St Catharine's College, Cambridge

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St. Catharine’s College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Founded in 1473, the college is often referred to informally by the nickname "Catz".


Robert Wodelarke, Provost of King’s College, had begun preparations for the founding of a new college as early as 1459 when he bought tenements on which the new college could be built. The preparation cost him a great deal of his private fortune (he was suspected of diverting King’s College funds), and he was forced to scale down the foundation to only three Fellows. He stipulated that they must study theology and philosophy only.

Wodelarke may have chosen the name in homage to the mother of King Henry VI who was called Catharine, although it is more likely that it was named as part of the Renaissance cult of St. Catharine, who was a patron saint of learning. At any rate, the college was ready for habitation and formally founded on St. Catharine’s day (November 25) 1473. There are six Saints Catharine, but the college was named for Saint Catharine of Alexandria. It was initially known as Katharine Hall.

The initial foundation was not well-provided for. Wodelarke was principally interested in the welfare of Fellows and the College had no undergraduates at all for many years. By 1550, however, there was an increasing number of junior students and the focus of the College changed to that of teaching undergraduates. A rapid growth made it necessary to expand the college and short-lived additions were made in 1622. By 1630 the College began to demolish its existing buildings which were decaying, and started work on the current buildings. The three-sided court, which is almost unique among colleges in Cambridge (with the exceptions of Jesus and Downing in addition to St. Catharine’s sister college – Worcester – which has a three-sided quad, which may well be the same thing), was built during the period 1675 to 1757. Proposals for a final range of buildings to complete the fourth side of the court have been made on many occasions up to the 20th century.

In 1637 the College came into possession of the George Inn (later the Bull Inn) on Trumpington Street. Behind this Inn was a stables which was already famous for the practice of its manager, Thomas Hobson, not to allow a hirer to take any horse other than the one longest in the stable, leading to the expression “Hobson’s choice” meaning no choice at all.

The college was granted new statutes in 1860 and adopted its current name. In 1880, a movement to merge the college with King’s College began. The two colleges were adjacent and it seemed a solution to King’s need for more rooms and St Catharine’s need for a more substantial financial basis. However, the Master (Charles Kirkby Robinson) was opposed and St Catharine’s eventually refused.

A history of the college was written by W.H.S. Jones in 1936.

In 1979, the membership of the college was broadened to welcome female students, and in 2006 the first woman was appointed as Master of the college, Prof. Dame Jean Thomas.

Academic reputation

The Academic reputation of colleges within Cambridge is hotly disputed and often difficult to determine. Historically, St. Catharine's position has been exceptional and in the controversial annual league table of colleges placed towards the middle. In recent years the academic reputation of the college has markedly improved and the college was placed at the top of the Tompkins Table, which ranks the colleges by the class of degrees obtained by their undergraduates, for the first time in 2005.

College life

The College maintains a friendly rivalry with Queens’ College after the construction of the main court of St. Catharine's College on Cambridge’s former High Street relegated one side of Queens' College into a back alley. A more modern rivalry with Robinson College resulted from the construction in the 1970s of a modern block of flats named St. Chad’s (in which the rooms are octagonal to resemble the wheel on the college crest) by the University Library. The proximity of St. Chad's to Robinson College led to an incident in which unidentified St. Catharine's students appropriated Robinson's disco ball from a bop. Allegedly, this is the disco ball now hanging in St. Catharine's College Bar.

For its size, the College is unusually sportingly strong and in particular is known for its strong reputation in hockey and racquet sports, in part due to its strong facilities for these sports including grass tennis courts and an astroturf hockey pitch. The college boat club hosts the Cardinals Regatta each year, in which teams compete along a short course in fancy dress with an emphasis on bribery to secure victory.

The College hosts several other notable societies. The Shirley Society is the College literary society, the oldest in Cambridge, it regularly hosts significant figures from the arts world throughout the academic year. The College based girls' choir is the first of its kind in a UK university and is composed of girls aged 8–14 from local schools.

Famous alumni