01 September 2015

I thought it was an old chapel, so I
was surprised to hear the full story

No 7a Jesus Lane is a fine classical building in Cambridge, and looks like a former Victorian chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

My rooms in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, are at the very end of Cloister Close, so I am looking out across the Gardens and onto Jesus Lane this week. Jesus Lane is one of the ancient streets of Cambridge, providing access in the past to the nunnery of Saint Radegund, on which Jesus College was founded, and crossing the King’s Ditch.

As well as Jesus College, Jesus Lane is home to Little Trinity, one of the finest domestic buildings in Cambridge, and to a number of religious buildings, including Westcott House, the Anglican theological college; All Saints’ Church next door which was designed by GF Bodley, with interior decoration by William Morris, and one of the best Victorian churches in this part of England; the Quaker meeting house on the corner with Park Street; and, until recently, Wesley House, where the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies was once housed and which is now a building site.

No 7a Jesus Lane … seen from my rooms at the end of Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From my rooms, I look straight down at No 7a Jesus Lane, a perfect, elegant, white classical building, with steps at the portico fronted with six Ionic columns below a pediment. Today, this Grade II listed building is Pizza Express. In the English countryside, it could be the gate lodge for an important country residence, built in imitation of a Greek temple. But this is the heart of Cambridge, and I had often imagined it had been a Methodist or Baptist chapel in Victorian days.

I stepped inside last night to find that this is not only a pizzeria but also the home of the University Pitt Club, popularly referred to as the Pitt Club, or merely as “Club.” The motto is Benigno numine, “By the favour of the heavens” (Horace).

But it is a very favoured and exclusive club, open only to certain male undergraduates at Cambridge. In the past, most members had attended certain public schools, and while this is no longer needed to become a member, it certainly helps, and membership is for life.

Members in the past have included King Edward VII and King George V, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the Olympic gold-medallist David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter (earlier called Lord Burghley, on whom the character Lord Lindsay in Chariots of Fire is based), the economist John Maynard Keynes, the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, the journalist David Frost, and the actor Eddie Redmayne.

William Pitt the Younger … part of a display inside the porch of the neoclassical building on Jesus Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Pitt Club was founded in Michaelmas Term 1835, and was named in honour of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), who at 24 became Britain’s youngest-ever Prime Minister in 1783.

At the age of 14, Pitt entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1773 and studied political philosophy, classics, mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry and history. At Cambridge, Pitt was tutored by George Pretyman, who became a close personal friend. Pitt later appointed Pretyman Bishop of Lincoln, and then Bishop of Winchester, and drew upon his advice throughout his political career.

At Cambridge, Pitt became friends with the young William Wilberforce, who became a lifelong friend and political ally in Parliament. Pitt tended to socialise only with fellow students and others already known to him, rarely venturing outside his own “safe space” within the university. In 1776, he took advantage of a little-used privilege available only to the sons of noblemen, and chose to graduate without having to pass examinations.

He was MP for the constituency of Cambridge University from 1784 to 1806. As Prime Minister, Pitt pushed through the Acts of Union in 1800 to counter the fear of Irish support for France, although he failed to secure Catholic Emancipation as part of the Union. Pitt created the “new Toryism” that revived the Conservative Party and enabled it to stay in power for the next quarter-century.

The Pitt Club was founded in 1835 as a political club, “to do honour to the name and memory of Mr William Pitt, to uphold in general the political principles for which he stood, and in particular to assist the local party organisations of the town of Cambridge to return worthy, that is to say, Tory, representatives to Parliament and to the Borough Council.”

From the start, however, there was a social element and Club’s political events were combined with “the pleasures of social intercourse at dinner, when party fervour among friends, dining in party uniform … and speeches to successive toasts.”

During its first few years, Club was a peripatetic organisation, meeting variously in the rooms of members and in other venues, and over the course of the first few decades, the political element of the agenda waned while the social element waxed.

In 1841, it acquired rooms over the shop of Richard Hutt, a bookseller, at 29 Trinity Street, and it stayed there until 1843. From 1843 until 1866, the Pitt Club’s rooms were over Metcalfe’s furniture shop at 74 Bridge Street, on the corner of All Saints’ Passage.

Since 1866, Club’s premises have been at 7a Jesus Lane. The building was originally designed for the Roman Bath Company in 1863 as Victorian Roman baths by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877). He was a younger brother of Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880), who was the architect of Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

The baths on Jesus Lane were a short-lived venture, however. They opened in late February 1863 and had closed by the following December. At the liquidation sale after the closure, the building was sold at auction in 1865, and the buyer was none other than the architect Wyatt, who paid £2,700 for his own building. He rented out half of the building to the Pitt Club, and the other half to Orme’s Billiards Rooms.

By 1868, at the latest, the Pitt Club had ceased “from all political activity and … elected members to its social advantages without any regards whatever to considerations of political party.”

In 1907, Club bought the entire building, and after a fire that year the interior was extensively renovated. But during World War I, Club’s existence became increasingly tenuous as more Cambridge undergraduates joined the forces. It temporarily closed in October 1917 but reopened in early 1919. By 1920, Club had “become nearly normal again,” and “the only real trouble,” according to the minutes, was “the horrible scarcity of whisky.”

Pitt’s plaque on the pediment … “with a nose visibly tip-tilted in disgust” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Further renovations were carried out in 1925, and the dining room was panelled in 1927. The large plaque of Pitt’s head that adorns the pediment over the entrance was presented in 1933 by General Sir Neill Malcolm. Before that, the plaque had been on the wall of a house in Putney where Pitt died but that was demolished in 1932.

The premises were commandeered during World War II and made available to the public. One observer, ASF Gow, remarked at the time that the Pitt Club’s “eponymous hero looks down from the pediment, with a nose visibly tip-tilted in disgust, upon an enormous notice displaying the legend ‘British Restaurant’.”

The members were forced to seek alternative accommodation and eventually settled for temporary rooms above the post office in Trinity Street, which they named the Interim Club.

After World War II, the building was designated a Grade II listed building in 1950. As Club went through mounting financial difficulties in the 1990s, it sold a 25-year leasehold on the ground floor of its building to the Pizza Express chain in October 1997. Since then, Club has occupied the first floor of the building, with the entire ground floor used by Pizza Express. The rent subsidises membership and parties, which probably number two or three a year.

In October 2011, the Pitt Club set up the Pitt Club Scholarship. Graduate students applying to read for an MPhil in Politics or International Relations will be eligible to apply for the scholarship which will provide up to £15,000 per annum to cover fees, maintenance, travel costs or other funding to help with research. The Pitt Club Scholarship is open to any student, regardless of nationality, age, gender or race.

The current president of the Pitt Club is the History of Art Professor David Watkin. The other trustees are Tim Steel, Jeremy Norman and Lord Edward Spencer Churchill.

This men-only Club is often described as Cambridge’s equivalent to the Bullingdon Club in Oxford. Past members insist that this is an outrageous reputation is undeserved. “Girls would get invited to our parties but that doesn’t mean anything actually happened,” one recent Cambridge graduate and Pitt member said. “It was all incompetent, chinless wonders; the people who wanted to be part of a club but weren’t any good at sport.”

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph last year, he laughed off rumours about initiation ceremonies that involve burning cash in a silver goblet.

The Cambridge graduate and former public schoolboy told the Telegraph that while some Pitt boys would flash their cash – putting their card behind the bar of a club for an evening – most, like him, were living off their student loan and paid only around £40 for a yearly membership that gives them access to Club’s premises above Pizza Express on Jesus Lane.

In fact, the Pitt Club’s Oxford equivalent is probably The Grid – officially known as the Gridiron and founded in 1884 – which is also based in a room above a Pizza Express, and in both cases members are entitled to discounted food from the restaurant downstairs.

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