This guest post is by Professor David Thompson, a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History.

October 1 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of my admission as a Fellow of Fitzwilliam. I am not unique in that – John Coles and Harry Hudson are senior to me, but neither lives in Cambridge. In contrast I visit College most days. The Master kindly asked me to set down some reflections on fifty years.

The changes have been enormous. I joined a Fellowship that was only two years old, though the senior officers of Fitzwilliam House had been there for much longer, since the end of the War or just after. There was a real sense that we wanted, as a College, to be something different, and that we could achieve it. The one thing that nearly all of us had in common was that we had been somewhere else – another college or another university; but we shared a commitment to Fitzwilliam’s original purpose, to be a place that enabled those who could not otherwise afford to come to Cambridge to do so. It was a need that was already changing after the government’s decision to make university grants available to all qualified candidates in 1961; but it was still necessary to be accepted by one of the colleges of the University, which was where Fitzwilliam came in. There was, and remains, a potential clash between that aspiration and one of academic excellence.

As Fellows we also did not know many of the former Fitzwilliam students, whose loyalty and commitment had been important for so long. That was something we had to learn, and at first the relationship could be slightly uncomfortable, if we were thinking of something different. Here the continued development of the Fitzwilliam Society was crucial.

Those of us who were unmarried were surprised but honoured to be offered residential sets in the first part of Stage II of the ‘new buildings’ (as we still called them), when it was opened in 1966. That certainly cemented the link we had with the College, still finding its way after the grant of a Royal Charter that year (a week ahead of Churchill, as we smugly noted) under the new statutes that the Governing Body had laboured over the year before. (Research Fellows were initially exempted from those meetings.)

In 1967 the loss by retirement of Bill Williams as Bursar and by death of Norman Walters as Senior Tutor, coupled with the need to elect a new Master in 1970, slightly earlier than we had expected, brought the Fellowship closer together and left people like Ray Kelly, Leslie Wayper, Basil Herbertson and Jack Street as the main representatives of continuity. It also represented a ‘coming of age’ of the Fellowship and the setting of a new course through the inflation of the 1970s. By this time Fitzwilliam was not the only new College around and the competition to secure teachers with University posts intensified as Fitzwilliam’s resources were still weak. When I was appointed to a University post in 1970 my stipend was £1,000 p.a. before tax (paid quarterly), but I could still buy a house costing £6,000, which my parents and parents-in-law thought was a crazy price!

Only in the 1980s could the College afford to build New Court, after a moderately successful Appeal initiated by Jim Holt, the then Master; and when we secured possession of The Grove, we could proceed with the new Chapel. As Bursar from 1988 to 1993, I had to explain that The Grove entailed a cost as well as a benefit; and the property deals I initiated then only came to full fruition during my successor’s term of office. But I did succeed in persuading the Governing Body to appoint a full-time Bursar, because by then my experience in the wider councils of the University had enabled me to see the direction in which the winds governing higher education were going.

Throughout this time the constant has, of course, been the regularly changing student body. The significance of the fact that one third of the undergraduate body changes every year cannot be under-estimated. Last year’s lectures and supervision bibliographies will never quite do again; and this keeps us on our toes. The admission of women in 1979 was the most significant change; and those of us who had advocated it from 1973 or earlier were delighted. But I realised, while standing in as Director of Studies for a colleague at another college a couple of years ago, how much student problems have changed in fifty years: family break-up, relationship breakdown within college now, and greater exam pressures are all different.

My photographs of what is now Fellows’ Court in 1966 compared with similar ones today symbolise one kind of change. But for me the change in the wider political context of higher education stands out today.


Professor David Thompson at the drinks party to celebrate his 50 years as a Fellow.

Professor David Thompson at the drinks party on 5 October to celebrate 50 years as a Fellow of Fitzwilliam.

About David Thompson

David Thompson is a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History. He was elected to a Research Fellowship at Fitzwilliam in 1965, was the first holder of the Leathersellers Fellowship (1966-70) and then a teaching Fellow linked to his posts within the Faculty of Divinity from 1970. As well as being (successively!) Praelector, Tutor, Director of Studies and Bursar, he served on the General Board (1988-92) and University Council (1994-2000). He was also a member of the Churches Committee of the Historic Buildings Council, a School Governor, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (1996-97) and a QAA assessor in Scotland and England.

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