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History

The Graduate Union, Serving Since 1955

The year was 1955. Post-war Cambridge was emerging from the hardships of rationing as a place rather different to what it had been in 1939, at the outbreak of WW2. However, to borrow a phrase written about a less significant place, it was ‘still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.’

One of the biggest differences was the introduction of the PhD degree to Cambridge, and with it the huge influx of people from a very different demographic usually seen in this city which ‘exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth’. These people were older, often international, and frequently brought partners and families with them: the Cambridge Graduate was born.

Cambridge, however, was not quite ready for the Graduate. The University had evolved for centuries around the concept of the Undergraduate, and people (men) of that age and those needs. The colleges were undergraduate institutions with little provision for people not fresh from school and their parents’ homes. Accommodation was very limited, a fact exacerbated by the fact that many undergraduates were returning to finish their courses, which they had been unable to complete on the normal timescale due to war service. There was little space, conceptually or physically, for the Graduate, in the University of Cambridge; the University itself adopted a policy of ‘amiable inertia’. Graduates of Cambridge still searched in vain for ‘that low door in the wall, which others, [they] knew, had found before [them], which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city’.

Fortunately, Graduate needs would not languish for long. Serial Champion of the Downtrodden, Margareta (‘Greta’) Burkill (wife of the later Master of Peterhouse) saw this sad situation and began to lobby the university to establish a space for Graduates to meet each other, to socialize and to have a full Cambridge experience; something which she hoped would be ‘something humane and intimate’. Greta Burkill ‘ran through the fellows in search of a weak link’ and on 24th May 1955 the Junior Graduates Club was born.

Our first home was at Traverston House, 9 West Road (which was later handed over to the English Faculty and remains its site to this day). In 1963 we moved to Fitzwilliam House, 32 Trumpington Street and in the Late ‘60s to the University Centre and 12 Mill Lane, before we finally settled at our current premises and permanent home, 17 Mill Lane, which we now share with Cambridge University Students Union. From our founding we have focused on providing for the hearts, minds and stomachs of the Graduate community at Cambridge, in recognition that ‘one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’.

The University still struggles to cater for the needs of the Graduate community. In light of this we continue to advocate for Graduates in terms of accommodation needs, recognition of provisions for families and partners, and as an important part of the student community in Cambridge.

In 1969 Mrs Burkill handed over responsibility of GradSoc to graduate students themselves, and by 1981 GradSoc had become Cambridge University Graduate Union – the GU. Over the ’80s and ’90s our central services altered to keep pace with changing graduate needs. Since 1991 there has been one paid, full-time sabbatical officer, the President, who must always have been a graduate student at Cambridge in the year preceding their term in office.

Now, the GU focuses on four key areas: representation, services, welfare and events. At our premises at 17 Mill Lane there is a shop and service point that provides thesis-binding, crested stationery and other product, as well as the Students' Unions' Advice Service. The GU is one of the only Students’ Unions in the UK catering exclusively to graduate students.