James Bond at Trinity

On 5 February 1964 Ian Fleming and James Bond met and dined together for the first and last time. Fourteen years earlier Fleming had been at Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica, preparing for his wedding, when he began writing a spy novel to settle his nerves. His hero, he decided, ought to have a straightforward English name, ‘simple and solid, with no overtones to distract the reader’, and he found it on the cover of a book he described as ‘one of my bibles’, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, ‘a very famous ornithological book indeed’.[1]

Birds of the West Indies was first published in 1936 and has been reprinted many times.

The writer of the book, known to his friends as Jim Bond, was an American from a wealthy background in Philadelphia, educated in England at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. His wife Mary Wickham Bond described him as ‘a quiet man with a quiet name’, but he was not without some resemblance to his fictional namesake. As a biographer noted, though he seemed ‘a genteel, pipe-smoking naturalist, he was an adventurer with a reputation for occasional ruthlessness. An expert marksman, he saw birds the same way John James Audubon did in days of yore – down the barrel of a gun.’[2] If not a man of action, he was certainly a man of activity, who over a period of four decades made over a hundred scientific expeditions to the West Indies, collecting more than 290 of the 300 bird species known to the region.

The Bonds became aware of Fleming’s borrowing in 1961, and Mary, who was rather tickled by the situation, struck up a light-hearted correspondence with the novelist, who on his part seems to have been a little concerned that the couple might be contemplating legal action. Eventually, when the Bonds were in Jamaica in 1964, they called on Fleming at Goldeneye, only to find him in the middle of a TV interview. The author nevertheless welcomed them warmly and invited them to lunch. While they were eating Mary mentioned to her host that her husband had taken his degree at Cambridge. ‘He’s not an Englishman?’ Fleming exclaimed, apparently under the impression that this made a libel case more likely, and he was relieved to be contradicted. Mary went on to give an account of her husband’s early expeditions. ‘Anyone who’s referred to your husband’s books as often as I have,’ Fleming pointed out, ‘knows he been to more West Indies islands than probably anyone who’s ever lived. You must write up his experiences, you know. What’s actually happened to him outshines anything I’ve made my James Bond do.’[3]

James Bond and Ian Fleming at Goldeneye. Photo: Courtesy of David Contosta

Jim Bond’s experiences in the West Indies and his associations with the fictional spy have since been documented entertainingly by Mary Wickham Bond and others,[4] but a few more details can be given about his Trinity career than have yet been published.

In 1913 Bond’s widowed father Francis Edward Bond married for a second time, and his new wife, an Englishwoman with two children of her own, insisted that the family move to England. Young Jim spent the years of the war at Harrow, which he did not find a welcoming environment. ‘The English boys mocked his American accent,’ one of his biographers records, ‘all the while insisting that America was a savage and uncouth land filled with wild Indians and the dregs of European society. The worst of the teasing stopped only after Jim became so enraged that he grabbed a penknife and stabbed one of his tormentors in the arm. From then on most of the boys respected him for standing up and fighting back.’[5]

Bond’s house at Harrow was Druries, an impressive Victorian residence built in 1865, where his housemaster was N. K. Stephen, an experienced teacher who had been in charge of the house since 1906. Stephen had joined the school as an assistant master in 1888 after a stellar career at Fettes College and Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left laden with prizes and with a double-first in classics, achievements only matched by his success on the cricket field. It was probably the housemaster’s connection with Trinity that determined Jim Bond’s choice of college.

After a first contact with Trinity (of which there is no record) Stephen was sent paperwork to complete, and on 17 July 1918 he returned a form giving Bond’s personal details and testifying to his good moral character and satisfactory conduct. In a covering note he added, ‘Bond is a virtuous boy, American by parentage, of no particular ability. He will never give any trouble.’ This, at least, is in stark contrast to the fictional James Bond, who was removed from Eton after two terms for repeatedly breaching the curfew and for some alleged trouble with a maid; by an odd coincidence he then went on to Fettes, N. K. Stephen’s school.

Note by N. K. Stephen

Shortly afterwards the college received Bond’s application to take the College Entrance Examination and the University Previous Examinations. All the correspondence about Bond’s admission to Trinity was directed to the historian R. V. Laurence, who was perhaps originally intended to be his tutor, but, if this was so, the arrangement was later changed. About this time Bond also made plans to join a military training programme for junior officers, apparently with the intention of pursuing a career in the American army should he fail to get into Cambridge.

Bond passed Trinity’s Entrance Examination in September, and came up to Cambridge again in October for the Previous Examinations, but failed one of them. His housemaster recommended he should take extra tuition in Cambridge before trying again at Christmas, so Bond wrote to Laurence asking him to recommend a tutor, adding that he still had three months before he was due to join the American army.

Members of the 5th Officer Cadet Battalion in Great Court, 1918

Happily Bond succeeded in the university examination at the second attempt, and his father wrote to tell Laurence that he wanted his son to join the College the next term and wished him to take up the study of agriculture (there is no indication that this happened). Stephen followed up with details of James Bond’s modest academic record, and repeated his assessment of the young man’s character: ‘His conduct and application [at Harrow] were irreproachable. You will find him a boy of average ability, who will never give any sort of trouble.’

Meanwhile Bond began making arrangements for his removal to Trinity, and wrote to Laurence for practical details about his accommodation. ‘I would be very much obliged,’ he asked, ‘if you would send me the measurements of a rug for my sitting-room at Trinity College; also if you would tell me if I need any silver or china.’ These are details which are unlikely to concern many present-day students.

Letter from Jim Bond

James Bond was admitted at Trinity on the 8th of January and was assigned as his tutor Gaillard Lapsley, the American constitutional historian. F. E. Bond wrote to Lapsley shortly afterwards to express his satisfaction at this arrangement, observing, presumably with an eye to his son’s experiences at Harrow, ‘I’m glad he is to be under one of his countrymen.’

During his first and second years Bond lived within Trinity, on F staircase in New Court, but in his third year he moved out and took lodgings at 7 Jesus Lane.

Bond’s academic record at Cambridge was no more distinguished than it had been at Harrow, and all his examinations were passed in the third class: Parts I and II of the Special Examination in History in 1919 and 1920, and Parts I and II of the Special Examination in Political Economy in 1920 and 1922, the year in which he finally obtained his BA. He found time for other activities at Cambridge, however, particularly hunting, a pursuit which was in effect to become his career. He kept a hunting dog, and presumably kept up his skills in marksmanship. He also became the only American to join the University Pitt Club, an undergraduate club which had been temporarily closed during the latter part of the war but which reopened about the time of Bond’s arrival in Cambridge.

Bond returned to Philadelphia in 1922, and, after a few years in banking, began the life of exploration which resulted, among other things, in Birds of the West Indies.

James Bond with his nephew Dermot Bond in Great Court c. 1950. Photo: Courtesy of David Contosta

References

[1] Jim Wright, The Real James Bond (2020), p. 69.

[2] Wright, Real James Bond, p. 10.

[3] Mary Wickham Bond, How 007 Got His Name (1966), pp. 30-40, quotations pp. 35 and 36.

[4] Including David Contosta, The Private Life of James Bond (1993). We are very grateful to Professor Contosta for his correspondence and assistance with photographs of Jim Bond.

[5] Contosta, Private Life, p. 46

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “James Bond at Trinity

  1. That school report is hilarious! So patronising, indeed,so perfectly of its time. My university “reference” (requested for my first graduate job in1976), after stating that my performance had been “perfectly satisfactory”, went on to say that giving references was an outdated remnant of the servant-employing classes, and the writer declined to give any further or meaningful details.
    In the 1990’s, my own children’s school reports degenerated into a boring list of standards met and levels achieved by number only – no personal information at all. Such is the march of time.

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