William Hepworth Thompson

Thompson, by Samuel Laurence1810-1886

Master; Vice-Chancellor; Regius Professor of Greek.

Thompson was born in York, the eldest of eleven children of William Thompson, a solicitor. He was educated first at a school in York and thereafter by a succession of private tutors, the last of whom was the Revd Thomas Scott, perpetual curate of Gawcott, Buckinghamshire, and father of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Thompson entered Trinity  as a pensioner in 1828. He developed a lifelong friendship with his Tutor, George Peacock, whom he described as ‘the best and wisest of tutors’. In 1830 he was elected a scholar, and in 1831 he obtained one of the members' prizes for a Latin essay. He proceeded BA in 1832, being placed tenth senior optime in the mathematical tripos. He was subsequently fourth in the first class of the classical tripos, and obtained the second Chancellor's Medal for classical learning. In 1834 he was elected Fellow, and in the following year proceeded to the MA degree.

Thompson's classical attainments marked him out for work in College, but, as there was no immediate prospect of a vacancy among the assistant tutors, in 1836 he accepted the headmastership of an experimental school at Leicester, called the collegiate school. In 1837, on the appointment of E.L. Lushington to the Greek chair at Glasgow, he was recalled to Trinity and became one of the assistant tutors. He was ordained deacon on 4 June 1837 and priest on 27 May the following year. In 1844 he was appointed a tutor. In his approach to this office Thompson followed the lead of his predecessor, George Peacock. At a time when undergraduates were kept at a distance by their seniors, he made his pupils feel that he really stood to them in loco parentis. He could be severe when discipline required it, but he was always inflexibly just and untrammelled by pedantic adherence to tradition.

Thompson remained a Tutor until 1853, when he was elected Regius Professor of Greek, and was appointed to a canonry at Ely, at that time annexed to the professorship. After his election as Greek professor, he was nominated one of the eight senior Fellows of his college, under the belief that the statutes, as revised in 1844, permitted the Greek professor to remain a Fellow. A chancery suit was instituted against him, however, by the Revd Joseph Edleston, the Fellow next below him on the list, and, judgment having been given against Thompson by the Lord Chancellor, he became a nominal Fellow only, retaining his rooms in College and residing there when not at Ely.

Thompson's lectures were modelled upon those of his early teachers, Hare and Thirlwall, while containing characteristics of his own. He was particularly remembered for his own translations of the books he was teaching, which were delivered without notes during his lectures. J.E. Sandys commented that ‘By his published writings and by his personal influence he did much towards widening the range of classical studies in Cambridge, and preventing their being unduly limited to verbal scholarship’. Most of Thompson's published work was on Plato, although he never produced the complete edition or translation he is said to have contemplated. He published editions of the Phaedrus (1868) and the Gorgias (1871), and a paper on the Sophist (Transactions of the Cambridge Philological Society, 10.146), in which he supported the genuineness of the dialogue and discussed the influence of the Eleatics on later Greek philosophy.

In March 1866, on the death of Dr William Whewell, Thompson was appointed master of Trinity. Soon afterwards he married Frances Elizabeth, née Selwyn, the widow of George Peacock. He resigned the professorship of Greek in December of the same year. In 1867-8 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University. The twenty years of his mastership were years of activity and progress. Although he disliked the routine of ordinary business, he had a strong sense of the responsibilities of his office, and shrank from no effort where the good of his College was concerned. He was alert to the necessity for reform, and the statutes framed in 1872, as well as those which received the royal assent in 1882, owed much to his criticism and support. He died at the Master's Lodge and was buried in the Chapel - the last to be honoured in this way.

Those who knew him superficially thought him cold, haughty, and sarcastic. In reality he was shy, diffident, and slightly nervous in society. But he had a quick appreciation of the weak points in an argument or a conversation, together with a keen literary faculty, so that he would rapidly gather up the results of a discussion into a sentence which fell, as though of itself, into an epigram. One of Thompson's sayings, ‘We are none of us infallible, not even the youngest among us’, became proverbial. It was a reply made incidentally, on 30 March 1878, at one of the College meetings held for the alteration of statutes, to a junior Fellow who had proposed to throw upon the senior members of the society a new and somewhat onerous responsibility. Thompson had a wide knowledge of English and foreign literature; he travelled a good deal, and spoke French and German fluently; he was fond of art, and a good judge of pictures and sculpture.


Tombstone inscription Translation
W.H.T. M.C. 1866-1886 OB. OCT. 1 1886 ÆT. 76 William Hepworth Thompson,
Master of the College 1866-1886,
died on 1st October 1886 at the age of 76.

William Hepworth Thompson Thompson tomb

Buried in the Ante-Chapel.
Brass on the north wall of the Ante-Chapel.



Arthur Thacker


Full index of



Edward Walpole
Sculpture Gallery
Brass Gallery Statue Gallery Interments &Tombstones Gallery War Memorial Gallery