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Wolfson College Cambridge: the 50 year college

Lee Seng Tee Library. Courtesy of Wolfson College, Cambridge, photographer Keith Heppell.

The creation of Wolfson College Cambridge followed a circuitous route, beginning in 1967, with a tentative approach to the Wolfson Foundation from the classicist John Sinclair Morrison (1913-2000) of the then-University College, Cambridge. Morrison is perhaps best known for recreating a replica Athenian trireme and the construction of the new College would prove no less involved.

An initial approach for a grant to investigate the relationship between Cambridge University colleges and British schools’ sixth forms was dropped in favour of an application for assistance in building work for a new complex at University College. A more formal application for funding came in the spring of 1970, by this time redrafted to become a proposal for a completely new Wolfson College Cambridge. Professor Owen Chadwick (1916-2000) the university Vice-Chancellor submitted an application for £1.7 million in November 1970.

There followed an intensive debate about the feasibility of the enterprise, in particular the need for the college to be properly endowed from the outset. Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) noted to Leonard Wolfson that “if the college is to come into being and to bear your distinguished name, you will have to think in large terms; otherwise better to do nothing at all…” Additional letters of support came from academic and government circles, with Lord ‘Rab’ Butler weighing in during June 1972 and by August Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), then Secretary of State for Education and Science, offered “personal encouragement to respond to the appeal”.

Lord Adrian (1889-1977), too, in August 1972 suggested that, “A proposal which aims at firmly establishing the College would be warmly welcomed, & the University would be honoured to have a ‘Wolfson College’, which will fittingly commemorate the many benefactions of the Wolfson family to the University and Colleges of Cambridge’”. The Wolfson Foundation responded with a grant of £2 million, effectively establishing the mixed college (a Cambridge first) which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015.

Explore the archives

  • WF/563/1/1a, b
    Pamphlet, ‘Proposal for Wolfson College Cambridge’, by Ferrey and Mennim, Architects, October 1970 [cover and page showing Pavilions Front…only] 
  • WF/563/1/2
    Letter from John Sinclair Morrison, University College Cambridge, 16 June 1967, to Sir Harold Redman, The Wolfson Foundation 
  • WF/563/1/9
    Letter from Arundell Rea Leakey, The Wolfson Foundation, 28 February 1969, to Leonard Wolfson
  • WF/563/1/17a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i
    Pamphlet, ‘A European Centre for Visiting Students in University College Cambridge’, 3 March 1969
  • WF/563/1/19a, b, c, d
    Draft appeal by John Sinclair Morrison, ‘Proposal for Wolfson College Cambridge’, 4 May 1970
  • WF/563/2/2
    Letter from R A ‘Rab’ Butler, Trinity College Cambridge, 13 May 1970, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/1/30a, b
    Letter from Owen Chadwick, The Master’s Lodge, Selwyn College, 2 November 1970, to The Trustees of the Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/1/35a, b
    Letter from Alan Bullock, The Vice-Chancellor, Clarendon Building, Oxford, 13 November 1970, to Arundell Rea Leakey, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/1/46
    Letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, City University of New York, 26 April 1971, to Arundell Rea Leakey, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/1/47a, b, c, d
    Letter from Sir Isaiah Berlin, City University of New York, 3 May 1971, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/1/63a, b, c
    Letter from John Sinclair Morrison, University College Cambridge, 20 July 1972, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation.  
  • WF/563/1/64a, b, c, d, e
    Letter from R A ‘Rab’ Butler, Trinity College Cambridge, 3 June 1972, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/2/16a, b
    Letter from Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education and Science, 21 August 1972, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation.
  • WF/563/1/75
    Draft of a press release on behalf of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, 2 November 1973, announcing a £2 million grant from The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/2/17
    Letter from Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education and Science, 15 November 1972, to Leonard Wolfson, The Wolfson Foundation
  • WF/563/2/28, 29
    Photographs of Wolfson College Cambridge, Block 1 exterior and bedroom interior, early 1970s
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