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The Story of Pythagoras

From the beginning

From the beginning: The Stone House and the Dunning Family

The building now known as the School of Pythagoras was constructed during the twelfth century. From the Hundred Rolls, we can see that it first belonged to the Dunning family and that, at the time, it was called the Stone House. While it is difficult to settle on a precise date, it appears that a Eustace Dunning was certainly living in the Stone House with his wife and three children from the mid-twelfth century onwards, though they are likely to have owned the house before then.

The Dunnings were reasonably wealthy, and Eustace’s two sons inherited a large amount of property both in and around Cambridge after their father’s death. Hervey Dunning, who inherited the Stone House, became a major land-owner and a prominent figure in the civic life of Cambridge. When King John granted the burgesses of the town the right to a Gild Merchant in 1201, for instance, Hervey Dunning was selected as an early alderman, and went on to be elected as prepositus, or mayor, in 1207.

When Hervey died in around 1240, the Stone House once again passed to his son, the second Eustace Dunning. Yet in contrast to the prosperity and success of his father, Eustace Dunning seems to have held no civic responsibilities and suffered periods of severe financial hardship throughout his life, primarily in consequence to his dealings with a man named Magister Guy de Castro Bernardi.

Between 1257 and 1264, Eustace approved the terms for several loan agreements with Magister Guy, which he frequently struggled to meet. The first transaction between the two men, conducted in 1257, consisted of a six-year lease, by which Magister Guy agreed to pay Eustace an annual sum of fourteen marks for the rent of Eustace’s property in Cambridge, Girton and Chesterton. The Dunnings appear to have maintained possession of the Stone House during this time. Eustace’s financial situation did not improve, however, and in 1260, he formed a new agreement with Magister Guy, in the form of a charter and a bond, as the historian, John Gray, explains:


By the charter Eustace conveyed the whole of his property in Cambridge, Chesterton, and Girton to MasterGuy. In the bond he undertook to repay Master Guy £100 at Michaelmas, 1260. The charter was handed to the Prior of the Friars Preachers in Cambridge for safe-keeping. If Eustace honoured his bond, the charter was to be returned to him; if he made default, it was to be handed to Master Guy. From a summary of the letter, which was once in the archives of Merton College, it would appear that Eustace Dunning only received £81.3s.4d. of the £100 he was bound to repay. When Michaelmas came, Eustace had not the money and applied to his creditor for further time. Master Guy did not at once foreclose. He obtained a further bond from Eustace. By the terms of this new bond Eustace was to repay £100 in the church of St Peter-next-the-Castle on the Sunday in 1261 when Quasi Modo was chanted. In default all the mortgaged lands were to go to Master Guy forever. The appointed Sunday came, but Eustace Dunning did not bring the money to St Peter’s Church. In 1263 he needed more money and again had recourse to Master Guy […]. After 1264 the loans ceased. Master Guy did not evict Eustace, but this forbearance was not from feelings of charity.[1]

Eager to make a profit by selling the messuage at a later date, Magister Guy permitted Eustace and his family to remain in the Stone House until property prices improved. Yet Magister Guy died before the sale of the Stone House could be realised, so that it was Master Guy’s nephew, William of Manfield, who finally succeeded in selling the Stone House and its adjacent land to Walter de Merton in 1270.

Evicting the Dunnings from the Stone House was another matter. By 1270, Eustace Dunning had also died and the building was occupied by Eustace’s son, Richard Dunning, who resisted all efforts for his removal. Having owned the Stone House for more than one hundred years, the Dunnings were not willing to have it taken away from them without a fight! It was only, in fact, a year later, on 6 October 1271, that Richard finally departed from the Stone House for the village of Gamlingay, to the south-west of Cambridge. The building was subsequently conveyed to the warden and scholars of the House of the Scholars of Merton, later Merton College, Oxford, who would only rightfully acquire the entirety of the mortgaged land in 1278, at a price of more than one hundred and eighty pounds.


[1] John Gray The School of Pythagoras (Merton Hall),  7.

Merton's House of Scholars

Merton’s House of Scholars

Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor to Henry III, Bishop of Rochester, and founder of Merton College, Oxford, was born c.1205 to a land-owning family. He began the process of establishing a scholarly foundation in Oxford in 1261, with the statutes for a “house of the scholars of Merton” approved several years later in 1264. By 1270, the Merton foundation held estates across England, including the Stone House in Cambridge. 

Merton's primary objective in the acquisition of the Stone House appears to have been to provide continued support to the scholars of his foundation in Oxford. Given Oxford's volatile state during the thirteenth century, the migration of scholars to other towns and cities was not unusual at this time. In addition to isolated incidents of violence between members of the university and the townspeople, Oxford’s role as an administrative centre for the military campaigns of Henry III further exacerbated tensions and unrest.

The first major migration of scholars from Oxford to Cambridge occurred in 1209. By 1226, a great enough number of scholars resided in Cambridge to form an official organisation, and by the time Merton purchased the Stone House in 1270, Cambridge had a small, but thriving academic community, suitable for scholars fleeing possible persecution and civil disturbance - although minor disputes between scholars and the town burgesses was as much in evidence in Cambridge as it was elsewhere.

If Merton intended that the Stone House became a domus scholarium, however, the need seems not to have arisen for it to have been used for this purpose. Rather, after Merton's death in 1277, the Stone House was  managed by a series of tenant-farmers and bailiffs appointed on behalf of Merton College. Besides the Stone House itself, Merton College obtained property in Chesterton and Grantchester, the total of which amassed to some 180 acres and which was cultivated by a small team of agricultural labourers. From this point until its purchase by St. John's College in 1959, the School of Pythagoras, together with the adjacent Jacobean timber-frame extension known as Merton Hall and the surrounding grounds, was owned by Merton College - a period spanning more than 600 years.

The Academy of Newton Bosworth

In 1808, Merton Hall was rented by a young teacher called Newton Bosworth and temporarily transformed into a private boys' boarding school, the Merton Hall Academy.

Born in Peterborough in 1778, Newton Bosworth moved to Cambridge in 1800 to take up a position as a teaching assistant at a small school that had been recently established by a man named Olinthus Gregory – a school that would later lay the foundations for Llandaff House Academy on Regent Street. Bosworth took charge of the school in 1803. Four years later, in March 1807, Bosworth announced that he would shortly open a private boarding school for young gentlemen in what he described as “a commodious house and in a pleasant and airy situation”.[1]The following advertisement for the Merton Hall Academy was printed in the Cambridge Chronicle later the same year:


Board and education in the English, Latin and Greek languages, writing, arithmetic, and mathematics, with their application to book-keeping, surveying, geography, globes, etc., or such of these as may be deemed most suitable for the pupil, THIRTY GUINEAS per annum. Entrance, one guinea. 

Tea in the afternoon, when desired, half-a-guinea per quarter additional....  

Washing and mending may be conveniently done in the town, and will be regularly attended to by Mrs. Bosworth.

Music, drawing, French, etc., by the best masters.

The health, morals and religious instruction of the pupils will be objects of constant attention.[2]


There are no surviving accounts to suggest how popular Bosworth’s Academy was, but by 1811, Bosworth appears to have vacated Merton Hall entirely. He remained master of Llandaff House Academy until 1823, at which time the boarding house was converted into a day school. Bosworth is recorded as having initially moved to London and later to Canada. He died in 1848.


[1] Cambridge Chronicle, 3 March 1807

[2] Cambridge Chronicle, 30 May 1807

Pythagoras and the foundations of Newnham College

Spooks and spiders: Pythagoras and the foundations of Newnham College

In 1870, a small group of academic thinkers, including the philosopher, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), began to provide lectures to women in Cambridge. The popularity of the ‘Lectures for Ladies’ series meant that arrangements were quickly made to accommodate those women who lived too far away to attend the lectures on a daily basis. In 1871, Sidgwick rented a house on Regent Street for the use of female students, but the house was not large enough, and somewhere between 1871 and 1872, the women transferred from Regent Street to Merton Hall, where they remained until Newnham College was fully established on its present site on Sidgwick Avenue in 1875.

Included among the students who resided at Merton Hall was the future economics lecturer and librarian, Mary Paley. Born in Lincolnshire in 1850, Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian, William Paley. She moved to Cambridge in 1871, where she was one of the first five students of Newnham College, and took the Moral Sciences Tripos in 1874 (as a woman, however, she was unable to graduate with a degree). In 1876, she married her economics teacher, Alfred Marshall, and together, the couple continued to lecture and publish works on economics in Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge until Marshall’s death in 1924. Paley was subsequently made Honorary Librarian of the Marshall Library of Economics in Cambridge, which houses a large collection of books belonging to her late husband.  

In her memoirs, Paley recalls having spent two years “at Merton Hall, with a dining-room large enough for separate tables, with its lovely gardens where the nightingales kept us awake at nights, and with its ancient School of Pythagoras supposed to be haunted, though the only ghosts which visited us were enormous spiders”.[1]


[1] Ann Phillips (ed.), A Newnham Anthology, 4; reprinted from M. Paley Marshall, What I Remember.

Adapting the School in the Twentieth Century

Poetry, Plays and Pythag: Adapting the School in the Twentieth Century

Thomas Thornely

In the early twentieth century, Merton Hall was leased to the English poet and academic, Thomas Thornely (1855-1949). Thornely lived most of his life in Cambridge, having first studied at Trinity Hall during the 1870s, before becoming Fellow of Trinity Hall and University Lecturer in History, 1883-1907.

Even after his retirement from teaching in College, Thornely and his house remained familiar to students of Trinity Hall. In his foreword to Thornely’s book, Cambridge Memories (The Lighter Side of Long Ago), the writer J. B. Priestley - who came up to Cambridge in 1919 - recalls that Thornely


[…] was to be found in his beautiful old house, which made, as I still remember with delight, a perfect setting for chamber music. He must have been astonished, I realise now, by some of the young men he had to entertain in his drawing-room on musical evenings, bewildered and uncouth as some of us must have been, but he gave no sign, and was an admirable host.


Thornely writes affectionately of Cambridge in his poems and memoirs. The following poem, taken from the revised second edition of Verses from fen and fell (1920), offers a romantic vision of the School of Pythagoras and of Merton Hall:

Pythagoras and St. John’s

Ownership of the School of Pythagoras and of the surrounding area between Bin Brook and Northampton Street had rested with Merton College since the thirteenth century. In 1928, however, St. John’s College expressed an interest in entering into what would become a prolonged process of negotiation to secure possession of the Merton property. The initial response to this interest was negative. A second bid of £19,000 several years later in December 1933, this time proposed jointly by St. John’s College and Magdalene College, and £4,000 above the price at which the property had been valued by Messer J. Carter Jonas and Sons, was similarly declined.[1] Lord Victor Rothschild (1910-1990) and his family became tenants of Merton Hall and the interest of St. John’s College in the Merton property diminished for the time being.

 In 1958-1959, negotiations with Merton College re-opened. By this point, Magdalene had lost interest in acquiring the Merton property and St. John’s College was able to make an independent offer. In April 1959, Merton College consented to accept:

an offer from St. John’s, if made, to buy the whole of the property adjoining Northampton Street and Queen’s Road for £80,000, each party paying its own costs and St. John’s paying the cost of an independent valuation, if the Ministry required one […] No restrictive covenants would be imposed. Merton would rely upon St. John’s intentions as to the future of the property.[2]

On the 24th April 1959, the St. John’s College Council approved the offer of £80,000 and on the 8th October 1959, the Deed of Purchase was sealed.[3]

The question now debated by members of St. John’s College was to what use the School of Pythagoras and Merton Hall could reasonably be put. Upon its acquisition by St. John’s in 1959, the School of Pythagoras was in a sorry state. As the Junior Bursar, Alec C. Crook, later reported:

The interior was as depressing as the exterior. The ground floor was broken up by partitions, one area providing lavatory accommodation, probably in connection with Lord Rothschild’s family kindergarten in a hut nearby. The upper floor carried a jumble of builder’s materials, and was appropriated by the maintenance staff as soon as the building was available to the College. The clunch was badly cracked, a general absence of pointing giving an atmosphere of ruin to a building which, if it had lacked its archaeological value as a rare first floor Hall, might well have been demolished without regret.[4]

The Master and Senior Bursar had come to a similar conclusion while inspecting the property in 1933, observing that “the School of Pythagoras [w]as of no practical use to the College” yet it would nevertheless be “vandalism to demolish the Hall to make room for anything more serviceable”.[5]



The New Buildings Committee was duly convened and in July 1963, a sub-committee submitted a report with recommendations for transforming the School of Pythagoras into a dramatic space. With the benefit of major renovation work, the upper floor of the School became a theatre with the capacity to seat an audience of 144 people. The School has subsequently served as a venue for numerous events, including conferences, poetry readings, film screenings and plays performed by the St. John’s performing arts society, the Lady Margaret Players.


[1] J.S. Boys Smith Memories of St. John’s College, Cambridge: 1919-1969, 236.

[2] J.S. Boys Smith Memories, 243.

[3] A.C. Crook Penrose to Cripps: A Century of Building in the College of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, 141.

[4] A.C. Crook Penrose to Cripps, 144.

[5] A.C. Crook Penrose to Cripps, 134.

The St John’s College Archive Centre

The St John’s College Archive Centre

Plan of Pythagoras and Merton Hall c.1932

From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, the School of Pythagoras was a venue for a range of readings, lectures and dramatic performances. In 2011, however, St. John’s College approved plans to give the School a new purpose by transforming it into a modern Archive Centre, a three-year project which entailed a major refurbishment of the existing structure.

There were several reasons why it was a good time to change. The ongoing renovation work to the Old Divinity School on All Saints’ Passage, completed in 2012, included the construction of a 180-seat lecture theatre and negated the need to retain the School of Pythagoras for a purpose to which it had always been ill-suited and under-used.

Furthermore, the College Archives were at that time poorly-housed on the ground floor of Staircase I, New Court, and in the New Court cellars. As archival material needs to be stored in very specific temperature and humidity-controlled conditions, it was agreed that it would be far better for the entire collection if it could be transferred into a building carefully designed to meet the precise set of environmental standards.

The College commissioned architect Oliver Caroe to produce the designs for the new Archives Centre and by June 2012, the approvals process was complete. Given the status of the School as a Grade-I listed building, the College was required to demonstrate that any refurbishment would be carried out carefully and with consideration for the School’s historic architecture.

Initial work started in October 2012 and was completed in spring 2014, with the process of transferring the archival material – which included more than nine hundred boxes of documents - from New Court to the School taking place in July 2014. The Archive Centre was officially opened by HRH The Duke of Cambridge on the 15thOctober 2015.

In addition to the project, on-site excavations were carried out by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) between the 4th July 2012 and 8th April 2013. Building on the work of previous archaelogical investigations in and around the School of Pythagoras, the CAU report for the 2012-2013 excavations highlighted new evidence of Roman activity. To take a look at the full findings, visit



The Archives Centre today

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name? (Or, what has Pythagoras got to do with this anyway?)

It is generally thought that the School of Pythagoras acquired its name during the seventeenth century. At the time of its purchase by Walter de Merton in 1270, the building is recorded in the deeds as “the stone house in which Eustace, father of Richard Dunning, formerly dwelt”, but by the mid-fourteenth century, allusions to the ‘Stone House’ in official documents had been largely replaced with references to ‘Merton Hall’, a name still associated today with the early sixteenth-century timber-frame structure which forms a north-wing annexe to the School.[1]Over time, the distinctive title of the ‘School of Pythagoras’ has come to refer specifically to the two-storey Saxo-Norman masonry building, which now lines the far side of Merton Court.

While the precise origin of the name ‘School of Pythagoras’ is unknown, theories have been put forward in the effort to explain the building’s pedagogic and Pythagorean connections. The reference of the poet and antiquary, John Leland (1503-1552), to the ‘Schola de Merton’ in his Collectanea, for example, has prompted some to argue that Leland’s work marks a step in the transition from Merton Hall to the School of Pythagoras, though it is unclear whether ‘Schola de Merton’ was a term that was created by Leland himself, or whether the name was already in common usage by the time Leland used it. [2] The English antiquary, Francis Grose (c.1731-1791), in his “Account of Pythagoras’ School in Cambridge”, commented that the scholastic connection probably did exist prior to Leland, if it were indeed “the place as has been related, where Erasmus read lectures on the Greek language in the university”.[3] It is more likely that the connection between the building and a school was made gradually over time.

Putting aside the question of the School's transition from a domestic to a pedagogic space, the association with Pythagoras has proved equally perplexing. Critics over the past 300 years have tended to adhere to one of three theories: 1) that Pythagoras himself lived and taught there; 2) that the building accommodated scholars of a Pythagorean persuasion; or 3) that the building itself has certain physical features which appear coincidentally Pythagorean. Edmund Carter, in The History of the University of Cambridge (1753), for instance, suggests that the School of Pythagoras was where Pythagoras was reputed to have “lived and read lectures to the Youth of the University”, while the printmakers, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, writing slightly earlier in 1730, link the name to philosophical tradition, rather than to the philosopher himself:

Whence it had its name is uncertain, whether a society of Gentlemen might not meet here, or live in a Pythagorean manner, not unlike a College life: or whether the Mathematicks, Morals, or other Philosophy might not have been held, or taught here in opposition to the General Philosophy of those times, is rather to be taken as possible Conjecture, than to be admitted as certain. [4]


That the shape of the building itself should resemble the Greek letter, upsilon (‘Y’) - a symbol traditionally used by Pythagoras to represent the two paths leading to Vice and Virtue  - has also served as a hypothesis for the building’s distinctive name, while the internal layout of the School building has likewise encouraged an unlikely relation with the ancient philosopher, where “its very undercroft might not impossibly have had its share in somewhat imaging, if not his school at Samos, at least that more cryptick cave in his house at Croton, he shut himself up in”.[5]


[1] Gray 37.

[2] See vol. ii, p.440. For commentary on Leland, see Gray 37.

[3] Grose 41-42.

[4] Carter 17.

[5] Grose 43-44.

Further Reading

Further Reading - The School of Pythagoras

Please find below some reading material about the School of Pythagoras

Boys Smith, J.S. (1983) Memories of St. John’s College, Cambridge: 1919-1969. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooke, C. and Highfield, R. (1988) Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crook, A.C. (1978) Penrose to Cripps: A Century of Building in the College of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Finch, M. and Deakin, T. (2015). “Preserving the Past”, The Eagle. Vol. 97  (2015) pp. 14-20.

Gray, J. M. (1932) The School of Pythagoras (Merton Hall). The Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1932. Vol. 5, item 4. 

Grose, F. (1785) “The Account of Pythagoras’s School in Cambridge”, Mr Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales.London.

Harraden, R. (1809) Cantabrigia Depicta: A Series of Engravings, Representing the Most Picturesque and Interesting Edifices in the University of Cambridge, with an Historical and Descriptive Account of Each. Harraden & Son.

Newman, R. (2013) “The School of Pythagoras, St. John's College, Cambridge: An Archaeological Excavation”. Cambridge: Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Report No. 1199.

Parsons, K. (1984) “A Nonconformist School: Llandaff House and its Academy, Regent Street, Cambridge.” First pub. Cambridge Local History Society Bulletin No. 39. With additions from Alice Johnson, "George William Johnson"; Edited by Micheline Johnson, November 1996. Web. 10 November 2015.

Phillips, A. (1979) A Newnham Anthology. Cambridge University Press.

Priestley, J.B. (1936) “Foreword”, Cambridge Memories (The Lighter Side of Long Ago). Thornely, T. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Thornely, T. (1920) “Merton Hall, Cambridge”, Verses from Fen and Fell. 2nd Edition (Revised and Enlarged). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 137-138.