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Department of Geography


A brief history of the early years of the Department 1888-1960

‘… it is a grand world we live in, full of beauty, interest and pleasing
prospects. Who would not be a geographer with this whole, wide, vivid panorama
as his field, places and peoples and occupations, and all the sights and sounds
and smells that combine into an atmosphere peculiar to each part?… The aim of
the Geographer is to see clearly and to see whole; to climb the peak for the
whole view, not to dally in the pleasant valleys

Frank Debenham, first Professor of Geography, The Use of Geography 1950

Early years

The first lectureship in Geography at the University of Cambridge was created in 1888, after years of negotiation between the University and the Royal Geographical Society. The RGS had been campaigning for many years for Oxford and Cambridge to consider hosting scholars of Geography, most notably with JS Keltie’s memorandum of 1871, in which he stated:

‘We speak of geography not as a barren catalogue of names and facts, but as
a science that ought to be taught in a liberal way, with abundant appliances of
maps, models and illustrations… We look to the Universities, not only to
rescue geography form being badly taught in the schools of England, but to raise
it to an even higher standard than it has yet

By 1888 Cambridge was convinced by the RGS’s campaign, although the RGS would continue to fund in large part Cambridge geographical lectureships until the creation of the tripos in 1919. The creation of this first post was celebrated with a series of lectures by the RGS President, General Strachey on ‘Principles of Geography’, which included the statement that:

‘I therefore claim for geography…a place among the natural sciences, as
supplying the needful medium through which to obtain a connected and consistent
conception of the earth and what is on it… A knowledge of the relations that
subsist among living beings, which is a direct result of geographical discovery,
shows us man’s true place in nature’ our intercourse with other races of men in
other countries teaches those lessons needed to overthrow the narrow prejudices
of class, colour and opinion, which bred in isolated societies, and nourished
with the pride that springs from ignorance, have too often led to crimes the
more lamentable because perpetrated by men of the most exalted

The first lecturer to be appointed was FHH Guillemard, a widely-travelled naturalist. However, the appointment was not a success and Guillemard resigned after six months. He was succeeded by John Young Buchanan, who had been on the 1872-76 voyage of the Challenger, and who delivered his first lecture ‘Geography: in its physical and economical relations’ in October 1889. After 5 years, he was in turn succeeded by H. Yule Oldham, who would lecture at Cambridge under various titles for 28 years. Oldham complained that attendance at his lectures was poor, because Geography did not count for examinations, so in 1904 the Board of Geography was formed, with a Special Examination and 2 year Diploma attached. Numbers soared, with 32 students taking Part 1of the diploma in 1913 and 18 students taking Part II. New lecturers Philip Lake and AR Hinks joined to lecture in physical and regional geography and surveying and cartography.

The Tripos

Despite the instability of the First World War, Geography continued to be a popular and expanding subject at Cambridge throughout the 1910s. In 1918, numbers were high enough that it was decided to create a new Geographical BA Tripos. The Report recommending this was passed on the 31 January 1919, and Cambridge Geography as we now know it was born. The Tripos was formed of 2 parts: with 6 compulsory papers in Part 1 and 5 optional papers in Part II (candidates had to submit 2 or 3). For Part 1 students had to take: physical geography, political and economic geography, cartography, history of geography, anthropogeography and regional geography, and for Part II: geodetic and trigonometrical surveying, geomorphology, oceanography and climatology, historical and political geography and economic and commercial geography.

In the same year, it was decided that the Department needed a chair to lead it through the new tripos and Philip Lake was selected, while a new lecturer was appointed in the form of Frank Debenham. Debenham was an Australian petrologist who had served on Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition. He had originally arrived in Cambridge in 1914 to begin compiling records of the mission in the attics of the Sedgwick Museum, but then had been on service throughout the war. Debenham arrived at a time when a number of other polar individuals were also present within Cambridge: Charles Wright, who had also been on the Terra Nova, briefly lectured at Cambridge but continued to live in the area for much longer; Raymond Priestley, who had been with Shackleton on the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909 was Assistant Registrar; and James Wordie, who would become Master of St John’s College, and who had been a member of the crew of the Endurance. It was Debenham’s dream to set up a polar research centre in memory of Scott at Cambridge, and he successfully won over the support of the Scott Memorial Fund to create it in 1920. The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) continues to form an important part of Department life today, from its base on Lensfield Road.

The first candidates for the Geography Tripos sat the exam in 1920, resulting in 2 students receiving a 1st Class for their Part 2 exams, one of whom was JA Steers, who would go on to become Professor of Geography and Head of Department 1949-66.

When Philip Lake retired as Chair of the Department, he was succeeded by Frank Debenham, who became the Department’s first Professor of Geography in 1933.

In the meantime, the Department continued without a home, occupying various corners of the Downing Site until it was agreed that it could move into the building recently vacated by the School of Forestry. After a substantial refurbishment including a large extension housing lecture theatres and library, the Department moved in in 1935. This was followed in 1938-9 with the building of a physiographic laboratory including a wave tank, tidal tank and flume- one of the finest such laboratories in the world.

Second World War

During the Second World War, the Department also accommodated Bedford and Queen Mary colleges from London, and spent much time running courses for Officer Cadets. The Scott Polar Research Institute used by British Intelligence.

One alumna of the war years remembers:


Figure 1 ‘Going Fenning’ in 1942

The ‘boys’ left us at the end of the first year- they had, compulsorily, to
join one of the Armed Forces but we felt important doing war work in the
Department. We helped Deb (Professor Debenham) make a model of Sicily for the
war Ministry to plan the invasion of the island; it was made of polystyrene (or
something similar used in those days) and placed on a large table at the end of
the big ‘practical’ room at the top of the building- we were involved in the
colouring and other minor items… We also instructed Air Force Cadets in
map-reading and mapped seaweed beds off the coast of Scotland from photographs
taken from the air (the seaweed being used in the making of explosives). Being
the war years I suppose the social life at the University was not as full as it
is during peacetime but nevertheless the camaraderie that built up amongst the
circle of geography students in, and out, of the department made up for any
loss… The Geography Department was opposite the Cold Temperature/Storage
Research Station and, sitting in the Library, we used to get a variety of smells
emanating from that place- sometimes pleasant, sometimes awful!!! I suppose they
were experimenting with frozen foods, something that was ‘pushed’ forward by the

The post-war years

In 1949 Frank Debenham retired and was succeeded as Department Chair by JA Steers. Under Steers’ leadership, the Department was able to build upon the strong foundations put in place by Debenham. In the 1950s and 60s the Department attracted a substantial number of leading figures across physical and human geography such as: HC Darby (who succeeded Steers as Chair in 1966), Gordon Manley, WW Williams, Harriet Wanklyn, Jean Mitchell, W Vaughan Lewis, Gus Caesar and BH Farmer.

Alumnus Anthony Keogh remembers some of those figures from the time:

Of the lecturers I remember there was Professor Steers on physical
geography, especially coastal Britain. He was reputed to have walked the whole
coastline of England – or was it Britain? W W Williams was good on cartography
and surveying; Bruce Sparks, C T Smith, B H Farmer, and W V Lewis “did”
physical; Jean Mitchell and Harriet Wanklyn, the Prof’s wife “did” historical
and human geography. There was little in the way of fieldwork, though many
generations of First Years must have delved into the Gog Magogs looking for
fossils and faint memories return of a visit to Wicken Fen. Practical work in
surveying was interesting, though to speak of planetabling, chaining and
compass-traversing sounds antediluvian in these days of satellite mapping. Miss
Mitchell led a very interesting “excursion” (more like a picnic because for some
reason it was after the exams) around the “wool churches” of East Anglia. A
“fieldwork” of sorts but not academic took the form of assistance in filling
breaches in the dykes of the Fenlands in the floods of 1952. Many students
volunteered and I can assure you it was hard work; there was not a sound on the

At the same time, the Department was also running an increasing number of adventurous expeditions, such as the 1948 excursion to Jotunheimen (pictured below) and the 1949 ‘Bangweulu Expedition, which one alumnus remembers:

We set off and travelled to Cape Town in style, first class on the Cape Town
Castle liner. I had not eaten pineapple since before the war and made my mouth
very sore rectifying that omission on the ship. From South Africa we travelled
by train and truck to the edge of the swamp where we embarked on a flotilla of
canoes, mostly hollowed out tree trunks, but one made of steel, accompanied by
numerous paddlers, servants, cooks and native police. We disappeared into the
waterways and weeds of Bangweulu and set up temporary tented camps on a variety
of islands from which we carried out surveys and reported on waterflow… We
were accompanied by a district officer and his wife. They were required to visit
the villages in their area every few months and took the opportunity to travel
with us. They lived the same tented life and ate around a smoky fire, but every
evening they dressed for dinner, he in dinner jacket and black tie, she in a
long dress. Mustn’t let standards


Figure 2 The 1948 Jontuheimen Exhibition (photo courtesy of John Stansbury)

One alumnus (David Wright) remembers what it was like to study at Cambridge Geography in the 1960s:

We were fortunate, the nine of us at St. Catharine’s, in that we had Gus
Caesar for our tutor…. Gus took a real interest in each of us, and encouraged
us to travel and to find ‘real geography’ in the vacations. He even told us the
first names of some the lecturers – quite radical at the time! … Our weekly
essays and tutorials encouraged us to try to think for ourselves. This was truly
liberating — education as thinking.

Geography at Cambridge today

Cambridge has trained and hosted many world leading Geographers, and continues to do so today, as well as alumni who have gone on to achieve significant success in other fields. Since the 1960s, the Department has continued to expand both in terms of numbers and expertise. We have continued to deliver world leading research on the Polar regions, Coastal Geography, Historical Geography and Economic Geography, and have expanded into new explorations of Volcanology, Conservation, Development Studies and Urbanism.

We are only at the beginning of compiling our history and we need your help!

Do you have memories of your time at Cambridge that you’d be willing to share with us? Do you have any photographs or memorabilia that you’d be happy for us to take copies of? Let us know!

A brief bibliography

  • Buchanan, J. Y., ‘Geographical Education in Cambridge’, Geographical Journal, 2 (1893) pp. 27-28
  • Gilbert, E. W., ‘The RGS and geographical education in 1871’, Geographical Journal, 137.2 (1971) pp. 200-2
  • Keltie, John Scott, ‘Report to the Council of the Royal Geographical Society of Geographical Education’, Supplementary Papers of the Royal Geographical Society, 1.4 (1886) pp. 439-554
  • Lake, P., ‘The Geographical School at Cambridge, Geographical Teacher, 10 (1919) pp. 80-1
  • Speak, P., Deb: Geographer, Scientist, Artic Explorer (2008)
  • Stoddart, D. R., ‘The RGS and the Foundations of Geography at Cambridge’, Geographical Journal, 11 (1975) pp. 216-40
  • Stoddart, D. R. ‘A Hundred Years of Geography at Cambridge’, Geographical Journal, 155.1 (1989) pp. 24-32