Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

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

Fitzwilliam became a College by Royal Charter in 1966, though it had existed since 1869. In a piece delivered during the 50th anniversary service in Chapel on 8 July, Professor David Thompson reflects on the history of the Chapel.

I was invited to offer a short reflection this evening on the Jubilee of the College’s Charter, being reasonably confident that it will survive until the actual anniversary in September!  At the time we were all delighted that the Charter received the royal seal a week ahead of our neighbour, Churchill, which had always been regarded as setting the pace for the ‘new colleges’ in mid-1960s Cambridge. And that was right because Fitzwilliam was not in that sense ‘a new college’; we already had almost a century of history and tradition behind us.

We are long way now from the original expectation in 1869 that all students should attend public worship regularly and report termly on their attendance. After services in St Michael’s Church and later in a side chapel of King’s, by the end of the nineteenth century there was a strong feeling among both Anglican and Nonconformist undergraduates that there should be permanent provision in Fitzwilliam House; and the Library was converted for this purpose in 1913. The fact that it was ‘full to overflowing’ with 25 shows that it was clearly inadequate for Sunday services. In fact, until Fitzwilliam moved to its present site in 1963, there was no place in the House large enough for even half the undergraduates to gather. The boom years of the 1950s (religiously speaking – there are just over seventy people in a photograph of the 1960 chapel congregation in John Cleaver’s History) saw a return to St Michael’s for three years, and then the regular use of Ridley Hall chapel on Sunday evenings.

It is therefore significant that when the first new college buildings were opened, provision was made for a ‘temporary chapel’, in the sure and certain hope that a permanent building would be eventually constructed.  Initially this was an ex-RAF prefabricated building of asphalt-impregnated fibreboard set in a sea of mud just the other side of the archway into what became New Court.  (I always thought of it as two portakabins joined together.)  It was a striking contrast to Bodley’s brick Gothic of Queens’ new chapel (1889-91) from which I had come.

1963 Chapel

The temporary Chapel in 1963











It was striking in other ways. On this site our three buildings or rooms have either been square or, like this, a circle and a square. This is more of a community space than a hierarchical one – and it has always encouraged worship ‘in the round’, as this space was designed to do. The striking feature of the traditions established in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a succession of three charismatic chaplains of different kinds was that of a community open to other Christians and to new ideas. It had already been the practice of Cambridge College chapels since 1948 to admit Christians of all denominations to communion, so there was no change there – except that scarcely anyone anywhere else in the country was doing it. Fitzwilliam also had a Roman Catholic member of the Chapel Committee from 1961, i.e. before the Second Vatican Council began; and as liturgical experiment was permitted in the Church of England, a new order of worship for Holy Communion was devised by members of the College and used regularly. The visit to the Taizé Community (which I remember for the overnight train journey from Paris to Maçon and a glass of red wine at 6.00 am) introduced us to Gelineau psalms and a new spirituality, very different from the Taizé services we still have today.

Chapel at sunset

The Chapel, designed by Richard MacCormac in 1991.

All this is a reminder that, like any church, the College Chapel is a gathering of people before it is a building. I like to think that this chapel tells us something about the kind of Christian, or even religious, presence we have always sought for the College. I say ‘we’ with some caution, because it has not been a vision shared by all. The Statute ‘Of divine worship and the Chaplain’ was contentious (or so I understand – Research Fellows were spared the labours of the new Fellowship in drafting them), and it was the openness of the provisions that was ultimately decisive, providing the first Cambridge statute that opened the office of chaplain to (Protestant) non-Anglicans. In the fullness of time both David Horrell and Simon Perry benefited from that. Furthermore the generosity of old members in supporting the endowment of the College Chaplaincy in the first decade of this century spared the Governing Body the agony of continuing discussion of the principle.

I will not comment on the contributions of particular chaplains, even though there is much I could say. We have been fortunate in all of them, in so many different ways. We were one of the first colleges to appoint a woman chaplain; and even before the introduction of co-residence here, we developed a relationship with New Hall (now Murray Edwards), leading to several marriages. In the end Murray Edwards never built the chapel originally intended; and now a Japanese benefaction has taken over the site reserved for it.

Finally, the chaplains of Fitzwilliam were some of the first in Cambridge to develop a ministry to the College Assistant Staff – something that became increasingly necessary as more and more of the population are detached from any regular contact with a Christian church or minister. Indeed it has gone further: this building has been used from time to time by Muslim members of the College for prayer, and the discreet symbolism of Richard MacCormac’s design makes it a very useful meditative space, even for the Women Fellows’ yoga.  In short, there is a sense that the chapel has become the heart of the total college community: former students have married here, and had their children baptized here; there have been vigils at times of national crisis, and services after sudden student deaths; and former Fellows have had funerals and memorial services here. One thing we do not do is to admit new Fellows to their fellowships here, as many colleges do. As a characteristic representative of late twentieth-century attitudes, I still believe that to be right: indeed as the first Fellow to be admitted after the Charter (when I moved from a research fellowship to a teaching fellowship) Dr Grave asked me whether he should do so in Latin or English. ‘English’ I replied, and he did. But I must have given the wrong answer, since he admitted no-one else in English for the rest of his Mastership!


David Thompson is a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History.

David Thompson was elected to a Research Fellowship 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. He became a Life Fellow on retirement in 2009, and was the College Archivist from October 2009 to October 2014.

More information about the Chapel here>>



Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

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.