Giving a voice to the Cambridge 'bedders'

22 August 2016

By Pan Macmillan

Catherine Seymour comes from generations of Cambridge 'bedders', working-class women who looked after the students of Cambridge University. Catherine explains why she wanted to give a voice to these remarkable women with her book, The Staircase Girls.

I’m lucky to have come from a long line of remarkable women who worked staircases at different Cambridge colleges. Each staircase led to a series of rooms occupied by the sons (and much later daughters) of the upper and middle class elite, and it was my distinctly working class ancestors’ job to make their beds.

Oh, and also clean their rooms, bring them fresh bread, carry coal and set fires, prepare breakfasts and sometimes even be a surrogate mum to them. My great grandmother, my grandmothers, great aunts, aunts and cousins were all bedmakers – or rather, as they’re more commonly known, ‘bedders’.
 
When I was a child in the 1970s, bedders were allowed to take their children into work with them if necessary. So when I was off sick from school with ear infections, I loved nothing more than being with my nana as she proudly cleaned the rooms of her boys, girls and gentlemen (as she called the masters who also lived there). 

It was clear to me even then though, that while she loved her job, her life wasn’t what she’d want for her grandchildren. Some days she’d suddenly stop sweeping or dusting, turn to me as if she’d just remembered I was there, and say firmly, "Don't you dare get married young! Get an education, and travel." 
 
Years later, when working on an English Literature oral history project I decided that my nana was a perfect subject to interview – after all, she’d lived through WWII and fought to raise a family in often tough circumstances. 

At last, I thought, I could ask her the questions that I was unable to formulate or articulate back when I was sitting on a bed at the college listening to her stories. Why did she move to Cambridge from Folkestone during the war? How was her relationship with her parents? What had her schooling been like? Why did she feel so guilty about the fate of her siblings? Why did she burn welly boots on the fire? Why did she fill a whole shed up with tinned food when the Falklands War broke out? Why did she prefer Errol Flynn to Clark Gable? Why was she embarrassed about working at a brewery in her teens? Why was she so proud of working for the university?  

Over twenty years later the transcript of that interview and her answers have played an integral role in the creation of The Staircase Girls.

Hopefully her voice, alongside those of other bedders as they describe the life, losses, loves and labours of the working-class townswomen who worked behind the scenes at such prestigious colleges, chime with readers.

The University has so few records of bedders’ experiences – my book is the first to properly allow them a voice – and I can only hope that nana’s proud to have helped in revealing the essential and previously unsung role that bedders play in making Cambridge what it is still, to this day.

Thank you, nana.

The Staircase Girls Catherine Seymour's fascinating story of the lives of the Cambridge bedders is out now. 

'Joyce leaned her black Triumph bicycle against a wall, and shivered in the foggy, early dawn light. Glancing up at the enormous wooden, carved gate, she hesitated. This was a secret world she was about to enter...'

Start reading here




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The Staircase Girls