By Danny Jin, Williams College Class of 2020
With its vast, Gothic-arched halls and snaking walkways, Pembroke College can appear quite daunting to a wide-eyed ‘fresher’ or an oblivious visiting student like me. Since its founding in 1347 as the University of Cambridge’s third constituent college, a rich history has developed within Pembroke’s walls. The long line of scholars who have walked its lawns in centuries past, coupled with the prospect of living in a different country, made acclimating to Pembroke seem a tall order at first.
My first stop was the porters’ lodge, where all newcomers receive their keys and ID cards. Pembroke students take courses as disparate as Archaeology and Veterinary Medicine, and they participate in societies as varied as the Hip Hop Collective and the Mountaineering Club. But, the porters’ lodge is a common denominator of life for the college community.
Known affectionately as the “plodge,” it’s the main contact point for Pembroke’s visitors. When someone calls the college, a porter answers the line in the lodge. It is at once a welcome center, community hub, and post office, where students and fellows pick up mail and packages.
Head porter Gordon Murray says, “In the U.K., post offices would sell more than just stamps and post letters, and you could stand and chat to the people in your community. That’s kind of gone – we have bigger supermarkets now – but the porters’ lodge is that kind of place. Students come, they bump into each other when they’re picking up their mail. They start gassing away to the porters about how their studies are going, how the rowing is going, what they’re doing at Christmas or Easter, how nervous they are because they’ve not studied enough.”
Porters have a long history in Britain, pre-dating Cambridge’s founding in 1209. In the Middle Ages, British royal residences employed porters to handle keys and check visitors’ credentials. All thirty-one colleges of the University of Cambridge as well as several other British universities, have porters’ lodges. Until recently, college porters served primarily to enforce curfews and rules – “just kind of blokes growling at students for doing the wrong thing,” explains porter Sarah Hendry.
Student support is a newer aspect of a porter’s job. All porters are now trained in mental health awareness, and there is always at least one porter on duty to respond to emergencies. While many of the calls they receive are for lost keys, the early morning hours occasionally dawn on some interesting scenes at the lodge.
Hendry says she was once woken up at 3 a.m. by a student who, locked out of his room, walked into the lodge with only “a few sheets of paper to protect his modesty.” Hendry offered him a stapler before sending him home with a replacement key. “He said, ‘Oh, it’s you. Thank God,’” she recalls. “Because he knew I’d just laugh.”
Outside times of crisis, students will sometimes pop in for a chat, even if they’re just stopping by for mail. Porters' sarcasm and humor can liven the mood in between the long hours students spend in the library.
“Particularly exam term, people are stressed out,” says Hendry, whose throaty belly laugh is unmistakable during her shifts behind the counter. “They’ll come in, and we’ll just talk about my dog, talk about what’s on telly – because they just want to come into a non-academic environment and talk nonsense, really, for about half an hour… It’s all a bit of joshing.”
In 2012, Hendry became the first woman porter in Pembroke’s history. For many years, porters’ lodges consisted almost entirely of ex-police and ex-military men. Representation is improving, although the number of women in porters’ lodges still lags behind in proportion to other college offices. Pembroke recently hired a third woman porter, and Selwyn College appointed Cambridge’s first woman head porter in 2009.
“There are other women now, but there’s a lot of expectation when you’re the first of something,” says Hendry. “I went to a lodge where most of the men were over 60. Then all of a sudden I spring in – in my early 40s, and a woman, and a lesbian. And I’m quite loud and sarcastic. But when the rest saw that I could give it as good as I got, I was just one of the lads, really.”
Murray, who leads the staff of 10 porters, became a head porter after three decades as an officer with the London and Cambridge police forces. He also served in the Household Cavalry as a young adult, escorting the bridal carriage to Westminster Abbey for the 1986 royal wedding. Both of his children were university-aged when he retired from the police force. It was a combination of parental instinct and a sense of duty that drew Murray to portering.
“I was brought up to believe that you’ve got to look after people, particularly people who may be vulnerable or in need of guidance,” says Murray, whose childhood dream was to become a veterinarian. “There's nothing more rewarding, from my point of view, than helping people.”
Murray and Hendry view their job to care for students as a privilege. “You get a load of freshers in, most of them looking terrified, and then you’ll see them grow and mature and turn into young adults,” Hendry reflects. At graduation ceremonies, porters – dressed in top hats and tailcoats – lead students to the historic Senate House at the head of the ceremony.
“The students have done all the hard work to get there and to get the degree,” Murray says. “We’ve just done some background work for a few years, making sure they’ve been safe and well-looked after. Taking the students to the Senate House steps, then handing them over to the university from the care of the college so that they can then walk through the gates and receive their degree in front of their family and friends – that’s probably the most rewarding part for me."
I’m only at Pembroke until December, so I won’t get the chance to walk to the Senate House with the porters to get my degree. Still, it’s reassuring to have a group of people at the college committed to the wellbeing of students like me, and it’s a bonus when they know your name after just a month on campus. At the very least, when I inevitably lock myself out of my room – or if Kerouac fails to hold my attention during a library stint – I know a place where I can go.