Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, UK

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Emmanuel College - or 'Emma' to its friends - is one of the 31 independent colleges that make up Cambridge University. The College is located near enough to the centre of Cambridge to be convenient for shops, pubs and cafes, but far enough away from 'The Backs'1 to minimise the summer invasion by tourists that is suffered by the likes of King's, Trinity and St John's. Like all the Cambridge colleges, Emmanuel is directly responsible for the welfare of its students, as well as providing small-group teaching to supplement the lectures and practical classes that are run by the University. Emmanuel also provides numerous facilities for its students, including, among others, a library, laundry service, assorted sports facilities and the obligatory college bar. So where did Emmanuel come from, and what makes it different from the other 30 colleges in Cambridge?

A Little History

Emmanuel was founded by Sir Walter Mildmay in 1584, some 300 years after the first Cambridge college, Peterhouse. At the time, Mildmay was Chancellor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth I and therefore a person of some wealth and status in England. He had already donated to the university by providing the money for a lecturer in Greek, a preacher and six scholars at nearby Christ's College. As a highly religious man, tending towards Puritanism, Mildmay felt that there was room in Cambridge for a college dedicated to the training of church ministers, and thus Emmanuel was established up on the site of a former Dominican priory.

The first Master of the College was Laurence Chadderton, another puritan who had studied at Christ's College, later becoming a Fellow there and influencing the puritanical leanings of that College. Chadderton's major work was to serve on the committee that produced the Authorised King James Version of the Bible.

Over the years, Emmanuel changed gradually from a puritanical college for training ministers into the modern academic institution that it is today, admitting students for any of the degrees awarded by the university. Emmanuel, like all but three of the modern Cambridge colleges, is co-educational, having admitted its first female students in 1979, a mere 110 years after the university first permitted women to attend.

A Quick Tour

On entering the College from St Andrew's Street, through the main gate, a visitor first passes the Porters' Lodge, before stepping into Front Court. This consists of a large, immaculate lawn with a path running around all four sides. On the right-hand side are the Westmoreland buildings, containing some accommodation and Fellows' studies. On the left is the dining hall. Straight ahead, dominating Front Court, is the Wren Chapel, one of three buildings2 in Cambridge to be designed by the man responsible for St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Travels in Time and Space

Taking the exit from Front Court on the left-hand side, past the 'pigeon-hole room' - where students' post is delivered - the visitor passes the dining room and kitchens and enters New Court. This contains a herb garden and some of the college's most luxurious student accommodation. It was also the filming location of Professor Chronotis's study in the Doctor Who episode 'Shada', written by Douglas Adams3.

Leaving New Court by the opposite corner from which they entered, the visitor passes two important buildings. The first, the Master's Lodge, was built in the 1960s, and unfortunately has the 'concrete block' design of many buildings of that period. Just past the Master's Lodge is the Queen's Building, the most recent addition to Emmanuel. Built from the same stone as the Wren Chapel, the building contains a lecture theatre, which doubles as a real theatre4, as well as graduate and undergraduate common rooms. The building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II, after whom it was named - a possibly apocryphal story tells that the original plan was to name it the Queen Elizabeth II Building, until the Queen insisted that it wasn't necessary, asking, 'which other Queen could it possibly be?'


After passing the Queen's Building, the visitor descends some stone steps, walks through a tastefully decorated tunnel, climbs another set of steps and, finding himself in North Court, is primed for another apocryphal story5. Emmanuel Street, under which the tunnel runs, was once a private road belonging to the College, allowing students to pass between North Court and the main College without having to dodge traffic. The council begged and pleaded with Emmanuel to hand Emmanuel Street over to them, in return for which they promised to build a subway connecting the two parts of the College. An agreement was reached, the street was opened, the tunnel was built, and everyone was happy. Until the council built a bus station at the back of North Court, turning two sides of the College into a major bus route and alternately choking and deafening those students unlucky enough to be assigned rooms in North Court's 'Y' and 'Z' staircases...

North Court itself is the home to student accommodation, the self-service laundry (ie, two washing machines and tumble-dryers that have to be booked days in advance) and a very valuable Japanese tree, from which students are strongly encouraged not to hang items - such as other students' bicycles.

And Back Again

Passing back down the tunnel and into New Court, the visitor can return to Front Court by passing the Old Library, which was once the site of the College Chapel and was built north-south, rather than the traditional east-west, in an act of religious rebellion by the Puritans.

The visitor is now on the opposite side of Front Court from the main gate, and can walk through to the Paddock, home of Emmanuel's most famous residents, the ducks. The ducks, which include some exotic breeds and are reputed to be the reincarnated souls of former college fellows, have free rein throughout the college grounds, but can generally be found next to the duck pond, in which the physicist Thomas Young is supposed to have witnessed the ripples that led him to the wave theory of light6. At the far end of the pond are Emmanuel House, The Hostel and East Court, all providing student accommodation and, in the case of the former two, beautiful views across the pond and paddock. The paddock itself is a large grassy area that, in summer, is converted into tennis courts and a croquet lawn. To the left of the paddock is the fellows' garden, home of another rare oriental tree, and also of a thatched changing hut and swimming pool that is believed to be the UK's oldest swimming baths still in use.

Facilities or Lack Thereof

If our visitor turns right, rather than wandering down past the pond, they walk past Old Court, which was built in the 17th Century and houses some of the largest student rooms in the college but, inconveniently, no toilets or showers - a result of the age of the building and arcane planning laws. Students requiring these facilities have to join our visitor as they wander south towards the library (apparently, it has books in it, although this Researcher couldn't really vouch for that...) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, South Court. This is another 1960s concrete monstrosity, housing first-year students, toilets and showers reserved for Old Court residents and, perhaps more importantly, the college bar. This was completely refurbished in the mid-1990s and, at least for a short while afterwards, was considered to be one of the best college bars in Cambridge7. Walking past South Court, the visitor is brought through Chapman's gardens, with its own, smaller pond, and back into Front Court to where they started.

You May Have Heard of...

Like most Cambridge Colleges, Emmanuel has had its fair share of the famous and the infamous pass through its doors and fall into its duck pond on Freshers' Night.

  • John Harvard (1607 - 1638) - not, technically, the founder of Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, USA, but its earliest and most important benefactor, who bequeathed a substantial sum of money and his personal library to the fledgling institution on his death.

  • Thomas Young (1773 - 1829) - mentioned above for his work on the wave theory of light, Young also made discoveries in other fields, including work deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone.

  • Frederick Hopkins (1861 - 1947) - known as the 'Father of British biochemistry', he was awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery of vitamins.

  • FR Leavis (1895 - 1978) - highly influential literary critic who became a Fellow at neighbouring Downing College. Leavis's works were critically important in shaping the way that literature is taught in universities.

  • Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909 - 1993) - historian and creator of 'Parkinson's Law': 'Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion'.

  • Cecil Parkinson (b 1931) - Conservative politician who was forced to resign from the cabinet after having an affair with his secretary that led to the birth of an illegitimate daughter. He later returned to the cabinet and was subsequently made Baron Parkinson of Carnforth.

  • Michael Frayn (b 1933) - award-winning novelist and playwright whose works include Copenhagen, Noises Off, Spies and the John Cleese film Clockwise.

  • Graham Chapman (1941 - 1989) - studied medicine before becoming a comedy writer and actor, and member of the Monty Python team. The College's Chapman's Garden is, sadly, not named after Graham, but after the Reverend Arthur Chapman, an early 20th-Century scholar

  • Graeme Garden (b 1943) - another Emmanuel medic, who decided he'd rather be part of the Goodies and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue than the National Health Service.

  • Tim Yeo (b 1943) - like Cecil Parkinson, Yeo is a conservative politician who was forced to resign from the cabinet after having an affair and illegitimate child, which unfortunately coincided with the Conservative party's 'Back to Basics' campaign in support of family values. This led to the temporary renaming of the Emmanuel bar as the 'Parkinson-Yeo Bar' during a safe sex campaign. Yeo later returned briefly to the shadow cabinet and, at the time of writing, serves as MP for Suffolk South.

  • Griff Rhys Jones (b 1953) - comedy writer and actor who first came to fame as part of the comedy team behind Not The Nine O'Clock News and more recently has been involved in the BBC's Restoration programme.

  • Rory McGrath (b 1956) - comedian and comedy writer, who started out writing scripts for Emmanuel contemporary Griff Rhys Jones before appearing as Badvoc the tribal leader in comedy series Cheltenham 123. Today he is a staple of television panel games such as They Think It's All Over.

1The colleges that back onto the river Cam.2The other two are Pembroke College chapel and Trinity College library.3'St Cedd's College' as written by Adams, was, however, based largely on Adams's own alma mater, St John's.4Although the laminated wooden flooring and the yellow stone that forms the walls make it very difficult to light effectively.5Cambridge is full of them...6Apocryphal, maybe..?7Probably not saying much, but there you go...

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