Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Dr Helen Bettinson (History 1982) Development Director.

The last weekend in September is always a special one at Fitzwilliam. This is when members gather for the Reunion of the Fitzwilliam Society, the society consisting of all current and past students of Fitzwilliam, Fellows and friends. The huge popularity of the event makes for a logistical challenge in terms of catering, accommodation and other services, but one which our staff rise to magnificently, from the gardeners to the housekeepers to the cooks, waiters and porters.

After a day spent at lectures, concerts, on the river, on the playing field at Oxford Road, or simply enjoying a wander around the city, alumni and their guests gather together for the culmination of the weekend’s itinerary: the Saturday Dinner. This year the Master drew attention to the extraordinary age-range of Fitzwilliam members packed into Lasdun’s unique dining hall: From current students to those who had arrived at Fitzwilliam House just after the War. Professor Alan Shakespeare, Geoffrey Cole and Dennis Doyle (who matriculated in 1945, 1946 and 1947 respectively) are loyal attendees whose connection to Fitzwilliam stretches back seven decades. For many years Michael Duffett (1952) and his wife Ann have travelled from Australia each September, not only to attend the dinner but so that Michael can row with his friends in the veteran boat – a wonderful example of friendship and stamina. We were delighted, too, to see so many alumni who had matriculated in 2005, 1995, 1975, 1985 and 1955 (the 1965s had their own Golden Reunion in July).

Next week the latest cohort of young men and women will arrive at the College, full of excitement and trepidation, unsure of what lies ahead. Very few will be familiar with Fitzwilliam’s unique history or aware that the thriving community that awaits them stretches back/forward for many decades. It’s my job to break the good news. Just before they go into the Hall for their first formal Fitzwilliam meal, Matriculation Dinner, nervously attired in their new gowns, they will hear a lecture from me on the College’s history. I keep it short, but it’s important that our freshers understand what makes Fitzwilliam what it is, what we are. The senior men who sat in the hall on Saturday night came from a different world, one devastated by war and dislocation. Fitzwilliam was still, technically, a department of the University, with almost no accommodation of its own. The College that our freshers will come to next week would have been unimaginable to their predecessors of 70 years ago. The extraordinary thing, so evident this weekend, is that the esprit de corps forged by the men of Fitzwilliam House, without the advantages of a spacious and welcoming site, persists to this day. Fitz is now a large, successful, ‘mainstream’ college on a beautiful campus. The September Reunion (the Fitzwilliam Society’s 81st) is important not only because it enables men from Fitzwilliam House, who joined in the 1940s and 1950s, to participate in the College as it is today, but also because it means today’s students and recent graduates can look back and see where the College has come from.

I always begin my lecture on Fitzwilliam’s history with my own matriculation photo. As each year passes this looks increasingly like an ancient historical document. But my point is that in the 33 years since it was taken I have remained close to my Fitz friends (and I’m still married to one of them). Fitzwilliam is about intellectual challenge and opportunity, about gaining skills and insight, but it is also about making life-long friendships – a fact that at the age of 18 or 19 is little more than a nice idea, but to the men and women in the dining hall on Saturday night, is priceless.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

In this guest post, Helen Bettinson (History 1982 and currently Fitzwilliam’s Development Director) reflects on the College’s ‘Half Way Dinner’ held last week.

This week 140 Fitzwilliam undergraduates acknowledged that they were half-way through their degrees by attending, with their Directors of Studies and other Fellows of the College, the formal Half-Way Dinner. This enjoyable evening is a recent invention and alumni of previous generations might wonder at the point of it. In addition to the social benefits, however, the occasion forces students – indeed all of us – to take stock. Something which, in the normal run of the frenetic Cambridge term, isn’t often the case.

What does half-way mean beyond the simple calculation of being at the midway point in the typical undergraduate degree of nine terms? (Although we shouldn’t take all this too literally as a good proportion of our undergraduates are on four year courses…!) Have students acquired 50% of what they need to cram into their heads for Tripos? Or are they half-way along a steeply angled trajectory to intellectual enlightenment? The Master suggested that the second half should be ‘better’ than the first: certainly our students should build on the foundations of their first difficult year, towards the high peak that will be expected of them in their finals next year…

What is certain, is that the things that make the Cambridge experience significant are not all academic. Appearing on stage, singing in the choir, rowing in the Bumps, scoring a try, debating in the Union, putting on a JCR Bop, organising a society meeting – all are worthwhile activities. But so too is visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum, a pint in the Eagle, a punt on the Cam, and all the other typically touristy things that our students sometimes don’t get around to doing. Do them! In another 15 months these students will be graduating. Magically transformed into alumni they will – in all likelihood – look back wistfully in later life and wonder why they’d never taken the time to eat a Chelsea bun in Fitzbillies or amble around the Museum of Arch and Anth.

For those of us half-way through our lives (or indeed well beyond the half-way point) it is easy to envy the experiences and opportunities that our current students enjoy. Look at the buildings and facilities they have, compared to in our day! We shouldn’t forget, however, that the demands placed on them are huge. They work incredibly hard – to get into Fitzwilliam in the first place and then to keep up with the punishing timetable of essays, projects, lectures, lab work, and that’s before the rehearsals and sports training. We shouldn’t be surprised if, on occasion, the glass may seem half-empty to those struggling to meet an academic deadline or to connect with like-minded souls.

Exhortations to grasp everything that the College and the University have to offer risk patronising the intelligent adults that were seated in the Dinner last week. They don’t need us to tell them how lucky they are or to remind them of the intellectual and social opportunities before them. I do think, however, that the Half-Way Dinner, fabricated tradition that it is, serves a useful purpose to students and Fellows. Taking stock is essential to framing future ambitions. I’d end this piece with the words tempus fugit, except I’d be accused of resorting to cliche. But to those of us now enjoying ‘middle age’, you know what I mean.

PS A few addenda that didn’t fit neatly into the piece above: Firstly I’d like to mention that the Dinner also marked the half-way point in the Bursar’s Fitzwilliam career (assuming normal retirement age). And lastly, I’d like to thank alumnus Iain Reid, whose generosity supports the occasion. No coincidence, perhaps, that as the College’s previous Development Director and a Fitzwilliam historian, he understands the significance of dates and tradition.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Fitzwilliam, like thousands of educational, social and work institutions across the UK, was to be profoundly affected by the events of the following four years. We are fortunate that our archives contain many moving and thought-provoking letters that shine a very personal light on this turbulent period.

The following report, written a few weeks later by Fitzwilliam student R. Cecil Grey at the suggestion of Censor WF Reddaway, offers an intriguing slant by highlighting the reaction of one small corner of France to the declaration of war, exactly one hundred years ago this week.


Experiences of an Englishman in Brittany during the European Crisis & after the Outbreak of War
Grand Hotel des Bains letter

“Locquirec is a pretty little sea village on the North Coast of Finisterre, about 60 miles from Brest and 20 from Morlaix, possessing all the charms of the finest Breton scenery. For 9 months out of the year it is practically deserted, but towards the end of July there is a large influx of visitors who are mostly Parisian & English, and the village assumes a lively appearance.

I had gone there on July 19th to spend two months in study & enjoyment, little dreaming of the tragic events that were so near at hand.  Read more…