In the early 19th century, meetings of the Society were held in what was described as a "a low, ill-ventilated, ill-lit gallery at the back of the Red Lion Inn [in Petty Cury] - a cavernous tavernous - something between a commercial-room and a district-branch-meeting-house." In 1832, the Society moved into its own space on the site now occupied by the ADC and Trinity College's Bridge Street accommodation block. The Society moved again in 1850 to a "dingy old room in Green Street" on the site where Eden Lilley Photography is now located.
It soon became clear, however, that the ever expanding Society required a permanent home. After considering applications from several architects, the membership commissioned the noted architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a permanent home located on a plot of land behind the Round Church, which had been purchased from St. John's College for £925 (around £63,000 in today's money).
The original building was only about half the size of today's, and was opened on 30th October 1866. Two decades later, on 24th February 1886, a major expansion opened including the spaces now occupied by the Library and Members' Bar.
The original building was distinctly Victorian, and some areas retain this look, but during the 1920s and 1930s some areas such as the Library and Members' Bar underwent major renovations and a redecoration with early 20th century architecture. Several major fires have also caused various changes to the original structure. During WWII a Nazi bomb, one of the few dropped over Cambridge, caused major damage to the Society's library and some of the older books still display visible shrapnel wounds. Fortunately, the famous Debating Chamber has managed to escape most of the various disasters that have occurred elsewhere in the building and looks essentially the same as it has for over 140 years.
The following is a brief description of each of the major rooms currently in use:
This is the Society's most famous room and, in addition to the weekly debates, hosts a variety of Society events. The balcony displays crests of all of the Cambridge colleges and the stained glass windows feature images of both the Society's crest and the year '1866' which is the year the original building was opened. The walls are decorated with photos and drawings of notable former officers of the Society.
This is the central lobby for the building and the walls are decorated with several images from the Society's history. One notable portrait is a painting of the notable Cambridge personality, and Treasurer of the Society between 1881 and 1902, Oscar Browning.
The Dining Room is usually the location for pre-debate dinners and other formal entertaining events. The walls are decorated with photos of old Standing Committees. Before the building's expansion, the spaces now occupied by the Dining Room and the Mountbatten Room were occupied by one larger room.
This room is named in honour of former Standing Committee member The Right Honourable The Earl Mountbatten of Burma. The room is used as a general lounge and meeting room and is typically stocked with current newspapers. Before the building's expansion, the spaces now occupied by the Dining Room and the Mountbatten Room were occupied by one larger room.
For over a hundred years this was the Chief Clerk's Office. However, now it is primarily used by the President and his or her team. The room is also often used as a formal reception room and other members of the Standing Committee also work here.
This is a central hub of activity in the building on most evenings and is where the debate result is generally announced following a division of the House. It also serves as a members' Coffee Shop in the day, where it's a beautiful place to sit and work (wi-fi is free) or just chat with friends.
This room is used as an overflow space when the main bar is filled.
This room once served as the Society's public dining room and now serves as a general function room for showing films or as an additional overflow space from the adjacent bar.
Named in honour of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, this room is used as a general meeting space and previously served as the Society's dining room.
The South Wing of the Library features a curved ceiling and early 20th century design features, while the North Wing of the library features exposed ceiling beams and a balcony overlooking Round Church Street. Whilst the South Wing was severely damaged by a bomb during WWII, subsequent restoration works have restored this space to now be a wonderful serene study area to sit and read in.
The Snooker Room once served as the reference room for the Library and still houses a large book collection. The room currently features two full size snooker tables.
Upper Division Lobby
The walls of the upper division lobby are generally decorated with a rotating display of artwork.