Cambridge Mathematical Tripos: Wooden Spoons

In their end-of-year examinations, successful undergraduate students in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos used to be placed in one of three Classes (it's now one of four Classes, since the middle Class II has been subdivided into Classes IIi and IIii). In Part II of the Mathematical Tripos (normally taken in the third year), students who are placed in Classes I, II and III are known as Wranglers, Senior Optimes and Junior Optimes respectively. For many years the precise position of students in each of the Classes has not been announced, but at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries this was not so. Indeed, there was much kudos in being the Senior Wrangler, i.e. top of the Wranglers. However, when there is a top, there is also a bottom and the custom arose of the bottom Junior Optime being presented with a wooden spoon.

Wooden Spoon

On degree day, the spoon was suspended on strings held by two friends in the Gallery of the Senate House so that the spoon hung above the graduand as the degree was awarded. When the graduate arose from his/her knees, the spoon was lowered to the ground and two other friends cut the string and presented the spoon to the individual concerned. The proceedings were carried out with the utmost ceremony and decorum with the tolerant consent of the Vice-Chancellor.

In 1906 two students from Selwyn College were bracketed together at the bottom. Each received a spoon from their friends. One of these is illustrated above. It now hangs on the staircase of the Selwyn College library. It is over a metre long.

Stephen J. Cowley, DAMTP, University of Cambridge.