Sunday 4 December 2016

Handy manual helped Victorian undergraduates stay out of trouble

Published 06/09/2016 | 13:56

The Fresher's Don't conduct manual from 1893 (University of Cambridge/PA)
The Fresher's Don't conduct manual from 1893 (University of Cambridge/PA)
A newspaper clipping from 1963 reporting that a group of engineering students suspended a car from the Bridge of Sighs (University of Cambridge/PA)

Starting university is a nervous time for many students, unsure of what they might expect from undergraduate life.

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But a handy guide, written by a Cambridge University student in 1893, aimed to help Victorian freshers adjust to life away from home.

St John's College undergraduate Arthur John Story wrote the conduct manual for new arrivals with tips on how to be cool, how not to annoy neighbours and how to avoid getting into trouble.

It warns against playing the piano all day "however accomplished you may be", urges people to make tea for visitors and suggests not walking the streets four abreast "as if you were part-proprietor of the town".

Other pearls of wisdom include "Don't, if you are in lodgings, get too familiar with your landlady's daughter, as she is probably more clever than you" and "Don't attempt to keep every brand of wine under the sun. Most Undergrads cannot distinguish 'Bordeaux' from 'Burgundy' if served in a decanter".

It also advises male undergraduates not to speak to girls without introduction and warns against taking a girl home from the tobacconist's or confectioner's.

"You gain nobody's respect by so doing, and the girl's only notion is to encourage a good customer," the guide advises.

The manual is one of many items going on public display at St John's as part of Open Cambridge 2016.

While some aspects of past student experience seem completely alien in the present day - such as a lack of washing facilities and strange social hierarchy - other things such as homesickness, battling distraction and the thrill of independence remain a constant feature of university life.

Highlights of the display include the diary of Abraham de la Pryme, who kept a record of his time as an undergraduate at St John's in the 1690s.

Pryme talks of pranks as an essential part of student life and describes an event where some students tricked the local people of Cambridge into thinking that a house was haunted.

After causing mass hysteria, a passer-by was quick to publicly debunk the students' stunt, shouting "Fy, Fy! Go home for shame!".

Unfortunately for the students, the "passer-by" happened to be Sir Isaac Newton, widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time.

The exhibition also features newspaper clippings about more modern college escapades, such as when a group of engineering students suspended a car from the Bridge of Sighs at St John's in 1963.

The college maintenance team must have been thrilled as it took six of them two hours to free the car and remove it via punt.

Photographs of St John's student Cuthbert Holthouse proudly clutching a giant wooden spoon in 1909 also feature.

The spoon was a trophy traditionally awarded to the maths student who came bottom of his class, and was a highly sought-after prize until the practice was abolished in the early part of the 20th century.

Holthouse's spoon, the last to be awarded, is now displayed at the college.

The exhibition also documents the arrival of the first international students in the 19th century and the admission of women as fully fledged members of the college in the 20th century.

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