A standard remodeling project in one of the University of Cambridge’s colleges unearthed a real historic bonanza. In fact, when the construction team knocked down a wall in Selwyn College’s Old Court, they couldn’t quite believe what they’d found.
Yet perhaps the historic discovery shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, England is home to some of the world’s oldest universities. And of these, the famous institutions of Oxford and Cambridge are undoubtedly seen as the finest.
Both universities have colorful histories. Over the years they’ve been the sites of much political dissent. And notably, they also served as intelligence and recruitment bases during both world wars. Indeed, Cambridge itself was born out of dissent. It was established in 1209 when angry scholars left Oxford – the oldest English-speaking university in the world – to create their own university.
And so, because of its age, there are undoubtedly a number of dusty secrets locked away in Cambridge’s older rooms. This has certainly proved the case lately with the unexpected discovery of a mysterious room at Selwyn College.
Selwyn College had hired a construction team to do some remodeling work. And as the people were working within the college’s Old Court, they made a terrific and unexpected discovery.
Selwyn is one of Cambridge’s younger colleges, but it’s still been standing for 134 years. It was established in 1882 by a bishop, George Augustus Selwyn. The college was also designed in the distinctive style of the time: redbrick and Victorian-Gothic. In fact, it bears a slight resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Anyway, during the renovation the workers removed a wall in one of the kitchens. And they discovered, to their astonishment, that a small chamber lay behind. In the space, they found a tiny Victorian-era cooking stove peppered with dust and bird droppings. And there was other WWI-era paraphernalia in there, too, dating from between 1912 and 1916.
As well as the stove, they found a number of postcards and some cigarette cards. These trading cards were sold with cigarette packs back in the early 20th century. They were sort of like Kinder Surprises for adults.
The serendipitous findings certainly came as a great surprise to the college’s maintenance manager, Doug Benzie. “Some of my guys were stripping out the old wooden panels in one of the kitchens, and they called me to say you wouldn’t believe what we found,” he told the Cambridge News.
Gradually, the story behind this long-buried room was unraveled. It emerged that once upon a time the tiny chamber was used as a prep room for house servants. And in these “gyps” the servants would cook a small breakfast for the students every morning.
Now, after some rooting through the lost items, the contents proved even more interesting than at first glance. The postcards and cigarette trading cards could, indeed, have belonged to someone at Selwyn. Perhaps they even belonged to the house servant who worked there each morning.
Furthermore, the send dates on the postcards ranged from 1912 to 1916. The contents behind the wall, then, could have been there for around a century. And these significant dates overlap with the beginning of WWI, too.
That conflict, which is also known as the Great War, began in 1914 and ended in 1918. And the University of Cambridge, and quite possibly Selwyn College itself, played an important role in Britain’s operations.
After Germany invaded Belgium – an event that dragged Britain into the conflict – Belgians flocked to Cambridge to seek refuge. And sadly, the university lost many of its own male students who enlisted to fight. Many female students, meanwhile, became nurses.
The city also housed several divisions of the British Army. “It was the flower of the younger generation that joined up,” a female student told a 2014 issue of the Cambridge Edition.
And when the fighting finally ended on November 11, 1918, Cambridge was like a ghost town. The conflict had claimed an entire generation of men. In fact, the Roll of Honor at Cambridge University records 1,414 dead.
Facts like these bring into relief the importance of the relics discovered within the old gyp. Why? Because perhaps the postcards found in this walled-up room had come from a brother, father or lover fighting abroad.
These questions are exactly the kind that university administrators are now investigating. To this end, they are now locating relatives of the students who lived in the college during WWI.
But even if they don’t find anything, students may still be able to enjoy the discovery. For now, the wall has been put back up. However, there are hopes that some kind of museum can be created to commemorate this fascinating period in the college’s history.
Thanks to this find, we have a deeper insight into the pre-war life of prestigious universities. And hopefully, in time, there will be new information about the postcards and their origins.