Porter leaves St John’s after 66 years

St John’s has bid farewell to its longest-serving member of staff after 66 years on the job: longer than the Queen has been on the throne.

Peter Cox joined the College as an under-scout in 1945, aged 15, starting immediately after VE day.

He recalled his time on the job – a career which spanned seven decades – during which he witnessed a great many changes in Oxford, and rubbed shoulders with famous figures such as Tony Blair and poet Robert Graves.

His father had worked as a scout for University College – notching up an impressive 42 years himself – but Cox had thought he’d “never go to a college to work as a scout”.

He took the job since it was the only alternative to being a “servant to a gentleman” in Christ Church, or working as an errand boy in the Covered Market.

The day-to-day lives of post-war students and the work routines of scouts were startlingly different to those of their counterparts nowadays.

The fireplaces – now demoted to a purely aesthetic existence in most rooms – were still in daily use.

As a scout, Cox would clean out and make up the fireplaces each day at a refreshing 6am.

Coal buckets were filled, but when Cox first started they were not to be used until after 4pm as rationing was still in place.

Shoes were polished and crocks removed to the pantry and washed up, all by the scout, who had a role more as a personal servant than anything else.

After the morning routine, Cox would dash over to hall to serve breakfast, grab a bite to eat himself, and then it was back to the staircase to empty the slops and chamber pots, make the beds, dust and sweep.

After a quick lunch, he would be back in for hall lunch at one. Afternoons would then be his own to do what he liked.

After some friendly peer-pressure, Cox joined Oxford University College Servants Rowing Club, with which he passed many pleasant afternoons on the river. In the evening Cox would be back at the college for Hall dinners, finishing at 8pm.

He would follow this routine seven days a week during term time, and still carry out his morning duties during vacations.

But there were perks of being a scout, with the evidence everywhere around Cox’s house.

Having had a brief stint in a furniture shop, he ‘rescued’ and repaired many items that would otherwise have been destined for the scrap heap.

Bookshelves made from old benches line the kitchen; a handsome solid mahogany table sits in the living room, with a new set of legs to replace the woodworm-riddled originals.

Projects like these were not just limited to his own house. As Cox said, he “was always up to something” in College.

In his ‘office’ in the basement of a staircase near North Quad tower, it wasn’t unusual to find Cox constructing a bike, cooking chutney on a miniature stove or brewing up a batch of elderflower wine.

Some of his activities were soon curtailed when residents in the rooms on the top floor began to complain of “strange smells”.

Cox saw a lot of famous faces during his time at St John’s, and was able to reel off a list of names of figures as diverse as Francisco Franco, Robert Graves and Princess Margaret.

Cox recalled his brief meeting with poet and novelist Graves: “He said he was feeling unwell, so I gave him a glass of water. I was one of the last people in Oxford to see him before he died”

He also remembered numerous sightings of Princess Margaret as she took the bus to see her then-boyfriend – who was a student a University College – on Iffley Road.

“One so-called famous person, who I never really had anything to do with, was Tony Blair”, Cox said. “All I know was that he was a long-haired git who played the guitar. But I wouldn’t say he was dreadfully famous.”

One major aspect Cox has seen change in St John’s over the past half-century is its size.

When he arrived, there were only about 100 students in residence, but it wasn’t long before the Dolphin quad was finished on the site of the Dolphin Inn.

Then came the ‘Beehive’ in the North Quad, the Sir Thomas White Quad, and the Garden Quad. When finally the recently-completed Kendrew Quadrangle was unveiled, Cox declined his invitation to the opening, saying it was just “yet another new building”.

With the new buildings came more and more students. The current undergraduate population is now around 370 students.

No doubt to the undergraduates’ relief, washing facilities in the college have been from Cox’s early years.

They used to be a “big bowl and a jug of water”, chamber pot and long walks to the toilets if you “needed something else” or wanted a shower.

The addition of new students certainly had one upside for the scouts: more people to play practical jokes on. Cox recalled one particularly memorable prank which involved a scout capturing a wild duck that was innocently wandering around the College early one morning.

The scout then promptly stole into a nearby staircase and slipped the bird into the room of an unsuspecting, sleeping student.

Cox also witnessed the changes in St Johns’ traditions when women were first admitted to the College.

One particular custom that has since disappeared is “sconcing”.

With a general definition meaning “to fine [an undergraduate] for a breach of rules of etiquette”, to be sconced in St Johns’ hall was to be punished for arriving to evening dinner late or without a gown and still expecting to enter.

Instead of a monetary fine, the student was given a heavy, two-and-a-half pint silver, lidded tankard, and required to drink its alcoholic contents in one go.

The student could take as long as they liked, but their lips could not leave the tankard: not an easy task given the weight of the container.

Appeals could be made to the high table, since the person of authority who wished to administer the punishment would have to write down a note in Latin, and hand it to the President for sanctioning.

If the offending student did not manage to down the drink, he or she would have to pay for it, and also pay for each scholar to have one as well, resulting in a hefty final charge. In comparison, modern “pennying” seems tame.

When the college turned co-educational it wasn’t long before sconcing stopped.

The young women were not exempt from the tradition, but far from sitting and slowly draining the tankard, as was expected, there were instances where they would stand up and down it as fast as possible, causing an uproar in the hall.

Several College fellows disapproved of such goings on.

It was “lowering the tone in the establishment and all that”, according to Cox.

With his evenings freed of hall-duty, Cox now busies himself with his garden, growing an impressive variety of vegetables and fruits, and hopes to do a bit more travelling.

Reflecting on a life in St John’s, he remarked: “I thought about going somewhere else, but I never did get round to it!”

2 Responses to "Porter leaves St John’s after 66 years"

  1. James Tilney  21/02/2011 at 18:08

    this is the kind of story we all want to read more about in oxford newspapers.

    it makes a refreshing change from the trash that is normally spat out each week.

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  2. Thomas Mason  24/03/2011 at 00:08

    Peter was always a genial host and wine-waiter at formal hall, and his old-world charm never failed to add a certain something to the proceedings. I’m sure I speak for many St John’s graduates in wishing him a long and happy retirement.

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