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Exam stress 19th century style, revealed in Victorian student’s diary

An unhappy student taking a University exam.
A doodle from Francis Hutton’s 1846 diary showing an unhappy student taking an exam

A diary of a 19th century undergraduate, which provides a rare insight into the life of a Cambridge student, is among the items going on public display at St John’s College this weekend for Open Cambridge.

If you think Cambridge students have a heavy workload today, spare a thought for 19th century undergraduate Francis Hutton, who resorted to taking morphine to deal with exam-related stress.

Hutton, who studied mathematics at St John’s College between 1846 and 1849, wrote a diary of his life as a student addressed to his brother in New Zealand. His writing, and frequent doodling, provides a rare and lively behind the scenes glimpse into the everyday details of Cambridge student life in the Victorian period. Hutton’s diary will be available for public viewing at the College Library this weekend.

Many aspects of university life recorded by Hutton would strike a chord with Cambridge students today. The evening before an important algebra exam, Hutton found himself “in a terrible funk”. He wrote:

“It was now 10:30pm, and I had not looked at an Alegbra [textbook] for two years…Off I went over the way to Jones’s lodgings and found him out. However I found an old Algebra – and returned in very good spirits to my rooms, tho’ sadly fearful for the morrow”.

“There was no time to lose, so I set to work, and read the Binomial Thorem by three o’clock in the morning, when I closed the book and took a pipe, in order to digest what I had read…When I got into bed I could not sleep. I took morphine – but all was of no avail. I lay awake – and thought what a great ass I had been not to read when I had time”.

Despite the after-effects of Hutton’s rather drastic measures, which led to him falling asleep during the exam itself, he managed to scrape through with a passing grade. Studies often took a back seat to other activities in Hutton’s life and the sheer variety of things to do in Cambridge proved a constant distraction. “Cambridge is so full of temptations”, he wrote.

Hutton’s diary is among the unusual and historic “treasures” preserved by St John’s College Library which will go on public display as part of the annual Open Cambridge festival on 12 September.

Other items in the free exhibition will include the College’s oldest complete manuscript, the 1,000 year old “Southampton Psalter”; Elizabethan maps charting the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Nobel Prize medal of quantum physicist Paul Dirac among others.

While some things, such as the inevitability of exams, remain a constant feature of the student experience, other entries in Hutton’s diary remind us of how different 19th century life was compared to today.

One of the things Hutton deeply regretted was “the want of female company” in a university that, at the time, took only male students. While his regret may not surprise the modern reader, Hutton’s reason for it might. He hoped the presence of women would make his fellow-students behave:  “a lot of young spirits together need one or two petticoats to keep them within bounds”, he wrote.

Hutton was, however, markedly unimpressed by Cambridge’s female population. On attending a concert in Great St Mary’s Church in 1847, he complained to his brother that “the fair portion of the audience was not worth a squint, being composed of Cambridge ladies – who are anything but ladylike”.

After three years at Cambridge, Hutton graduated in 1849 with a lower second class degree. As a final parting shot in his diary, he wrote: “Thank God my University troubles are over, and I am about to commence life in earnest”.

Dr Mark Nicholls, Librarian at St John’s, said: “Hutton's journal combined the interesting, the revealing, and the timeless in a very candid format, written for the information and indeed diversion of a close relative. Its charming illustrations supplement the text to telling effect”.

St John’s College Old Library will be open to the public, featuring an exhibition of rare, significant and interesting books, manuscripts and items including Hutton’s diary, on Saturday 12 September. The exhibition is open from 10:00am-4:00pm (last entry 3:45pm) and offers visiting members of the public a chance to see inside one of Cambridge’s grandest and most historic Colleges.

For more information, see www.joh.cam.ac.uk/library or www.opencambridge.cam.ac.uk.