Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Sidney Sussex College (referred to informally as "Sidney") is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in England. The college was founded in 1596 under the terms of the will of Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (1531–1589) and named after its founder. It was from its inception an avowedly Protestant foundation;[3] "some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge". In her will, Lady Sussex left the sum of £5,000 together with some plate to found a new college at Cambridge University "to be called the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College".[4] Her executors Sir John Harington and Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, supervised by Archbishop John Whitgift, founded the college seven years after her death.[3] The college owns an incredible art collection inclusive of the Nativity (1715) by Giambattista Pittoni.

Sidney Sussex College
University of Cambridge
Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College
Sidney Sussex College heraldic shield
LocationSidney Street (map)
Full nameThe College of the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex
MottoDieu me garde de calomnie (Middle French)
Motto in EnglishGod preserve me from calumny
FounderFrances Sidney, Countess of Sussex
Established1596 (1596)
Sister collegeSt John's College, Oxford
MasterRichard Penty
Endowment£21.6m (as of 30 June 2017)[2]
Location in Central Cambridge
Location in Cambridge


While the college's geographic size has changed little since 1596, an additional range was added to the original E-shaped buildings in the early 17th century and the appearance of the whole college was changed significantly in the 1820s and 1830s, under the leadership of the Master at the time, William Chafy. By the early 19th century, the buildings' original red brick was unfashionable and the hall range was suffering serious structural problems.

The opening up of coal mines on estates left to the College in the 18th century provided extra funds which were to be devoted to providing a new mathematical library and accommodation for Mathematical Exhibitioners. As a result, the exterior brick was covered with a layer of cement, the existing buildings were heightened slightly, and the architectural effect was also heightened, under the supervision of Sir Jeffry Wyatville.[5]

In the late nineteenth century, the college's finances received a further boost from the development of the resort of Cleethorpes on College land on the Lincolnshire coast that was purchased in 1616, following a bequest for the benefit of scholars and fellows by Peter Blundell, a merchant from Tiverton, Devon.[6][7] A new wing (Cloister Court) added in 1891, to the designs of John Loughborough Pearson, is stylistically richer than the original buildings and has stone staircases whereas the stairs in the older buildings are made of timber.[8]

In the early twentieth century, a High Church group among the Fellows were instrumental in the rebuilding and enlargement of the chapel, which was provided with a richly carved interior in late seventeenth-century style, designed by T. H. Lyon, and somewhat at odds with the college's original Puritan ethos.[9]

A Song of Sidney Sussex

At the beginning of the twentieth century, E.H. Griffiths wrote a ten verse song dedicated to Sidney Sussex. Each verse systematically identifies, then dismisses other Cambridge colleges for their faults, before settling on Sidney as the best college of all. The chorus exhorts the audience:

'Go travel round the town, my friend, whichever way you please,

From Downing up to Trinity, from Peterhouse to Caius:

Then seek a little College just beside a busy street,

Its name is Sidney Sussex, and you'll find it Bad to Beat.'[10]

Academic profile

Sidney Sussex is recognised as one of the smaller, more classical Cambridge colleges. Its current student body consists of roughly 350 undergraduate students and 190 graduates.

Academically, Sidney Sussex has tended towards a mid-table position in the unofficial Tompkins Table (placing 13th out of 29 in 2019). However, the college has traditionally excelled in certain subjects, notably Mathematics, History, Engineering and Law. It is also known for the high standard of pastoral support from the Tutorial team, and a sense of mutual support from students doing the same subject.

The college ranks fourth highest amongst Cambridge colleges in Nobel Prizes won by alumni.[12]

Student life

The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge was nominated for a 2013 Gramophone Award in recognition of their disc of the music of Thomas Weelkes.[13] The choir also tours regularly, most recently to the United States, in July 2018.

In the television show University Challenge, Sidney Sussex had a winning team in both 1971 and 1978–79. The 1978 team, comprising John Gilmore, John Adams, David Lidington, and Nick Graham, went on to win the "Champion of Champions" University Challenge reunion competition in 2002. The college last appeared on the television show in 2018.

It is known for producing a well-regarded May Ball for a smaller college. Notably, students created an artificial lake and canal in 2010, when the ball had a Venetian theme, to enable punting at the landlocked college.[14] Recent themes have included 'Light' (2014) and 'Beyond' (2016).

As with many of the smaller colleges, Sidney Sussex does not run a May Ball every year, instead running a biennial May Ball, on even numbered years. On odd numbered years, the college previously hosted an Arts Festival, which welcomed anyone in Cambridge, town or gown, to attend. Notable guest speakers at the Sidney Arts Festival include Stephen Fry, in 2015.[15] However, for 2017 it was decided instead to hold a June Event. June Events are similar to a May Ball, but are smaller, usually with a lower ticket price, and shorter running time.[16]

Confraternitas Historica

The Confraternitas Historica, or Confraternitas Historica Dominae Franciscae Comitis Sussexiae, is the history society of Sidney Sussex College and is reputed to be the longest-running student history society in Europe, having existed since 1910. In fact, no meetings were held from 1914 to 1919 but since, during the First World War, "the University itself almost ceased to function ... the hiatus of 1914-19 is not counted as a break in the continuity of the society".

The Latin name of the society reflects the tastes of Jack Reynolds, the High Church Fellow who presided over its creation, who also "endowed the Society with an elaborate Latin initiation ceremony".[17] Similarly, rather than being led by a President, the student in charge of the society is instead 'Princeps'. Other society roles include the 'Magister,' 'Tribune,' 'Pontifex Maximus,' and 'Comes'. Furthermore, during society meetings all attendees are referred to in an egalitarian, though still Latinate, manner. Regardless of academic standing or title, all attendees are given the title of 'soror' (sister) or 'frater' (brother).

In The Michaelmas Term of 2018, the Confrat developed a new website and reintroduced a variant of the old Latin initiation ceremony referred to as the "Mass Baptism." The first Mass Baptism was held on 30 October 2018, and conducted by the incumbent Pontifex Maximus.

Boat Club

Founded in 1837, the club has spent most of its time in the 2nd division of the Lent and May Bumps, with brief times spent in the 1st division. Being a small college, the club has never had the consistency to rise to take a headship of either event, and has been as high as 6th in the Lent Bumps in 1913, and 11th in the May Bumps in 1923.

A women's crew first appeared in 1978 and has spent most of its time in the lower half of the 1st division in both the Lent and May Bumps, but recently has fallen to the middle of the 2nd division of both the Lent Bumps and the May Bumps.

People associated with the college

Former members of the college include the political and military leader Oliver Cromwell, who was among the first students - although he never graduated, dropping out after his father became ill - and his skull is now buried beneath the college's ante-chapel. His ghost was reported on a number of occasions in the 1960 after the skull's interment.[18]

Other former college members include early historian Thomas Fuller; historical writer Thomas Rymer; the 17th century poet and dramatist Thomas May; and Dean of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and later Bishop Robert Machray.

Another famous alumnus was the theologian and moral philosopher William Wollaston who wrote 'Religion of Nature Delineated' (1724). Notable legal alumni include Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade (judge on the International Court of Justice 2009 -).


Notable politicians to have attended the college include the civil servant Sir Basil Engholm; and the former Foreign Secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party Lord Owen. Former students also include current MPs, Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling; Leader of the House of Commons David Lidington; Rebecca Evans, Minister for Social Care and Public Health in the Welsh Government;[19] and the late Brian Lenihan, former Minister of Finance in the Republic of Ireland.


The college's strong tradition in the sciences is seen by the association of the Nobel Prize–winning physicists Cecil Frank Powell and C. T. R. Wilson, 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient John E. Walker and the 2002 Nobel prize in Chemistry recipient Alan MacDiarmid. Sir Benjamin Lockspeiser, the first president of CERN was also an undergraduate at the college, along with psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby. Robert McCance Professor of Experimental Medicine, played a leading part in wartime rationing and 1940s government nutrition efforts. Professor Dame Ann Dowling has been a Fellow since 1977 and is the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.[20] The inaugural recipient of the Rosalind Franklin award Professor Sue Gibson was an undergraduate at the College.[21] The "father of radio astronomy in Australia" [22][23] Joe Pawsey obtained his PhD at Sidney Sussex in 1935.

Bletchley Park Codebreakers

Eleven members of the college worked at Bletchley Park during World War Two. They were Gordon Welchman, a Sidney Research Fellow in Mathematics who recruited many of them, John Herivel, Asa Briggs, Paul Coales, Malcolm Chamberlain, Edward Dudley Smith, John Manisty, Jim Passant, David Rees, Howard Smith (later head of MI5) and Leslie Yoxall (famous for his work in Hut 8 on breaking the German naval officers’ code).

More recently alumni include best-selling author, broadcaster and Associate Editor of The Observer newspaper Andrew Rawnsley; former technical director of the Mercedes-Benz Formula One team Paddy Lowe; television host known primarily for her role on the game show Countdown Carol Vorderman and the comedian Alex Horne. Also, the Hollywood director John Madden known for the Academy-award-winning Shakespeare In Love, and professor and writer John Fraser.

Musical alumni include Al Doyle (1998) and Felix Martin (1999) of the electronic band Hot Chip.[24] In 2010, American composer Eric Whitacre was named Visiting Fellow and Composer-in-Residence.

Sherlock Holmes

Author Dorothy L. Sayers suggested that, given details in two of the stories, the fictional character Sherlock Holmes must have been at Cambridge rather than Oxford and that "of all the Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex (College) perhaps offered the greatest number of advantages to a man in Holmes's position and, in default of more exact information, we may tentatively place him there".[25]

List of alumni

Name Birth Death Career
Sir Thomas Adams, 1st Baronet 1586 1667/8 Lord Mayor of London
William Ross Ashby 1903 1972 Cybernetics pioneer
Tony Badger 1947 Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge, Master of Clare College, Cambridge
Karan Bilimoria, Baron Bilimoria 1961 Businessman, Chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor for the University of Birmingham
Lawrence Booth 1975 Editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Ronald N. Bracewell 1921 2007 Physicist
John Bramhall 1594 1663 Archbishop
Asa Briggs 1921 2016 Historian
Ann Copestake 1959 Professor of Computational Linguistics, University of Cambridge
Stuart Corbridge 1957 Vice-Chancellor of Durham University
Oliver Cromwell 1599 1658 Lord Protector
Rebecca Evans 1976 Politician
Thomas Fuller 1608 1661 Author, churchman, historian
William Du Gard 1602 1662 Printer
Sue Gibson 1960 Research Chemist, Chair in Chemistry and Director of the Graduate School, Imperial College London
Chris Grayling 1962 Secretary of State for Transport
Dick Heckstall-Smith 1934 2004 Musician
John Herivel 1918 2011 Bletchley Park cryptanalyst, science historian
Ronald Holmes 1913 1981 Colonial government official
Alex Horne 1978 Comedian
Rachel Horne 1979 BBC presenter
Alan Huggins 1921 2009 Judge
Norman Crowther Hunt 1920 1987 Minister of State under Harold Wilson
Nick Laird 1975 Poet, husband of Zadie Smith
Ian Lang, Baron Lang 1940 Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
Brian Lenihan Jnr 1959 2011 Irish Minister for Finance
Daniel Levy 1962 Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur
Ann Mather 1960 Executive. Has served on boards of Google and Pixar (Finance Director)
David Lidington 1956 Minister of State
Ben Lockspeiser 1891 1990 President of CERN
Paddy Lowe 1962 Executive Director, Mercedes Grand Prix
Alan MacDiarmid 1927 2007 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
John Madden 1949 Director
Thomas May c. 1595 1650 Renaissance dramatist
Jo Martin 1960 Distinguished Pathologist. President, Royal College of Pathology, 2017-2020
John Ashworth Nelder 1924 2010 Statistician
Gordon Newton 1907 1998 Editor, Financial Times
David Owen 1938 Foreign Secretary
Francis Sawyer Parris 1707 1760 Editor, King James Bible
Steven Pimlott 1953 2007 Opera and theatre director
Michael Pitman 1933 2000 Chief Scientist of Australia
Cecil Frank Powell 1903 1969 Nobel Laureate in Physics
Henry Probert 1926 2007 Director of Education, Royal Air Force, 1976-1978
Andrew Rawnsley 1962 Author, broadcaster and journalist
Gillian Rose 1962 Professor of Cultural Geography at The Open University
A. D. Roy 1920 2003 Economics
Diane Samuels 1960 Playwright
Charles Thurstan Shaw 1914 2013 Archaeologist
Carol Vorderman 1960 Media personality
Conrad Hal Waddington 1905 1975 Biologist
John E. Walker 1941 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
John Wheelwright 1592 1679 New World Puritan clergyman
C.T.R. Wilson 1869 1959 Nobel Laureate in Physics
William Wollaston 1659 1724 Philosopher
F. L. Woodward 1871 1952 Educationist, Pali scholar, author and theosophist

See also


  1. University of Cambridge (6 March 2019). "Notice by the Editor". Cambridge University Reporter. 149 (Special No 5): 1. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  2. "Annual report and Financial Statements for the year ended 30 June 2017" (PDF). Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  3. Sidney Sussex College website; history Archived 21 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, p. 95
  5. Peter Salt, 'Wyatville's remodelling and refurbishment of Sidney Sussex College, 1820-1837', Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 81 (1992), 115-55
  6. R.W. Ambler and Alan Dowling, 'The growth of Cleethorpes and the prosperity of Sidney, 1616-1968', in Sidney Sussex College Cambridge: historical essays in commemoration of the quatercentenary, ed. D.E.D. Beales and H.B. Nisbet (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 183-8.
  7. Gerald Maclean Edwards. Sidney Sussex college. 1899. Page 51
  8. Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Cambridgeshire (2nd edn., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p.160
  9. C. S. B. Pyke, 'The new chapel of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge', in Sidney Sussex College; Historical essays, pp. 235-47; Pevsner, Buildings of England, Cambridgeshire, p. 160.
  10. "Secret Sidney - A Brief Historical Sketch". Sidney Sussex College. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  11. "Sidney Sussex College Cambridge: Prospectus" (PDF). Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  12. "Archived – Recommended Cambridge College Accounts" (PDF). Sidney Sussex College. pp 24.
  13. I Fagiolini, Podger, Skinner and Sidney Sussex shortlisted for 2013 Gramophone Awards 29 July 2013
  14. Cambridge college gets a new water feature, The Independent, 18 June 2010
  15. "Sidney Sussex Arts Festival". Varsity Online. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  16. "Sidney Sussex June Event". Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  17. Derek Beales, '100 not out: the centenary of the Confrat', Sidney Sussex College Annual (2010), pp.22-4
  18. Damien O'Dell (1 January 2013). "Ghost of Oliver Cromwell". Archived from the original on 2 March 2017. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
  19. "Double First for Sidney Sussex - Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University". Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  20. "Dame Ann Dowling". Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  21. "Professor Sue Gibson OBE CChem FRSC". Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  22. Moyal, Ann (1994). Portraits in science. Canberra: National Library of Australia. p. 43. ISBN 0642106169.
  23. Bhathal, Ragbir (1996). Australian astronomers: achievements at the frontiers of astronomy. Canberra: National Library of Australia. p. 72. ISBN 0642106665.
  24. Paul Smith (15 January 2010). "Chip off the old block". Varsity. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  25. Dorothy L. Sayers, "Holmes's College Career", for the Baker Street Studies, edited by H.W. Bell, 1934

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