George Jennings Collis: going up to Cambridge (1889-92)

We last saw George Jennings Collis in the summer of 1889, being cheered by his fellow pupils at Wyggeston School prize day for gaining a place to study at Cambridge. And so it is, on a Saturday in autumn of that year, that he goes up to Clare College at the start of Michaelmas term. Having taken a train from Leicester, he arrives at Clare with his trunk of books, clothes and other belongings. He stands in Trinity Hall Lane, with the chapel towering above to the right. A few steps on and he’s through the gatehouse into the central quad, the Old Court.

Clare College floorplan

Established in 1326, Clare is the second oldest college in Cambridge. It’s a prestigious place for George to have earned a scholarship. A few students stride purposefully through the courtyard – freshmen like him, settling into their new life – but otherwise it’s a hushed enclave, a home of learning for the bookish, bright and privileged.


From the Porters’ Lodge he’s shown to his rooms – a set he shares with a fellow student. Together, after a cup of tea, they head to the Chapel at 6pm. College Master, Edward Atkinson, addresses the new students. In stentorian tones, he reminds them of their responsibilities, quoting from statutes that have governed the college for over six centuries:

“the knowledge of letters… when it hath been found, it sendeth forth its students, who have tasted of its sweetness, fit and proper members in God’s Church and the State, to rise to diverse heights, according to the claim of their deserts.”

Inspiring and somewhat daunting at the same time. After chapel, George – along with sixty or so fellow students – parade back into the quad and across to the dining hall. They all rise as Atkinson and the college’s 16 fellows process through the hall, ready to take their seats on the raised platform at the end. A gong strikes; it’s still reverberating faintly around the hall as Grace is started. The Latin phrasing and rhythm will become embedded in George’s memory forever: “Oculi omnium in te sperant Domine”:

Clare College Grace in Latin and English


Conversation flits around the dinner tables, from earnest discussions to light-hearted banter. George is a sociable man – a life in pubs, boarding school and sports teams has seen to that – and he enjoys the company of his fellow freshmen:

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And thus, George starts three years of studying at Clare. He relishes living amidst such splendid architecture. The Old Quad is remarkably intact – its 17th century core enhanced with later additions – and the King’s College Chapel stands alongside. The students’ rooms, which sit above the common room, library and offices, are reached by way of staircases A-G from the quad. Rather like at Ardingly, the Clare College Chapel performs a central role in daily proceedings at the college. A painting of The Annunciation by Giambattista Cipriani sits above the altar; from the choir stalls George peers across to it, picked out by the flickering candlelight at Evensong.

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He finds his theology studies stretching, but away from the library and tutorials there is amusement to be had. Clare College sits beside the River Cam – a place for Sunday strolls and punting – and the college’s cricket and rugby teams and boat crew are reasonably successful.

Cambridgeshire, Cambridge, Clare College and Bridge

During vacations he returns to Leicester. He continues to play cricket and rugby; a newspaper snippet notes him playing as a forward in the Leicester 2nd Rugby team in December 1890.

Might the 1891 census show George in his rooms at Clare College? Alas, no. The census date – 5th April – is Easter vacation time and he’s back in Leicester. He’s not at the main family home – by this time his parents are running the Magazine Hotel on Newarke Street – but instead he’s living at the Narborough Hotel along with his barmaid sister Emmeline. His entrepreneurial father was prospering, now the owner of two hotels.

1891 George Jennings Collis and sister Emmeline at Narborough Hotel

George’s studies at Clare culminate in being awarded a BA in 1892. He appears not to have flourished in academia – a listing in the Cambridge Independent Press on 17 June 1892 shows him with a Class III Ordinary Degree in Theology – though he was still able to  proceed to an MA in 1902. To commemorate his degree, he heads to SAC Williams’ photography studio on Gallowtree Gate in Leicester; cloaked in his gown, topped by a tasseled mortarboard, he poses for his graduation photo. Copies are distributed around the family. He’s now ready for life in the church.

1892 George Jennings Collis graduates from Clare College, cropped


Clare College plan from British History Online

Engraving of Clare College Quad and  photo of Dining Hall from Victorian Web

Newspaper clippings from the British Newspaper Archive

Census returns from Ancestry

Compline sung by Clare College Choir at You Tube

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