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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.