Book review: The Staircase Girls by Catherine Seymour

The Staircase Girls byCatherine Seymour

The Staircase Girls byCatherine Seymour

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From poet John Keats to Prince Charles, and from life-changing scientists to prize-winning authors, some of the world’s most famous people have relied on ‘bedders’ to see them through their toughest student days at Cambridge.

In her fascinating account of just some of the hundreds of working-class women who have looked after the students of Cambridge University, Catherine Seymour, whose grandmother and great-grandmother were bedders, reveals their secret lives, heartaches and joy.

For centuries, the university’s bedders – the equivalent at Oxford is a ‘scout’ – have cleaned, tidied, made beds, dispensed advice and physical aid, and offered a reassuring maternal presence to generations of nervous, lonely students.

Bedders still look after today’s Cambridge students but the work they do, and the young people they care for, have changed over the last decades.

Until the 1980s, bedders carried buckets of coal up the stairs to light fires in the rooms of the fellows as well as dusting, tidying, taking away rubbish and, in some colleges, making the students’ breakfasts.

It was hard work but it came with privileges and offered an experience unlike other jobs available to working-class women. Some of the bedders had previously worked in shops or as waitresses, cleaners, factory hands and other low-paid manual jobs.

The college offered them family-friendly hours, starting work early but allowing them to get home in time for lunch and to make an evening meal for their children. Often bedders would pay neighbours to look after their pre-school youngsters.

In the first half of the 20th century, some of the upper class (male) students saw their bedders as simply servants but for many others, these women who instructed them on everything from dressing properly to combing their hair, were the only warm, motherly presence in an otherwise cold, paternalistic environment.

In turn, many bedders enjoyed their glimpse into a world they knew little about and during her research Seymour discovered that the women appreciated the genuine return of affection from students who often left gifts for them at Christmas, term ends and after graduation.

And for some of the bedders who got to know their students well, graduation was almost like watching their own children leave home.

In these unique, vivid and often moving stories, inspired by the accounts of bedders from the 1920s to the 1960s, we meet women who endured the Second World War and then had to contend with poverty, ill health and bereavement.

For 16-year-old Joyce, who lived in one of the poorest streets in Cambridge, the college building where she was about to start work represented privilege, wealth, a life she would never live. What she never expected was to find herself mothering, chastising and sometimes even covering up for ‘her boys.’

These hard-working women loved, lost and loved again. But their friendships gave them strength, and their work gave them happiness, and even a lasting connection with their charges, some of whom would go on to run the country.

As much a social history as the individual stories of the bedders, The Staircase Girls is a memorable and eye-opening glimpse into the remarkable lives of a very special group of women.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)