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Robert Robson History Essay Prize

The R.A. Butler Prize for essays in Politics and International Studies is a competition that can be entered by students in Year 12 or the Lower 6th. Candidates are invited to submit an essay on a topic to be chosen from a list of general questions announced in March each year, and to be submitted by the beginning of September.

The Prize is jointly organised by Trinity College Cambridge and Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies. The Prize was established in memory of the former Master of Trinity College, Lord Butler, who most famously served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and who was responsible for the introduction of free secondary education for all students in the UK.

The objectives of the R.A. Butler Prize are twofold. Firstly, it aims to encourage students with an interest in modern politics and world affairs to think about undertaking university studies in Politics, International Studies or a related discipline; it is not limited to those already studying these subjects or indeed other social sciences. Secondly, its intention is to recognise the achievements both of high-calibre students and of those who teach them.

The 2018 competition is now open. The list of questions is here.

The deadline for submitting the essay is 20th August 2018.

Format. Essays should be between 2,000 and 4,000 words (not including the bibliography).  It’s worth considering the use of examples in your essays: the best essays often use a diverse selection of contemporary, historical or literary examples.  We encourage you to provide references to your sources of information, and to include a bibliography at the end of the essay.

Submission. Essays must be submitted by email to butlerprize@trin.cam.ac.uk. Word or PDF file formats are acceptable. It will be helpful if you could name the file with your surname and initial, in the style (for example): SmithJ.pdf or SmithJ.docx. On the first page of your essay, please include the following information: your name, email address, school name and address, your year at school (e.g. Year 12), and the subjects you are studying and to what level (e.g. A-level). Please include a statement of originality: “I confirm that this essay is written in my own words and is the result of my own work. All sources used have been acknowledged in the essay.” Please ‘sign’ that statement (i.e. put your name, electronically is fine) and put the date on which you are submitting the essay.

If you cannot submit the essay electronically, please post it to R.A. Butler Prize, c/o Dr Glen Rangwala, Trinity College, Cambridge CB2 1TQ.

Eligibility. The Prize is for students in Year 12 or Lower 6th at the time the questions are released (in the school year 2017-18). Students based abroad are most welcome to participate. They should, however, be in their penultimate year of school.

Prize. The competition carries a First Prize of £600, to be split equally between the candidate and his or her school or college (the school or college’s portion of the prize to be issued in the form of book tokens), and a Second Prize of £400, which again is to be shared equally between the candidate and his or her school or college. Winners will be announced in September, and will be invited to visit the College to meet some of the teaching staff.

Contact. Any queries from teachers with students who may be interested in submitting work for the prize should be directed to Dr Glen Rangwala by email to: butlerprize@trin.cam.ac.uk.

Past Prize-winners


1st Prize: Folu Ogunyeye (Aylesbury High School)
2nd Prize: Eve McMullen (Minster School, Southwell)


1st Prize: Silas Edwards (St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Bristol)
2nd Prize: Eliza Harry (Greene’s Tutorial College, Oxford)


1st Prize: Stephen Horvath (Westminster School, London)
2nd Prize: Grace Elshafei (Sevenoaks School, Kent)


1st Prize: Oscar Alexander-Jones (St Paul’s School, London)
2nd Prize: Sam Maybee (King Edward VI Five Ways School, Birmingham)


1st Prize: Eleanor Shearer (Westminster School)
2nd Prize (joint): Stephanie Clarke (Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School)
2nd Prize (joint): Will Barnes (Manchester Grammar School)


1st Prize: Kiah Ashford-Stow (King Edward VI School, Southampton)
2nd Prize: Jamie Sproul (Stamford School)


1st Prize: Aman Rizvi (Winchester College)
2nd Prize: Frans Robyns (Kings College School, Wimbledon)

Robert Robson, historian: born Haltwhistle, Northumberland 11 August 1929; assistant, Department of History, Glasgow University 1956-57; Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge 1956-95; died Cambridge 16 January 1995. ``Life is a rum business, however you look at it.'' This, from ``the Gospel according to St Anthony (Powell)'', was a favourite saying of Robert Robson, with whose death Trinity College, Cambridge, has lost what many would regard as its life and soul. There were ironies, for he was pathologically modest and his manner, though sometimes soulful, was not lively. Yet his was the quiet voice to which almost everyone listened. This was partly because he so obviously loved the college, even as he lamented that it was going to the dogs like everything else, and partly because he knew its buildings and its history inside out.

No one who saw the way in which Bob Robson's melancholy face could crumple suddenly into mirth can have failed to realise that there were many other contradictions in the character of this bitter-sweet man. He claimed to be misanthropic and sometimes posed as a misogynist, yet he cherished his many friendships and often seemed most at ease in the company of women. He was a stickler for old-fashioned properties, and deplored the modern use of Christian names at high table, yet he was universally known as``Bob''. Although a very private man, he was held in such possessive affection by so many of his colleagues that he was almost public property. He was gentle and courteous, but had a very sharp eye for the foibles of others as well as his own. He was acutely embarrassable and frightened of emotion, yet he was widely adored. He was a generous host and performed many acts of hidden philanthropy, even though he was utterly convinced that ``no good turn went unpunished''.

Above all he will be remembered as a great College Tutor in the Cambridge sense, one of the very last of the old-style tutors whose role was that of the genuine pastor, not just the administrative workhorse of today. Most (though not all) of his pupils saw through his attempts to appear crusty and forbidding. Many became lifelong friends.

He came from the North Country, near-by Hadrian's Wall. His father, who was at first a miner and then a small farmer, fostered his love of books. Money was tight, the family close and hard-working. Hexham Grammar School was followed by national service in the RAF, which he found uncongenial, but at least it whetted his appetite for Trinity, to which he went on a state scholarship in 1950. A double First in History led to research for the PhD, a year teaching history in Glasgow, then back to Trinity as aFellow. Soon afterwards his father died in a road accident. He never ceased to regret that this had happened just when he could have begun to afford to buy the books which he knew his father would have loved to read.

From then Trinity was Bob Robson's life, though the widespread rumour that he hardly ever set foot outside Great Court was a calumny. (His beloved Wren Library was yards away in Nevile's Court.) Nor did he ever stop thinking about Northumberland. He revisited his family each vacation, slipping naturally into local dialect as soon as he stepped off the train.

That he did not achieve high academic preferment within Cambridge was partly owing to his lack of confidence, partly to lack of vigour, and partly to a lack of that aggressive flamboyance which is sometimes called ``cutting edge''. Yet in many ways his publications were ahead of their time. The Attorney in Eighteenth-Century England (1959) can be seen in retrospect to have pioneered the modern study of English professionalisation and the development of the middle class. His studies of the academic life of Trinity in the age of Wordsworth and Whewell, though they struck some of his more pretentious colleagues as parochial at the time, actually anticipated the way in which the study of 19th-century intellectual history was to develop. More recently he had been engaged in preparing an edition of Lord Macaulay's unpublished journals.

In 1985 Bob Robson was diagnosed as having non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was then that his friends discovered the indomitable will to live of a man who hitherto seemed so world-weary. He bore his illness with fortitude and ironic good-humour, and he died ashe had lived, peacefully.

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