Hidden Cambridge – Sidney Sussex, prison, death, and silly hats

24 November 2012

Christmas approaches, glinting on the horizon like the snow-capped peaks of the Varsity ski trip. However, we still have to trudge our way through the slush of Week Eight until we can reach those halcyon days of freedom, so this week’s Hidden Cambridge is going to focus on the dark side of the city.

First up: prisoners. Whilst a few weeks ago we talked about the University gaol, Cambridge also has links to prisons much further afield. Imagine, if you will, a typical cartoon image of a prisoner. Is the scallywag wearing stripes? If so, redraw that mental image – stripes were the preserve of American prisoners. Good old-fashioned British prisoners had their uniforms stamped with arrows, to denote that their clothes were the property of the government. But why arrows? In the early 1700s, the Master of Ordnance, Henry Sidney, was asked to choose a stamp to signify government property. Being a narcissist, he chose the broad arrow that adorned his family crest. The more quick-witted of you will realise that Sidney’s family had founded Sidney Sussex a century earlier – and shared the same arrow symbol on the college crest. So those Australian convicts with arrows all over their uniforms? Yep, they essentially have ‘property of his Majesty – and Sidney Sussex’ stamped all over them.

Right, we’ve had prison, now for some death! It’s common knowledge that medics dissect human cadavers as part of their course, and urban legends abound of people recognising deceased relatives on the slab. Shockingly, such an incident actually happened in Cambridge. Lawrence Sterne, Jesus graduate, and author of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, died in extreme poverty, despite his literary fame. He was buried in London, but his body was exhumed by grave robbers and sent to Cambridge for dissection. On the slab, he was recognised as an alumnus, and hastily re-interred!

From prison and death to vandalism – well, good-natured vandalism. Ancient members of the University, like myself and my co-columnist Ms Clarke, may remember the Father Christmas hats perched jauntily on all four corners of King’s back in 2009. Their removal took two men half a day per hat, but made countless people smile while they were up there. Night Climbers, I tip my (un-festive) hat to you!

On a jauntier note, the unofficial thirty-second college of the University comes into existence when the Christmas vacation begins – as, indeed, it has done every year since 2001. From December 16th to January 5th, Christmas College provides socials and entertainment for those who stay in Cambridge over the Christmas, like Harry Potter avoiding the Dursleys.

The final happy note of this column? Unlike Oliver Cromwell (tried and executed for treason after his death, his head hidden somewhere at Sidney Sussex, they refuse to tell TCS where) this column has been granted a stay of execution! After plaintive pleas that Cambridge has so much more to give, an exhibition of my sad puppy-dog eyes, and several glasses of wine, the incoming Editor-In-Chief has agreed to let the column survive into the new year. Come Lent, I’ll be smashing you in the face with more Cambridge facts, fortnightly. See you in Lent, and stay classy, Cambridge.