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Review 2023: A Conversation with Charlotte Pippard

26 October 2023 Blog

Life Member Kitty Ferguson interviewed Lady Charlotte Pippard, wife of Sir Brian Pippard, the first President of Clare Hall, 1966-1973. Charlotte celebrated her 100th birthday in January 2023. A shorter version of the interview was originally published in the Review 2023. We hope you enjoy reading the full version below.
Photo by Julia Hedgecoe

[We met in Charlotte’s sitting room at her home in Porson Road, where she and her husband Brian Pippard lived beginning in the late 1950s.]

Kitty Ferguson:  In the early 1960s, Brian was a Fellow at Clare College. Plans were in the works there for what would be Clare Hall.  What was the first you heard about that?

Charlotte Pippard:  Obviously there was talk about it in Clare. I heard snippets, not details about what it was going to be like or anything, but I knew there was something in the air.  Early on there was an idea that the new College would be different from the other Cambridge colleges. Families were to be part of everything.  Everybody would be welcome.  Even the kids would be welcome.  Within reason.  It would be a thoroughly friendly place. 

KF: You had been the wife of a Clare fellow.  What was the difference between the way you were treated there at Clare and the way you would have been treated later as a wife at Clare Hall?

CP:  I was one of many at Clare, whereas at Clare Hall I was the Queen Pin.

KF:  But even had you not been the Queen Pin . . . you would have been allowed, for instance, to come in to the dinner in Clare Hall, which isn’t true for spouses in every college. 

CP:  Yes, spouses could even go without their husband or wife.  They were full members of the college, whether they were academic or not.

KF:  Do you remember the occasion when Brian came home and said he was going to be President?

CP:  I’m not sure he didn’t say “How would you like to be the President’s wife?”  He would have put it like that, I think.

Charlotte and Brian Pippard

KF: When Clare Hall was founded, it wasn’t built yet.  How did that work?  You couldn’t have Clare Hall dinners. 

CP:  We did have Clare Hall dinners at the University Centre, before we had a building.  The University Centre building was very new too.  It’s all a very long time ago.  But the first thing that actually happened at Clare Hall was dining.  Before anyone moved in, we started using the dining room and the kitchens, even before WE moved in.

KF:  Were you brought into the discussion of the design of Clare Hall, particularly the Presidents’ Lodge?

CP:  I don’t think I was consulted. But we did insist on something.  It had to do with having separate rooms for the girls.  In Ralph Erskine’s design, there were two bits sticking out at the ends of the upper floor.  One was the President’s bedroom, and the other was Corinna’s – our eldest daughter.  Debbie and Ella had the two in between.  But there was no corridor.  You had to go through the bedrooms to get from one to the other.  That was where we put our foot down – – –  that there would be a corridor, which made the bedrooms rather small.  Corinna had a decent size and we had a decent size, but Debbie and Ella had rather small, skinny little rooms.

KF:  When you moved in, the College buildings weren’t finished yet.

CP:  The main building was finished.  All that block I believe was finished.  It was done.  The President’s Lodge was done.  But I’m not sure the other end of that same terrace was completely finished. 

KF:  So the College really was housed at first just in the main building and the President’s Lodge and Elmside, the building on Grange Road.

CP:  Yes.

KF:  In the main building there were studies around the courtyard with the pond? 

CP:  Yes, that was a nice little sort of community. 

KF:  Was there ever a thought of a chapel, or concert hall or lecture room in the college plan?

CP:  No.  I think they always thought they would use the dining room for concerts and lectures, but there was, early on, an acoustical problem with the dining room ceiling?  I think originally the acoustics were much better, but the fire officer vetoed the way the ceiling was designed.  It was supposed to absorb the noise.  Would have made it much better. 

KF: So, you had the three girls when you moved into Clare Hall.

CP:  Yes. Corinna, Deborah, and Eleanor.  They were nine, seven and five. They spent a good part of their growing-up years at Clare Hall.  I think they quite enjoyed it.  In a funny little way.  There were lots of other kids around, you see, and some from other countries.   Yes, I think they liked it.  The middle passageway was the sort of free-for-all bit. And of course there was a sand pit.  The sand pit was right through to the other side — a sand pit and a playground, where the Family Walk is now.  I don’t know how much equipment it had, but I think there was a climbing frame. 

KF:  That’s interesting.  There is no playground now. 

CP:  Well there wasn’t much of it then.  I know it had a sand pit.  There may have been a swing. 

KF:  Where did your girls go to school when you were at Clare Hall? 

CP: There was a little dame school . . . I’m trying to remember where it was . . . where they went until they were about eight.  And then they went to the Perse.  Ella was the youngest child in the little dame school and later the oldest child.  Both very important things to be.

KF:  When you moved into the President’s Lodge, did you take any of your own furniture along? 

CP:  We took a beautiful wine cooler, a great big thing, which was my sewing box.  We took that.  And we took our grand piano, obviously.  I don’t think we took anything else.  The lodge was fully furnished.

KF:  That great big dining table was part of the furnishings?

CP:  Yes, a very good table!

KF:  Did you take pictures for the walls, or anything like that?

CP:  No, I don’t think we did.  [Pointing out a large batik on the opposite wall] We didn’t have that yet until after we moved in.  Clare Hall wanted something large for the President’s Lodge.  They were humming and hawing and trying to decide, and Brian said “I will buy that.  And if you want it you can have that.”  So obviously they get it when I die.  It’s a batik done by Thetis Blacker, Carmen Blacker’s sister.  When we moved back here to Porson Road we wondered where we would put it in this house.  That wall is the only place it could go.  But I cannot find out what the story is.  I believe it’s the legend of a nine-tailed fox – Japanese. And the frog there you see has five legs.  It hung in the President’s Lodge when we were there.

KF:  Were you part of any of the early decisions; for instance, that there would be no high table?

CP:  No.  Nothing to do with anything remotely academic.  I was totally non-academic.  Brian was in academic life and he knew it well.   I left school at sixteen.  So I was sort of out of it.  But I don’t remember being embarrassed by being a wife and a mother.  I don’t remember anything like that.  That’s just how it was.  I think they all accepted it.  And although I was totally unacademic, I wasn’t made to feel it.

KF:  Others of the Founders wives didn’t have academic credentials. 

CP:  No, but to me it felt very odd being hurled into an academic society. I obviously had had dinner in Clare.  That was about it.  But I didn’t care.  They were people, and I was there and I obviously had to be nice to them.  Whether I liked it or not.  Mind you, it wasn’t very difficult.  There were one or two somewhat trials, but there always are. 

KF:  Some people are difficult to talk with.

CP:  Most people are willing to talk about themselves.  You ask a leading question and they’re off.  With any luck!  I remember the first time I met Michael Lowe. We were still having dinner in the University Centre and I was sitting next to this chap.  And I said “Should I know you?”  And he said “No.”  He answered my question, and that was it.  But then he did explain. 

KF:  Clare Hall has always been full of interesting people, and mostly very nice people.  I won’t ask you to tell me which ones weren’t so nice.

CP:  I can’t think of any that I positively disliked, some were better than others.

KF:  When Brian was President, you weren’t Sir Brian Pippard and Lady Pippard yet, were you?

CP:  No, that came in 1974, after Brian became Cavendish Professor.

KF:  Would you tell me about the dinners you gave in the President’s Lodge?

CP:  I’m amazed at what I did!  I’d have dinner for eight or ten – four or five times a term.  With no help in the kitchen. Three or four courses. 

KF:  And you cooked it all.

CP:  And I cooked it.  I have the menus.  Ever since I’ve had dinner parties at all I’ve kept a record of the menus, for example, a first course of marinated kippers with brown bread and butter, main course of duck and turnips, a salad, and creme mascarpone for dessert. Sometimes I kept record of who was there as well. There was one awful party.  I caught Brian’s eye and signaled, “what do we do?”  Had to let it go.  Yes, there were moments.  But I’m amazed now at what I did then.

KF:  Were your dinners mainly for people of the College, fellows and visiting fellows?

CP:  In theory it was a mixture. Locals and visitors.  It was a way to get the visitors involved and make them feel at home.  It was all quite fun. When the children were a bit bigger, Eleanor was allowed to take away the soup plates, Debbie would take away the next course, and Corinna would do the main course.  And Corinna was also allowed to have a glass of sherry . . . or at least a taste.

KF:  Did they learn to cook from you?

CP:  They didn’t learn to cook.  They learned to wait.  I don’t know how they learned to cook.  They just did.  Came naturally to them.

KF:  Where did you buy your groceries? 

CP:  There was a very good little grocer in Newnham, and I must have gone shopping in the town.  An easy trip.  Straight down and across the Garret Hostel bridge and you’re in the middle.

KF:  But if you were on your bicycle you couldn’t carry enough groceries for a dinner for ten people. 

CP:  Some things were delivered.  And we had what we could afford and that was it.  It was really all great fun.

KF:  Since then I think the Presidents’ families have depended somewhat on the Clare Hall kitchen.

CP:  I could have had dinners sent in from the kitchen.  But I scorned it.  Well, it’s my house, and they’ve come here!  So it’s me doing the cooking, and that’s it!  We did have a washer-upper.  Which was just as well.  Otherwise I’d be doing it all night.  And we had a very good cleaning lady.  We did eventually get a dishwasher. 

KF:  When you were doing all this cooking at the President’s Lodge, there was a good chef at the same time over in the Clare Hall kitchen, wasn’t there? 

CP:  There was.  Patrice . . . Patrice was the chef.

KF:  I’ve heard that this was really a good time at Clare Hall for eating – that there were fine meals in the dining room.

CP:  Yes, with Patrice in the kitchen, I think the food was one of the things that were always good — one of the things that held the College. 

KF:  I’ve often heard the name Francoise.  Who was Francoise?

CP:  Francoise was the manageress.  She and Patrice were often at loggerheads.  Not surprising.  One was a Breton and the other a Norman.  But Francoise really was very good too.  We owed her a lot for how the whole thing ran.

KF:  Was the bar man John there then?

CP: Yes, and he’s still there.  He was the original.

KF:  Did the College have any wines then?  Was there a wine cellar? A wine person?

CP:  They certainly bought wine.  A chap who was with the Cambridge University Press – Dick David – organized the wine.  He also helped choose the crockery.  He picked up a cup and threw it to the floor.  And it bounced.  They had said it was unbreakable, and he was going to find out. The College was on a tight budget.

KF:  So that is the College crockery with the little seal on it?

CP:  No, that came later.  I think what we had in the first place was perfectly plain.  It’s gone upmarket since. 

KF: One of the books about Clare Hall mentions a croquet set being bought for the College, as though this was a big financial outlay!

CP:  I think that was on Elmside.  There was already grass there.  But everything was on a shoestring.  I think we did very well, under the circumstances.

KF:  Did you do any gardening there at the President’s Lodge?

CP:  I planted some things in the courtyard.

KF:  Did it bother you to be living right over the garage?

CP:  No.  Didn’t even notice it.  We didn’t have a car, anyway.

KF:  Did you have any influence on what was planted in the Clare Hall gardens?

CP:  Elmside garden I did.  They recently scrapped it.  If you come out of the main Clare Hall building, toward Elmside, on the left there used to be a small garden.  They asked me to suggest something.  So I duly suggested things, which they didn’t like, but they planted it.

KF:  You’ve planted a wonderful garden here in Porson Road.

CP:  My mother taught me.  She said, you divide it into three lots.  You have flowerbeds, you have lawn, and you have vegetables. Except here there’s a little arboretum in between.  It used to be an orchard.  Absolutely useless.  Not a single fruit did I get.  Strawberries I could do.  But tree fruit?  No good at all.  Raspberries, strawberries, red currents, black currents – but all in a cage.

KF: Brian was a very fine pianist, and you had two pianos at Clare Hall. I believe Brian insisted there be room for both in the President’s Lodge.

CP:  Yes, he did. It was nice having two.

KF:  The chamber music group that Brian had later — did that start when he was President?

CP:  No, there was the occasional thing like that that happened, but not regularly.

KF:  Terrence Armstrong had a little group.  He played the oboe.

CP:  That was wind players only.  I don’t remember Brian doing music when he was President, but he must have. He obviously accompanied people. I don’t remember his doing a concert on his own.  But he might have. 

KF:  But he was still playing during that time.  Practicing?

CP:  Oh yes.  But he never practiced.  That was not what he did.  He played.  He played a lot.  One of our pianos was his original piano. The other belonged to some very old friends who used to live in the old Oast House in Malting Lane.  I lived with them for a long time, before I married, because he was my godfather.  And then, I think, when he died, Caroline, their daughter, was living on a farm in Norfolk, and it was totally unsuitable for a piano.  She said, “my piano is going to ruin,” or something like that.  And Brian said, “I’ll have it.”  Just like that.  Because he always liked that one.  Actually I liked the other one better. 

KF:  Did Clare Hall itself have a piano?

CP:  Not at first. But they did get a good piano. On one occasion they had three . . . no, four people on one piano.  For a special concert.  It would have been Brian, Malcolm Longair and Nick Temperley, a distinguished visiting fellow in musicology . . and I can’t remember who the fourth was. 

KF:  All on the same piano?

CP:  A bit of a squash.  I made a cover for one of the pianos.  Someone decided it should have a cover, and I said, well, I can deal with that.

KF:  Brian’s chamber music group still comes here to your house every week? 

CP:  Yes.  They’ve been coming for years.

KF:  And you still make lunch for them?

CP:  Yes.  I’m not sure whether they come for the food or the music.  Perhaps it’s a mixture. 

KF:  Are any of your girls musical?

CP:  All slightly.  Corinna sings.  She used to play the clarinet. Debbie plays the piano and has actually started taking lessons.  Eleanor plays the piano, bassoon, French horn.  You name it, Ella does it, as long as it isn’t strings.  She wanted to play the bassoon when she was very young.  When she first had a bassoon it was about the same height as she was.  Brian always wanted to play the bassoon, but he never got around to it.

KF:  It must have pleased him that Ella wanted to play it. 

CP:  Yes, and that made him much more willing that she should do it.  It’s not a cheap instrument.  He wanted her to have a good one.  When it became obvious that she was going to be quite good, they went up to London to see THE bassoon man, and she has a very good bassoon.

KF:  I want to ask you a little bit about your life before Clare Hall.  I know that during the Second World War you were a Wren?

CP:  Yes, I was a Wren.

KF:  So what did you do?

CP:  I was a messenger most of the time.  At first, I was in a big office where all the signals came in and we had to distribute the signals.  This was at Liverpool.  Derby House.  I did that for three years, by which time I was a Petty Officer.  And then I had a commission, and I went to Chatham.  That was for deciphers, which was quite amazing, because all sorts of chatter came through.  I was ciphering and deciphering.  Then the war ended and I was going to be demobbed.  I couldn’t bear the thought of coming out.  I didn’t know what I would do.  I’d lived a sheltered life for so many years, having everything provided in the Wrens.  Even your clothes.  So I stayed on the next year during which time I was redeployed to write up the official history, Naval history, the origin of the Wrens.  That was quite fun.  It went right back to the First World War.  And then I packed that in, after six years in the Wrens.  After that I went to the art school in Cambridge, which used to be quite separate from the tech.  I wanted to do illumination – illumination of manuscripts.  It was only a one year course.  So they said, why don’t you do book binding as well.  So I did.

KF:  And that was where your book binding started.

CP:  Yes.

KF:  Were you able to continue book binding while you were living in the President’s Lodge? 

CP:  No.  I didn’t have a workshop.  You have to have a workshop. I did tapestry, on a frame.

KF:  Do you have any friends who have lasted from when you were in the Wrens?

CP:  The only one who really stuck was Edith Pargeter.  She writes books.  We were all “watch people”; always on at different times. She was on one watch and I was on another.  But eventually, after you’d been on all night, you’d have a whole day off.  And one day that I’d been all night, she was off in the morning, so we actually did meet.  After that we saw quite a lot of one another.  Yes, I think she was the only one that I saw again afterwards.

KF:  So – going back to when you first came to Cambridge. How did you meet Brian?

CP: I met Brian when I lived with my godfather, when I was in art school.  My godfather, Billy (William Sidney Drew) was a singing teacher, and they used to have coffee mornings on Sundays.  This was when Brian came along.  He was accompanying.  So we knew one another for a couple of years.  And then we married in 1955. 

KF:  Did you have a musical background yourself?

CP:  My father was a musician.  He was a church organist.  Also played the piano.  He played any instrument that came along.  I didn’t have any lessons at all.  He’d say “Not like that Lottie.” And that was it.  He must have taught me the notes basically.  He’d suggest you play something, and then he’d say it was all wrong.  Eventually, when we lived in Exeter, he arranged for me to have some piano lessons with the organist of Exeter Cathedral.  And so I duly went.  He said, play me your piece, and I played my Chopin Mazurka or whatever it was, and he sort of sighed.  He took me on, but I think he only did it because of my father.  It didn’t last very long. About a term I think.

KF:  So you weren’t doing any music by the time you met Brian.

CP:  I always played the piano in a general sort of way. Occasionally still do,

KF:  After you were married, you and Brian must have lived somewhere else in Cambridge before you moved to this house and later to Clare Hall.

CP:  The first year after we were married we spent in Chicago, and then we had a College flat, on the corner of Queen Edith’s Way.  There were three or four little flats that belonged to Clare.  We had that while this house here was being built. 

KF:  Was part of this house already here? 

CP:  Yes, we just built on that bit.  We “threw out a wing,” and went over the garage.  A horribly cold room, but quite big.  That was a playroom in the first place, what is now my workshop.

KF:  Were you living here just before you moved to Clare Hall? 

CP:  Yes, we were here.  We kept the house while we were living at Clare Hall. I think Clare College took it and put visitors in.  It was curious coming back to this house after our time in the President’s Lodge.  Of course we had taken the piano with us.  We came back, and there was an upright!  It looked horrid!  At least it was a piano.

KF:  Going back to when you lived in Chicago for a year.  Did you like that at all?

CP:  I think neither here nor there.  It was what we were doing.  Newly married and one thing and another.  All was very peculiar. 

KF:  Have you ever lived in America other than that?

CP:  That was the only time.  I’ve been since, for some conference or something.

KF:  Did Brian take a while to figure out how to be President of Clare Hall?  Was it a struggle at all for him, or did he immediately . . .

CP:  I think he took it all very calmly.  It was what he was going to do — and he was going to do it – and that was how he was going to do it.  I don’t know how much it worried him.  He didn’t let on.  He tried to set the standards of things. That it should be friendly.  Not ultra-formal.

KF:  And you were part of setting the standards too.

CP:  I just did what I had to do . . . you know.  I had to be nice to people.  That was it!

KF:  You also partly set the standard for how you dressed. You often wore long gowns for dinners, and you made them.

C:  Yes, even coming on a bicycle, when we no longer lived at Clare Hall, I wore long gowns.

KF:  You also had some beautiful jumpers when we met you in the eighties. I believe you made everything you wore.

CP:  I made everything, yes.

KF:  The dress at Clare Hall then was not ultra-formal, but it was more formal in the early days and in the 1980s than it is now.

CP:  Brian always wore his turtle neck.  And he never had a tie.

KF:  Were there children’s parties at Clare Hall when the College began?

CP:  From the word go . . . as soon as there were children in the place, there was a Christmas party. There was a fine upstanding chap who lived up the road who was always Father Christmas.  Early on there was also a Guy Fawkes party. That was a great crisis!  Being English, we had a Guy.  And we burned him.  And the American children were absolutely flabbergasted – “you couldn’t burn him!” “Terrible!”  It took ages to get over that one.  We didn’t have a Guy after that. 

KF:  The Astronomy Club was there early.

CP:  They came and lunched at Clare Hall on Thursdays.  That was Malcolm Longair’s doing – bringing them there.  Stephen Hawking was part of that.

KF:  After you were no longer the President’s wife, did you still feel you had some influence in the College?

CP:  Oh yes.  And I did put my foot down occasionally.  But not very often.

KF:   I remember one time you influenced the choice of menus in the dining room. This was about 1990.  They were considering cutting out the cheese course at the Wednesday night Formal Hall — or having each person choose between cheese and dessert. You and Brian and my husband Yale and I objected strongly and vocally.  Yale and I didn’t have enough clout really to influence that decision, but you certainly did. They still have the cheese AND the pudding, to this day.

CP:  Yes.

KF:  I’m thinking of that wonderful picture, called “The Conversation,” that hangs on the dining room wall, of Brian, Richard Eden, and Lord Ashby.  When was that done?

CP:  That was while Brian was still President.  The same man also did one of Will Taylor, who was also one of the Founding Fathers [one of the Foundation Official Fellows of the College; an X-ray crystallographer] who lived around the corner here.  They had a portrait made of him and they thought the chap who did it was good.  I think he is good.  The way they’re sitting, how he’s got them posed, how they’re looking.  They’re all absolutely true to life. 

KF:  Where was it done? 

CP:  They were done individually, and then put together.  So I don’t know where they were done.  Anywhere convenient, presumably.

KF:  Brian looks so convivial!  It’s a wonderful picture of all of them.

CP:  They were all actually typical.  All their poses.

KF:  Was there ever a suggestion that there should be a separate portrait of Brian for the walls, since they do have a separate one of nearly every other President. 

CP:  No. Because they’ve got the three of them.  The Founding Fathers.  I think they didn’t feel that was necessary. 

KF:  Were there art exhibits in the College then.?

CP:  Very occasionally.  We did have a few exhibitions.  Not as frequently as now, and not on the same scale.

KF:  When you moved into the President’s Lodge and became the First Lady of the College, was there anything that really surprised you? 

CP: It was all so strange.  I’m not sure how surprised I was, but it was very strange. I don’t think I had any preconceived ideas about what it was going to be like.

KF:  Did you change your behavior or your dress or anything for that?

CP:  I can’t think of anything that I did that was different.  I just went on being me.  What else would I have done?

KF:  You might have put on airs.

CP:  Well, I might have, but that isn’t like me, is it.

KF:  And this, on the mantle, is the card from . . .

CP:  Yes, that’s from the King and Queen.  I think that’s going to stay there for a bit.

I’ve had my hundredth birthday now.  I’m still here.  Still going strong.  Still book binding.   I ran out this morning and ordered a whole lot more stuff. 

[Postscript from Kitty Ferguson:  When Brian was chosen to be the first President of Clare Hall, I believe it must not have been only because of the strength of his own abilities and personality.  It was also because of Charlotte and their family.  There could not have been a better start for Clare Hall.]


Kitty Ferguson is Stephen Hawking’s biographer and has also written many other books on subjects in the history of science and the nexus of science and religion.  The family first came to Clare Hall when Kitty’s husband Prof Yale Ferguson was a Visiting Fellow in 1986-87.  The Fergusons now live in Cambridge about half of every year and both are Life Members of the College.