History of the Union

Alfred Waterhouse's watercolour of The Cambridge Union Society

The exact origin of the Society 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 

Cambridge Union Society (Bomb Damage)

meeting which laid some of the first draft plans for D-Day.


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 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.