Early admission to Cambridge when you're not the Prime Minister's son: how was it done?
May 22, 2011 3:52 PM   Subscribe

For a book, I'm looking for descriptions of historical admission/matriculation procedures for a young man wanting to enroll himself at an English university. An 18th century source relating to Cambridge would be perfect, but anything that describes how things were handled 100+ years ago would be helpful. I'm having difficulty finding pre-Victorian information.

Writing a novel set in England in 1794. A supporting character is a 15 or 16-year-old boy, very bright, educated by private tutor and public school, from a well-connected family. Son and relative of Cambridge graduates. I would like to know what sort of process he might undergo in order to be accepted into university: recommendations from teachers and influential friends, examinations or essays of any sort, interviews* with the head of the individual college or a praelector/fellow or someone else, bribes (to anyone in particular)? Would the fact that he wants to enroll at a slightly younger age than most new students tended to be by the start of the 19th century affect how he and his parents went about it?

* this would be most relevant to the actual plot, so it would be nice to find evidence of it.

posted by notquitemaryann to Writing & Language (3 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Fifteen or sixteen was not particularly young for that time.

There are various histories of Cambridge on google books that should get you what you need. Mullinger, for one.

Please advertise if you pull this off. I like me a good historical novel.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:56 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: One of the best and most entertaining guides to Cambridge academic life in this period is the novel Alma Mater; or, Seven Years at the University of Cambridge (1827), 'By a Trinity-Man' (J.M.F. Wright), which you can find on Google Books. Wright's account of his admission to Trinity in 1815 suggests that he simply showed up at the College with a letter of introduction:

Furnished by a friend with a letter to the tutor .. I made my way with all speed to that spot of all spots -- Trinity College. I was received with all the politeness and cordiality for which that gentleman was, and is, conspicuous.

He then describes the interview that took place:

"How much have you read, Sir?"
"In classical learning, Sir, I have not made much progress, having gone through Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero [etc etc] .. but I have great thirst for more."
"Very well, indeed, but what do you know of the mathematics?"
"Still less, Sir; Ludlam's Elements being the only book, besides Walkinghame's Tutor's Assistant, which I have ever met with."

After a few more questions, the tutor sends him away with a reading-list, some advice on note-taking and study, and an introduction to another undergraduate who helps him get settled in and takes him to dinner in hall.

Another excellent source is Henry Gunning's Reminiscences of the University, Town, and County of Cambridge from the Year 1780 (1854), which you can also find on Google Books. Here's how Gunning describes his admission to Christ's College in 1784. In those days many of the colleges had rules prohibiting the election of more than one or two fellows from the same county, so Gunning's father was anxious to send him to a college where there was some prospect of the Cambridgeshire fellowship becoming vacant before too long:

After some deliberation, my father decided upon entering me a Sizar at Christ's College, under Parkinson and Seale, at that time tutors: with the former he was well acquainted. There, also, my county was filled; but the occupant was the Senior Fellow, the Rev. Adam Wall, consequently a vacancy might be expected at no very distant period.

The standard of academic attainment at Christ's was not very high:

The number of admissions at Christ's in my year was only three: two of the men professed not to read [i.e. not to study for a degree], and I was ignorant of the first Proposition in Euclid.

When Gunning complains to his tutor, Parkinson, that he can't understand the lectures, Parkinson loses his temper, and 'released me from attending his lectures the remainder of the term, remarking that I could doubtless pass my time more pleasantly, and perhaps more profitably, in my own room'.

For further information, see Peter Searby, A History of the University of Cambridge, vol III: 1750-1870 (1998), and, for the other place, L.S. Sutherland & L.G. Mitchell (eds.), The History of the University of Oxford, vol V: The Eighteenth Century (1986).
posted by verstegan at 7:56 AM on May 23, 2011

Response by poster: A belated thanks for everyone's answers, which were all helpful!
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:56 PM on June 25, 2011

« Older Left detergent in a hot car, still good?   |   Railway time, but not a timetable. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.