Scope and Contents
The archives comprise a full record of the Union’s activities from 1815 until the middle of the twentieth century. Thereafter the records are somewhat patchy. Major series of records include laws and regulations of the Society, annual reports, committee minute books, records of debates, suggestions books and photographs of speakers.
Conditions Governing Access
The University Archives are generally freely available to the holder of a reader's ticket for the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR. Restrictions on access are imposed on certain categories of sensitive record: financial, governmental and personal, by order of the originating body or under data protection legislation. Access information, including opening hours and how to obtain a reader's ticket, appears as part of the Library's web site (www.lib.cam.ac.uk).
Biographical / Historical
The Union Society was founded in 1815, the result of the coming together of two or possibly three existing debating societies in Cambridge. According to tradition, the founders were Henry Bickersteth, later Lord Langdale (1783-1851), of Gonville and Caius College, Sir Edward Hall Alderson (1787-1857) also of Gonville and Caius, and Sir Jonathan Frederick Pollock (1783-1870) of Trinity College. Henry Pakenham is sometimes associated with these three founders. The inaugural meeting was on 13 February 1815. Regular meetings were held thereafter in term time in a room at the back of the Red Lion Inn in Petty Curry. The society was briefly suspended in 1817 following Vice Chancellor James Wood’s reservations about the topics for debate. Debating was resumed in March 1821 on the condition that no political matter from the last 20 years be discussed. This condition, which had been much circumvented, was formally set aside by 1830. In 1832, the Union moved to larger premises at the back of the Hoop Inn on Bridge Street and in 1859 it moved again to the site of a former Wesleyan chapel in Green Street.
The Union eventually secured its own premises on a piece of land purchased from St John’s College behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned to design the new building, which was formally opened on 30 October 1866. Waterhouse also designed the new wing added in 1886. Debating activities were disrupted during both world wars. During the Second World War, the building was commandeered for use by the RAF. It suffered a direct hit from a bomb in July 1942, causing damage to the library.
Having been previously confined to debates between student members, visiting speakers were permitted to participate by invitation from 1887. For many years the Union was an exclusive gentleman’s club; women were first admitted as members in 1963, with Ann Mallalieu elected the first female President in Michaelmas 1967. The Union has attracted a plethora of famous and controversial speakers over the years including Theodore Roosevelt, David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Oswald Moseley, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, F.W. de Klerk, Enoch Powell, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Julian Assange. Notable past presidents and officers include John Maynard Keynes, Michael Ramsey, Rab Butler, Leon Brittan, Ken Clarke, Michael Howard, Norman Lamont, Vince Cable, Arianna Huffington, Clare Balding and Edward Stourton.
The Union began an extensive redevelopment project to address structural failings and to improve existing facilities in 2018. Further information about the Union’s activities may be found on its website: https://www.cus.org/.
For background information see Stephen Parkinson, 'Arena of Ambition' (London: Icon Books, 2009) and Percy Cradock, 'Recollections of the Cambridge Union 1815-1939' (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1953).