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

 

6 thoughts on “Who cares about the college servant?

  1. My great aunt Elizabeth Piggott worked as a bedder for many years I am not sure which college but she lived at Summerfield Road Newnham she lost her husband in WW1 and was helped by students leaving linen etc which they couldnt be bothered to take when they left she spent one day a week at our house in the 1940s she was an older lady then we gave her food and my mother bought her a magazine to help out a very hard life. My mothers uncle Ted ?Piggott was door man at one of the colleges possibly early 1900s heard many stories of putting students to bed after a night out possibly royality he also lived at Newnham

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Ann. Such a hard life, as you say. I’ll be looking through some college newsletters over the coming months and will keep an eye out for the name, Piggott. Maybe Elizabeth worked at Newnham College. And Ted also. Julie

  2. My father-in-law was head of the wait staff at Jesus. When I was 18 I went to wait tables. Everyone was referred to as Sir and only the head waiters served Top table. It was required that the students dined in at least three times a week. Dress code was white blouse black skirt no pants as I remember. A quick break between first and second sitting.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Liz. Interesting that waitresses weren’t allowed to wear trousers. Sounds similar to the Heffers rule for the office girls in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wonder how often the students have to dine in these days, and if ‘Sir’ is used today. Probably not. Julie

  3. I remember the lady on the left in the bedders photo. I worked at Jesus College as a secretary from approx 1974 to 1988. I can remember lots of staff and students and a prank or two they got up to. Let me know if I can tell you anymore and I will put my thinking cap on!

    1. Thank you, Lynne. The lady on the left is my Nanna, Ethel Driver. How lovely that you recognised her. I’d love to hear more about your time at Jesus, so do please put your thinking cap on. My email is julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk and my mobile number is 0776611 4813. Julie

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