I grew up without servants. This is hardly surprising: in the first place, we were a small, lower-middle-class family who lived in small, lower-middle-class housing. Before the war, such families could typically afford a maid and perhaps a cook as well. The real middle class, of course, did much better: upstairs and downstairs staff were well within the reach of a professional man and his family. But by the 1950s taxation and higher wages had put domestic employees beyond the reach of all but the best-heeled. The most that my parents could aspire to was a day nanny for me—when I was young and my mother worked—followed by a series of au pair girls in the more prosperous later years. Beyond that there was the occasional cleaning lady; nothing more.
I was thus utterly unprepared for Cambridge. In keeping with long tradition, both Oxford and Cambridge universities employed staff whose job was exclusively to look after the young men. In Oxford, such persons were known as “scouts”; in Cambridge, they were “bedders.” The distinction was a matter of convention—although the words suggest an interesting nuance in the form of oversight they were required to exercise—but the function was identical. Bedders, like scouts, were expected to prepare a fire (in the days of open-hearth heating), clean the young gentlemen’s rooms, make their beds and change their linen, undertake minor shopping expeditions on their behalf, and generally provide them with the services to which they had presumably become accustomed in the course of their upbringing.
To be sure, there were other assumptions implicit in the job description. Oxbridge students, so it was held, were incapable of handling such subaltern tasks: because they had never undertaken them, but also because their aspirations and interests elevated them beyond such concerns. Moreover, and perhaps above all, the bedder was responsible for keeping an eye on the moral condition of her charge (scouts in Oxford were occasionally male, though less so by the 1960s, but bedders in my experience were always women).
I arrived in Cambridge in 1966, by which time the institution of the bedder and the responsibilities placed upon her, though not yet anachronistic, sat in some tension with rapidly shifting cultural mores. In King’s, at least, a growing number of students lacked any firsthand acquaintance with domestic servants; we were more than a little confused by the first encounter with a woman who was, at least formally, at our “disposal.”
Most bedders were ladies of a certain age, usually from local families who had been in college or university employ for as long as anyone could recall. They were thus intimately familiar with the culture of “service” and the subtle interplay of authority and humility entailed in master–servant relations. In the mid-1960s, there were bedders still on the college rolls who had been there since the armistice of 1918. They knew what to expect of teenage boys: being considerably older than our mothers, they had no trouble extracting the appropriate mix of respect…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.