Published in the Times July 24, 1978. Written by Ian Bradley.

Cambridge without a Butler: like a master without a servant

The departure 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.

No other 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 aristocracy”.

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.

George 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.

George’s third 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.

The youngest 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.

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 Television.

Hope of 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.


Published in The Times, August 01, 1978 from Mr Hugo Morley-Fletcher


The Butler Dynasty


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”.

Yours faithfully, HUGO MORLEY-FLETCHER


Published in The Times, August 05, 1978 from Professor H Lehmann, FRS


The Butler Dynasty


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.

Yours sincerely, H LEHMANN, Christ’s College, Cambridge