As part of our 40th anniversary celebrations, we’re showcasing stories here about women’s lives at Selwyn – as students, fellows, staff, and more. Got an idea for a story you’d like to see? Have pictures or memories you want to share? Please get in touch!
40 years


February 2016    Selwyn from the staircases

In the first of our feature articles, Head Housekeeper Sue Jeffries and her mother, Phyllis Day – a former bedder – talked to Fellow Emily Charnock about their experiences working at Selwyn.

It’s forty years since Selwyn opened its doors to female students, but even before they could study here, women had long been part of the fabric of college life – not least as “bedders.” It’s a role that’s changed substantially over the years, but has always been about much more than cleaning rooms.

For much of Selwyn’s history, bedders were recruited from the same villages just outside of Cambridge, and in many cases were related by blood. So when current Head Housekeeper Sue Jeffries came to work here in 1988, she was following in family footsteps. Sue’s mother, Phyllis Day, was a Selwyn bedder for three decades – both before and after the admission of female students – and the two worked alongside each other for five years before Phyllis retired.

Co-education wasn’t really on the radar when Phyllis first came to work at Selwyn in 1963, of course. With the exception of the three women’s colleges, the university was a tradition-bound institution in which male students lived among and learned from male fellows – with bedders some of the few female faces they would see on a daily basis.       

Phyllis and other staff members look on as the Duke of Edinburgh visits Selwyn, in June 1983 (Selwyn Archives).

Each bedder looked after part of a staircase, taking care of four or five students and often a fellow. “Make the beds, hoover, and do the washbasins,” Phyllis explains, those were the bedder’s main tasks. But that wasn’t all of it – washing up, lugging out the rubbish, delivering laundry, painting shower basins each term, even cleaning fellows’ shoes – all came under the bedders’ purview. “You looked after them,” Phyllis recollected of the students on her staircase, and “got friendly with them” – enjoying cups of tea together and chatting, keeping their spirits up when they got homesick or nervous about exams, acting as a surrogate mother of sorts for new students.

But many bedders had young children of their own to take care of. They were working mothers, and for many years, the job offered a uniquely flexible solution to the problem of childcare. “There was no childcare, not in my day,” Phyllis recalls, but the bedder’s workday fit in around school schedules, and in the holidays, they could bring their children into work with them. Phyllis was one of the first to enjoy this arrangement in the mid-1960s, after Selwyn’s Head Housekeeper gave her blessing, “as long as they stayed in the gyp rooms.”

Thus current Head Housekeeper Sue got her first taste of Selwyn as a young girl. “I would sit in the Gyp room on D staircase, while Mum was doing her work, hating every second,” Sue recalls, “and thinking when I grow up I’m never ever ever going to work somewhere like this!” But after Sue had her own children and was planning to go back to work in the late ‘80s, being a bedder at Selwyn looked quite different. Being able to bring the kids along “was perfect for a mum, absolutely ideal,” Sue says – especially since their grandmother was also on hand to keep an eye out. By the early 1990s, however, health and safety concerns put an end to this arrangement – but it had helped numerous women to keep working while it lasted.

1980s SCR party-330x
Staff members with then-Master Owen Chadwick, at a Christmas party in the 1980s (courtesy of Phyllis Day).

Of course, the college had changed substantially by the time Sue began working here as an adult. In the spring of 1976, Selwyn elected its first female fellow – Dr. Jean Chothia. Phyllis would later become Jean’s bedder, and when women students were admitted that Michaelmas term, she was asked to work on the all-female staircase reserved for them. Phyllis was, in fact, one of the few bedders willing to do so – many had reservations about the new arrivals. Hearing gossip from colleagues at Newnham, they were concerned girls “were too messy,” Phyllis explains, a reputation that was quickly quashed.

But perhaps other considerations lay at the root of staff concerns – a fear of change, to some extent, and a belief that male and female students living in such close-quarters might present bedders with more than they bargained for when they did their rounds! Prior to 1976, male students weren’t allowed to bring women into their rooms, but the rules were relaxed somewhat thereafter. “There were some naughty bits at times,” Phyllis admits, but her approach was “shut the door, and forget about it.” In general, there were few problems with the admission of women, she says, and thinks it’s been a “very good thing” for the college overall.

Much as the student body has changed over the years, so the job of bedder has changed too, and their path to Selwyn may begin much further afield then the Cambridgeshire countryside. But bedders remain a central part of college life. As Sue told me, making connections with students and other staff “is all part of our role as a housekeeper.” “It’s not just about cleaning x amount of rooms in x amount of time,” she said – “it’s the community as well, it’s very important.”

Hear more: Take a listen to some of Emily's conversation with Phyllis and Sue, on some of the more unusual visitors they've found in student rooms…