Peterhouse and the Great War

To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the  First World War, the Ward Library will be displaying a number of items from the archives and from the Old Library that explore the experiences of Petreans, and of soldiers housed in Peterhouse during the Great War.

The War List of the University of Cambridge 1914-1918 (Carey, 1921) is an important source of information for anyone interested in discovering the names and fates of Cambridge men who served in the armed forces over this period.   The book compiles the various college records into one volume and provides details, where possible, of casualties, honours and awards. A digital version of The War List is available to view online through the University of Toronto’s internet archive.

The Peterhouse archives hold a separate war list within one of the chapel record books – this contains a number of signatures of Peterhouse men who served in the 1914-18 war.

Peterhouse chapel war list / electoral roll

Peterhouse chapel war list / electoral roll

A good source for exploring the wartime experiences of Peterhouse staff and students is The Sex, the magazine of the Peterhouse Sexcentenary Club.  The Sex often included a ‘Peterhouse at the front’ feature containing the printed letters of Petrean soldiers. These differ widely in tone and cover an array of experiences. Most letters are short and anonymous although some are longer and provide a more detailed sense of soldiers’ experiences. One such is Charles Sproxton’s letter to the Master, Sir Adolphus Ward, written on 2nd May 1915.

Dear Master. – I promised to let you know when I left England, and if the manner of my doing it is with a blunt sump of a pencil on a dirty piece of paper, I am sure you will forgive me when I tell you that I write in a trench where I have been since Wednesday – unshaved, unwashed and absolutely unashamed. In point of fact I write not in the trench […] but in the dampest of dug-outs, where I lay curled up hedgehog-wise […] It is a first-line trench, with nothing between me and the Germans except barbed wire and – what I imagine to be far more effective – a great deal of respect for each other. (The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, pp.20-21).

The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, pp.20-21

‘Letter from Mr Sproxton’, The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, pp.20-21

The War List of the University of Cambridge (1921) lists Captain Charles Sproxton as a recipient of the Military Cross; he was killed in action 19th July 1917 (p.289).

In addition to letters from the front and records of war losses and commendations, The Sex captures fascinating moments of contemporary Peterhouse history. One of the more light-hearted accounts of Peterhouse during the war is the description of the newly formed fire brigade whose over enthusiasm with the water hose caused some consternation.

The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, p.19

‘The fire brigade’, The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, p.19

High-jinks aside, the forming of the fire brigade turned out to be timely. In the early morning of June 6th 1915, a Zeppelin dropped five incendiary bombs on Cambridge – four of which landed within the precincts of Peterhouse.   The resulting fire was limited to the kitchen yard where there was little to kindle it other than:

“a heap of commons, chiefly bread, discarded by undergraduates and spurned by gyps” (T.J.C. Pennierlyne, ‘Zeppelin raid’, The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, p.24).

Zeppelin raid

‘Zeppelin raid’, The Sex, No. 55, Easter term, 1915, p.24

Luckily, when the water hose turned out to be too short to reach the fire, the amateur fire fighters were able simply to stamp out the flames.

Another way in which Peterhouse contributed to the war effort was by providing accommodation for officers in training. An entertaining historical record of the soldiers’ experiences of Cambridge and college life is provided in the form of souvenir books such as The White Band (Cambridge, 1917), Echoes of E (Cambridge, 1918) and Graduating in arms (Cambridge, 1917). These books contain poems, photographs, plays and songs written or compiled by the soldiers housed in Peterhouse and Downing College.  It certainly appears that the officer cadets enjoyed their time in Cambridge and formed strong bonds with their host colleges, indeed the editors of Graduating in arms write of the, “keen rivalry between the Cadets quartered at Peterhouse and Downing” (1917, p.5).   The close tie is apparent in much of their literary output.

What’s in a name?

P stands for three things – Packs, Picks and PEGG ;

E begins Eustace, who brings in the beer.

T are the Trenches at Gog’s which we dig ;

E is the Earth which we excavate there.

R starts off Rifle ; it never is clean,

H is a Helmet, Gas, worn at all times.

O must be Officers ; heavens, they’re keen!

U suggests Uniform (hang these old rhymes).

S are twin Sausages found in our lunch-

E is the Company, yes, the whole bunch.

By F.A. Walkey (Graduating in arms: 1917, p.21)

At the conclusion of the First World War a number of Cambridge colleges found themselves presented with large ceremonial guns as thanks for their assistance with the war effort. Legend has it that the Peterhouse Fellows chose not to display this gift and instead buried it within the college grounds. A current Fellow has since identified its likely resting place. A map of the gun’s location is rumoured to exist, but at present no plans exist to exhume it.




  1. I have created a photo website commemorating British men and women who served in the Great War@ The Great War Memorial Archive ( It would be great to add photos of serving Petreans. Does the College have a war memorial of its members?
    Dig up the gun. Now’s the time.
    Mark Duffy (1975)

    1. Dear Mark, thank you for the link to your website. I will follow up on the suggestion of adding Petreans to the image archive on the site. We do indeed have a memorial for Petreans who served in the Great War, this is in the college chapel to the left of the alter. The memorial for Petreans who served in the second world war is situated to the left of the alter.
      Best wishes, Jodie (Librarian, Ward Library)

  2. David Sproxton · · Reply

    Charles Sproxton was my great uncle and I have recently inherited various photographs of him at various stages of his life including his college days and in training at Aldershot in 1914. If you let me know where to send them I will scan the images and e-mail to you. It is wonderful to see this letter from him on this site, which demonstrates his skill with the pen and his optimistic character.

    1. Dear David, thank you, it would be great to have some additional images of Charles Sproxton to add to our Old Library archives. Please just send these to the library email address, available here. The letter from Charles Sproxton was one of my favourites.
      Kind regards, Jodie (Librarian, Ward Library)

  3. Paul Silk · · Reply

    My father, Evan Silk, came up to Peterhouse in 1919 after war service on the western front, where he was mentioned in dispatches, – he was 29 at the time. I have various things in my possession from his time at the College (including an essay he wrote for his supervisor on war, as well as various photographs of sports teams and so). I should be very happy to give these to the College, if that would be of interest

    1. Dear Paul, we keep a collection of work by Petreans in our Old Library – I have checked our catalogue and we do not have anything recorded as having been written by Evan Silk, so it would be wonderful to add his voice to our collection. I found a sports photograph featuring your father in one of our albums (Peterhouse rugby team group photograph, 1920-1921) – do let me know if you haven’t got this one. I would certainly be interested in accepting a small number of photographs for the College collection – I have provided a link to the Ward Library contact details here so please do email or ring me if you would like to discuss this further. All the very best, Jodie (Librarian, Ward Library).

  4. […] over the war years, combined with rationing and threats of Zeppelin raids (see earlier post, Peterhouse and the Great War) meant that another May Ball wasn’t held in Peterhouse until 1919. Reports of the evening were […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: