The Quincentenary of Magdalene College Hall

For 500 years, students and Fellows have come together over food and drink in the Hall. In celebration of this, we explore the development of this remarkable building over the centuries. By taking a look at several archival items, we also glimpse part of the history of eating and drinking in Magdalene College.

The Hall was built in 1519 by Edward Stafford 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and since then has seen many changes in its appearance. The building appears not to have changed until the 1580s under Thomas Nevile (Master, 1582-1593).  A craftsman named Giles Bickmore was paid the vast sum of £10-3s-4d ‘for colouring’ the Hall walls in 1585. In 1586, Edward Lucas paid £13 for wainscoting the Hall and an additional £1 for his Arms to be added. The College accounts for the same year show that ‘elme trees in the backside commonly called the grove’, possibly the area which is now the Fellows’ Gardens, were sold in order to fund the ‘making of a great lover’ – a louvre for ventilation – in the Hall.

LogganPrintofMagdaleneCollege - Hall Detail

Magdalene College Hall (circa 1690), detail from the Loggan print of Magdalene College.

In 1714 the roof trusses, which had been visible from below, were covered by a flat ceiling. In addition, the Hall was given a new floor, glazing and pine panelling. The staircase and gallery leading to the Combination Room were also inserted. This work cost the grand sum of £265. The Earl of Suffolk, the College Visitor, sent his own workmen to paint his coat of arms as part of an armorial display above the dais; this still survives today.

When A. C. Benson saw the Hall in 1904 the panelling was painted to look like light oak: the yellowish paint, he said, made the Hall look as if it had been “smeared with stale mustard”; it was blistered on the sunny side.  Not long after this, in 1909, the decision was taken to install electricity in Hall, but, crucially, no electric light fittings. Benson’s Mastership (1915-1925) played a crucial role in transforming the Hall into its current appearance, with the insertion of a new floor, ceiling and sconces. He was also responsible for much of the heraldic glass, although some of it dates from the nineteenth century. The photograph below shows the Hall before the ceiling was plastered in 1911. The diminutive high table is due to the presence of only four Fellows in College at this time.


Magdalene College Archive Reference: E/P/8/16

When the present decoration scheme designed by David Mlinaric in 1979 was adopted, no fewer than eight layers of different coloured paint were stripped back to reveal the original pine panelling – including buff-stone, green, and chinoiserie red (18th century) underneath the upper-layer of dark brown.

The College Grace

The College Grace has been said at every dinner in Hall since 1519, often from a Grace Board text: this particular version was almost certainly written out by A. C. Benson as a Fellow; he had considerable artistic gifts and sensibility.


‘Bless us, O Lord, and thy gifts which through thy bounty we are about to receive, and grant that, being by them healthfully nourished, we may be enabled to show our bounden duty toward thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour: Amen.’ Magdalene College Archive Reference: E/A/2/34

The College Grace was adopted from Crowland Abbey (near Peterborough). Crowland was one of the founder-abbeys of Magdalene College (then known as Buckingham College) in 1428.

College Brewhouse

Much of the drink consumed in the Hall over the centuries would have been brewed in the College’s own Brewhouse. It was built in 1629, in what is now the eastern end of River Court, just forward of the Gardeners’ Hut. It predated the Pepys Building, which houses the Pepys Library, the southern elevation of which was deflected in order to better accomodate the Brewhouse. The detail from the Loggan print of Magdalene College (circa 1690) below shows where the Brewhouse stood alongside the Pepys Building.

LogganPrintofMagdaleneCollege - Brewhouse

Magdalene College Brewhouse (circa 1690), detail from the Loggan print of Magdalene College.

The Brewhouse building (later converted into a Bath-house) was demolished in 1967. The ‘Bursar of the Bakehouse and Brewhouse’ negotiated leases for the management of brewing. Bread was baked in College, as well as beer brewed.

Samuel Pepys was a fan of the beer brewed in College, both as an undergraduate (1651-654) and on subsequent re-visits to the College. Indeed, as an undergraduate he was famously reprimanded for drunkenness.


Extract from the Magdalene College Register in which Pepys is ‘admonished… for having been scandalously overseen in drink’ on the 21 October 1653. Magdalene College Archive Reference: B/422.

In May 1668, Pepys came back to Cambridge for a visit and ‘walked to Magdalen College; and there into the Butterys as a stranger and there drank my bellyfull of their beer, which pleased me as the best I ever drank.’ (Entry in the Diary, from the Latham edition, 25 May 1668, page 212).

College Kitchens and Cook

In the early nineteenth century, cooking was undertaken on an open fire and cast-iron cooking range, which had been installed in 1803, against the south (riverside) wall. This photograph shows the Kitchens in this period:


Magdalene College Archive Reference: E/P/20/2

The Kitchens were, however, reconstructed in 1870s. In the nineteenth century, College Cooks were often self-employed. In Magdalene, the Kitchens were ‘privatised’, and operated by the Cook, who owned the equipment and took the profits. William Swannell, College Cook 1875 – 1901, made so much money that he was able to buy Nos. 2, 4 , and 6 Huntingdon Road (at the top of Castle Hill), three handsome four-storey villas. Swannell possessed his own personal dinner service made of fine china inscribed with his name, parts of which survive in the College Archive, as shown below:


Detail from a plate owned by William Swannell, College Cook 1875 – 1901.

Today, the Hall continues to be a place in which members of the Magdalene College community – students, staff and Fellows – are brought together. The building maintains its grand but welcoming ambience and remains the last College hall in Cambridge reliant on candle light.





Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.