Cambridge Colleges As…What they were like in 1984 (Part II)

The much-anticipated sequel: Single-sex college politics, the rumoured closure of Sidney Street Sains, and corporal punishment for a poor University Challenge performance…

As week 6 of lockdown rolls around, we have now realised that we cannot recreate the true Cambridge experience at home (despite the undiminished workload many are still experiencing), the antidote to which is a heavy dose of nostalgia (think of all the belated Crushbridges, the throwback photos on Instagram…)

Cast your minds back to the halcyon days of Lent Term 2020, and then cast your minds back even further and imagine Cambridge in sepia, at a time when Pac-Man was the most popular video game, Michael Jackson had only just released Thriller, and The Terminator was the latest box-office hit.

The Cambridge of 1984 is in many ways unrecognisable to us in 2020. Several colleges had yet to admit women (or admitted very few), feminism was considered some sort of witchcraft – oh, and Sidney Sainsbury’s almost closed down.

Please keep reading to discover what it was like to be a student at your college some 30 years ago (spoiler: unless you were a posh boy, it wasn’t good.)


Magdalene was the last Oxbridge college to admit women. They did so in 1988, at least four years after these guides were published, finally accepting that their refusal to admit women meant an irreversible decline in academic standards. “The Magdalene Man is a figure of legend” who “permanently slaughtered, permanently wearing green wellington boots, he can be seen staggering through the streets of Cambridge shouting at tramps.” Frankly, this figure of legend should feature in a cautionary tale about who should be categorically avoided at university at any cost, like the troll under (Magdalene) Bridge.

New Hall (Murray Edwards)

New Hall, as it was known then (the name was changed in 2009), apparently “looks and smells like a hospital”. The mystical beings who inhabited Medwards are characterised as nymphomaniac witches “flying down castle hill with karma sutra in hand” ready to wreak havoc on the lives of otherwise studious, innocent (*snorts*) male students of colleges below.


The main components of the Newnham student body back in 1984 were “a faction of self-styled ‘beautiful people’, often rather ugly, as well as a small group of rabid feminists and some bible bashers”. The beautiful gardens are only mentioned in passing, as a site where students were known to sunbathe topless “which the dons turn a blind eye to, but the gardeners don’t”.


Pembroke also remained all-male at this time, and its reputation can be best summarised as posh and thick – “neither an endearing nor enlightened college – I once heard a Pembroke man talk quite unashamedly about ‘the riff-raff'”. An expression of classism at its finest. Perhaps the biggest insult of them all, however, was being labelled “sort of failed single-sex Trinity”. All the posing and none of the clout.


“Peterhouse would at least be worth a laugh, if it weren’t so nauseating”.

At Peterhouse in the 1980s failing in academic rigour resulted in some medieval and corporal punishment… “Jolly Japes have meant knocking nails into the hands of an undergraduate who let the college down in University Challenge”. For modern eyes, this escapade seems to stretch the meaning of both jolly and jape to the extreme.

At this time Peterhouse was still yet to go mixed (I see a trend here), the guide notes: “Brave women they will have to be, after the Dean’s infamous remark about ‘letting the scrubbers in'” (Google defines a scrubber as ‘a vulgar or slovenly woman, or one who has many casual sexual relationships’). Charming.

St Catharine’s 

World famous and internationally renowned for being opposite Corpus”. In this case Catz, I think no news is good news.

 St John’s

It may come as a surprise that John’s was not Public Enemy Number 1 in 1984. The guide only goes as far as to say “it is perhaps kindest to say of Johns that it is a lively college” but “‘life’ is not necessarily pleasant”. In the previous year, the students had behaved so raucously that the ‘infamous’ Cripps Bar was closed (and not for the first time). 40 women had been admitted in 1982, and 28 the following year, so the gender imbalance was still stark. This meant that women either had “to flee (a common practice) or become ‘one of the lads’ and roll the head porter in the snow with the rest of the rugby club”. It seems lad culture isn’t as much of a modern a phenomenon as this writer thought.

Sidney Sussex

“Sidney has a reputation for being small and full of friendly people, but it is actually full of irritated people sick of being dismissed as small and friendly.” Sidney students were also known for their remarkable money-raising events and had “topped the Rag table for many years”.

Its main claim to fame back in the day (and to this day, to be honest) is its ideal location opposite another Cambridge institution – Sidney Street Sains. But in 1984 this beloved hallmark of the city was in jeopardy, “Sidney is to be dealt a severe blow by the impending loss of the Sainsbury’s-over-the-road”. Thankfully fate seemingly intervened.


Apart from pointing out Trinity’s “amazing wealth”, the guide warns: “Beware of the cadaverous porters who are in-bred in cells beneath Great Court and released at the age of 65 with a licence to maim.” Their reputation as the harshest college porters rings true to this day.

The recent release of the film Chariots of Fire (1981) boosted Trinity’s popularity. The film is based on the true story of two athletes at the 1924 Olympics, and one of them, Harold Abrahams, during his time as a Trinity undergrad, becomes the first person ever to complete the Trinity Great Court Run (sounds like the Great North Run, but posher and with fewer hills). However, scandalously, this was not filmed at Trinity – the production team outsourced to Eton. 

Fake news, not Trinity (film still taken from 20th Century Studios UK Youtube)

Trinity Hall

If somebody had asked me to guess what a Cambridge college would have been best known for in the 1980s, I would not have said “musical yoghurt lunches”, but here we are. What they were will remain a mystery lost in the sands of time. The college was also known for “the most profitable Durex machine in Cambridge”.

The scathing reviews of the Cambridge colleges, while in many cases making for a hilarious read, also expose some harsh truths about the difficulties faced by those attempting to break into the privileged bubble to which, it was considered by many at that time, they did not belong. The Cambridge of today may still have some way to go in this regard. Yet, as one of those “rabid” feminists, I’d say we are a much better and more varied community today – community which is shown at its best at this time of the pandemic.

Which college would you have chosen to go to if applying in 1984? Are you relieved that lad culture seems to have lessened its grip on Cambridge to some extent? Do you fancy reviving the musical yoghurt lunches?

All quotations are taken from the Varsity Handbook: The Student Guide to Cambridge for the years 1983-84 and 1984-85, edited and produced by Gill Parker, Caroline Kerr, James Slessenger, Bill Jillians, Simon Rowe, Nigel Morris, Graham Coster, Sarah Broomhead, Julia Bucknall, Fred Maroudas, Sarah F. Green, Philippa Ladbury.

Featured image credits:  John Mason (Creative Commons Licence), Cmglee (Wikimedia Commons), kaet44 (Creative Commons Licence)