The September 2017 edition of Artists & Illustrators magazine featured the winners of prestigious painting competitions. Benjamin Sullivan had top billing. His winning BP Portrait Award 2017 portrait, Breech!, of his wife Virginia breastfeeding their daughter, is not only skilfully executed but incredibly touching. As feature writer Natalie Milner observes, ‘there’s no doubt that the time and love behind this painting will outlive a casual selfie.’
Whilst I love this painting, it is a 2008 commission of his that I’m particularly drawn to. The All Souls Triptych is a portrait of the domestic and non-academic staff at All Souls College, Oxford. To execute this work, Sullivan lived and worked at the college for 18 months, observing the staff unobtrusively, taking account of ‘idiosyncrasies and nuances of character’. As Milner informs us, Sullivan wanted to give an account of people’s day-to-day activities: to celebrate them as individuals and elevate their work.
Through my research and writing on Cambridge college servants from 1900 to the present day, I’m attempting to achieve a similar result – insightful and engaging descriptions of the different roles that may be broadly described as ‘servants’, illuminated by memories and stories shared by retired and current college staff. Portraits that reflect on how the roles have changed over the past 120 years or so.
As with my illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge, the research also involves exploring archival records. Of late, I’ve been spending time in the excellent King’s College Archive Centre, reading material from the first half of the twentieth century. Guided by the Archivist Patricia McGuire, I’ve scrutinised files on, ‘College Servants (General) Private 1920-34’; ‘Correspondence concerning the appointment of a Lady Superintendent’; ’Bedmakers Bus Service, Dec 1937-May 1940’; and ’Dadie’s War Correspondence’.
I’ve been poring over index cards on bedmakers (1930-1960), typed letters, hand-written notes, annotations, and reports. Some voices from the past are coming through strongly, and I don’t just mean the more obvious, such as Dadie Rylands, already a well-known Cambridge persona who, as it happens, served as Domus Bursar at the college, thereby overseeing servants.
Take chef Arthur G. Allen, who completed an apprenticeship at Trinity College and went on to hotel work in Norwich and Lowestoft before joining the staff at King’s in October 1922. In March that year Allen writes to King’s Bursar, H. G. Durnford, enquiring about possible employment. In his enquiry Allen demonstrates a certain boldness by setting out his terms; £5 a week plus food. Perhaps the fact that he was already in a job gave him self-assurance. His maturity (he was 42 at the time) and his prior experience of college work must have helped too. Furthermore, his family were no strangers to this environment – on further investigation I discovered that his father had worked as a college shoeblack.
And no doubt Allen was in touch with the Cambridge network of college cooks. Wroth, who wrote about college servants at St John’s, Cambridge 1850-1900, acknowledges the network whereby cooks exchanged intimate knowledge of each establishment. One wonders if, in early 1922, Allen had inside information about King’s employment of a temporary chef during that Easter Term at a salary of £6 a week. Word must have been out that King’s were in need of a chef, as in March, Durnford receives another enquiry from an F. W. Wallace, who, whilst having some college experience, clearly considers his time in the ‘Merchant Service’ cooking for as many as 700 passengers, more noteworthy,
‘I have recently seen one of your every day menus & may I say that it is child’s play to what I have had to do when at sea.’
It wasn’t unusual for a qualified cook to work at establishments outside academia after serving his college apprenticeship, and then return to a college in a more senior position. Another chef, or ‘head cook’, who had served his apprenticeship at Trinity was Edwin Cash, whose career was typical of many. After qualifying he gained further experience in London and Cheltenham and then returned to Cambridge to work for St John’s where he gave over 30 years of service.
At St John’s before the twentieth century, and indeed at many Cambridge colleges, the head cook did not receive a college stipend but instead ran the kitchen as his own personal enterprise. Or maybe we should say ‘kingdom’. Wroth says,
‘There was no doubt that those who scrubbed the vegetables, carried sacks of potatoes, and kept fires in the kitchen were college servants. The head cooks, however, did not consider themselves as servants; most of them ran successful enterprises based in the college kitchens supplying both town customers and members of college. The Cambridge community did not consider them as servants either.’
However, this was different at King’s where the cooks were college employees. At the same time Cash was at St John’s, King’s employed a Mr Ernest Ing as cook on a six month trial from Midsummer 1891 at a salary of £180 a year. Ing went on to serve King’s for ten years and during his period of office acted as secretary to the Cambridge College Servants’ Boat, Cricket and Football Clubs. A busy man in the servant fraternity.
So did Allen’s approach to King’s College work out?
In March 1922 it was unsuccessful, as explained by an exchange of letters, after he and Durnford had spoken by telephone. On 15 March Durnford writes,
‘I have thought a good deal about the conditions on which you might be willing to come to this College as Chef. I am afraid I must state at once that a wage of £5 weekly plus food is more than I feel justified in offering for that particular post. I find that 90/- per week is more nearly the wage paid to College Chefs who are not entrusted with any special responsibilities of management besides their own department: and unless the cost of living increases, I [would not] not be prepared to go beyond that figure.’
Allen replies that it would not be of any advantage for him to change his present position. But that’s not the end of the story. On 23 August, Allen turns down another offer from Durnford, saying that under present conditions he is unable to, ‘do justice to the college or myself’. And then, on 31st we find that not only have they spoken once again by telephone but that Allen accepts the post of ‘Cook Manager’ of King’s kitchen, with an agreed starting date of 5 October 1922.
The position of ‘Kitchen Manager’ at King’s had been salaried at £225 in 1919 and a chef was paid £234 (£4.10s per week and food – only ten shillings less than Allen’s original terms of £5 for a chef role). Allen took over from W. Whitecross as Cook Manager at a salary of £250 per annum.
On 19 September 1922, Allen writes to Durnford, recommending a Mr Ellwood from the University Arms Hotel, for employment in his team at King’s, and assures him that,
‘the staff will soon fall in with my systems of working, and that business will go smoothly.’
The male kitchen staff at King’s had been listed at November 1921 as comprising two chefs, three cooks, a store man, a boiler man, seven porters, an apprentice, one kitchen manager, a head clerk and two assistant clerks. One hopes that Allen was able to build good relations with all concerned – unlike at another Cambridge college, where a former apprentice recalls the head chef and kitchen manager, albeit it in the 1960s, as constantly being at loggerheads.
Clearly, kitchens were, and can still be, stressful environments.
Things must have gone well, at least for a few years, because in 1930 Allen is still at the College and his salary is £325. As I continue to read King’s archives over the coming weeks, I hope to discover more of his college story (in the 1939 Register he is listed as ‘Chef Manager’ and I know that he died in 1959). Perhaps his family might read this and can tell me more?
If you work, or have worked as a ‘college servant’, or if you have a family member or ancestor who has done so, I’d be delighted to hear your story.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org