‘Loaded with ridicule’ – A plea from William Murray not to go to Cambridge University, April 1791

Our next feature for the year of young people focuses on William Murray of Polmaise. As summer of 1791 approached, William Murray was due to begin studying at university. The problem for William, however, was that his father had decided to send him to Cambridge University against his wishes. William’s discontent at this decision can be found in a letter sent to his father in April 1791.

The letter confirms that William had first heard about this decision through Mr Buchanan and not his father. He writes ‘I expected you would not have fixed upon it, before you had talked to me a little more upon the subject’.

The issue appears to have been difficult for William. His father would have paid his University fees and to disagree with him would have been problematic. William explains in his letter that he would have brought it up with his father when they last met if weren’t for his ‘material backwardness of communicating my sentiments’ and ‘that kind of awe an affectionate son always feels when communicating to his indulgent father, sentiments which he knows are contrary to the opinion of his parent’. Relations between sons and fathers were often formal at this time, especially in the upper classes.

As the letter progresses, William begins to highlight some of the concerns he has with Cambridge University. These issues were confirmed for him when he had breakfast with Professor Dalziel, who was at Oxford College as Governor to Lord Southerdale.

Professor Dalziel stated that if someone went there with a design of studying but did not conform to the ‘mannerisms of his companions’ then he would be ‘loaded with ridicule’.

The professor also stated that many of the students were ‘very dissipated’. William feared that as he was ‘only but a young lad’ and ‘does not pretend to have any extraordinary power’, he may lose the principles that had been instilled in him by father and succumb to the bad habits of the students.

To highlight this further William even remarks that his father had declared that he would ‘never send me to an English University’ as he knew by his own experience that it a place of ‘great dissipation’.

So did William attend Cambridge University in the end? His obituary from 1847 notes that he actually attended Oxford University and graduated as a ‘Gentlemen Commoner of Christ Church’. It appears that this letter was successful in changing his father’s mind.