10 May 2023

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                                                                            The Opening of the College Museum

During Lord St John of Fawsley’s five-year term as Master of Emmanuel in the 1990s, a succession of royal visitors, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, considerably enlivened the normal college routine. In September 1995 the then Prince of Wales, now HM King Charles III, paid his first and (to date) only visit to Emmanuel College.

Unlike most of the other royal visits to the college, which had involved months of planning, this one had to be arranged in double-quick time. In his invitation, sent out on 24th August, Lord St John reminded Prince Charles that he had long wanted to invite him to Emmanuel, and therefore hoped that he would agree to open the new museum of college life and history in Old Court. ‘The room is potentially a really very beautiful room but it had become grottsville filled with rexine armchairs and television sets and laughably called a reading room...An old member, Derek Finlay, is very kindly providing the funds for the museum in memory of his brother Douglas Finlay, who was killed in a flying accident’. Douglas, who was admitted to Emmanuel in 1941, completed his degree after wartime service with the RAF and incarceration as a POW in Stalag Luft III. He died in 1948, shortly after graduating.

As an additional lure, the Master told Prince Charles that he would also very much like to show him the Queen’s Building, ‘which was opened by Her Majesty in April and is really a magnificent example of contemporary architecture’. The Prince responded positively to the invitation, but had only one free evening in the foreseeable future. As Lord St John recalled in the college Magazine, ‘it’s imprudent to cavil about a royal offer’, and so the proffered date of 21st September was accepted. The news had the effect of a ‘bombshell’ when it was announced to the rest of the college, because the fitting-out of the museum had not, in truth, progressed beyond the planning stage.

The newly designated Curator, Dr (later Professor) Barrie Rickards, instantly rose to the challenge, supported by the ‘heroic’ Clerk of Works, Tony Smith, ‘who had to forget about holidays, and substitute sleepless nights instead’. The Maintenance Department went into overdrive, and in the space of a month had completed all the requisite ‘demolition, reflooring, electrical work, carpentry, building, painting and decorating, and security installation’. The Curator then hastily filled the new display cabinets with suitable exhibits. The room’s bold colour scheme had been chosen by the Master, but it was decided, at the last minute, that the shade of paint used on the panelling was ‘not quite right’. With only hours to spare, a different tint was applied, to the accompaniment, one imagines, of some smothered oaths.


                                                              Signing the Visitors' Book, the Master in Attendance

In the end, all went smoothly. Prince Charles arrived in the early evening and opened the new museum in time-honoured tradition by unveiling a plaque, the ceremony being witnessed by the Finlay family, senior college members, and such student representation as could be mustered in September. The party then moved on to the Queen’s Building, where HRH was able to view a model of the building and discuss its design with the architects, Sir Michael and Lady (Patty) Hopkins. This was followed by a cocktail-and-canapé reception, at which a larger number of guests was present. According to the Master, ‘The Prince circulated splendidly and talked to everyone, fortified by a dry martini made to his own recipe’. Before leaving, Prince Charles paused to sign the visitors’ book (with his own trusty fountain pen) and, to quote Lord St John, ‘So ended a memorable day’.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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