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A day in the life of a bedder

In Tom Sharpe’s (1948) satirical depictions of Cambridge colleges the bedders always play a prominent role, from the buxom Mrs Biggs to the infamous ‘Bedder Test’.

However, the role of a bedder has changed greatly over the centuries. When the University only accepted male students, bedders had the job of looking after the young men who were the charges of the College. As well as cleaning the rooms and making the beds, they would prepare the fires, bring water for washing and shaving, and even make breakfast. Now, bedders are more likely to vacuum the rooms and empty the bins. At Pembroke they no longer change the bed linen at all during term time, despite keeping their traditional name.

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On a standard day, bedders start arriving from 8am. They report to the linen room where they may take a sweet from one of the enormous jars as they wait to be given their ‘slips’. These handwritten notes tell them exactly which rooms need dealing with during the morning. Then, attired in a tabard and with a bucket full of supplies in their hand, it’s off to work.

It is a tiring job. Furniture has to be moved, surfaces dusted, floors vacuumed, sinks cleaned – and that’s just in the bedrooms. After the end of term, properly cleaning a single room can take up to half an hour, even when you can manoeuvre the bed sheets into hospital corners at the flick of a wrist. It all adds up when there are hundreds to do.

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The busiest days of the year are always those that follow graduation, when the students move out for the summer vacation. Once they have vacated, sometimes as late as the Friday morning, the team have one day – known as ‘muck out Saturday – to prepare rooms for the guests attending the annual College dinner. Then the international programme students begin arriving, meaning that 276 more rooms need to be ready.

The departing students leave behind a surprising array of unwanted items in their room: alongside chipped mugs, odd socks and burnt saucepans are traffic cones, rugby equipment and even a fake spider.

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One bedder tells me: ‘We had one young man who kept his room in such a state that when his parents arrived to collect him they were horrified. His Mum even came and apologised to me. He just said, ‘Well, I haven’t tidied my room, but I have written a poem about it.”’ She laughs: ‘Perhaps I should put this vacuum down and write a poem about it myself!’

The linen room is run by the Housekeeper, Caroline Adams, and staffed by two sisters – Maureen Jay and Eileen Eves. They are following a family tradition, as their mother also worked in the department and Maureen’s daughter is now part of the team too. Maureen tells me: ‘It actually feels like a family here. We always chat to people when they come in, and we’ll soon know if something is wrong. People feel they have someone to talk to about problems at home, and I think that’s really important.’

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Coffee break at half ten is an ideal time for a chat, a smoke and a biscuit. The team is an international mix and so Russian, Spanish and British women all gossip together. There are a few men too, and a vast range of ages. Many of the bedders have come from other jobs in healthcare, hospitality or retail. One tells me, as she lugs an enormous black sack of rubbish towards the bin, ‘I really do enjoy this job, actually. I used to work in a shop and it was so stressful. The great thing about doing this is that I don’t have to take my work home with me.’

So while things are very different from how they once were, it seems that at Pembroke things in the Housekeeping Department just keep getting bedder.

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