4 Amazing Anecdotes of Cambridge Life
Go on any walking tour or get into conversation with any student and you’re sure to hear some fascinating myths and legends of Cambridge life through the ages. Unfortunately, many of these stories contain more fiction than fact.
For instance, there’s the delightful tale of Prince Charles’ time at Cambridge, where he studied at Trinity College and got a somewhat disappointing 2.ii. As the heir to the throne, he was accompanied by a bodyguard at all times, who therefore went to all of his lectures and supervisions with him. The story goes that while Charles picked up a 2.ii, his more studious bodyguard graduated with a rather better 2.i. Sadly, the story isn’t true. While Charles was accompanied to lectures by a bodyguard, the bodyguard wasn’t permitted to sit exams. But that hasn’t stopped the story from being repeated – it’s just that bit too appealing.
Thankfully, not all Cambridge stories are fictional, and some of the true stories are just as amazing as the myths. We’ve looked through the best Cambridge stories, legends and anecdotes; here are only the ones that are entertaining, remarkable, and – crucially – confirmed to be true.
1. Byron’s bear
There are few historical figures who lived quite such colourful lives as George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron. In the brief 36 years before his untimely death of a sepsis-induced fever, Byron wrote some of the most famous Romantic works in the English language, travelled far and wide, campaigned for social reform in the House of Lords, fought in the Greek War of Independence, and scandalised Britain with his series of illicit love affairs. One lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, coined the phrase “mad, bad and dangerous to know” to describe him.
Key characteristics of Byron’s life and character – all reflected in his poetry – were a strong dislike of rules and conventions, a tendency to satire, and a deep love of animals. All three came together in one of the first notable incidents of his life, when he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. He kept a pet Newfoundland dog called Boatswain, who was extremely important to him; when Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron nursed him without regard for his own health, and when he eventually died, Byron commissioned a huge marble monument to his memory, despite being heavily in debt at the time. One version of his Will even requested that he should be buried with Boatswain.
But when Byron was studying at Trinity, from 1805 to 1808, students were banned from keeping dogs in their rooms, so he was separated from his beloved Boatswain. The college authorities, however, had no statutes banning the keeping of a pet bear, and tame bears were available for sale at that time at Stourbridge Fair. Byron bought one, and as he wrote to a friend in 1807, “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.”
How the bear got on for the rest of Byron’s time in Trinity isn’t recorded, but following Byron’s graduation, it joined the rest of his menagerie at his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey. There, and at all of his later homes, Byron gave almost all his pets free run of the property, to come and go indoors as they pleased. On visiting Byron in Italy, the poet Percy Shelley recorded that, “Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house,” before adding in a P.S., “I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective…I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.
2. The Austin Seven on Senate House roof
One part of Cambridge University life that the university authorities would strongly like to discourage are the activities of the Cambridge Night Climbers. The night climbers are a group of students who – as the name would suggest – spend their nights not catching up on sleep ahead of their next supervision, or frantically pulling an essay deadline all-nighter, but instead climbing about over the masonry of the university buildings, some of which is hundreds of years old. This is dangerous not only to the climbers themselves, who risk falling and injuring or even killing themselves, but to the fabric of the university buildings. But persuading students not to take stupid risks has always been futile, and the night-climbing tradition has now been going on for at least 150 years. And it may have been going on for longer. It’s easy to imagine that Byron, who liked a dangerous stunt himself (he famously swam the Hellespont in imitation of the legendary hero Leander) would have approved of the recklessness and the disregard for authority that underpins night climbing.
Night climbers have been responsible for several of Cambridge’s most famous anecdotes. Like graffiti artists, they like to leave some kind of evidence of where they’ve been – by some reports, the chair leg that the statue of Henry VIII in the Great Gate of Trinity College bears instead of a sceptre was put there by night climbers, and the time when Santa hats appeared on the spires of King’s College Chapel was definitely night climbers showing off. But without a doubt, their most impressive and memorable feat was getting an entire Austin Seven car on to the roof of Senate House.
In the middle of the night on Saturday 7 June, 1958, a group of night climbers from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge – the college adjacent to Senate House – managed to get the Austin Seven on to the roof. It was a stunt that took over a year to plan, and took a group of 13 students to execute. They began by fixing a street sign on to Senate House roof a year before the Austin Seven stunt, to test whether it could be done. They “borrowed” materials from building sites including rope, steel wire and scaffolding in order to build an A-frame. They got a broken-down Austin Seven, towed it to a parking space near Senate House, and stuck a sign on it advertising a May Ball to provide an excuse for it being there. Using the A-frame, they hoisted the car into the air and swung it across onto the roof. They set up a plank bridge across the death-defying “Senate House leap” between Senate House and Gonville and Caius, for easier access to the roof. Two of the group’s girlfriends stood in front of Senate House in order to distract anyone who looked too closely at what was going on! And on the morning of 8 June, the car was in place as if it had materialised there overnight.
It turned out that getting the car down wasn’t much easier than getting it up. University officials, the police, firefighters and Civil Defence army units did their best to get it down intact, but after five days of trying unsuccessfully – to the amusement of all the students involved – they gave up, cut the car up with blowtorches, and lowered it to the ground in six pieces. The perpetrators didn’t own up until some time later, but word got around and their ringleader, Peter Davey, found a bottle of champagne at the bottom of his staircase in Gonville and Caius. He believed it to have been a quiet “well done” from the Dean.
3. The Austin Seven dangled from under the Bridge of Sighs
The Austin Seven prank on Senate House roof wasn’t the only time that Cambridge students decided to include Austin Sevens in their escapades. Five years after the 1958 prank, also in June (the time when Cambridge students have finished their exams and have May Balls and the long summer vacation to look forward to, and not much else to occupy themselves with), a handful of students showed up to a garage looking to buy a car. Their focus, according to the garage owner Ray Walker, was on a beaten-up wreck that he had paid £2 for (about £40 in today’s money) and already made £5 from selling the engine. A working car would have cost them about ten times as much. Walker explained how much work it would take to repair the 1928 Austin Seven that they had chosen, they said it didn’t matter, that a working car wasn’t required.
Walker smelled a rat, remembering the Austin Seven on Senate House. He replied, “Look, this isn’t for some stupid prank is it? Because if it is I am having no part in it.” Of course, it was, so the students turned to leave. He took pity on them, and said, “Hey, just a moment, I don’t want anything for the Austin Seven and if I come in tomorrow morning and find it gone you will hear no more.” And in the morning, the car was gone.
Getting the car to dangle from the Bridge of Sighs was a lot easier than getting one on to Senate House roof. Aside from anything else, the Bridge of Sighs car was made that much lighter by its lack of an engine. The group of students got it in place by tying four punts together and punting it down the Cam to the bridge. Then they lashed ropes around it and hauled it up. The prank was clearly notable enough that a different group carried it out again five years later using a different car. Opened in 1831, the Bridge of Sighs is clearly more robust than it looks – it sustained no damage on either occasion.
4. The “Sultan of Zanzibar”
If you were the Mayor of Cambridge and received a telegram saying that the Sultan of Zanzibar wished to visit your city, what would you do? Knowing on the one hand that you lived in a city full of students who liked to carry out pranks when bored, but on the other hands, that the Sultan – Ali bin Hamud – was definitely visiting the UK at the time, and who might plausibly want to visit the city?
This was precisely the scenario that the Mayor of Cambridge, Algernon S. Campkin, faced in 1905. He received a telegram from “Henry Lucas”, saying “The Sultan of Zanzibar will arrive to-day at Cambridge, 4.27, for short visit. Could you arrange to show him buildings of special interest and send carriage?” Campkin was determined to do his best by his honoured guest, despite the short notice, and replied to the telegram saying that a carriage would be waiting. The reply came, “Telegram received with thanks. Unable to arrive till 5.43. No time for dinner.”
Five men arrived – four of them purporting to be from Zanzibar (and dressed and made up accordingly), plus their alleged interpreter, Henry Lucas. They were taken to the Guildhall and received with some ceremony, though they explained that the Sultan himself had been unable to come, and had regretfully sent his uncle, Prince Mukasa Ali, in his place. The Mayor made the best of it, and gave them a thorough tour of the sights of Cambridge: King’s College Chapel, Clare College, Trinity College and St John’s College, at which point the group from “Zanzibar” left for the station, quickly got out of their disguises, and hurried back to their college, Trinity – leaving the Mayor regretting only that he hadn’t had enough time to prepare a more elaborate reception for his guests.
At least, that’s until he saw the Daily Mail the following week and learned that he had been entertaining only some students in disguise. Stephen and de Vere Cole told the paper the full story, and the news of the hoax was reported as far away as Australia. But that had only whetted de Vere Cole’s appetite for this kind of prank. Just five years later, a group including Virginia Woolf (Adrian Stephen’s sister) disguised themselves as a Abyssinian royalty to have a tour of HMS Dreadnought. When the prank was reported in the Daily Mirror, the Navy was enraged – but as de Vere Cole and his friends hadn’t broken any laws, there was very little they, like the Mayor of Cambridge, could do.
Images: river cam; sultan ali bin hamud of zanzibar; the bridge of sighs cambridge; austin 7; lord byron;