Category Archives: college servants

Who cares about the college servant?

A previous post on ‘Looking for the tradesman’s entrance’ briefly dwells on the notion of ‘service’ in the context of college, university and town communities. In asking what we mean by ‘being in’ and ‘being of’ service, I draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary which understandably focuses on the utilitarian nature of the act. Whilst there is reference to ‘helping or benefiting’ and to ‘friendly action’, there is scant consideration of whether or not a service is provided with care. One can of course be ‘in’ or ‘of’ service without caring.

My early conversations with retired college staff however, reveal just how much they do care. I spoke recently to a retired college bedder who sounded remarkably like a parent as she vehemently declared her loyalty to her charges, saying she would, “defend them to the hilt!” There were times when this bedder performed the role of surrogate mother, as no doubt many did. I certainly remember my Nanna, Ethel Driver, talking fondly of her ‘boys’ at Jesus College in the 1970s.

Just this week, a Queen’s College alumnus described the vital role his bedder played when he came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1959. Without her prompting he would never have got up in the morning.

Sound familiar?

Enid Porter, Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum from 1947 to 1976, states in her book on Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore that the bedders of today (1969) are devoted to the undergraduates in their care and take a keen interest in their well-being. She says there are known instances of women turning up for work even though their husbands had died during the preceding night. One such woman, on being told she should not have come replied, ‘I had to; the exams are on and I had to be here to see after my gentlemen.’

In loco parentis

It’s perhaps not surprising that retired tutor Ken Riley entitled his Clare College memoire, In Loco Parentis: a light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge tutor (2016). Riley acknowledges that the expression ‘in loco parentis’, in referring to the responsibilities normally associated with parenthood, may not be totally appropriate in the light of the age of majority being reduced in 1970 to eighteen years. Technically, all university students are adults. He does, however, still see the tutor role as guide, mentor and even ‘friend at court’ if the worst comes to the worst.

There were occasions when Riley, in his role as Rooms Tutor, had to discipline students (do parents not discipline their children?). He describes in some detail one such time when he received a report from the Domestic Bursar on the state of a flat occupied by three students,

‘in many ways, worst of all, [was] their lack of concern for the feelings of the bedmaker (bedder) who looks after and cleans the flat… the Domestic Bursar would not have visited the flat at all if their behaviour had not brought the bedder near to tears; it was his duty to investigate anything that upset any member of the College Staff.’

Riley demanded written assurance that the students had apologised to the bedmaker but some three weeks later just one had done so and two had never tried to find her to apologise, even though she came into the flat every weekday morning. Their ‘insulting’ excuse was that they were never up until nearly eleven o’clock at the earliest. A written apology was then sent to the bedder but they had made it impossible for her to resume her normal cleaning duties. After further developments, the College Master became involved and the three were exiled. That is, required to move out of Clare housing to non-college property.

For many of course it’s a different story and there are Cambridge alumni who keep in touch with their fondly remembered bedder or landlady, long after moving on. Billie Allinson’s mother, Mrs Bass, was a Hostelkeeper at Clare College’s Braeside for thirty-one years and is pictured in Clare Through the Twentieth Century (2001) with some of her students at the time of their matriculation in 1959 and then at a 1989 reunion in Mrs Bass’ eightieth year. Billie, who also worked at Clare College, still receives Christmas cards from her mother’s former charges.

In this post I reflect on who cares about the bedder. There are of course different perspectives to explore on the topic of college servants and a number of themes are already emerging from my early conversations.

Collecting your memories and stories

I plan to write a book that focuses on the period from 1900 to the present day. By ‘servants’, I don’t just mean bedders but also other staff such as butlers, porters, handymen, gardeners, buttery and pantry staff, and landladies.

As with This book is about Heffers (2016), my aim is to blend living memory with the desk research in order to create what I hope will be an informative and interesting portrait.

I’d be delighted to hear if you worked at a college and would be willing to tell me about your experience. Also, if you have a memory of college servants to share, no matter how fleeting.

Or maybe you have thoughts on the topic of college servants generally?

In researching the history of Heffers of Cambridge I had face-to-face and telephone conversations with former and current staff, customers and authors. People also kindly shared their stories via letters and emails. And contributions can be anonymised.

My email address is julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

And do say hello to Ethel and Ivy

My Nanna worked at Jesus as a bedder for many years. And yet the college has no trace of her existence. This is not uncommon. Here she is with her sister, Ivy, who also worked as a bedder.

Ethel & Ivy

 

Looking for the tradesman’s entrance

Whilst giving talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge, I’m reminded that many have memories of the firm. I enjoy sharing stories from the book and hearing anecdotes from members of the audience who were customers, authors, or employees.

Earlier this year, I received a communication from Sandor P. Vaci RIBA, who worked for the architects Austin Smith: Lord, at the time they were transforming Heffers’ Trinity Street premises into the radical new ‘University and General’ bookshop, opened by Lord Butler in 1970.

Sandor is kindly sharing his memories and images from the project, and I’m looking forward to meeting him later this year to hear more. A Hungarian born British architect who has lived in London since the 1956 Revolution, Sandor has many interests including cultural connections and sharing the public space.

He has put together a gallery of Budapest ‘portas’ (doors and doorways), from the city’s historic centre. As he says, the individually designed portas show astonishing variety, exuberance, originality and craftsmanship rarely found in other cities. It’s a lovely collection.

1930s modernist design. The coloured porthole grid and the Bauhaus composition makes this entrance unique.

It’s interesting to note Sandor’s observation that the doorways into residential blocks were single entries: all the residents, servants, tradesmen, deliveries and rubbish removals passed through (no back door or tradesman’s entrance for them).

As I start to work on my next social history project, on college service in the twentieth century, I’m prompted to wonder if the college servants used the same entrances as everyone else.

My aim is to explore the notion of ‘service’, in the context of college, university and town communities in Cambridge. As Alex Saunders from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society said to me recently, it’s a huge topic. My husband, Trevor, says it sounds like another doctoral research proposal (my first – and only PhD, was on the topic of community inside higher education).

When opening the door to a new project, I like to begin by contemplating the broader questions and possibilities. For this topic, some of the questions are informed by my own direct experience of working in higher education and of researching the field. Here are a few:

What do we mean by ‘service’, by ‘being in’ service and by ‘being of’ service?
The condition of being a servant; the fact of serving a master?
The condition, station, or occupation of being a servant?
A particular employ; the serving of a certain master or household?
Performance of the duties of a servant; attendance of servants; work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master?
To do, bear (one) service, to serve, attend on (a master)?
An act of serving; a duty or piece of work done for a master or superior?
An act of helping or benefiting; an instance of beneficial or friendly action; a useful office?
Waiting at table, supply of food; hence, supply of commodities, etc?
Provision (of labour, material appliances, etc.) for the carrying out of some work for which there is a constant public demand?

(with thanks to the OED)

What roles in this context would be classified as ‘college servants’?
Bedder; porter; gyp; butler; waiter; clerk; librarian?

Who is ‘serving’ whom?
Individuals serving individuals?
Individuals serving institutions?
Institutions serving society?
Society serving institutions?
Institutions serving individuals?
Individuals serving individuals?

What is the impact of the changing undergraduate population during the twentieth century?
The demographic and size of the population changed dramatically between 1900 and 2000.

What is the impact of changes in the role of colleges and universities in society during the twentieth century?
A complex and weathered terrain, the sector saw sweeping changes during this period.

A family in service

Like many who were raised in Cambridge, members of my family were ‘in college service’.

My Nanna, Ethel Lily Driver (1914-2006), lived in Christchurch Street and was a ‘bedder’ at Jesus College. Her mother, Lily Ethel Parsons (1895-1952) who lived in Ross Street, is listed on the 1939 Register as a ‘college help’.

My great-grandmother, Henrietta Saunders (1877-1971) who lived in the old dairy in Gold Street, was a ‘bedder’ at Queens College. Her husband, George Saunders (1873-1965) was a ‘general labourer’ who, as the story goes, once stood back to admire his own work on the roof of the Senate House.

Thankfully, he survived the fall.