Monday, 11 June 2012

Starting University: Emmanuel College, Cambridge

My National Service complete, I had only two days at home before I began the academic life I had been waiting for during the last two years. I was ready to face a totally new experience. Fortunately it took only an hour to transport me and my luggage by car to Cambridge from Peterborough. My mother had spent the last few days furiously packing for me and Father I think must have been relieved I was finally to start my University career.

Unlike most universities, students at Cambridge were, and still are, first and foremost a member of their college rather than the faculty. Whilst I was studying for a degree in architecture I was mixing with a broad range of students within Emmanuel who were studying other subjects. The colleges in the 1950s and 60s were all single sex. Emmanuel eventually admitted women in 1979, just before my own daughter was a student there in 1982.

My first year was to be spent in rooms outside the college (41 Maid's Causeway: about 10 minutes walk from Emmanuel). This was common practice in those days as there were many more students than college rooms. Usually only one year of the three was spent within the college. However the collegiate system encouraged students to participate in a variety of societies and clubs to ensure students were not isolated.  We had to come into formal dinner at least five evenings a week, invariably followed by visits to the Junior Common Room (the bar).

The impression of an institution steeped in tradition was immediately apparent, from the college academics in their long flowing gowns, to the Head Porter in morning suit and bowler hat. Undergraduates were required to wear their shorter gown when they were out of the college to distinguish them from Cambridge residents and visitors; hence the phrase 'town and gown'.  Some university dons paid little attention to their appearance so wearing a long gown added necessary respectability. This certainly applied to the Master of Emmanuel at that time, Edward Welbourne.  He had interviewed me in 1951 when he was the Senior Tutor and I remember clearly this rather dishevelled man wearing carpet slippers. I was told that soon after he became Master, a schoolboy interviewee, walking around the college grounds, engaged him in conversation thinking he was the college gardener.

Image: Stevecadman/Flickr


  1. This completely fits the romantic days-gone-by image of Cambridge in my mind- undergraduates wearing gowns, Head Porter in bowler hat, etc. Very Brideshead Revisited. So clever of your dad to realize that these details would be so appreciated!

    1. By the time I went there in the 80s, undergraduates only needed their gowns for formal dinners - we didn't have to walk or bike around town wearing them. Moving with the times was probably just as well to help us integrate with residents. But I'm sure our porter still had his bowler!

  2. Hi Trish. Helen here from SaveEveryStep. Thanks so much for leading me here. You are so lucky to have had your father write these memoirs for you. I just know how much you will treasure them. I saw you from a distance at Britmums, so I look forward to following you and getting to know you!!

    1. When I started reading your uncle's letters I had hunch you might be interested in this too. I do treasure them and on days when I type them up they give me a lot of comfort and make me smile.
      There were so many people at BritMums - we need flashing lights with our names over our heads!
      Thanks so much for coming over x