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Churchill College was the result of two independent projects in the 1950s for the promotion of advanced technological education, which unexpectedly came to fruition in Cambridge.
In 1949 Winston Churchill visited Massachusetts Institute of Technology and expressed a hope that a similar institution could be created in Britain. While on holiday in Sicily in 1955, after his retirement as Prime Minister, he had a conversation with Lord Cherwell (Frederick Lindemann), his wartime scientific advisor, and John Colville, his private secretary, in which Cherwell reminded him of his hope and urged that it was not too late to act. Colville, who promised to undertake the legwork, sketched an ambitious plan for an industry-based postgraduate institute, but he found he could not make as much headway as he hoped.
Meanwhile, several leading British industrialists had been meeting at the London headquarters of Shell Petroleum since 1950 to discuss the need for training advanced manpower in the sciences and engineering. They too had in mind an independent postgraduate institute with a unique curriculum, to be based either at Cranfield Aeronautical College (now University) or Birmingham University, but their plans proved abortive.
In 1957 the two schemes were brought together and reshaped by the Cambridge Nobel Prizewinning chemist Alexander Todd, together with the American Carl Gilbert, chairman of Gillette Industries. Todd recommended the creation of a college at Cambridge of a special type. To accommodate the plan within the University, the College would have undergraduates as well as postgraduates (postgraduate colleges did not then exist), and a significant proportion of members studying the humanities.
As a result, a new Cambridge college, the first to be named after a living person from its foundation, was announced in 1958. A national appeal was launched to raise £3.5 million (equivalent to about £75 million today) to build and endow Churchill College, chiefly addressed to British industry, which produced the lion’s share of donations. Major contributions were also received from the Ford, Gulbenkian, Rockefeller, and Wolfson Foundations, as well as from the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Two thousand British companies and individuals contributed. Commonwealth and European countries donated fabric and artwork. A body of Trustees was formed, chaired by Sir Winston, comprising statesmen, war leaders, academics, and industrialists.
In 1959 a site in north-west Cambridge, one mile from the city centre, was chosen. Sir Winston paid his sole visit and planted two trees, but he never saw the built College. The Nobel physicist Sir John Cockcroft, who had (with Ernest Walton) split the atom in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1932, was appointed the College’s first Master. After a limited competition, Richard Sheppard was selected as architect, and a College intended for 540 students and 60 Fellows was constructed in under a decade.
The competition to choose an architect was of national significance, for it marked the chief entrée into higher education by a new breed of architects committed to Modernism. Hitherto, British universities had been conservative in their architectural patronage, now they turned en masse to Modernism. What was not built at Churchill is as important as what was, because many of the competitors went on to design the fleet of new universities created in the 1960s.
In 1960 the College received a Royal Charter and admitted its first students: two dozen postgraduates of a dozen nationalities. Undergraduates arrived in the following year. The first buildings (the Sheppard Flats) were completed in 1960, and the Dining Hall was inaugurated in 1964, marking the official opening. In 1966 Churchill achieved full status as a college of the University and the founder Trustees relinquished full governance to the Fellows. In 1968 the final courtyard of the original scheme was opened.