I was useless at maths in my youth. Well, actually I am still useless at maths. Well, actually, I was quite good at arithmetic in primary school, except when I got into a panic and lost the figures in my head, which was most of the time. (You will not be surprised to learn that I can’t play chess either.) But what undid me completely was what our maths teacher in the first year of secondary school (one of those ladies of a certain age who used to haunt all-girl grammar schools, couldn’t teach, and are probably now extinct as a race) called ‘new maths’. And the first thing we encountered under the heading of ‘new maths’ was the Venn diagram.
We were NEVER told what it was about, or what it was for (ditto with algebra, trigonometry and all the hideous rest of the GCE Maths syllabus – and don’t get me started on GCE Physics, the Wheatstone Bridge etc.). In fact, my knee-jerk reaction, when anyone pops up in the media requiring cuts in the useless and unproductive Humanities as opposed to increased expenditure in Maths and Sciences, is still to scream (silently) ‘but it’s all pointless!’. I know it’s not really pointless (grateful thanks, for example, to the clever engineers who must have used their mathematical insights to create the ophthalmic machine which established that I hadn’t in fact done my sight any lasting damage the other day, as well as to the lovely nurse at Addenbrooke’s who worked the machine), but I am long past the stage of being able to accept emotionally, as it were, the purpose of maths.
Some years later, I came across another Venn, the wonderful polymath who produced, inter alia, the Alumni Cantabrigienses. ‘A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900’, as it says on the tin. And last year I discovered that my mathematical nemesis and the (presumed) benign Cambridge antiquarian were in fact THE SAME MAN!
Back in the days when giants walked the earth (and before the Two Cultures), you could write both Symbolic Logic and Early Collegiate Life, or On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings and Annals of a Clerical Family, be President (i.e. senior fellow) of Gonville and Caius College and still have time for botany, walking and mountaineering. John Venn (1834–1923) was of the eighth generation of his family to attend either Oxford or Cambridge, and an interest in the history of the university was probably bred in the bone, as it must have been for his only child, John Archibald Venn (1883–1958), who took up the heroic work after his father’s death and brought it to its conclusion in 1954. Venn Junior was equally gigantic: historian, economist, statistician, inventor of a [cricket] bowling machine, and youngest ever President (i.e. master) of Queens’ College.
The Alumni project was immense: ‘Volume 1’ consists of four parts, of which the first two were published in 1922, the third in 1924 and the fourth in 1927, and contains names up to 1751; ‘Volume 2’ published between 1940 and 1954, has six parts; and the total number of pages is over 5,700. Cambridge University Press subsidised the project, but the Venns between them managed the team of researchers and copyists who trawled through college records, private papers and the national archives to locate the alumni and encapsulate, where possible, their after lives. Five hundred copies only of each volume were printed, ‘and the type has been distributed’: i.e., ‘there won’t be any more’ – until the age of scanning and print-on-demand, at any rate.
As with the Naval Chronicle, you don’t read this work, you dip into it. The two Volumes are sub-divided alphabetically, and the name divisions have, by accident or design, an exotic ring to them: Abbas–Cutts, Dabbs–Juxton, Kaile–Ryves and Saal–Zuinglius; Abbey–Challis, Chalmers–Fytche, Gabb–Justamond, Kahlenberg–Oyler, Pace–Spyers and Square–Zupitza. On the same page, you can find ‘Herset, ––. B.A. 1463’ and Sir Arthur Hesilrig, Fellow Commoner of Magdalene College, 1617, who went on to be a Right But Revolting Parliamentarian, impeached by the king in 1642, outwitted by Monck in 1660, died in the Tower, 1662. Or Shepheard, Wallwyn Poyer Burnett, whose name leaps from a running head, or Shepheard-Walwyn, Edward Wallwyn [sic], the next running head, but not related, at least according to the information given here.
So, lots of information for the genealogists – although there’s one limitation, of course: no women (except in passing – Eleanor Sidgwick is mentioned as wife of Henry, for example). So Henry Montagu Butler, Master of Trinity, is there, but not Agnata Ramsay, his future wife, who famously was the only candidate to be placed in the first division of the First Class of the Classical Tripos in 1887 (Mr Punch ushered her into a railway carriage labelled ‘First Class, Ladies Only’); or Henry Fawcett, the ‘Blind Victorian’, but not his daughter Philippa (adjudged ‘above the Senior Wrangler’ in the 1890 Mathematical Tripos). But apart from this minor omission (perfectly understandable as women could not be categorized as either ‘Students, Graduates or Holders of Office’ until 1947), the whole huge company, from Abbas, John (Matric. Sizar from Trinity, Michs. 1570) to Zupitza, Julius Caspar Ludwig (Hon. Litt.D., 1893) is there to be explored.