History of the Union


Alfred Waterhouse's watercolour of The Cambridge Union Society

The exact origin of the Union remains steeped in legend, but as the story goes, the Union was founded in 1815 at the conclusion of a drunken brawl between several smaller college debating societies. The "union" of the three societies provided the basis for the name 'The Cambridge Union Society.'

Three men are credited with being the Society's 'Pious Founders': Henry Bickersteth (1783-1851) of Gonville & Caius, known later as Lord Langdale, Sir Edward Hall Alderson (1787-1857) of Gonville & Caius, and Sir Jonathan Frederick Pollock (1783-1870) of Trinity. All three men were very accomplished gentlemen for their time and in addition to other noted titles they were all Senior Wranglers.

In 1866 the Union moved into its current home, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, located behind the Round Church. The economist John Maynard Keynes was President in Lent 1905, and our library is named after him. Despite several fires and bomb damage from the Luftwaffe in WWII, (some of the older volumes in the library still bear shrapnel scars) our historic building continues to meet the needs of our members, although we regularly restore and refurbish it!

The Union came into its own during the early half of the 20th Century, playing host to many famous statesmen, such as Anthony Eden, David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Winston 

Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and James Ramsey MacDonald. Although the Union stopped most of its activity during the Second World War, the building did not stay empty, as Field Marshall Montgomery used the Chamber for a meeting which laid some of the first draft plans for D-Day.

Cambridge Union Society (Bomb Damage)


Shortly after India had gained independence in 1947, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, came to Cambridge to address the Union. The sixties and seventies are perhaps best known for the series of public figures who began their careers here at the Union - including Ken Clarke, Michael Howard, Vince Cable and Arianna Huffington.

The Union has continued to play host to great figures of national and international importance. Recent years have seen the Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix address the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the NATO Secretary General discuss international relations, Michael Moore argue against the Bush regime, and the Dalai Lama speak for Tibetan independence. Union members have been witness to an address from President Reagan at the end of the Cold War, a visit from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, several speeches from Stephen Hawking, and a speech from Queen Noor of Jordan on the Middle East Peace Process.


In 1999, at the height of the Kosovo crisis, the Union held the 'Kosovo Forum' which saw representatives from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Serbian Government and the UNHCR come together for the first time - a ground-breaking forum televised by the BBC, CNN & Sky News. Jalal Talabani visited the Union shortly after taking office as the first democratically elected president of Iraq, and Libyan head of state Colonel Gadaffi addressed the chamber via satellite days before chairing the international commission on the crisis in Darfur.

With a history like this it's impossible to name everyone. However, in the past year alone the Union has hosted the controversial scientist Richard Dawkins, former British Prime Minister John Major, acting legend Sir Ian McKellen, and Olympic legend Lord Sebastian Coe - whilst we have an impressive history to live up to, we hope you don't think we're doing too badly.


The Future Union


After an extensive structural survey of the Union’s various building and grounds, it is moving to finance the urgent restoration of its 149-year-old home. The survey was carried out in 2011 revealing major subsidence, structural irregularities, a non-functioning sewage system and grey water draining system, timber rotting, and major water damage that will cause operational issues in years to come. On top of this, various pieces of hardware within the Union including the heating and boilers are close to reaching the end of their safe working life. To address this extensive array of pressing issues, the Union will be long-leasing part of its site (3A to 5 Bridge Street) to raise funds for this urgent work. The site being leased currently houses a disused squash court and three cottages in a poor state of repair.

Following a comprehensive bidding process, in which a number of highly competitive offers were made from multiple local, national and international parties, the Union has decided to accept the proposal offered by Trinity College, Cambridge. Successive student committees over the past two years, as well as the Union’s Board of Trustees and property agents, feel that this represents the best deal available to the Union and, most importantly, to the interests of its members. This showcases the Union’s commitment to maintaining its historic home and daily operations as well as the joint desire, shared by both the Union and Trinity College, to save an historic Grade II listed building in the heart of Cambridge.

The contract between Trinity College and the Cambridge Union was signed by Trinity at the end of the Michaelmas Term 2014 and was ratified by a unanimous vote of the student committee and the Board of Trustees soon after. Commenting on the plans, the Union’s Lent 2015 President Amy Gregg said:

“We are very excited to be able to take this step forward towards safeguarding the future of our Union’s building. The project will be managed in such a way that the regular operation of the Union will not be significantly affected.”

Subject to planning permission, the Union will be aiming not only to save, but to renovate significant parts of the building during the building work. Architectural plans are being drawn up and will likely include: a new student-only Bar; public facing café; professional event kitchens; new office space; a significantly expanded foyer and event space with a new staircase and elevator for disabled visitors, and a new secure car park and rear exit. It will also include the restoration of the Union’s Victorian façade on Park Street. 

The Cambridge Union is not to be confused with The Cambridge Student Union (CUSU), which is the official student Union for students at the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge Union is a membership based debating society open to students from the University of Cambridge or Anglia Ruskin University, upon the payment of a membership fee. The Cambridge Union receives no formal funding from the University.