Secret St John's - an archive blog from 2014

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Bishop John Fisher
18 August 2014

Among the portraits found in Hall is that of Bishop John Fisher, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s confessor and executor of her will. It was he who ensured that her wish to found a new college came to fruition after her death.

Born in 1469 in Yorkshire, Fisher studied at Michaelhouse, later Trinity College, and became proctor of the University of Cambridge in 1494, the same year in which he became Lady Margaret’s confessor. Under his guidance, Lady Margaret founded St John’s and Christ’s, and established professorial chairs in divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge, with Fisher becoming the first holder of the Cambridge chair.

Fisher was instrumental in bringing scholars such as Erasmus from the continent to Cambridge to promote the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but he was by no means an 'ivory tower' academic, rather being passionate about pastoral care and preaching. He was made Bishop of Rochester by the Pope, but when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, Fisher acted in her defence, saying he was prepared to lose his head. Fisher opposed Henry VIII's elevation of himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England and was sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered as a traitor. The public outcry was so great that Henry commuted the sentence to beheading, and Fisher was accordingly put to death on 23 June 1535.

Eagles of St John's
11 August 2014

Eagles and St John’s go hand in hand – the elite men’s sporting and social club are The Eagles, the annual report is called ‘The Eagle’, and everywhere you go in College you can see eagles! The association of St John and an eagle comes from a long tradition in Christian art, which usually portrays St John with an eagle, symbolising the height to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel in the New Testament, as well as the soaring nature of his writing, which is seen as much more theological than that of the other three gospels.

The image above shows only a small selection of the eagles that can be found around St John’s, so next time you visit have a look and see how many you can spot!

Paul Dirac
04 August 2014

Paul Dirac is one of St John’s most notable names, having won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933 and made fundamental contributions to the early development of quantum dynamics and quantum electrodynamics.

He was born in August 1902 in Bristol to a Swiss father and a British mother. His father forced the children to speak to him only in French, in order that they learn the language. When Dirac found that he could not express what he wanted to say in French, he chose to remain silent.

Having studied electrical engineering at the University of Bristol, Dirac sat the entrance exam for St John’s in 1921. He passed, and was awarded a scholarship worth £70, but this fell short of the amount of money he would need to live and study at Cambridge. Instead, he took up an offer to study for a degree in mathematics at the University of Bristol, and upon graduating in 1923, with first class honours, he was offered a £140 scholarship from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which provided him with enough money to live at Cambridge.

While at St John’s Paul Dirac pursued his interests in the theory of general relativity, and in the new field of quantum physics. He completed his PhD in June 1926 with the first thesis on quantum mechanics to be submitted anywhere.
Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation, which describes the behaviour of fermions and predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger, for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.

Dirac was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge and was a meticulously precise individual, once saying 'I was taught at school never to start a sentence without knowing the end of it' and complaining of poetry that 'The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible'. He was regarded by his friends and colleagues as unusual in character, but his mathematical brilliance means he is regarded as one of the most significant physicists of the 20th century.

The Old Chapel
28 July 2014

When the College was founded in 1511, it was established on the site of the Hospital of St John, a small hospital in the charge of Augustinian friars, for poor, sick and infirm people living in Cambridge. The hospital’s chapel was built by the Augustinians in the latter half of the thirteenth century, on the northern side of what is now First Court, adjacent to the site of the New Chapel. The original building measured 126 feet in length and was 30 feet wide, and was adapted for the use of the College in 1512, with the Master’s Lodge and Combination Rooms built against the west wall of the Chapel. The original College Chapel remained standing until its demolition in the latter half of the 1860s when it was replaced by George Gilbert Scott’s new design, which still stands today, however the foundations of the Old Chapel can still be seen in First Court.

The Eagles Club
21 July 2014

Established in the Lent term 1876, the Eagles Club was initially limited to those who played lawn tennis, with a maximum of only 40 members. The Club report in The Eagle of 1876 states that ‘The Master and Seniors kindly allowed them a part of the field in the Backs to play in, which gives ample room for three nets.’ In the four matches played during that season, the Eagles were unbeaten. Slowly, membership was accepted from other College sports teams, and by the early 1890s the club had become more of a social society. Other Colleges petitioned for entry into the Eagles, however this was denied, and led to a university-wide social and sporting club, the Hawks’ Club, being set up in the 1870s. A counterpart to the Eagles for the College’s female members, the Flamingos, was established after the admission of women in 1982.

Alfred Marshall: the father of modern economics
14 July 2014

Next to the portrait of William Wordsworth in Hall, hangs that of Alfred Marshall, a much less well-known name, but one that has perhaps had far more influence on modern society that Wordsworth could ever hope for. Marshall is seen as the father of modern economics and is acknowledged as a prime mover in the transition of economics to be a more rigorously mathematical subject.

Marshall was born in Clapham, London, in 1842, and come put to St John’s in 1861 to study mathematics, achieving the second highest marks in 1865, and thus gaining the rank of Second Wrangler for that year. Following this however, he turned to philosophy, with a focus on moral philosophy and ethics, which eventually led him into the area of economics, as it seemed to him that this was the route through which to influence the improvement of the conditions of the working classes.

Marshall was particularly interested in the role of women in society, and women’s emancipation. He married Mary Paley, one of the first female students at the University, and on his marriage he had to leave his Fellowship at St John’s. He became Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, but moved back to Cambridge as Professor of Political Economy in 1884, with the aim of starting a Tripos in Economics.

Published in 1890, ‘Principles of Economics’ was Marshall’s most well-known book, and in it he discusses the idea of supply and demand, a concept that is now used all over the world. Alfred Marshall died in 1924, leaving his sizeable library to form of the core of the Marshall Library of Economics in Cambridge.

The portrait that hangs in Hall was painted by William Rothenstein in 1908.

Le Tour de France
07 July 2014

This week’s Secret St John’s steps away from the history of the College, and looks at the world’s biggest annual sporting event, which speeds through the streets of Cambridge today. It is seven years since the Tour de France last visited Britain, and the 101st edition of the race, which began in Yorkshire on Saturday, has 3 stages in the UK this year before crossing the channel back to France and Belgium.

Starting at Parker’s Piece, the race will wend its way through the narrow streets of Cambridge, passing St John’s on the way out down Trinity Street, Kings Parade and Trumpington Road, before heading to London for the sprint finish.
British hopes this year lie with Chris Froome, last year’s winner for Team Sky, and Mark Cavendish, who has won more stages in the Tour than any other current rider, and will be a contender for the green sprinter’s jersey.

As you can see, Cambridge is ready for Le Tour, with green, yellow and polka dot bunting in the shape of jerseys adorning the streets, and shop windows filled with bikes, posters and other memorabilia. For more information visit the official website of the Grand Départ or follow @LeTourCambridge.

Student pranks and the Bridge of Sighs
30 June 2014

As mentioned in a previous post, the Bridge of Sighs is one of Cambridge’s most iconic sights. It is also the site of two rather bizarre student pranks. Twice students have suspended a car from the underside of the bridge! The first time, in 1963, an Austin 7 was punted down the river on four punts that had been lashed together. The car was then hoisted up and suspended from the bridge using ropes. In 1968 students replicated the stunt with a Reliant Regal three-wheeled car. In neither case was the bridge damaged, but it would have made for a surprising sight!

We would love to hear from you if you were involved in either of these stunts!

Tennis at St John's
23 June 2014

Tennis has a long history at St John’s, with the first dedicated sports facilities in the College being a real tennis court built in 1574 on the site where Second Court now stands. When Second Court was constructed for the sum of £28 at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the tennis court was moved across the Kitchen Bridge.

Tennis seems to have been a sport reserved for the wealthier students, as a quarterly subscription fee of around 5s was required to help fund repairs to the court. In 1750, when a code of regulations for students was adopted by the University, one of these regulations stated that ‘Every person in statu pupullari who shall be found at any coffee house, tennis court, cricket ground, or other place of public diversion and entertainment, twixt the hours of nine and twelve in the morning, shall forfeit … ten shillings …’

Since then there have been many tennis courts in College, including some rather fine grass courts on the Backs at the beginning of the twentieth century (pictured), but there have been no match grass courts at St John’s in over 20 years. Fortunately all that will change for the 2015 tennis season, with 4 new match grass courts being constructed thanks to a generous donation from a Johnian, which you can read about in the latest issue of Johnian News.

May Ball
16 June 2014

Set-up is well underway for this year’s May Ball, which takes place tomorrow, Tuesday 17 June. The tradition of May Balls in Cambridge started in the 1830s: it is thought that they developed from the celebrations surrounding successes in the May Bumps. The balls and the other celebrations which make up May Week now take place in June, after exams, but the name has been retained.

St John’s May Ball is one of the most eagerly anticipated of all the May Week events: legend has it that Time Magazine named it as the seventh best party in the world, just behind the Oscars at number six! While the theme of this year’s event has been kept closely guarded, perhaps the poster offers some clues…

May Bumps
09 June 2014

‘Bumping’ is an unusual form of racing in rowing, which developed on the Cam in the 1820s due to the face that conventional side-by-side racing is not possible over a long distance on the narrow and winding Cam. Racing takes places twice a year, in the Lent term, over 5 days, and in May, over 4 days. The two events have been independent of each other since 1877, and the starting order in each division is determined by the result in the previous year’s competition. Thus, having finished third in Division One last May, this year’s Men’s First Boat will begin third in Division One, despite finishing fourth in this year’s Lent competition.

On the first day of racing, crews will line up with approximately 90 feet between each crew. When the starting cannon is fired all crews start racing at the same time with the objective of catching, or ‘bumping’, the crew in front, without being caught by the crew behind. The 2 crews involved in a bump are then required to stop racing and pull into the bank while the rest of the Division continues racing. The crew behind, if it is lucky, can catch up three places to bump the crew that was originally ahead of the bumping pair, or ‘overbumping’. This procedure is repeated on subsequent days of racing, with starting positions determined by the previous day’s results.

The aim is to end up ‘Head’ – the first boat in the first division – at the end of the week, but the beauty of Bumps is that it is possible for crews at all levels to succeed. If a crew manages to get a bump every day then they are awarded their oars – a blade painted in their College colours and inscribed with the crews’ names and the boats they bumped.

May Bumps takes place from 11-14 June. Further information, including starting orders and spectator guidance can be found on the Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs website.

The Combination Room
02 June 2014

When Second Court was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was mostly used as rooms for Fellows and students. However, the north side formed an extension to the Master’s Lodge. The primary feature was the Long Gallery on the first floor, a room measuring 148 feet in length, which is now the Combination Room, used for Fellows dining and special events. The room features a beautiful moulded plaster ceiling, and wood panelling covers the walls.

In the central bay window is a glass roundel with the portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, which is based on a portrait by Daniel Mytens. This roundel commemorates the signing of the contract of marriage between King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, which was signed in the room.

In more recent history, the Combination Room was used during the Second World War for a meeting at which part of the D-Day landings were planned seventy years ago this week.


Shrewsbury Tower Observatory
26 May 2014

When William Powell was elected Master of St John’s in 1765 he wasted no time in asserting himself in the College. At his very first meeting as Master he set in motion a scheme to build an observatory on Shrewsbury Tower, perhaps in emulation of Trinity College, whose observatory was constructed in 1706. The construction of the observatory was planned and funded by Richard Dunthorne, an astronomer and surveyor, and also butler of Pembroke College. Dunthorne also gave astronomical instruments to the College, including an astronomical regulator made by John Shelton. Regulators were accurate clocks used specifically for timing transit observations to the exact second.

A contemporary, Rev. William Ludlam, who was in charge of the St John's College observatory from 1767, described Dunthorne in the preface to his Astronomical Observations made in St. John's College, 1767 and 1768, with an Account of Several Astronomical Instruments as one "who without the benefit of an Academical education is arrived at such a perfection in many branches of learning, and particularly in Astronomy, as would do honour to the proudest Professor in any University."

The observatory remained in place until its closure in 1859, when it was dismantled and the instruments transferred first to the University Observatory and then to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.


Louis Cha
19 May 2014

Louis Cha, the famous martial arts novelist, applied to St John’s in 2005, reading for an MPhil and then the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy which he received in 2010 aged 86. He was admitted as an Honorary Fellow of the College by the Master, in Hong Kong, in September 2010.

On 4 July 2012, the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the Master of St John’s College unveiled an engraved stone in the Rose Garden, north of the Scholars’ Garden. The five-foot high piece of Taiwanese sandstone is a gift from Mrs May Cha.

The stone is inscribed with a poetic couplet composed for the College by Louis Cha in 2005, at the start of his career as a graduate student. The couplet reads:

The scent of flowers, the scent of books clings to the College paths;
The sound of oars, the sound of song drifts through the Bridge of Sighs.

The Old Library
12 May 2014

The Old Library was built between 1623 and 1628 thanks to an anonymous donation, later revealed to have been made by John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln. The original library had been situated in First Court on the first floor to the south of the Great Gate, but by the 1620s it was no longer suitable for the College’s collection of books.

In January 1623 the Master, Owen Gwyn, appears to have approached Williams. On 23 January it was reported that Williams, while not wishing to 'be counted the builder or founder' of a new library, was prepared to be a 'contributor towardes it'.

The date 1624 appears on the oriel window overlooking the river, accompanied by the initials ILCS, which stands for Iohannes Lincolnienses Custos Sigilli (John Lincoln, Keeper of the Seal), with the date signifying the conclusion of the shell of the building. Once the building was sealed from the weather work began on the ceiling and fittings: 42 oak cases with carving typical of the Jacobean age, together with the wooden ceiling fittings. This apparently took almost 3 years, for the books were not removed from their accommodation over the kitchens until 1628.

In 1885 sixteen stained glass coats of arms of various benefactors to the library were placed in the oriel window of the Upper Library in memory of H.H. Hughes (Fellow 1817-36). Since then the shields of four further benefactors have been added. The window had previously housed the arms of Bishop Williams, Thomas Baker and James Wood, and on the introduction of the new shields Baker's and Wood's arms were removed to the lower library window.

For further information on the history of the Old Library, please click here.

The Kitchen Bridge
05 May 2014

The Wren Bridge, as the Kitchen Bridge is officially known, was but in 1708-12 by Robert Grumbold as a replacement for the wooden bridge that had originally crossed the river since the days when St John’s was an old Hospital. The westward expansion of the College throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries meant that the old wooden bridge was considered inadequate, especially once the imposing gateway had been erected in the mid-1680s. A bequest was made by Henry Paman, former Fellow and Bursar of the College, which made it possible to begin construction of a more impressive crossing, but the improvements were a while in coming. The College rejected plans proposed by Christopher Wren and his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor, which detailed a structure along the lines of the Bridge of Sighs, and settled instead for the broad carriage-road that stands today, and which draws on Wren’s design but adopts his name out of snobbery alone.

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