Changing of the old guards

April 8, 2005

As the first female porter joins Jesus College Adrian Mourby and Mandy Garner look at how the role has evolved.

Helen Stephens had an epiphany at the age of 40. Tired of the "corporate life", of being chained to a desk working in a series of jobs in local government and the National Health Service, she needed a radical change. So she retrained as a massage therapist, working at Wentworth Golf Club among Surrey's rich and famous. Three years later, her next job move made history. Stephens has just entered her second month as the first female porter at Jesus College, Cambridge.

There are a handful of female porters at other colleges, but Jesus, founded in 1496, is one of the oldest and most well-known at the university. Although she grew up in Cambridge, Stephens says she knew little about the job before going for the interview. "I had read Porterhouse Blue and other things in the media. Nothing more," she says. What attracted her was the variety of the job. "No two days are the same," she says, adding that the main thrust of her work is student security. She is fitting in well with college traditions and slips easily into traditional speak, talking of "ladies" rather than female students. She hasn't got a uniform yet - for the time being she is wearing a black suit - but she has been told she will not be made to wear a bowler hat like the male porters.

Stephens doesn't think that being female will make any difference. She believes the only reason a woman has not been employed in the past is that not many have applied for any vacancies going. "I did think it was one of the last male bastions, but obviously not. Everyone has been very supportive. Lots of students have told me it is a good move for the college."

Stephens reflects a changing pattern in portering at Oxbridge colleges. In the past, working in a Cambridge college was a family business and people tended to go into it quite young. But, according to David Hales, head porter at Trinity College, porters now come from all walks of life - from the military to shop workers - and most don't go into it until later on in life. "You don't get young people applying for a job like this anymore. I don't think they like working nights," he comments. Hales was a driving instructor before becoming a porter at the age of 35, although his father was a porter at Trinity and his wife is a college bedder (cleaner). As head porter, he has a top hat as well as a bowler and tradition dictates that he wears a gown for ceremonial occasions and has a staff of office. Hales'

duties are mostly supervisory, overseeing the day-to-day running of the college and ensuring that the fellows (some 160 academics) get what they want. "They may need a VIP guest to be looked after or an important letter delivered or their keys sorted. Everyone loses keys here."

"I think the porters do less now," says Jim "Mac" McCristal, who still lives in Cambridge but retired from Trinity in 1984. "When I served under David's father we used to get six sacks of mail delivered every morning and we'd sort them and deliver, not just to the fellows but to every student's room. There'd be a second delivery too and then later on there'd be letters to deliver from fellows to students. Nowadays it's all pigeonholes."

Hales says that students have changed since the Sixties when his father started at Trinity. Town and gown friction has subsided, for instance, because students don't stand out so much now. "Nowadays you can't tell who is a student and who isn't and the mix in the college is different too - far more overseas students, far more students from different social backgrounds."

McCristal knew Trinity in the Thirties when, as a teenager, he used to earn 6 shillings a day delivering bread to fellows' rooms at six in the morning.

He agrees that students today are very different. "It used to be: 'Daddy's a director of Marks and Spencer, all I have to do is get a degree and he'll give me a job.' They work harder now."

The fellows have changed too. Hales reckons that the age of the colourful academic has passed. "I think you got more of that when they all lived in.

Nowadays hardly anyone does. They have families in the town and live normal lives." McCristal agrees. "When I joined Trinity you were looking after men such as A. S. W. Gow, the classicist. He was in his 90s and when you laid the dinner table in his room it was like laying for royalty - solid silver.

He'd known Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and he'd got a Monet on his wall, a garden painting. In the old days when the fellows had feasts they had to wear all their medals and they'd come to the Porters' Lodge and ask you to put them on in the right order. These days the fellows don't have medals - and I don't suppose the porters would know which order to put them in either." Back in 1967 Hales' father and McCristal caught Prince Charles cycling across New Court on a bike. "I told him to get off the grass," laughs McCristal, but the Prince of Wales just smiled. "He was trying to get away from his private detective and he was taking a shortcut down to Queen's Avenue. Well, once he was on that we couldn't touch him. It belonged to his mother."

The tradition of celebrity undergraduates at Trinity goes back a long way before Prince Charles. Byron and Tennyson were undergraduates there, for example, and more recently, the Crown Princess of Jordan. The porters at Trinity have always taken a respectful but phlegmatic approach to such stars. "I call them sir or ma'am," Hales says. "But I call everyone that, so it doesn't mean anything." Both Hales and McCristal think the image of the porter has changed over the years. "People were wary of porters," McCristal says. "In the old days we were almost all ex-military and the students had to be careful."

Nowadays, there is more of an emphasis on public relations. "We try to keep things friendly," Hales says. Certainly, since Trinity started charging visitors to look round, the dynamic has become less one of porter and public than porter and punter. Ticket holders expect to get their money's worth.

McCristal adds that porters had a more pastoral role in the past. "I can remember three occasions when I noticed a student was only ever in his room, working all hours, and I went in with a football and said, 'Come on, we're going to kick this around.'"

Both men share a pride in their work. Hales says: "I get to see the places the public never see. It's a world within a world here."

McCristal agrees. "I remember when I got the job people telling me, 'You're a lucky bloke'. Well I was. Altogether I had a week of interviews. My wife had to be interviewed too. The weekly wage was only in single figures, but in those days students tipped and the tips were good. I loved working in Trinity. It was like Buckingham Palace."

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