Photo of  Robert Athol
By Robert Athol
Image of Freddy Brittain
Freddy Brittain

Archive of the month: Freddy Brittain

A diary entry written on 27th January 1919 records how one young man serving on board the hospital ship Egypt was considering his future after demobilized.

On the advice of the Chaplain [himself a Jesuan] he had written to the Senior Tutor at Jesus College to apply for a place. He wondered “what it may bring forth”. What this letter brought forth was the realization of a dream and an association and love for the College that lasted for over 50 years.

Freddy Brittain’s diaries and personal papers, including photographs and scrapbooks, have been catalogued and are available in the College Archive [JCPP/Brittain]. His diaries span the years 1910-1969 and document his academic, sporting and social life.

Selection of Freddy Brittain's diaries
Selection of Freddy Brittain's diaries

They reveal a man who came to Jesus College as an undergraduate unsure he would fit in because of his working class background but stayed on and became one of the most popular Dons in the University.

On Tuesday 7th October 1919 he wrote in his diary:

“I went to Hall at 7.30pm with trepidation but, to my surprise and relief, they were all very friendly and no one was in the least inquisitive about who anyone was or where they had come from”.

The opportunity had only been made possible because the Government had introduced financial grants for ex Servicemen for the purpose of obtaining a University degree. Freddy accepted his place and arrived in Cambridge to read modern and medieval languages.

His academic career centered on Romance literature, especially Provençal and Medieval Latin, in which latter subject he was University Lecturer. He was elected as a Fellow of the College in 1937. He describes the moment when he heard the good news in his diary:

“At 5.22pm, as I was having tea, Q [Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch] came in holding out his hand, said 'Hail, Fellow of Jesus.' this being my first intimation. Then the Master [Arthur Gray] came to congratulate the College, himself and myself as he put it".

In 1948 he was awarded his doctorate for works on the lives of St Radegund and St Giles, 'Latin in Church' and 'The Medieval Latin and Romance Lyric.

He held positions outside of the College including serving for two terms as a University Proctor (between the years 1943-1948); and was editor of The Cambridge Review (1942-1948) but it was to his College that he devoted most of his time and energy. It is said that he was the first person returning students went to see when they visited the College and he possessed a remarkable talent for remembering not only their names but their academic careers whilst undergraduates and their subsequent careers.

Freddy Brittain as Proctor
Freddy Brittain as Proctor

Freddy Brittain invited so many students to dine in Hall that he frequently ran up the largest bill. Students assumed it was paid for by the College but as this Kitchen and Buttery Bill shows it was paid for personally.

Kitchen and Buttery bill
Kitchen and Buttery bill

His main interests in College were the Chapel (he was a church man and his Christian faith was an important influence in his life), the Roosters and the Boat Club.

The Roosters was founded as a debating society in 1908 and was revived in 1919 when Freddy joined as an undergraduate. He set about transforming it into a social club which was unique in character and rules and his whimsical wit and humour can be seen in the society’s rules, meetings and events.


The Roosters in 1923
The Roosters in 1923

He enjoyed rowing as an undergraduate and did some coaching alongside Steve Fairbairn [the rowing coach]. He possessed a unique collection of books on rowing and co-wrote a history of the Boat Club.

Freddy Brittain appearing as Widow Twanky in Aladdin in his home village of South Mymms, 1953
Freddy Brittain appearing as Widow Twanky in Aladdin in his home village of South Mymms, 1953

He loved singing and acting and as an undergraduate he was a member of 'The Footlights'. He wrote many plays, performed, often dressed as a woman, in plays and pantomimes and liked to enliven lectures by singing troubadour songs in the Old Provençal language.

According to Chanticlere (the College magazine) [XCIII Michaelmas Term 1929]:

“Into a few years he has succeeded in cramming all the entertaining incidents which are vouchsafed to a normal man in the whole span of his life”.

Below are a few extracts to give a flavour of his diaries:

30th April 1921 - Foundation of the Cambridge University Pavement Club. Members of this club were to meet at 12 noon on every fine Saturday of the Easter term for "the pursuit of entertainment, quiet conversation, and the reading of newspapers aloud. The Club will meet on some choice and central pavement, and the sole condition of membership, is that all members shall sit while meeting".

The first meeting was held in King's Parade Road which was soon blocked. The second meeting held on 7th May on Parker’s Piece was attended by about 1500 people having a picnic, listening to a jazz band and a few speeches.

7th March 1923 - The Roosters Club’s bicentenary “we celebrated 184 years in advance to save posterity the trouble”.


8th March 1926 - The Rooster Club held an inaugural dinner at the Lion Hotel of the 'Union for Getting Back the Eleven Days' (UGBED) [These were the eleven days lost when the calendar was changed in 1752].

14th February 1929 – “The ice on the river is still harder today. When I walked with the Dean of King's College on Clare Bridge we saw about twenty men skating, I believe this is the first time there had been skating on the Cam since 1895”.

26th July 1931 – “E.M. Forster came to tea and I showed him the Coleridgianna etc. in the Old Library”.

8th August 1931 – “Went to see a silly American film (my first talkie), followed by Charles Chaplin’s first class ‘City Lights’”.

23rd April 1945 – “The blackout ceased today and we seemed dazzled by light in Hall and in our rooms”.

3rd December 1946 - Took part in the Foot-the-Ball match on Parker's Piece. Along with the Mayor and the Chief Constable he kicked off one of three balls [there were three balls, three goals and three teams playing each other simultaneously].

6th October 1948 – “I entertained the Fellow's wives to dinner in the Prioress's Room”.

At this time Fellow's wives were never entertained in College. This dinner was the first in what became an annual event known as the Freddy Feast with evening dress being worn and flowers for the ladies to wear. This continued until 1960 when the first official Ladies' Night was held in College.

5th August 1950 – “In the afternoon I had the College servants and wives, husbands and friends to tea in Hall, then on tour of College, then ices in Fellows Gardens”.

29th October 1952 – “Dined at Magdalene….and afterwards John Betjeman came back to my rooms to talk”.

14th February 1966 – “Trevor Jones rang up to say that the College Council had today decreed Murie [his wife Muriel whom he had married in 1959] may live in College with me. We accordingly had a little celebration at supper”.

This was the first time in either Oxford or Cambridge that a wife had been allowed to share her husband’s rooms in an all-male college. It reflected the poor state of Freddy’s health and the wish of the Council that he should be able to remain resident in College for as long as possible.

On 9th March 1969 Freddy held an undergraduate sherry party in his rooms after which he said “Gosh I did enjoy that party”. Unfortunately, he picked up a virulent infection and died in his rooms on 15th March, the last day of term, aged 75.

Entry from 1937 diary
Entry from 1937 diary

Freddy devoted his life to Jesus College and was interested in everyone and everything. He was always grateful for the opportunity he had been given as this diary entry written on 17th June 1937 shows:

"Being awake at 3am I sat at my window. At dawn without a sound, First Court was a wonderful sight and I was much moved as I looked at it and thought of its past and my amazing good fortune in sitting at this window as a Fellow of Jesus College".