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Porters of Pembroke

In a recent article in CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, a number of Cambridge Porters spilled the beans about their (very varied) jobs.

Extract taken from The Lost Key CAM 83. Headings added for this blog.

Sarah Hendry and Gordon Murray (then Head Porter at Homerton, now Pembroke’s Head Porter following the retirement of John Spelzini in March this year) were featured in the article.

Porters: Ready for anything

Photo: CAM 83

Photo: CAM 83. Sarah Hendry at Pembroke

Porters might take on the role of security guard, student counsellor, postal worker, tourist guide, conference assistant, locksmith, receptionist or crime prevention officer – and even, on occasion, do a little of the heavy lifting that Cambridge outsiders might assume their job entails. And it’s full of surprises. Ahough Head Porter, Gordon Murray, had previously served in the Household Cavalry, for the City of London Police and as John Major’s close protection officer when in Cambridgeshire, he admits that he still faces situations he has never encountered before.

He says: “Even after 30-odd years in public service, I’m never surprised at being surprised. Unexpected events spring up in all communities, and an academic place of learning is no different. Some are comical and some less so.”

Changing job descriptions: from 1453 to 2018

As with so much in the University’s history, the role of porter developed in piecemeal fashion. A “keeper of the gate” is mentioned in King’s 1453 Founder’s Statute, with duties that included making torches for the Chapel, waiting on tables in hall, and having to “duly and diligently shave the Provost, Fellows, Scholars and other persons” (indeed, the roles of head porter and College barber were combined until 1861). However, Pembroke did not appoint a porter until the early 17th century, when a new court was added. Until then, gatekeeping was the responsibility of a scholar or ‘sizar’ – a poor student who acted as a part-time College servant.

By the time The Student’s Guide to the University of Cambridge was published in 1866, the role had been somewhat standardised. The book, aimed at prospective applicants, notes that a porter’s duties varied by College, but “in all cases he has to keep the gate, he has to be ready to be called up at any time of night in case of illness or any emergency, to see to the carrying of luggage, and to fetch and carry the letters to and from the post office, and to see to the lighting of the courts and staircases”. It further notes that undergraduates had to pay between five and 10 shillings a term for these services, plus one halfpenny for each letter received. With five mail deliveries a day, this must have added up to a significant income for the porter and his assistants.

For much of the 20th century, middle-aged retirees from the police and armed forces formed the backbone of the University’s cadre of porters. Some Colleges would always seek to recruit from particular regiments; in others, a handful of families supplied generations of porters and other College staff, with plum roles passing down from father to son. While these traditional backgrounds are still well represented, most lodges are gradually becoming as cosmopolitan as the body of students they watch over.

Keeping students safe and secure

CCTV and electronic locks have made the task somewhat easier, but some Colleges present a special challenge. King’s attracts more than 350,000 visitors a year, and is a much-used thoroughfare for University members travelling between town and the Sidgwick Site. “The College wants to be welcoming,” Seabridge [King’s Head Porter] says, “but we have to apply basic security measures to allow that spirit of openness to continue. It’s good that students feel safe in the King’s environment, but the bad news is that they drop their guard. They’ll leave iPhones lying around, or leave their front doors open. That absence of self-protection sometimes surprises me, so I have to keep encouraging them to take responsibility.”


Photo: CAM 83. Gordon Murray at Homerton

Sarah Hendry, who spent 25 years in retail before becoming a porter at Pembroke, agrees. “Students can definitely get too comfortable, probably because it’s their first time away from home,” she says. “Within weeks of the new freshers coming in, we go round checking doors. If they’ve gone away and left their doors open, we lock them out!”

Asked how the job has changed over recent years, many porters report that the pastoral side of the role has increasingly come to the fore – something driven by greater awareness of welfare issues. “My number one priority is the students,” says Hendry.

“They’re under my duty of care while they’re at College. Often on a night shift, students will just come in for a chat. They want to have a rant because they’re feeling stressed, so we’ll chat about anything – perhaps just a TV programme or a film – and if they want to get something off their chest, they can do that.  However, there are times when you’ll see a student’s pattern of behaviour change, and you’ll have a word with the Tutorial Office, the Dean or the nurse. More often than not, you’ll find that it has been noted already.”

Miscreant students (and sometimes staff and fellows) would do well to remember that honesty is the best policy when dealing with porters. “Remember, there’s nothing secret in a College,” says Hendry. “Someone always talks. So you’re far better off coming to say, ‘Yes, it was me – I broke the door. I was drunk and stupid.’ It’s a lot more painless to go to the senior tutor off your own back, rather than be reported by the porters’ lodge. I’m not the biggest disciplinarian in the world and I’ll always give people the benefit of the doubt. But if someone’s a repeat offender… well, there’s nothing worse than the wrath of an angry porter!”

Doing the Job

So what attributes are needed to succeed at the job? A good level of intellect is the first requirement, according to Murray. “You don’t need to be academic, but a lot of the day-to-day tasks are now computer-based, and they’re always changing and modernising. Above all, you need to be a great listener, not just a good one. If you just sit and nod, you may not pick up on some of the things that a student is trying to express to you. You have to ensure that every one of them feels part of the College and no one is excluded.”

All agree that it is a career unlike any other, with a unique set of rewards. But one form of job satisfaction gets a particular mention. “You see this fresh-faced student come in looking like a rabbit in the headlights,” says Hendry, “and you get to watch them grow and turn into a young adult over three years. That’s the part I enjoy the most.”

Murray agrees. He says: “It’s a real privilege to go with the Praelectors and Senior Tutor at the head of the procession to the Senate House, to hand the students over to the University and see them receive their degrees. That’s a sheer delight.”

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