Darwin College is one of two of postgraduate only colleges at Cambridge University. The other is Clare Hall.
It was the University’s first graduate only college and also the first to allow both male and female students and fellows.
It is located close to the very centre of town and backs on to the part of the river Cam between Silver Street bridge and the Mill pond adjacent to the Granta pub. Two small and picturesque islands, which are owned by the College, give it a uniquely charming atmosphere.
The College takes its name from the family of Charles Darwin, the famous biologist, and Christ’s College alumnus, whose work ‘On the Origin of Species’ was the foundation for evolutionary biology.
In 1885 his second, son Sir George Darwin (1845-1912, from 1883 Plumian Professor of Astronomy in the University) bought Newnham Grange, which is the oldest part of the College, together with the adjoining Old Granary.
Patrick Beales, a local corn and coal merchant, had Newnham Grange built in 1793 for himself and his family.
After purchasing it, Sir George had the house extensively remodelled and in due course it became the home of his son Sir Charles Darwin.
Sir Charles died at the end of 1962, and during early 1963 those concerned with the foundation of the new college learned that this property was to become available.
Lady Darwin and her family were quite happy with the idea of their home providing the nucleus for the new College, and to the suggestion that, in the circumstances, the name Darwin College was appropriate.
In 1966 the College acquired the Hermitage, a house on the west side of Newnham Grange and on the corner of Silver Street and Newnham Terrace, from St. John’s College. This house was built in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The College was then designed around these houses and the new additions consisted of the main dining hall on the Newnham Terrace side of the Hermitage and the linking building (the Rayne Building) between the Hermitage and the Grange.
Later, in 1978, the Grange was extended on the east side towards the Old Granary and now all the houses in Newnham Terrace have been purchased.
In 1994 an attractive new Study Centre was built on the other side of the Granary. The Centre houses the College library and computer work stations and overlooks the river Cam and Laundress Green on the opposite bank.
Support and Funding
Besides the initial generous grant, the founding Colleges have continued their support of the College in several ways. However, the new buildings would not have been possible without generous benefactions from the Rayne Foundation.
The Darwin family has also been most kind in lending many family portraits, which adorn the walls of the main entertaining rooms of the College and in enabling the College to purchase the alabaster bust of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Many individuals, including College members, and organisations have also made gifts to Darwin.
As a relatively young college, with only a short history in comparison to those of its founders, the names of Darwin alumni might not be as instantly recognisable as those of older, much longer established colleges. However, there are plenty of notable names on the list:
- Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 Nobel laureate in medicine
- Eric Maskin, the 2007 Nobel laureate in economics
- philosopher Huw Price, current Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge
- Paul Clement, the former United States Solicitor General
- Dian Fossey: American zoologist
- Film and television director Brian Gibson
and, as it is home to around 650 postgraduate students each year, this list will undoubtedly grow over time.
Thanks to their extensive river frontage, Darwin College provide punt moorings for college punts that belong to many of the city’s other, non-riparian colleges (those without river frontages). The boats are kept moored along the narrow stretch that runs between the Mill pond area and passes between the islands and the Old Granary.
Darwin College’s sister college is Wolfson College, a postgraduate college of Oxford University, also founded in 1966, with a similar number of students.