‘I’m a bedder, not a servant’

Liz Thursdon leans back in the chair with a knowing sigh and crosses her arms on her cleaning apron. "There was something not right, I just knew it, and then… Well, then I found the machete". Her eyes glaze over and she thumbs her apron nervously as she recites the tale. "I'd gone in there to take out his rubbish as usual and saw that he'd left all his money and credit cards out next to the window. Anyone could have broken in! I was just opening the drawer to put it out of sight and…there it was." I'm wearing a grey shirt with a ruby-red lining that runs down each arm. Her eyes begin to focus on this lining and before long her fingers are stroking the fabric. "It was all that colour", Liz almost cries out. "It was covered in blood!"

The lives of Cambridge bedders have always been something of a mystery to its students. In the days when the town vs. gown divide between mainly wealthy, privately-educated students and working-class locals was at its height, bedders represented just one more vestige of the class system. Yet the bad old days are past (as many a College Admissions officer tells prospective students every year) and now bedders are no longer seen as a kind of household servant, but rather in the strictly professional terms outlined by the Trinity College website: "A College employee who does domestic work in the residential rooms".

Nevertheless, the awkwardness felt by students and these "College employees" is still a feature of most undergraduates' time in Cambridge. The records in every Porter's Lodge in every College detail countless arguments between the two groups, which range from petty quarrels to vindictive, even violent feuds. Students complain about rude bedders, lazy bedders, bedders who don't wash the bed-sheets every week or wash the basin like they should. We are given no option but to pay for this service, so it should be a good one, or so the argument goes.

Yet bedders, for their part, have their own host of complaints, and it was to find out more about these that I spent a day with Liz and her fellow cleaners from one central College. Admittedly, some of the complaints were not so different to those you would hear from any irritated parent. "It's when there's no square inch of carpet for me that's clear, or when I can't get in and clean their bin, that's when it really annoys me" said Lucille, one of Liz's colleagues. "Basic hygiene too. That isn't too much to ask, is it?"

But interviewing bedders also opens a window on more disturbing patterns in student life. Only so many of their stories about dead rats, festering food and embarrassing discoveries of everything from drugs to dubious undergarments can be fabricated. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that stories were just what Liz and her friends were desperate to tell. The tale about the machete is a case in point. "I went to the porter about the machete and he told me that he'd sort it. My shift was changed and I didn't have to clean that room anymore. But then a few weeks later one of the other cleaners was sick and I had to go back there. I was about to go in and take out the lad's bin as usual but then one of his neighbours passed by and told me not to. "Self-harm", he whispered to me".

I had invited Liz into my room for an interview and it was clear now that the experience of being in this student space without needing to clean anything, added to this story of "my poor lad", was unsettling for her. "I felt so guilty, you know. He was such a nice lad and it was as if I'd dobbed him in." While this memory is particularly painful, it is not unusual for her to feel this sense of guilt. "Whenever I have to take out some blender or little sandwich grill or whatever from someone's room because it's not allowed, I feel awful. I don't want to be a policeman."

Her words reflect a more poignant element within this strange relationship, namely the friendship that occasionally comes between caring cleaners and young, lonely students far from home. "We're like a mother-figure", says Linda decisively, as I meet the other bedders in the staff room during their lunch-break. She takes a deep sip from her cup of tea and lies back to reflect, looking rather unmotherly. Linda is less keen to answer my questions directly, more suspicious than Liz or any of the others at my attempt to reduce the distance between students and bedders. As far as she is concerned, the lives of most students are of little interest as long as they put their bin out on time. I ask her what students could do to make her life easier. "Respect, there's one thing", she replies uncompromisingly. "I'm a bedder, not a servant." I try to delve further, to ask whether she sees a difference between students from private or state schools, between male and female, undergraduate and postgraduate, but she refuses to reveal any more. I am a student intruder in their inner sanctum and, for Linda, there are some matters that "shouldn't go outside the staff room".

There is another aspect to my questions about which Liz and her friends are even less forthcoming. Nearly half of the bedders in this College are Polish, and yet none of them are here for the lunch-break. ‘They keep themselves to themselves' says Linda, ‘and they can't come in here unless they want to speak English. Which they don't. So they don't come in.' The stern look on her face speaks volumes. This is another subject not to be treated lightly. The other bedders sitting around the small tea-table look at one another nervously. Only Liz can speak up encouragingly. "We do get along, really".The closing word sounds slightly desperate.

Later, I went down into the College Bar and found a group of those Polish bedders sitting in the corner, far from any of the students. They looked content and were laughing openly but as I came up the laughter abruptly ended. Questions here, especially about the other bedders, were obviously unwelcome. One forthright member of the group stood up and declared that "We are very busy. You must go." I turned to leave, but not before noticing that one twenty-something lady who helped to clean my own Hall of Residence was looking uncertain and sitting slightly apart from the rest. Her name was Agnieszka, but as she had told me on her first day in my Hall, "I won't tell you my surname, because you won't be able to spell it". I decided to seek her out later.

In the event, Agnieszka came in to my own room that very afternoon, as I lay on my bed trying to avoid thinking about the latest pressing essay. Armed with dusters, soap, vacuum cleaner and a smile, she quickly cleaned up everything that needed it. I was desperate to learn something from her, and threw several questions in her direction as she picked up her things and prepared to go on to the next room. She looked at me wearily and spoke in short, curt sentences, "I am very busy and tired. I can't talk about the other bedders. This is my job, and I can't afford to lose it." She left without a second glance.

"It was far more relaxed in the old days", says Liz. Having worked intermittently as a bedder for more than twenty years, she can still remember a time when the majority of bedmakers in Colleges were part-time ladies who were allowed to bring along their young children to work. "Health and Safety has got rid of that, of course", she notes with a shrug.

The majority of bedders in most Cambridge Colleges are still part-time workers, but this is more a reflection of the difficulties that the Colleges are having in recruiting new members of staff. Vacancies are often left for months at a time, only to be filled temporarily by workers paid by recruitment agencies. This is despite the fact that few bedders earn less than £6 an hour, which is well over the minimum wage. Many bedders themselves are puzzled by the apparent lack of appeal that their work holds. In the lunchtime discussion, the consensus is that the problems in recruitment reflect wider social changes. "Modern women find this work demeaning", Lucille argues with a little resentment, and when I question why more men are not interested in the work, the response is a hale of laughter.

This may be work that "pays the bills" in Liz's words, but it has also failed to adapt to meet the changing demands of the modern British workforce. The College authorities point out that the University cards all Bedders carry, offer them discount meals in College Bars and the University Centre, as well as a 5% discount on holidays from Premier Travel. The Bedders that I meet, however, are all agreed that the best perks of the job come more informally. "Our corporate visitors are the best", says Liz.. "One American from UCLA arrived here last year. She was staying for eight weeks and all she'd brought was a little backpack. I said to myself, "Hello, what's going on here?" The first thing this American girl did was to ask me where all the shops were. I came back the next day and do you know what I found?" The other ladies gaze at her with looks of desperate tension. ‘I found bags everywhere!' Cue a round of deep sighs. "When she left, she took her backpack and nothing else. I found a note on the table and it said that I could have all those clothes. Now that's a perk you don't get from students!"

Ultimately, it seems that some barriers between students and bedders are not made to be broken. It is a bedder's job to tidy rooms, not to make friends or provide emotional guidance to stressed-out undergraduates. Yet I still cannot forget the care with which Liz had talked about "my poor lad". For her at least, being a bedder means much more than being just a "College employee"; it involves a kind of pastoral care, even a kind of love. "Well, it's hard not to like you lot, you know" she tells me happily as we pass each other later on in the corridor. "I mean, things are so much better than they used to be. You lot get us so many more Christmas presents for one!"

A brief history

Bedders have been a feature of Cambridge life since at least 1635, when a University edict was passed banning the employment of anyone under fifty. This was allegedly part of a "bedder test". It aimed to ensure there could be no suspicion of any "impropriety" between bedders and students or fellows, who were all men and – until Victorian times – forbidden to marry.

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