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Wesley House in the 1950s

The Revd Dr Brian E Beck

Daily life

The 1950s were still experiencing the effects of war and some items of food were still rationed. One collected one’s allocation of butter and sugar each week from the kitchens. By comparison with colleges in the University however life was rather spartan. Central heating was never turned on until October 15 and turned off again at a fixed date in the spring, regardless of outside temperature, and it was kept at a low temperature throughout so that use of the gas fires (paid for by coins in the slot meter) was unavoidable. There was hot water in the bathrooms only on Fridays (a weekly bath was not uncommon in those days). Those who used the basins during the week had to boil a kettle for hot water. There was daily hot water in the shower room on ‘A’ however because it was required for the kitchen above, and some of us used that facility every day.


Economy was practised everywhere. If a light bulb failed in the last week of term it would not be replaced until the following term (even on a staircase). In common with Cambridge colleges generally there were no laundry facilities. One sent things home or used a commercial laundry.


The day began with a cooked breakfast in hall, followed by prayers at 8.30, to include a hymn, a reading and no more than three minutes’ prayer, to end by 8.45 to enable men to get to lectures. Lunch (two courses) in hall was at 1.0 pm, prayers in chapel at 6.30 and dinner at 7.0. At weekends the regime was different: the main meal was at lunch, there was no evening meal and on Sundays basic food (boiled egg etc.) was provided as men had varying departure times for preaching engagements. Afternoon tea men got for themselves in their rooms, the style and quality varying according to habit. Gowns had to be worn in chapel, for classes and tutorials (in Cambridge parlance ‘supervisions’), for dinner in hall (except at the end of the year when tutors’ wives were present), and for visiting the Principal or Tutor. Gowns also had to be worn in the street after dark. All this was common University practice. Also, to conform to University rules, every one had to be in college (and visitors out) by 10.0 pm. Late returners had to be let in by the porter and pay a small fine.


Dinner in hall, which the Principal and Tutor attended, was formal. Students would gather at two tables placed lengthways, with the top table placed at right angles at the end facing the door. At 7.0 pm the head porter would sound the gong and Principal and Tutor would process in from their little common room (A5), handing their caps to the porter as they passed, the Principal sitting at the right end of the top table (back to the kitchens), the Tutor opposite (his back to the court). Latin grace would be said to begin and end the meal (‘Benedictus benedicat’ to start, ‘benedicto benedicatur’ to end, with the response ‘Deo gratias’). Dinner (three courses) was then served by the two porters. Everyone had a napkin and ring, and it was a game at the end to try to throw them from as far as possible, to bounce off the panelling on the end wall by the door and land on the sideboard below. The panelling bore the marks!


There was no leave of absence from the college overnight, unless for very grave reasons. One reason was the need to ‘keep nights’, i.e. sleep in college the equivalent of the nights of Full Term. This was a University requirement, and although in colleges generally any nights lost could be made up at the end of term, this was more difficult at the House because preaching often involved overnight stays, time which had to be made up. Everyone went home in the vacations.

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