University of Exeter Press

Student Life in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge

John Wright’s Alma Mater

    • 274 Pages

    John Wright's Alma Mater was the first book-length student memoir to be published in Britain. Yet this trailblazing and revealing work has never been reprinted since its appearance in 1827. Full of fascinating detail about college life, it discusses teaching, examinations and student socialising, including sport, hunting and recourse to prostitutes. A remarkable story of success and failure, it often resembles a picaresque novel: after an eventful undergraduate career, Wright became a hack writer and tutor in London. His marriage failed, his wife left him, his children went to the workhouse, and ultimately he was transported for theft to Tasmania, where he died a premature death.

    This autobiographical memoir has often been referred to or quoted by studies of Cambridge University and the history of mathematics, but the life of its author has never been satisfactorily explored. This new edition makes an important source and a vivid historical document available for the first time. It includes an in-depth exploration of university and college archives, while Wright’s life is also investigated through outside sources, such as the records of the Royal Literary Fund and those of court, prison and transportation authorities.

    Wright's account, along with the commentary and notes presented here, offers extraordinary reading for anyone interested in the history of the University of Cambridge, the teaching of mathematics in the nineteenth century and the life of Grub Street, the London literary underworld in the 1820s and 1830s. The more general reader will also be surprised and entertained by this topsy-turvy tale recounted with candour and verve.

    Restored to health by Stray‘s perfect editing, this strangely helpful account of Cambridge two centuries ago by a sometime undergraduate scoundrel is a mélange of odd details, welcome fact, fiction, frenzy and color. 

    Sheldon Rothblatt, University of California, Berkeley

    J.M.F. Wright’s picaresque account of his undergraduate days in early nineteenth-century Cambridge has been largely overlooked for nearly 200 years. Now, with an illuminating introduction and numerous informative annotations, Stray’s masterly edition breathes new life into this forgotten gem.

    Professor Adrian Rice, Randolph-Macon College, Virginia

    Dr Stray is to be congratulated on the heroic work it has taken to make this text accessible in all its detail but also in all its rawness.

    Dr. Gillian Sutherland, Newnham College, Cambridge

    List of Figures
    Editorial Preface
    Editorial Introduction

    1 First year
    2 Chapel scenes
    3 A tour of Trinity
    4 A tour of Cambridge
    5 Lectures
    6 Christmas vacation 1814–15
    7 Lent term 1815
    8 Easter vacation 1815
    9 Easter term 1815 105
    10 Michaelmas term 1815: the second year
    11 Christmas 1815 and Lent Term 1816
    12 Easter vacation 1816
    13 Long vacation 1816; fellowship examination, September 1816
    14 Michaelmas term 1816
    15 Christmas vacation 1816–17
    16 Lent term 1817
    17 Easter term 1817
    18 Long vacation 1817
    19 Michaelmas term 1818, Lent term 1819
    20 After the Tripos
    21 Return to Trinity, March 1820
    22 Advice to parents
    23 The autobiography resumed [1820?]
    24 A visit to London
    25 Back to Cambridge
    26 Debtors’ prison
    27 Grub Street


    Christopher Stray is a Cambridge Classics graduate. He taught in schools before undertaking research on the history of education, and has held visiting positions at the universities of Cambridge, Yale and Princeton. He has published widely on schools and universities, examinations and institutional slang.

      • 274 Pages