03 September 2015

Making use of the ‘Gyp Room’
on Staircase M late at night

The mystery and the meaning of the ‘Gyp Room’ were soon unveiled (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Do you know what is a tripos? Or what is a gyp-room? What was a ten-year man? What was the Wooden Spoon?

Did you know the May Balls and the May Bumps take place in June?

Cambridge has its own vocabulary, its own peculiar names for places, and its own language. It takes so long to master both that Cambridge University Press has a guide to these special words and usages by Frank Stubbings, Bedders, Bulldogs and Bedells: A Cambridge Glossary.

But if you have mastered this vocabulary and this peculiar set of names, then you know you know that Jesus Ditch separates Jesus Common from Jesus Close, you know Christ’s Pieces from Parker’s Piece, and you know where the apostrophe goes in Queens’ College. And you know too that the “Cambridge week” goes from Thursday to Wednesday, why we divide on Friday, and that the new year is starting on 1 October.

A court in a Cambridge college is not somewhere to face trial and punishment, but is the equivalent of an Oxford quad.

Climbing the stairs to M3 in Cloister Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In Cambridge colleges, including Sidney Sussex, students often identify with their stairs, which becomes a place for making friendships and sharing resources. This week I am staying on Stairs M in Cloister Court … in previous years, for example, I have stayed in Blundell Court, in Garden Court, on Stairs C overlooking Hall Court and on Stairs H in Chapel Court, among others.

When I was staying on Stairs K in Cloister Court some years ago, I wondered whether there was a room numbered K9. Now that I am on Stairs M this year, I wondered, just for a moment, whether there was an MI5 or MI6, which might have been perfect for the Cambridge spies.

My rooms this week are at the end of Cloister Court, looking out onto the gardens and Jesus Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

My rooms this week are at the end of Cloister Court, looking out onto the gardens and Jesus Lane. As I was checking out my bearings and location after my arrival, searching for the bathroom, I was reminded of another strange usage in the Cambridge vocabulary.

My rooms are part of a set and without having to go out onto the landing and the stairs I have immediate access to the shared kitchen, which is labelled: “Gyp Room.”

The gyp, the bedder and the porter are all figures you expect to come across in Porterhouse or some other Tom Sharpe novel set in a Cambridge college.

At one time, college servants did everything from patrolling the college grounds to polishing boots and boiling eggs. The colleges – and students – could not have functioned without them.

In the 1840s, Charles Astor Bristed described the bedders or bed-makers as “the women who take care of the rooms ... For obvious reason they are selected from such of the fair sex as have long passed the age at which they might have had any personal attractions.”

The gyp, he said, was “a college servant, who attends upon a number of students... [who] calls them in the morning, brushes their clothes, carries parcels for them... and waits at their parties and so on.” Each gyp typically worked for all the occupants of a staircase.

So a “Gyp” was a type of manservant in Cambridge colleges, and in Oxford they were known as scouts.

The term may date back to the mid-18th century and perhaps comes from an obsolete word gippo meaning a menial kitchen servant, but originally denoting a working man’s short tunic, and this in turn is derived from an obsolete French word jupeau.

Clear instructions for staff and students (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Gyps no longer exist, but their memory survives in the name used for the “Gyp room.” This was once the room where a gyp awaited a call from his gentlemen, but today it is a small, basic kitchen for the use of college members, both staff and students.

And the “Gyp Room” on Staircase M in Cloister Court has been an important place for making late-night coffees throughout this week.

I close the door behind me on M3 and the Gyp Room check out of Sidney Sussex College later this morning.

The facilities of the Gyp are basic but welcome when coffee is needed late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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