Constructing the College's memory

Introductory leaflet for an exhibition of documents from the College Archives, 17 July 1998

In 1997 the College embarked on a three year project to put its record-keeping and archives in order, ready for the new millennium. It will be the biggest exercise of this kind since the College's foundation, and has already turned up surprises, some welcome, some not. A cache of documents was discovered bricked-up in the Keynes building, and no less than 57 boxes of archives have had to be irradiated to kill off mould before they could even be examined. The College is bit by bit recovering its memory, both paper and electronic.

Right from the beginnings in 1441 the College's memory has amounted to much more than the archival deposits left by its internal administration. King Henry VI planned a Muniment Tower at King's to keep records in. Most of the estates the College was given by Henry VI were the lands of the so-called alien priories, confiscated by the crown in 1414. These lands brought their written memory with them, in the form of charters and deeds, going back to the 11th century – thus we still have most of the records of the English lands of the Abbey of Bec in Normandy.

Other sorts of memory exist alongside the archives. Senior Fellows of the College are walking repositories of memories that are otherwise easily lost. Christopher Morris (d.1993) on the paintings in the Hall, George Salt on the Garden, or Dadie Rylands on almost any subject, have sometimes been captured on tape, or have written their own recollections. Lists of members of the College, like that of Anthony Allen's opinionated Skeleton, are now formalised in the printed Register, and preserve biographical data on thousands of individuals who have passed through the College. In this century many of them have also been memorialised by that prince of obituarists, Patrick Wilkinson, or others. The Apostles Society, with its 'Angels' who had left Cambridge, may have been in his mind when Patrick Wilkinson articulated his vision of a twentieth-century College extended over time and space. For Fellows there is also a photographic record, at least in part, from the 1870s until today.

The College also has its rituals of remembrance. The Ceremony of Lilies and Roses, celebrated annually in the Tower of London, commemorates the murder there of Henry VI. On Founder's Day the Provost reads a list of benefactions, from the Founder himself to the present, a tradition with a much longer pedigree. In the Hall or elsewhere there are dinners commemorating the birthdays of the living or the benefactions of the dead. The Provost Sheppard dinner each year gives one speech-making Fellow the opportunity to find a new way of saying something nice (or not) about its eponym.

Inscriptions on new buildings or the furnishings of the College help to preserve the memory of benefactors. A splendid new book for the recording of the generosity of Fellow Benefactors and Fellow Commoners has just been created. The silver plate given to the College by generations of Fellow-Commoners (old-style) and the wealthier members is inscribed with their names, and brought out on feast nights. Over the centuries the Library has been given thousands of books written by its members, a kind of ever-growing archive of their works, from pop-up books to racy novels, as well as sound academic tomes.

But the College Archives are the only continuous written memory of the College; the means of keeping track of the institution's rights, dues and members down the centuries. Successive copies of the Founder's Statutes, unchallenged for over 400 years, books of precedent for the management of its estates or deportment of its scholars, long, unbroken series of financial records, all testify to the weight of self-conscious tradition. Lack of adequate catalogues or provision for storage and repair have regularly exiled, isolated and jeopardised that tradition.

Sometimes systematic attempts are made to preserve memories that might otherwise be lost. One example is the 'Her Generation' project led by Joanna Norland which has used recorded interviews and questionnaires to gather the witness of twenty-five years experience of women's membership of King's. The twentieth anniversary of women's admission in 1992 was also celebrated with a seminar which looked forward to a greater role for women in the College and outside, as well as recollecting the past.

Some kinds of memory have to be reconstructed from the fragments that remain. A great part of the community at King's until this century was made up of the College servants, whose own memories of the place are now almost entirely lost to us. Even for the 1930's we have photographs, but very little idea of what it was like to be a boot-black or a bedder.

Then there is the deliberate blanking-out of memory. Until the 1860s College membership was determined by the election of scholars from Eton, and Eton alone. It would perhaps shock modern members of the College to realise that for most of its life the College has in effect been a means of praying for the Founder's soul and filling Church livings, with education and research as mere by-products of the Eton-King's machine. We have also rapidly forgotten the history of those estates which the College has only recently sold, and whose churches and manor-houses still bear witness to the centuries when King's was the patron of the living and the lord of the manor.

Finally there are the memories of things perhaps best forgotten. The Visitation Book records the Bishop of Lincoln's efforts to resolve the disputes between Provost and Fellows, or to deal with the crimes and misdemeanours of members of the College. One inadvertent continuous record of daily life in the Chapel was revealed by the excavation of the area beneath the choir stalls – it brought to light playing cards, coins, book fragments, and the bones of animals cooked and consumed in the Chapel.

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