HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died last week aged 99, was the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from December 1976 to June 2011, and Visitor of Newnham College. Here, we remember his connection with our college.
In the Duke of Edinburgh, we had a Visitor who remembered that a college is, at its heart, a community of people. He visited Cambridge several times a year, and came to Newnham on many occasions.
Whenever the Duke visited, he made time to talk to students, Fellows and staff, and was not averse to pausing the schedule to thank staff members or to discover more about a topic that fascinated him. The Duke’s interests were many and varied – during one official visit, an alumna discovered that a planned explanation of Javanese Gamelan music was superfluous, as the Duke not only knew the art form but had purchased a gamelan himself.
His first visit to Newnham was as a young man, in 1955. Over the following fifty years, he would return regularly to visit the growing college.
As Visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh held a unique position within the College: the role is analogous to that of the Chancellor to the University, though with several other dimensions. Happily, we never needed to call upon him in his capacity as the arbitrator of internal disputes.
While he was Visitor of several Cambridge colleges, the Duke clearly valued Newnham’s distinctive approach. As he said, in a 1987 letter supporting a Newnham fundraising appeal, “All the Colleges have their particular characteristics, but Newnham is rather a special case. Founded in 1871 at a time when almost all the Colleges were for male students only, it attracted the support of all those who believed that women should have an equal chance to get the benefit of a Cambridge education. Since then … Newnham has built up an enviable academic reputation and has established for itself a very special position in the University.”
In turn, members of Newnham valued the Duke’s interest in individuals.
Alumna Heather Self recalled, “I remember his visit to Newnham as Visitor [in 1978]. I recall that after chatting to us (all in our gowns on Clough lawn) he specifically asked to meet the kitchen staff, to thank them.” This followed a delightful garden party for the whole college, at which the Duke met students, Senior Members and staff.
Photos of the time show the ceremonial arrival through the Pfeiffer Arch, with the Head Porter standing by. The departure seems to have been rather less formal, with the Duke and Senior Members squeezing out via the old Porter’s Lodge.
The Duke’s return to the college in 1988 was equally memorable, and, judging by the photographs, equally enjoyable. One alumna remembered “a nice conversation with Prince Philip when he came to Newnham … to open a new bit of the building. We had a reception in the Porters’ Lodge near the phone boxes.” Anyone who remembers the old P’Lodge may wonder how large a reception could be hosted among the pigeonholes, noticeboards and phone boxes.
Photos suggest that mini-receptions were held in the JCR, along the corridor, and, to much laughter, in the tiny gym. Finally, people gathered in College Hall, celebrating its centenary that year, for the Duke to cut a ‘birthday cake’.
The Duke continued to visit Newnham during his role as Chancellor and as Visitor, including returning in both 2003 and 2004. Newnham alumna Dame Alison Richard, who was Vice-Chancellor at the time, worked closely with the Duke and described his “insatiable, passionate interest in the work of the university.”
As these memories and photographs show, in his role as Visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh had a very special relationship with the people of Newnham College. He will be warmly remembered for many years to come.
For University members wishing to remember our own connection with the Duke of Edinburgh, a service will be held at the University Church, Great St Mary’s on Friday 16 April at 6pm. The service will be streamed and available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_4w3gSLVB0.
A University Memorial Service will be held in due course.