Masters of Clare, Caius, Magdalene, Queens', St. Catharine's, Downing, Jesus, Corpus, Selwyn, and Ridley Hall, several of the professors, many graduates, and a number of ladies.
The Secretary of the Buildings Committee presented a report on the history of the new buildings, the foundation-stone of which was laid in June, 1884. The whole block was ready for use at the beginning of the present term. The cost had been between £9,000 and £10,000, and of this sum £1,000 had been contributed by past members of the Union. Additional subscriptions were coming in, and the list was still open.
The PRESIDENT said that the new additions would enable them to say that the Union Society had buildings worthy of its traditions. They had a club in reality as well as in name. He then expressed gratitude to his Royal Highness for the interest he had taken in the society, and asked him to declare the new rooms open.
PRINCE ALBERT VICTOR, who was received with applause, said:-It has given me the greatest pleasure to come to Cambridge to open the new buildings of the Union Society. I believe they have been long wanted and will, I feel sure, be very useful, and be highly valued by you all. The Union affords not only opportunities for social intercourse, but it is of great service for reading and study, and in many cases has given the first lessons to those who have afterwards ranked among our greatest orators. I must congratulate the architect most sincerely on the success of his achievement. Mr. President, ladies, and gentlemen, I now declare the new buildings of the Union Society to be open. (Cheers.)
Mr. OSCAR BROWNING thanked his Royal Highness warmly for his kindness in coming among them and gracing the proceedings with his presence. They welcomed him as a member and a representative of the Royal Family, with whom the University had been so long connected and from whom they had received so many benefits. They also welcomed him in his private capacity as a member of the University and one who had lived among them so long, and had so lately left. He would see in the room the faces of many old friends. Mr. Browning then referred to the manner in which his Royal Highness passed through his undergraduate career and to the interest which he took in the Union, which was one of the first institutions he connected himself with. The University had grown, was growing, and would continue to grow, and as they wished its members to join the Union, so the Union must be extended. Accordingly, as treasurer of the Union, he was deeply grateful to his Royal Highness for his presence there that day. It would give great éclat to the opening ceremony, which would bring home to the University the existence of the Union and the fact that it was now a larger and more important institution than it ever had been.
Mr. MAXSE, of King's, having spoken to the vote, said that the people of Cambridge would always give his Royal Highness a cordial welcome.
PRINCE ALBERT VICTOR thanked the proposor and seconder for their kind expressions, and said that he would repeat that it had given him great pleasure to renew his old acquaintances and to see his old friends once more.
His Royal Highness then shook hands with many personal friends, and the formal proceedings were at an end.
In the evening about 200 gentlemen sat down to dinner in the Debating-hall of the Union. The chair was occupied by Mr. Ellis J. Griffith, President of the Union Society, and he was supported by Prince Albert Victor of Wales, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, the Bishop of Ely, Mr. Beresford-Hope, M.P., and Mr. Raikes, M.P. Among those present were the Masters of Magdalene, Jesus, and Downing Colleges, Professor Humphrey, Professor Seeley, Dr. Luard, the Rev. H. Latham, Mr. Sedley Taylor, Mr. Waterhouse, Mr. Oscar Browning, the Rev. W. Cunningham, the Mayor of Cambridge, Mr. J.K. Stephen, the Rev. S.G. Ponsonby, Professor Clark, Professor Wilkins, of Owen Colleges, Manchester, Captain the Hon. C. Greville, in attendance on Prince Albert Victor, Mr. Courtney Kenny, M.P., Mr. J.F. Moulton, M.P., Mr. G.C. Whiteley, and the Rev. Dr. Moulton, Principal of the Wesleyan College. Mr. Trevelyan, Sr. R. Cross, and the Bishop of Ripon were among those who sent messages of regret that they were unable to visit Cambridge for the event of the day.
The PRESIDENT proposed the toast of "The Queen," and then that of "The Royal Family," expressing the obligation of the members of the Union Society to Prince Albert Victor for honouring the society by visiting Cambridge to open the new building.
PRINCE ALBERT VICTOR of WALES on rising to respond was received with loud cheers. His Royal Highness said:-I thank you most sincerely for the very kind way in which you have just received the toast of my health and that of the Royal Family. I can assure you that it is always to them, as it is to me, a source of the greatest enjoyment to be associated in any way with works of this kind, which are of such benefit to the community, and I rejoice that I have been afforded the opportunity to-day of again visiting the ancient University town of Cambridge, where I have recently spent so many pleasant days. (Loud cheers.)
PROFESSOR HUMPHRY, F.R.S., proposed the toast of "The Houses of Parliament," and it was responded to by Mr. COURTNEY KENNY, M.P., who alluded to past members of the Union Society who had distinguished themselves in both Houses of the Legislature.
Mr. WATERHOUSE, the architect, in the absence of the Bishop of Ripon, proposed "Prosperity to the Union," expressing the satisfaction it had given him to be connected as architect with that institution, which had been and would continue to be one of the most important features of the University.
The PRESIDENT, in responding, briefly sketched the history of the Union Society. The authorities at first looked askance upon it as a revolutionary body, going so far as to stop its debates, and when their renewal was permitted they were for some time restricted to the events of last century. But they ultimately gained complete liberty, and, as had been remarked, had afforded opportunities for the practice of debate to those who had used their oratorical powers in more responsible assemblies. Two colleges were excluded from this society. Were there not those who eagerly looked forward to this day when the Union would be open to the members of Girton and Newnham? (Laughter and cheers.) There were many clubs in the University-some with strange names, such as the Owls, and the Gravediggers, and some distinguished mainly by the members wearing coats of many colours. But of all the clubs none was so deserving of general support as the Union, which he hoped would continue to be recognized as the leading representative of University culture and thought. (Cheers.)
Mr. BERESFORD-HOPE, M.P., in proposing the toast of "The Church" said that three months ago a thrill of horror swept through the land at the thought of the possibility of an attack upon the Church. That thrill of horror amazed those who thought the fruit was ripe to be plucked. To such a result this society had contributed. It was more than a debating society; it exercised an influence which grew into authority. So long as the Church was respected all would be well.
The BISHOP of ELY in responding said that as a member of the society 40 years ago he looked with satisfaction upon its progress and present position.
Mr. HENRY JACKSON proposed "The Bar," for which, he said, the University afforded an excellent training. There were four Cambridge men upon the Bench. All had been conspicuous in the intellectual and athletic life of the University. Many Cambridge men were eminent lawyers, and some of those lawyers had abandoned law for science. Sir W. Harcourt combined the incongruous functions of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Professor of International Law.
Mr. G.C. WHITELEY, a past president of the society, said he yielded to no one in appreciation of its influence and usefulness and in the hope and confidence that its future would be worthy of its past. Ladies were still relegated to the gallery, how long it would be so was doubtful, and perhaps others might in their turn be relegated to the gallery. (Laughter.)
Mr. RAIKES, M.P., proposed the toast of "Literature." While the society must always be a school of political debate in which men were trained to listen as well as to speak he hoped it would never lose the interest it manifested in that literary culture which graced oratory and enriched human life.
Mr. LESLIE STEPHEN responded, and said that there was a strong feeling now in favour of making literature a branch of study at school and University, whereas in a former generation it was discouraged as interfering unduly with the study of the classics. He trusted that the study of literature would not be less attractive and interesting because it had ceased to be a crime. This society could not fulfil its high functions unless its youngest member took a keen interest in all the great questions of the day-political, philosophical, social, and literary.
Mr. C. HALL, M.P., proposed "The ex-Presidents of the Society," paying a tribute to the member of Mr. Fawcett, the mention of whose name was received with loud cheers.
Mr. J.F. MOULTON, M.P., responded.
Mr. J.R. TANKER proposed "The University," for which the vice-Chancellor responded, and the toast of "The Town," proposed by Mr. J.K. STEPHEN and responded to by the MAYOR (Mr. W.B. Redfarn), brought the proceedings to a close at a late hour.