in the Times July 24, 1978. Written by Ian Bradley.
Cambridge without a Butler: like a
master without a servant
of Lord Butler from the Master’s Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, this month closes a chapter in a remarkable family history.
The Butlers have
maintained a consecutive tradition at Cambridge as dons since
1794. The last three generations of the family have produced at least 12
fellows of Oxbridge colleges, among them three professors. Lord Butler’s father
and great uncle were, like him, heads of Cambridge colleges.
family can claim such a galaxy of academic stars. As Lord Butler puts it, “The
Keynes and the Darwins may have the edge on us in
intellectual brilliance, but terms of the number of fellowships, there is no
doubt that we win”. The Butlers must be
counted among the leading members of the peculiarly British fraternity which
Lord Annan once described as “the intellectual
The founder of
this great academic dynasty was George Butler, the son of a Worcestershire
clergyman and grandson of the town crier of Rye. In 1794 he
was Senior Wrangler at Cambridge and became a
fellow of Sidney Sussex College. He was
subsequently headmaster of Harrow for 24 years
and ended his days as Dean of Peterborough.
Butler’s four sons shared their father’s high intellect and academic
inclination. The oldest, George, was a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and then
Principal of Liverpool Collegiate Institution, the forerunner
of Liverpool University. His wife was
Josephine Butler, the feminist and philanthropist. Their offspring included the
Professor of Natural Philosophy at St Andrews and the
Permanent Examiner to the Civil Service.
son, Arthur was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, for 40 years
and became the first headmaster of Haileybury in
1862. His grandson Harold Edgeworth Butler was
professor of Latin at London University and was the
father of Dr David Butler, the leading contemporary psephologist
and fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.
son, Montagu, was the most formidable of all the Butlers. The Times
obituary described him as “the most patriarchal figure in English academic
life”. In 1859 at the age of 26 he became headmaster of Harrow like his
father before him. He remained at the school for 26 years until he was
appointed Dean of Gloucester and spent the
last 32 years of his life as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
When he came
to Trinity he was reminded by a friend that he was no longer an autocrat as he
had been at Harrow but a constitutional monarch. He did not
allow the changed circumstances to cramp his style, however. In his first year
as master, aged 53, he caused a sensation amongst the fellows by marrying a
young girl who had just come top of the Classical Tripos.
He to wrote a colleague, “It was her goodness, not her
Greek and Latin, which have stolen my heart”.
Montagu became a
legendary figure at Cambridge. His devotion
to his college knew no bounds. He is said to have commented at the end of a
sermon on the Day of judgement, after praising
Christ’s action in separating the sheep and the goats, “We would have expected
no less of him, since he was, after all, in some sense a Trinity man himself”.
As well as
being a distinguished classical scholar and theologian, Montagu
was the first of the Butlers to show a
serious interest in politics. Early in his life he had toyed with the idea of
entering Parliament. By inclination he was a Peelite
and a Gladstonian, but he broke with the Liberals in
the 1880s, when Gladstone espoused
Irish Home Rule and failed to save the life of General Gordon at Khartoum.
Montagu’s three sons
went on to become a master at Harrow, the librarian to the House of Lords and Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge respectively.
This last was James Butler, who had the unique distinction of being born and
dying in the Master’s Lodge of Trinity during its occupancy by his relatives.
It was George
Butler’s second son, Spencer, who made the greatest contribution to continuing
the family’s intellectual eminence. He himself, although the possessor of a
Double First in classics and maths, never progressed
beyond the relatively humble job of a conveyancing
solicitor, but his nine sons, and two daughters, all distinguished themselves
in both public and academic life. They included Cyril, the founder of the
Contemporary Art Society, Spencer the Governor of Burma, Arthur, an inspector
of schools, Geoffrey, a fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, Ralph, who became The
Times correspondent in the Balkans when he became fed up with his fellowship at
the same college, Isabel who married Henry Richards, the Professor of
International law at Oxford, and Montagu, Governor of
the Central Provinces, India, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and father
of Lord Butler.
himself broke the family tradition by going to Marlborough, rather than Harrow
but he went on to have a typically Butleresque career
at Cambridge when he scored a Double First in modern languages and history and
was also President of the Union. On coming down in 1925 he was first offered
and accepted a fellowship at Corpus
Christi. Four years later he was in Parliament as the
Conservative MP for Saffron Walden.
“Rab” was not, in fact the first Butler to sit in the
House of Commons, although he was the first to forsake the academic life wholly
for politics. James Butler had been elected MP for Cambridge University in
1922, only to be displaced by his cousin Geoffrey in the general election of
the following year. Sir Geoffrey Butler, who was author of a book on the Tory
Tradition from Bolingbroke to Salisbury and architect of the Cambridge
University Conservative Association, was described by the The Times as “a Conservative of the new school”
because of his keen interest in aviation.
Sadly, it now
seems that the long line of Butler fellows at Cambridge has come to
an end. Lord Butler’s sons are respectively, the Deputy
president of the National Farmers Union, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to
Mrs Thatcher, and a producer with Thames
continuing the remarkable intellectual dynasty must rest at the other place
with David Butler. He has already doen his best by
marrying another Oxford don and
producing three sons. It remains to be seen whether they will make sure that
the name of Butler is as well
known in academic circles in the future as it has been in the past.
in The Times, August 01, 1978 from Mr Hugo Morley-Fletcher
Sir, Ian Bradley’s charming article about
the Butler family, while very complimentary to George Butler and his
descendents, committed a grave injustice in describing his father as “a
Worcestershire clergyman” because Weeden Butler
should surely be described as the founder of the dynasty and was himself a
well-known and influential academic with a school in Chelsea, attended by many
young sprigs of the nobility including I believe, some of the children of
George III and from his eldest son have descended a line of further Weeden Butlers who are to this day distinguished.
As for Henry Montagu Butler, another of his sermons is lovingly
described in the Forsythe Saga where he preached on the text of a quotation
from his greatest friend Alfred Lord Tennyson: “the whole order changes
yielding place to new and God fulfils himself in many ways lest good custom
should corrupt the world”.
faithfully, HUGO MORLEY-FLETCHER
in The Times, August 05, 1978 from Professor H Lehmann,
Sir, In these
days of the emancipation of women and their genes it is perhaps only partially
correct to state that there is no longer a “Butler” in Cambridge University.
Two of the
nine children of Spencer Butler to whom you refer were girls. The older,
Isabel, was the mother of Dr Audrey Richards, who is a Fellow of Newnham College, and a past president of the Royal
Anthropological Institute, to name just two of her many distinctions. One of
Isabel’s grandsons is Dr Tom E Faber, Fellow and Director of Studies in Physics
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
sincerely, H LEHMANN, Christ’s College, Cambridge