Cambridgeshire

Cambridge Union debating society celebrates 200 years

Former president Theodore Roosevelt addressing the society in 1910 Image copyright CUS
Image caption The former US president Theodore Roosevelt addressed the society in 1910

The world famous Cambridge Union debating society is celebrating 200 years of "free speech".

Formed in 1815, and officially known as the Cambridge Union Society, it has hosted world leaders, actors, scientists and political activists.

The origins of the largest of Cambridge University's societies - and the oldest continuously-running debating society in the world - remain "steeped in legend", according to its own website.

However, the story most often reported is that it was formed "after a drunken brawl between several smaller college debating societies".

A number of events are planned throughout this year to mark its 200th anniversary, including a bicentenary debate, a garden party and a ball.

Image copyright CUS
Image caption Edward Gambier, a student at Trinity College, became the first president of the society in 1815
Image copyright Christopher Angeloglou
Image caption It was not until 1967 that Ann Mallalieu, now Baroness Mallalieu QC, became the first female president

During its 200 years it has played host to prime ministers including Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major as well as US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Image copyright CUS
Image caption The Victorian society building in Bridge Street, and its library, were badly damaged by bombs in 1942
Image copyright CUS
Image caption The Duke of Edinburgh accepted honorary membership of the society in 1952
Image copyright CUS
Image caption Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (centre), who was educated at Trinity, returned to the union in 1955

Civil rights campaigner the Rev Jesse Jackson, Prof Stephen Hawking and the Dalai Lama have shared the same podium as Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Russell Brand and Robert Downey Jr.

'Unique platform'

Past presidents and officers will be invited back for the bicentenary debate in February, including Baroness Mallalieu and Baroness Hayman, the first two female presidents of the society.

They will join others to debate the motion: "This House is not what it used to be."

Image copyright CUS
Image caption Prince Charles and Lord Mountbatten were photographed on their way to a debate in 1970

Amy Gregg, current president of the Cambridge Union, said: "One of the greatest things about the union society is how unique a platform it is.

"Many organisations host speakers and hold debates, but very few have as unique and diverse an audience as the Cambridge student population.

"The variety of questions and points made from the floor of the debating chamber never fails to amaze me."

Image copyright Martin Harris/Linda MacLachlan
Image caption In 1990 Ronald Reagan took to the podium to deliver the union's 175th anniversary address

Alessandro Forzani, chair of the committee organising the bicentenary, said the celebrations had taken about 18 months to put together.

"The union has a history of marking its milestones. The 150th anniversary was marked with a similar sort of event.

"Unfortunately the centenary wasn't marked at all because that was during the First World War," he said.

Image copyright Chris Berrow
Image caption US film and television actor Robert Downey Jr spoke to members in October

Membership is open to all students at the university as well as those at Anglia Ruskin University in the city.

Cambridge residents can also apply to join, for a fee.

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