In Search of The Apostles

SEBASTIAN SALEK goes in search of the most secretive society of them all.

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At a university as old as Cambridge, secret societies are nothing new. Information about The Apostles isn’t scarce, either: a quick search in the Newton Library catalogue even brings up several entire books on the society.

So why is it then that, when asked, the average undergrad seems to be completely unaware of their existence?

The established facts are these: the Cambridge Apostles (or the Cambridge Conversazione Society) was founded in 1820 as a discussion group.

Members were generally drawn from Trinity, King’s and St John’s, and held weekly meetings (usually on a Saturday evening) during which one member gave a talk on a topic that was not their area of expertise.

This would then be opened to questions which led to general discussion. One of the more striking aspects of the society is the leather-bound diary of membership and notes on talks given that stretch all the way back to its founder, George Thomlinson, the first Bishop of Gibraltar. It has no shortage of famous past members either, including John Maynard Keynes and members of the Rothschild family.

Local boy John Maynard Keynes was in on the act

After having interrogated current students with little success (although I suspect that given the secretive nature of the society, anyone who knew anything for certain would keep quiet), my search to track down a modern incarnation of The Apostles began by speaking to Trinity alumni.

I was taken right back to the 1970s before any awareness of the society arose, with one alumnus telling me that they were certainly active during his day even if he never came across them himself. This is supported in part by more recent alleged past members such as Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a former Master of Darwin.

In my travels, I did come across a similar élite intellectual group who go by the name of The Fifteen. Based in Pembroke and Peterhouse, speculation arose a few years ago when they were photographed at Peterhouse May Ball in matching attire making a secret hand signal alongside members of the Pitt Club.

Could this be a revival of the Apostles? Or simply a homage to a long lost society? Unfortunately, it turned out to be little more than an elaborate hoax and The Fifteen soon disbanded when many of its founding members joined the Pitts.

However, all is not lost for groups of this sort. Although never intending to be clandestine, the Clare-based Dilettante Society harks back to 1882 and includes fellows among its number.

Despite several breaks in activity, it was revived in 1997 and continues to run bi-termly meetings today in a similar format to The Apostles (hence ‘dilettante’).

The Dilettant Society in full swing

Have the Apostles disbanded within the last thirty years, or do they still exist? It’s difficult to say for certain, but one thing’s for sure: if they are still around then they’re certainly good at keeping quiet about it…