Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Louisa Duffy, bedmaker and linguist

Louisa Duffy was a bedmaker at Magdalene College Cambridge in the late Victorian period. Her challenging life and her unusual talents and achievements deserve to be remembered.

Louisa Freeman / Rottmann / Duffy Louisa Duffy was born Louisa Freeman in the Chesterton district, on the edge of Cambridge, sometime during the second quarter of 1852. Her father, William Freeman, was a carpenter who had an alcohol problem which, as discussed below, would have given Louisa a difficult childhood. He died in 1880. Her mother, Catherine, née Woodward, was a bedmaker at Magdalene.  By the time A.S. Ramsey came into residence as a freshman in 1886, she had handed over her duties to her daughter (like most colleges, Magdalene believed in the hereditary principle when appointing bedmakers), the transfer probably taking place when Catherine was in her late sixties.[1] Although it must now sound patronising, Ramsey's description of her as "a superior woman" reflected Louisa's ability to transcend a challenging background.[2] The crowded working-class district to the north of St Giles' church was described in 1856 as "a most difficult parish from vice & poverty & disease".[3] The town's original 'transpontine' suburb, Castle End, retained its unsavoury reputation: Castle Street, where Louisa spent part of her childhood, was lined with public houses and led to the County Gaol, an institution that would come to play a happier part in her life story.[4] A school for girls had been established in Honey Hill seven years before she was born, and it was almost certainly here that she received her basic education.[5] However, as the area expanded to the east, the quality of housing improved. Apart from an unexpected four years spent on the continent, Louisa seems to have lived all her days within a few hundred yards of her birthplace, but the story of her life, and especially of her own family, is nonetheless one of aspiration and marginally upward social movement.

A drunken and violent father Louisa Freeman had a tough childhood. Her father had an alcohol problem which gave him a season ticket to the local magistrates court. Her mother, Catherine, was subject to threats and to acts of violence, and it is noteworthy that she said in 1864 that she had "been subjected to this kind of treatment for the last twelve years" – back, in fact, to the time of Louisa's birth. Freeman was first bound over to keep the peace towards Catherine in 1856, and fined the following year for wife-beating.  Over supper, Catherine had "expostulated with him on his drinking propensities", her anger sharpened by the fact that he had sold his tools to pay for booze. In response, Freeman "threw a quantity of cold cabbage in her face", which provoked her into administering what she called "a gentle slap". He retaliated by punching her "with stunning effect".[6] William Freeman moved in a world where physical violence was the small change of personal disagreement. In 1861, he was attacked while drinking "a pitcher of ale" at the Fort St George, downstream beside the Cam. His assailant was bricklayer who claimed to have been swindled, apparently through non-payment of a bill, a grievance that entitled him to seize the ale. In the ensuing fight, one of Freeman's teeth was knocked down his throat.[7] The following year, he was attacked from behind as he walked along Petty Cury by a man with whom he had been playing cards at a nearby public house. Freeman described himself as "not drunk and not sober", and acknowledged that there had been some "chaffing" during the card game. On this occasion, Freeman had hit his head on the kerb and passed out. Perhaps, if the historian stretches fair-mindedness to its limits, the injury explained his increasingly violent behaviour towards his own family.[8]

William Freeman's relationship with the law was not helped by his tendency to borrow tools, no doubt because he had sold or pawned his own equipment. The problem was that his borrowings were self-initiated and non-time-specific, which unwilling and unwitting lenders were inclined to regard as theft. In November 1863, Freeman had visited a house under construction by a local builder, Thomas Harvey, who later discovered that a saw was missing. A witness recalled Freeman saying, "I'll take this saw, as I have got a little job for myself." His insistence that he had intended to return the tool to its rightful owner was undermined by evidence that he had sold it, for a rock-bottom one shilling and sixpence, a third of its value, to an unsuspecting purchaser in East Road. Sentenced to one month with hard labour, William Freeman made his first acquaintance with prison life.[9] It did not improve his temper.

Crisis point was reached in April 1864, as a local newspaper report made clear. "William Freeman of Castle-street, who has an industrious wife, employed as a bedmaker at Magdalene College, was again charged with ill-using her." On her way to work, Catherine had spotted him at "Jemmerson's, Bridge Street" – almost certainly mis-reporting for Nicholas Jemmerson's public house, the Spotted Cow, which was in Northampton Street.[10] He followed her into First Court, carrying "a cabinet-maker's tool", with which he threatened to "rip her -- guts out". Freeman's excuse was that "he had been drinking lately" cut no ice with the presiding magistrate: "it was well known that he was given to this sort of thing". Instead of supporting his wife and family, the accused "got drunk and did nothing". The offence was compounded by the fact that he had attacked his wife within the bounds of Magdalene, "at the risk of her situation". Freeman was called upon to provide assurances that he would keep the peace for three months, by depositing £20 in "recognizances" himself, and also providing two sureties of £10 each. It was unlikely that Freeman would have so much money, and even more implausible that he could produce two guarantors prepared to bet so much cash on his remaining sober for so long. Unable to buy his way out of a tight corner, William Freeman returned to gaol.[11]

Prison did not reform Louisa's father. Introducing him as "An Old Offender", in January 1865 a local newspaper reported  another court appearance by "William Freeman, carpenter, of Castle-street ... who has frequently been charged with ill-treating his wife". This time it was his daughter Clara who had incurred his wrath. Freeman had stormed out of the house around the time of the midday meal, returning "very drunk" at about three o'clock to strike her "a violent blow in the face". When another daughter tried to intervene – could it have been Louisa, not yet thirteen years old? – Freeman threatened to "throttle" her before throwing her down a flight of stairs. He then assaulted his wife. The magistrate commented that this was his ninth or tenth appearance for "brutal, disgraceful, and cowardly conduct. It was difficult to know how to deal with such a man." The court sent him to prison for two months with hard labour. But he was back by the end of the year, fined for punching Clara in the face "without provocation".[12]

William Freeman's behaviour was now becoming not only criminal but also irrational. In January 1866, described as "an old offender, living in Castle End," he removed a large brush, used for grooming horses, from the Three Swans, an inn that stood at the corner of Magdalene Street and Chesterton Lane.[13] It is difficult to imagine what use he could have had for such an item, and indeed he admitted that "he did not know what he had done with the brush, for he was drunk at the time." His plea that he had replaced the item with two other, presumably smaller, brushes did not impress the court. The case was adjourned, with the result that the outcome has not been traced, but a further term of imprisonment probably followed. It was hardly surprising that he was back in court in March 1869, charged with failing to maintain his wife and family. A sentence of nine months' imprisonment with hard labour for theft followed soon afterwards.[14]

Lady's maid It was obviously vital for Louisa Freemen to escape this toxic family background as soon as she possibly could. Domestic service offered one of the few employment opportunities for girls from poor backgrounds, and becoming a live-in servant in a middle-class household would have had the incidental advantage of allowing her to leave home. Hence it is likely that Louisa was wielding a dustpan and emptying chamber pots by the time she had entered her teens, for the years between her eleventh and fourteenth birthday were particularly unstable at home. For most women, an existence "below stairs" offered a life of dead-end skivvying. Louisa Freeman was one of the few who rose – and, it seems, relatively rapidly – to the elevated rank of lady's maid. To have established the necessary reputation for discreet efficiency and personal cleanliness from the anonymous rank of housemaid suggests considerable ability and application. Mrs Beeton, in Book of Household Management, outlined the terrifying versatility that the role of lady's maid required: "she should be ... a tolerably expert milliner and dressmaker, a good hairdresser, and possess some chemical knowledge of the cosmetics with which the toilet-table is supplied, in order to use them with safety and effect." And that was merely the start of a range of tricks and duties, all of them combined with a telepathic ability to read and respond to her employer's moods, through a kind of omnipresent invisibility.[15]

Although she secured an exceptionally glamorous appointment, Louisa Freeman would have needed a remarkably high level of people skills to serve her mistress. Twice widowed and once divorced, Caroline Holbrook Chandler du Barry was an enormously wealthy American woman with a penchant for exotic men, who were themselves attracted by the fortune she had acquired from her first husband, a banker in Mobile, Alabama. Related by marriage to the Vanderbilts, she enjoyed a life of travel, which brought her to England as a jumping-off point for continental travel. How and when she acquired Louisa Freeman from Cambridge as a lady's maid cannot be determined, but two points about the job seem clear. The first is that her responsibilities included looking after Florence, Caroline's daughter, probably then in her pre-teen years, and very likely – given her mother's track record, and her own subsequent life, which would later re-enter Louisa's story – not the easiest of youngsters to manage. The second point is that the lady's maid travelled with her mistress – indeed, Mrs Beeton gave advice on such matters as what clothes to bring and how to pack the trunks. (They should be lined with paper to ensure that clothes were kept clean.) By the early eighteen-seventies, and barely twenty years of age herself, Louisa Freeman found herself in Germany. It would have been an exciting time, with the newly unified German Empire celebrating its victory over the French in the War of 1870-1. For Caroline, imperial Germany stirred familiar hormones: in 1872 she married Baron Heinrich Louis Adolf von Roques, described by her daughter as a cavalry officer stationed at Cologne.[16]

While her mistress's matrimonial odyssey presumably did not make the job of her lady's maid any the easier, Louisa did emulate her employer in one crucial respect: she too acquired a German husband. She would probably have known from readings of the Anglican prayer book that marriage was a step not to be taken unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly. Marriage to a foreigner was an even bigger leap, and one that suggested that she was reconciled to making her life on the continent.  We know only that her husband's surname was Rottmann, and that he died not long after their marriage. To this, we can add the strong probability that his forename was Rudolph, and that his death occurred during the winter of 1876-7. Louisa, pregnant with her first child, returned to Cambridge, where in May 1877 she gave birth to a son, Rudolph Harry Rottmann.[17] She had spent about four years of her life in Germany, and perhaps wondered what she had to show for her foreign travels. However, as will become apparent later in this story, she had learned the language. Nor did she remain a widow for long.

Mrs Duffy the bedmaker On 23 December 1879, Louisa Rottmann married Frederick Patrick Duffy at St Luke's church in Chesterton.[18] (St Luke's was a new church, opened just five years earlier to combat the spiritual destitution of Louisa's home patch. Its tall spire, a feature of the modern Cambridge townscape, had not yet been built.) Her new husband was fifteen years her senior. In the 1881 and 1891 censuses, he reported his place of birth as Norwich, although an enumerator in 1901 entered him as born in Ireland. In 1891, he described himself as "musician and army pensioner": the fact that he cannot be traced in the censuses of 1861 or 1871 suggests that he had spent several years soldiering, probably based overseas. By 1881, he was a warder at Cambridge Gaol, which stood on the site of Shire Hall on Castle Hill: indeed, Ramsey believed Duffy was the head warder. The transition from soldier to warder perhaps suggests that he had risen to the rank of non-commissioned officer, with perhaps a sergeant-major's experience in giving orders. Historians should avoid the hugely patronising exercise of imposing their own cod-psychological analyses upon people who can no longer speak for themselves. It is simply appropriate to note here that in marrying a man some years her senior whose career suggested responsibility and self-discipline, she had chosen in Frederick Patrick Duffy a man very different from her own father.  The Duffys' first child, Hettie, was born late in 1880, about a year after their marriage. They were living in Searle Street, a marginally upmarket part of Chesterton. Louisa's son had presumably accepted his stepfather (and vice-versa), but retained his birth surname, although it seems that his forenames were sometimes switched to turn him into Harry R. Rottman (or Rothmann). A second daughter, Nellie, arrived in 1889.

With a small child to nurse, Louisa did not return any occupation in the 1881 census. However, sometime in the next five years – before A.S. Ramsey came in to residence in 1886 – she took over her mother's role as a Magdalene bedmaker. No doubt it was a come-down from her previous glamorous role as a lady's maid, but the talents required to manage miscellaneous male egos were probably similar. In the mid-eighteen-eighties, she looked after D staircase in First Court, plus two sets on the top of C staircase, one of which College tradition claimed had been occupied by Charles Kingsley during his undergraduate years. By the time Ramsey returned in 1897, she had also assumed responsibility for the Fellow's set on the first floor of C staircase, later the College office.

An American student, Edward Everett, at Trinity from 1859-1863, provided a detailed but negative account of the activities of Cambridge bedmakers. Everett was struck, with some bitterness, by the paradox that the University and Colleges collectively constituted an immensely authoritative institution which left him largely free to organise his life as he pleased, but "his inferiors ... those appointed to wait on him and help him" controlled him with a straitjacket of "vested rights". Prime among these parasitic tyrants were the bedmakers. "Practically, a person once appointed to this seriously lucrative and responsible place never gives it up, although utterly superannuated, toothless, and tottering." They worked long hours (which, incidentally explained why bedmakers tended to live close to the colleges where they worked), generally "from early dawn till noon, from four till six, and a good bit in the later evening."  Usually assigned responsibility for eight "rooms"[19], each bedmaker had her own keys and could invade a student's privacy at any time. "They constitute themselves inspectresses-general over all your belongings and arrangements, and know all about you much better than you do yourself." The student faced the choice between "submitting quietly to their ultra-despotic rule, or of carrying on constant warfare." Everett, who chose the latter course, felt that his principal asset was his "superior command of language, for the population of Cambridge is very slow of speech, and wholly uninventive." A particular charge against bedmakers – one not confined to Everett's unattractive spleen – was that they exploited their responsibility for providing basic supplies as part of their duties in arranging breakfast and afternoon tea for their charges. "For this they order from the butteries every day about twice as much bread and butter as a man wants, and at the end of the day all that's left goes to them, by immemorial custom, as perquisites." For these services, undergraduates were charged "a handsome sum ... for the care of their rooms", supplemented by a separate payment for beer money – and were expected to provide a lavish gratuity at the end of each term.[20]

Everett does not come across as an attractive personality, and some of his charges were exaggerated. The Student's Guide, for instance, pointed out that bedmakers simply fetched the standard allowance (known as "commons") from the butteries, and that the undergraduate could give orders to receive more or less. "He is not bound to have more than he wishes, and may supply himself from the town if he thinks fit."[21] Bedmakers might well plod on well beyond the limits of their natural energies, but it was a loose and misleading use of language to say that they were "superannuated": while colleges did pay pensions ex gratia  to long-time employees, there were no formal pension schemes. The allegation that their trademark baskets were much heavier when they left than when they arrived was jocularly repeated as late as 1960, but Everett's claim that the job was "seriously lucrative" was exaggerated.[22] College cooks sometimes become very wealthy, but the annals of Cambridge seem singularly deficient in reports of upwardly-mobile bedmakers. By the end of the century, Magdalene bedmakers received two guineas (£2, ten pence) a term for each set.[23] The same fee was paid for the Long Vacation, but it is by no means certain that rooms were occupied or allocated at that time. Thus servicing seven or eight sets might yield an income of around £60 a year. Out of this meagre income, bedmakers paid for their own assistants, known as "helps".

Everett was correct in one respect: bedmakers aimed at "handing down their power and property to their nieces and daughters."[24] Making the transition from help to bedmaker was a significant passage rite: H.M. Butler, the tediously jovial Master of Trinity, variously likened the transition to "turning Viscountesses into Duchesses", or to being awarded a Blue or winning a place in the Harrow First XI.[25] Louisa Duffy's connection with Magdalene almost certainly began through assisting her mother.  She fully merited her succession. "Mrs Duffy was extraordinarily careful of everything she handled," Ramsey recalled. She became his bedmaker again when he returned to Magdalene in 1897, "and I think that only once in all those years did she break anything. She appeared to be much ashamed that she had dropped a bedroom tumbler and broken it. She had at once gone out to try and buy one exactly like the broken one but had not been able to get its double and she was very apologetic."[26]

By 1891, when Louisa entered herself on the census as "College servant", the family had relocated to 5 Chesterton Road, an address very convenient for early starts at Magdalene. If street numbering has not changed, number 5 is a small terraced house now hemmed in by the College's modern Cripps Court, a few yards from the corner of Hertford Street. Duffy's stepson was now entered as Randolf, probably an unconscious tribute to the political stormy petrel,  Lord Randolph Churchill. Louisa's widowed mother, Catherine, was also living with them, along with another sister, thirty year-old Agnes, employed as a college servant, and perhaps working as Louisa's "help". 

Murder and child sexual abuse In 1889 and 1890, the eminently respectable Louisa Duffy became associated with two scandals. The first was a murder with an Agatha Christie flavour, the second remains a horrific episode where the modern reader will feel an outraged sympathy for the victims, daughter and mother.

After she returned from Germany, it is unlikely that Louisa Duffy followed the life of her teenage charge Florence Chandler, nor is it likely that she much regretted their parting. In 1881, aged eighteen, Florence had married James Maybrick, a Liverpool merchant who was twenty-three years her senior. To say that the marriage was not a success would be an understatement. When Maybrick died in 1889, Florence was found guilty of murder by the administration of arsenic allegedly scraped from flypaper, and only narrowly escaped the gallows. Louisa Duffy evidently made known her association with the accused, and probably discussed the case with her gentlemen. After all, Mrs Beeton had encouraged her to study the chemistry of cosmetics, and she probably had an informed opinion about the abuse of arsenic.[27] Vicarious association with a sensational murder case seems to have created a mild thrill in staid Magdalene.

One year later, Louisa Duffy found herself, and her family, at the centre of a nightmare. Nineteenth-century English courts still used the Grand Jury system, by which a panel of local worthies filtered cases sent for trial by magistrates, dismissing those which seemed unlikely of resolution. At the July 1890 Cambridge Borough Assizes, the Recorder, J.R. Bulwer QC, assured the grand jurors that "none of the offences ... were of a serious nature", before outlining issues surrounding three of them.[28] The third case that he reviewed was that of "a young lad of 17, who was charged with indecently assaulting a little girl by the name of Hettie Duffy." Hettie, the Recorder explained, was nine years of age, and ready to give evidence "as to the nature of the indecent assault that was alleged to have been committed upon her." Her story was "corroborated, as far as it could be" by another girl, but she was only eight. The accused, whose name was George John Wolfe, had insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity, producing "two other lads, who said most positively that he was on the cricket ground at the backs of the Colleges" when the attack was stated to have taken place, "and therefore it could not have been him". It was not difficult to conclude that the Recorder aimed to steer the Grand Jury away from pursuing the case: they could hear the girls if they wished, but if "there was any serious doubt" about the facts, it would probably be best to drop the matter. Then followed the remarkable statement that "it was not desirable that these cases should be made more public than was necessary." He even ventured to predict that the Grand Jury would feel that there was "sufficient doubt" to stop the matter going any further. Bulwer's weasel words had begun by carefully hinting that the two girls would prove to be unreliable witnesses, before switching to concede, in effect, that something bad had indeed happened, but that it was not in the public interest to talk about such matters. As a logical argument, it was not the most logically integrated form of double-whammy, but it was enough for the Grand Jury to dismiss the case.[29]

It is worth attempting an imaginative reconstruction of the episode as it would have been experienced by the Duffy family. The alleged assault had taken place on 17 May.  While comforting a distressed child, Louisa and her husband rapidly made the no-doubt difficult decision to make the matter public: that, after all, was how her mother had responded to William Freeman's marital violence. George Wolfe was brought before the local police court four days later, and committed for trial – apparently without the option of bail – at the next assizes.[30] The Duffys then had to wait six stressful weeks for a chance of justice. It may be hoped that the Magdalene community provided at least tacit sympathy at a difficult time. The Wolfe family lived only a few hundred yards away, in Kettle's Yard, now the location of an art gallery but then part of the deprived rookery of Castle End.  John Wolfe, George's father, was a bricklayer's labourer, and the family were less than model citizens: even if there were no overt threats, the Duffys would have found the atmosphere intimidating.[31] The Recorder's slanted summary of the case could only have disgusted a couple who were prepared to subject their own daughter to the ordeal of recounting the assault. It is likely that they would have hoped the alibi advanced in Wolfe's support by the two youths ("lads" in Bulwer's carefully chosen vocabulary) would have fallen apart under cross-examination once they went into the witness box: whom had they met at the cricket ground, who had seen them there? Worst of all, the dismissal of the case placed the complainants in a negative light. At the very least, the Recorder implied that Hettie was a fantasist. At worst – assuming that Bulwer's plea for decent discretion implied that something nasty had indeed occurred – it might be implied that the victim had brought the episode upon herself through some inappropriate Lolita-like conduct. Victorian children roamed with very little supervision, but some might have interpreted the outcome as a condemnation of poor parenting. No doubt unable to afford to mount a private prosecution, Hettie's angry parents had to watch as their daughter's abuser walked free.

Against this, it should be said that it was just possible that George Wolfe was subjected to extra-judicial sanctions. The local police may well have taken the view that, with constabulary duty to be done, their handling of the wild denizens of Castle End need not be restricted by liberal interpretations of civil rights. The 1891 census, taken a few months after the Assizes, reveals George Wolfe (spelt Wolf) as a lodger at Ely, boarding in the house of a retired police officer, and describing his employment as "Militia man", which was not a job but a hobby. It may be that the offender – for there can surely be little doubt of his guilt – had been ordered to get out of town and subject himself to a double dose of discipline.  Unfortunately, his banishment was not indefinite, for by the time the census enumerators caught up with him in 1911, George Wolfe was back in Kettle's Yard.

Launching her children By the eighteen-nineties, Louisa and her husband were facing the challenge of launching their children into the employment market. By the age of thirteen, Rudolph had started an apprenticeship. The note on his employment in the 1891 census is not easy to decipher, but it seems to be in accord with his description ten years later as "bookbinder's finisher". In 1911, he returned himself as "bookseller's assistant". Cambridge was full of discerning readers who liked to have their books in attractive bindings, and who lined their shelves with volumes of periodicals like Punch. Presumably Rudolph showed artistic talents and was good with his hands: if the Duffys lacked the resources to secure him a university education, then a secure and creative career in the book trade would be an acceptable second-best. Applicants for jobs or apprenticeships usually provided testimonials – endorsements by respectable guarantors, the forerunners of the modern system of job references. It is likely that Louisa sought the support of one or more Fellows of Magdalene, and young Rudolph was perhaps subjected to a formal catechisation in some son's apartment to test his mettle. He did well enough to marry in 1900, at the age of 22, and establish his own home at 4 Chesterton Road, the first of the terrace of cottages past Wentworth House.[32] By 1901, Hettie – aged twenty and, let us hope, long recovered from her ordeal at the hands of George Wolfe – was working as a draper's assistant. It is tempting to see her mother's guidance in Hettie's choice of career: shop work was superior to domestic service, and working for a draper would call for specialist knowledge of clothing and material, information that her mother could help supply from her days as a lady's maid. Nellie was sent to Park Street School, where in 1898 – aged eight or nine, she was "[h]ighly commended" for Scripture.[33]

The woman who spoke German The summer of 1898 saw what was arguably the finest moment in Louisa Duffy's Magdalene career. Over five days of late August, the University of Cambridge hosted the Fourth International Congress of Zoology.[34] Alfred Newton, Magdalene's veteran professor in that field, was the largely honorary presiding officer, but he was determined to be "a lavish host". A.S. Ramsey remembered Newton entertaining "a dozen delegates as his guests, housing them in the College (in Vacation time) and treating them royally." Some of the these visitors were  Magdalene products, such as a noted member of the wider College community, E.B. Knubley, the vicar of Steeple Ashton in Wiltshire, who had been "a 'birdy' man" in his undergraduate days. Most notably, three distinguished German professors were accommodated in Magdalene and entrusted to the care of Mrs Duffy. Ramsey's recollection that her knowledge of German "proved of use when foreign delegates to the International Congress of Zoologists were billeted on the staircase" should be regarded as an understatement.[35] English certainly did not have its present-day status as the dominant international language. Most of the major intellectual figures in the nineteenth-century Cambridge equipped themselves with some knowledge of German. Yet in the small community of Magdalene dons, only Newton seems to have had a reading knowledge of the language. Unfortunately, Newton's physical disabilities had prevented him from visiting the country since 1861, while his donnish determination to wall himself off from everyday life would hardly have offered practical support to visitors, even had his spoken German been fluent.[36] By contrast, Louisa Duffy no doubt lacked the scientific vocabulary needed to engage in discussion of the ecology of oysters, but she was equipped to assist any perplexed Teutonic intellectual who had run out of shaving soap.[37] Of course, it defies belief that European languages had never been spoken in Magdalene before, but it is noteworthy that the first documented conversations in German conducted within the College should have been undertaken neither by a Fellow nor by a student, but relied upon the linguistic skills of a multi-talented bedmaker.

Later years In 1901, Louisa Duffy was living in Ekin's Yard, 19 Magdalene Street, to all intents and purposes the modern Mallory Court. With her husband (now entering himself as "Patrick") close to seventy, Louisa, at 48, was the main breadwinner, and her work as a "college assistant" explained their proximity to Magdalene. Ekin's Yard took its name from a brewery established there in 1780. A century later, the restricted site – its narrow entrance now provides pedestrian access to Mallory Court from Magdalene Street – was obviously unsuitable. In 1888, the brewery was taken over and relocated to Pampisford, which would have made the enclave a more attractive place to live. However, the "brewery tap" continued as a public house at the entrance of the Yard, and the area between the street and Bin Brook was heavily and aromatically industrial: there was a mustard and vinegar factory in Cross Keys Yard.  The brewery was replaced as the dominant employer in Ekin's Yard by a boatbuilder. Eventually, in 1924-5, Magdalene converted its Gibraltar-like building into a hostel named in honour of alumnus George Mallory, who had recently perished on Everest. Over the next thirty years, the architects Harry Redfern and David Roberts converted the rest of Ekin's Yard to student use, and the College extended the name of Mallory Court, faithfully replicating the entire irregular space while entirely obliterating its original name. Given that additional bedroom space would have been required for the two daughters still at home, it would be pleasant to imagine Louisa Duffy living in the early nineteenth-century cottage-like Mallory Court D, although we may feel perhaps less comfortable to imagine her peering out of its rustic bay windows to check the weather before setting out across the road before  dawn on a winter day.[38]

Frederick Patrick Duffy died in 1909. The 1911 census indicates that Louisa, with Nellie, had taken over her son's  tenancy of the tiny cottage at 4 Chesterton Road, while Rudolph, in the minuscule musical chairs of family life, had transferred his growing family to Searle Street, where he had spent part of his own childhood. He was 37 in 1914 and, although he seems to have diluted his national origins by calling himself Harry, the anti-German feeling engendered by the First World War would have been a worry for his mother, especially as pressure grew for the introduction of conscription. In the event, he did not join the Forces. Louisa Duffy died in 1919, around the time of her 67th birthday (living just long enough to see women over the age of thirty allowed to vote). It is entirely possible that she continued to work for Magdalene to the end of her days.

Louisa Duffy and Magdalene in perspective "No woman shall be Master, Fellow, Scholar or member of the College." When the Magdalene Statutes were revised in 1926, dons took the opportunity to insert this ill-tempered declaration: the prohibition had been unnecessary throughout the previous four centuries since the horrific thought was never so much as a theoretical possibility. Hence it would be easy to conclude that women played no role in the life of the institution before the belated decision to admit them in 1987.[39]  Although Fellows had been permitted to marry since 1882, their wives lived a marginal existence, although by the nineteen-forties some organised social contact had been established among them, conducted within a rigid protocol of dress and rank. There were pursed lips when a young academic wife boldly invited the popular housekeeper to the widowed Master, Sir Henry Willink, to meet the group at lunch. The hierarchical tables were turned when the Master married his housekeeper ("made an honest woman of her" in the sardonic comment of one of the younger Fellows), thus conferring upon the new Lady Willink an honorific precedence over other Magdalene spouses.[40] As late as 1970, a radical junior Fellow could point out – unavailingly – that, should the College's patron saint ever materialise, it would be impossible to invite her to dine at High Table.  Even women of power and wealth who had influenced the College were largely eclipsed. The Countess of Portsmouth, who had inherited the role of Visitor in the eighteenth century and treated the Mastership as a piece of family patronage, was glimpsed, with her hard face and magnificent apparel, in a rarely-seen portrait. Eugenie de Nottbeck, whose spectacular if indirect benefactions helped build modern Magdalene, was at best dimly recalled, and by surname only, as part of the background to the life of A.C. Benson. 

Once, in order to catch an early train, Benson had to rise at 6.45 a.m., "an hour which has no existence for me".[41] Yet across Cambridge for centuries, armies of women without whom the colleges could not function were at work around dawn, their gender and class rendering them somehow invisible in plain sight. Very occasionally and accidentally, an image of one of them might survive: Thomas Kerritch, Fellow of Magdalene, was moved to capture the kindly face of the College laundress, Elizabeth Briggs in a portrait of 1793.[42] But this was a rare exception. Predominantly, Cambridge reacted to its dependence upon poorly-paid women workers by marginalising, even dehumanising them. Masculinist folklore recycled the myth that ancient Statutes prescribed that bedmakers should be old and ugly, to protect celibate young men from temptation, and – even more crucially – to guard them against temptresses. In fact, the poor pay associated with the job had precisely the opposite effect, since many bedmakers employed their nubile daughters as their assistants: as already noted, Louisa Duffy probably secured her own foothold in Magdalene by assisting her mother, although as a respectable and twice-married woman.  This attempt to reconstruct something of her life will perhaps serve as a symbolic commemoration of the thousands of women who swept the carpets, made the beds, cooked the porridge and hauled the tubs of water that made possible some measure of civilized academic life over the centuries.[43]

I wish I could reconstruct more of her life, but enough can be recovered to establish that Louisa Duffy was a remarkable person who achieved much in her own life, despite the daunting challenge of her background. She escaped from a troubled childhood and climbed the narrow ladder of domestic service to achieve the specialised role of lady's maid that gave her the unexpected experience of living on the continent. Life in Cologne proved to be a relatively brief diversion. Most of her adult years were spent in a Cambridge that existed just yards beyond the College precinct: it would have been a three-minute stroll from its micro-cosmos of learning to the brutalising poverty of Kettle's Yard, had anyone from Magdalene troubled to make the effort. There are people who spend their whole lives in their native patch, or return in mature years to childhood haunts, because the buildings and the locations recall happy memories. For Louisa Duffy, this could hardly have been the case. It would have been difficult to escape echoes of her father and his unpredictable cruelties. Perhaps, as she approached her forties, with a family of her own and a secure job, she began to come to terms with her frightening childhood. But it was at that moment that her life was blighted by the sexual assault that threatened the innocence of her nine-year-old daughter. It can only have been an embittering experience to see Nellie's abuser walk free and, for decades afterwards, never to know when she might turn a corner and find herself face-to-face with some member of the unsavoury Wolfe family.

Yet within that suburban enclave  north of the Cam, there were street-by-street social gradations, and the Duffy family escaped from the ghetto of Castle End to live in the more genteel surroundings that sprang up so close by. She steered her own children towards more respectable occupations.  And, for a few glorious summer days in 1898, Mrs Duffy  gave her employers a voice in a language that Magdalene College knew not.  Happily, the study of German has since flourished luxuriantly in Magdalene. Cambridge has discarded the artificial barriers of gender. In celebrating these advances, it seems appropriate to look back to the contribution of Louisa Duffy.  She was, indeed, as A.S. Ramsey testified, "a superior woman". It is sad that it took so long for male Cambridge to realise that such impressive fellow human beings might play an even larger role in the work of the University.


For around 40 articles, chapters and essays on Cambridge history, see: 

[1] I am grateful to Gail Wood for census and genealogical information. Catherine Freeman was born in 1816, and died in 1893.

[2] A.S. Ramsey, "Bygone days at Magdalene", 3 (typescript in the Old Library, Magdalene College). Arthur Stanley Ramsey was the son of a Congregational Church minister from Dewsbury in Yorkshire, and a product of Batley Grammar School. He graduated with First Class Honours in Mathematics (6th Wrangler, 1890), and taught at Fettes, the Edinburgh public school, until 1897, when he returned to a Fellowship at Magdalene. He was President (i.e. Vice-Master of the College) from 1915 to 1952. His son, Michael Ramsey, followed him to Magdalene and went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thanks to two marriages, Louisa Duffy had three surnames. My references to her at appropriate points by her forename are not intended to imply a lesser status to the men in the tale, who may be conveniently identified through a single surname.


[4] Gwen Raverat (née Darwin) recalled her terror at having to take a short cut through Castle End in the 1890s. The implausibly named Mount Pleasant and nearby Shelly Row were dangerous places, where passers-by, even pushing prams, might be stoned or snowballed: Gwen herself was once knocked off her bicycle and had her hair pulled. She recalled seeing a child being beaten, a chicken having its neck wrung – apparently to torment a small boy whose pet it was – and men who were drunk. G. Raverat, Period Piece: a Cambridge Childhood (London, 1960 ed., cf 1st ed. 1952), 168. Curiously, the surviving Victorian buildings in these streets seem exceptionally comfortable and reassuring, but there has undoubtedly been much clearance of sub-standard housing.

[5] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, iii, 141-5. The locality was not very scholarly: the town's cattle market had been removed from the centre of Cambridge to nearby Pound Hill in 1842, and the Haymarket followed two years later. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iv (Cambridge, 1853), 651, 668.

[6] Cambridge Independent Press, 6 June 1857.

[7] Cambridge Independent Press, 8 June 1861. The defendant, James Burbage, was fined ten shillings or seven days in gaol. Refused time to pay (on the grounds that if he did not get drunk he would have the money), he contemptuously asked the magistrate: "Seven days did you say[?]". When this was confirmed, he replied: "Then, I'll take the seven days."

[8] Cambridge Independent Press, 7 June 1862. On this occasion, the assailant chose ten days in prison rather than pay a fine of 20 shillings, plus costs. "That's the best place for you," the magistrate commented.

[9] Cambridge Independent Press, 7 November 1863.

[10] Gardner's History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Cambridgeshire, 1851, 200 and Post Office Directory, 1869, 29.

[11] Cambridge Independent Press, 23 April 1864. Freeman would have served his various sentences in the Cambridge Town Gaol, which stood on the south side of Parkers Piece. It was demolished in 1878. The omitted word in his threat was almost certainly "bloody". The internal administration of Magdalene was in the hands of the President, the Reverend Mynors Bright, a valetudinarian and recluse who rarely left his rooms in the Left Cloister of the Pepys Building. The Master, the Honourable and Reverend Latimer Neville, also acted as bursar, which may have made him Catherine Freeman's effective employer. The two would no doubt have barred Freeman from setting foot in the College, but evidently they recognised that Catherine needed her job.

[12] Cambridge Independent Press, 14 January, 2 December 1865.

[13] The site was cleared in 1912.

[14] Cambridge Independent Press, 3 February 1866; 20, 31 March 1869.

[15] I.M. Beeton, The Book of Household Management … (London, 1861), 979-87. "Deference to a master and mistress, and to their friends and visitors, is one of the implied terms of their engagement; and this deference must apply even to what may be considered their whims. A servant is not to be seated, or wear a hat in the house, in his master's or mistress's presence; nor offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say 'good night,' or ''good morning,' except in reply to that salutation."

[16], consulted 14 December 2020; F.E. Maybrick, Mrs Maybrick's Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (New York, 1905), 20. The alleged Baron's name is variously spelt. The marriage quickly broke up, and Caroline later became the partner of William Haggard (brother of the novelist), a British diplomat in Teheran.

[17] There is some mystery about this first husband. In the newspaper notice of her second marriage, Louisa's surname was given as "Rothmann", and her son's name was thus entered in the 1881 and 1891 censuses. There is no trace of a death in any British records, which seems to confirm that he died in Germany, leaving Louisa to return to Cambridge. There seems no possibility of confusion with R.W. Rothman, elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1825, who left Cambridge to become Registrar of the University of London in 1838. He had died in 1856. Rothman's cigarettes only became a prominent brand after 1900, and since there was no strong prejudice against tobacco in that era, it could hardly explain a change in spelling. 

[18] Cambridge Independent Press, 3 January 1880. The fact that the couple announced their nuptials in the local press would seem to rule out any possibility that Louisa's first relationship had simply broken up. While the couple married in Louisa's local Anglican church, it is very likely that Duffy was a Catholic: in later years, he seems to have dropped "Frederick" and preferred to be called "Patrick". When Rudolph Rottmann married in 1900, his bride was Mary Kenny, an Irish surname that is usually Catholic. This may suggest that his father had been a Catholic (Cologne was a majority Catholic city), and that Rudolph (the name of a little-known 11th-century saint) had been raised in the Church of Rome. A Catholic chapel, in Union Road, off Hills Road, had opened in 1853. Louisa perhaps met Duffy while taking her son to Mass.

[19] Everett, who was addressing an American audience, obviously meant "sets", small apartments, usually a sitting ("keeping") room plus a separate bedroom.

[20] E. Everett, On the Cam … (Cambridge, Mass., 1865), 297-8. The "butteries" were the kitchen shop. Everett's negative view of bedmakers around 1860 recalls Henry Gunning's classic portrayal of Sal Elvedge, who worked at Christ's in the late 18th century. Sal "was much attached to her masters; and although she never scrupled supplying herself with coals, candles, &c. from their stores, yet she watched most perseveringly over their interests, in not allowing them to be imposed on in any other quarter; her peculations were never beyond what she considered her perquisites." Gunning defended her, pointing out that "the bedmakers in those days were not sufficiently paid; and it was a prevailing custom amongst them to help themselves to what they considered 'little necessaries'." She also worked for Sir Busick Harwood, the Professor of Anatomy. He mischievously left pure alcohol that had been used to preserve specimens in places where he knew Sal would find, and drink, it. She insisted that these infusions benefited her digestion. In 1861, Trinity undergraduates complained about Joseph Romilly's "poor old ugly dirty uncomfortable bedmaker Mrs Carpenter".  Romilly "had an interview with her, shook hands with her & talked in the gentlest kindest way I could", urging upon her the need for efficiency in her work and greater attention to personal hygiene. To her critics, he defended her as best he could: "she had a dirty complexion w[hi]ch looked saturated with cinder-dust & was beyond all power of soap". The Master, William Whewell, solved the problem by transferring Mrs Carpenter's reponsibilities to her daughter. The new bedmaker then commissioned her mother as her "help". Romilly left her £10 in his Will. H. Gunning, Reminiscences of the University, Town, and County of Cambridge, from the year 1780 (London, 1855), 56-7; M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary 1848-1864 (Cambridge, 2000), 383. References to Mrs Carpenter is Romilly's published diaries indicate that she identified strongly with Trinity.

[21] The Student's Guide to the University of Cambridge (3rd ed., Cambridge, 1874, cf. 1st ed. 1862), 83. The duties of Magdalene bedmakers included boiling a saucepan of porridge for those students who chose to save money by rejecting the more expensive alternative supplied by the College kitchens, The process took about half an hour.

[22] R.J. White, Cambridge Life (London, 1960), 79. In 1849, Trinity decided to grant "superannuated bedmakers" a pension of 7 shillings (£0.35) a week. This was more generous than the 5 shillings weekly State pension introduced over half a century later, in 1909, but there was no retirement age or right to receive support. One bedmaker who did reportedly hit the jackpot was Lydia Pratt, who worked for Joseph Shaw, veteran Fellow and briefly Master of Christ's. He was rumoured to have gifted her the massive sum of £5,000 shortly before his death in 1859, although her reported claim that "she might have married him" seems to fly in the face of donnish celibacy. The Trinity diarist Joseph Romilly called her "Lydia" and noted that "she married a Mr Adams a week after Shaw's funeral". Lydia Pratt, a widow, married "Mr William Moore Adams, of Jesus-lane" two months after Shaw's death.  Bury and Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary 1848-1864 (Cambridge, 2000), 29, 334; Cambridge Independent Press, 20 August 1859. 

[23] It seems that most colleges increased pay rates for bedmakers as part of the reforming spirit of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1849, Trinity believed its bedmakers earned on average 8 shillings (£0.40) a week, making around £20 a year if employed year-round. (Bury and Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary 1848-1864, 29). On such miserly wages, it is hardly surprising that the women resorted to exploitation and pilfering to supplement their effective income. However in 1874, the Student's Guide (84) reported the termly charge for the services of a bedmaker at between £1 and £2. On the latter figure, a bedmaker attending to eight sets would earn £48 a year, an increase well above the modest levels of Victorian inflation, and possibly more if her rooms were occupied during the Long Vacation. "Bedmakers ... are paid for their services on the supposition that they have no perquisites," the Student's Guide insisted (94), recommending that an undergraduate should consider "giving a trifle in money" in appreciation of good service: "he then knows exactly what he parts with."

[24] Everett, On the Cam, 298.

[25] J.R.M. Butler, Henry Montagu Butler … (London, 1925),  155.

[26] Ramsey, "Bygone days at Magdalene", 3, 10, 43. I quote Ramsey's slightly awkward prose because it is very revealing of class and gender attitudes in that era. Of course, the impish historian may wonder whether there were other breakages that Mrs Duffy did succeed in replacing.  Some bedmakers were notoriously clumsy, and there were resident Fellows who made them the butt of donnish wit. For a pleasant invocation of the species, White, Cambridge Life, 79-81.

[27] The Maybrick case has been widely studied. Among his many unattractive features, Maybrick was a hypochondriac who self-administered unregulated patent medicines. A post-mortem examination found traces of arsenic in his system, but it was doubtful whether he had ingested enough to kill himself. Florence had warned his brothers, who hated her, that he was risking his health through taking potions, but they managed to portray this as a cover story for her own wicked activities. The government decided that it would not be a good idea to hang an American woman for a crime that might not have happened, but concluded that she had tried to kill him. Her sentence  was commuted to fifteen years' penal servitude, i.e. she was imprisoned for attempted murder although she had not been tried on that charge. In reality, she was punished for marital infidelity, a clear dual standard that overlooked Maybrick's own behaviour. To his credit, her counsel, Sir Charles Russell, continued to press for her release. The judge, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, regarded as one of the great Cambridge intellects of the nineteenth century, comes out of the tale less well.

[28] The Grand Jury system was effectively abolished in England in 1933; it is still employed in the United States. The Recorder was a barrister appointed to act as a part-time judge. J.R. Bulwer had sat as Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire between 1881 and 1885.

[29] Cambridge Independent Press, 5 July 1890.

[30] Cambridge Independent Press, 24 May 1890.

[31] In 1889, George's elder brother, Henry Wolfe, a labourer of Kettle's Yard, aged 19, was fined for assault. He was fined again in 1901 for causing an affray in Northampton Street, for which he claimed to be "very sorry". However, magistrates took a lenient view of his conviction for animal cruelty in 1902, accepting his plea that he had been compelled by his employer to use an obviously lame horse. In 1902, another brother, Henry Wolfe, was summonsed for assault by a woman called Martha Reynolds. "The complainant did not at first appear", but eventually presented herself asking permission to withdraw the summons, "She said other people 'egged' him on to assault her." Calling her "a very foolish woman", the magistrate allowed the case to lapse. It is likely that she had been intimidated. In 1890, a younger brother, 13-year-old William, was fined for stealing peaches from a garden orchard in Huntingdon Road. Cambridge Independent Press, 30 November 1889; 13 September 1890; 20 September 1901; 27 March 1902; 11 July 1902.

[32] In 1915, he presented books to the library of the New Chesterton Institute, a social club that still exists. Cambridge Independent Press, 15 October 1915. Rudolph Rottmann died in 1958.

[33] Cambridge Independent Press, 18 February 1898. If she was attending a Board school and good at Scripture, Nellie was presumably being raised as a Protestant. She was still living with her mother aged 22, in 1911, when no occupation was recorded for her. She may have been her mother's "help", and perhaps in line for a third-generation succession to the rank of bedmaker. 

[34] A. Sedgwick, ed., Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Zoology Cambridge, 22-27 August 1898 (London, 1899).

[35] Ramsey, "Bygone days at Magdalene", 3, 39. The German visitors were Wilhelm Blasius, director of the Natural History Museum, Braunschweig [Brunswick] University of Technology, the ecologist Karl August Möbius of Berlin's Natural History Museum and Franz Schulze, President of the German Zoological Society. It is testimony to their enduring importance that each (as of December 2020) has an entry in Wikipedia. Although he specialised in zoology, and especially the study of birds, Newton's chair was officially in Comparative Anatomy. For Knubley, see A decade later, A.C. Benson felt able to accept the presidency of the Modern Languages Association although he knew no other living language than English.

[36] A.F.R. Wollaston, Life of Alfred Newton (New York, 1921), 32, 74, 174, 232. In early life, Newton had even heroically attempted to learn Icelandic. His biographer did not refer to the 1898 Congress.

[37] The example may not well chosen: all three German visitors seem to have been heavily bearded. Perhaps the later Victorians were coming to view bedmakers as potential assets. In 1887, the Master of Trinity, H.M. Butler, a former headmaster addicted to exhortation, urged all his college's employees "to remember that, though very few of us can be either great or clever, there is not one of us, man or woman, who may not serve this great College with heart and mind and soul and strength". The impact of his appeal is unknown. Butler, Henry Montagu Butler, 155.

[38] The conversion of the main brewery building into the original Mallory Court is a well-attested part of the Magdalene story. The extent to which the irregular outlines of Mallory Court replicate the former brewery yard has been largely forgotten. The exact correlation may be observed thanks to the National Library of Scotland, which as digitised 25-inch-to the-mile Ordnance Survey maps from around 1900 alongside modern satellite photographs, in a "zoomable" form that can be precisely studied with an onscreen pointer: Ekin's Yard was still used as an address in 1920 (and perhaps later: the online archives of the Cambridge Independent Press cease that year): College historian Ronald Hyam prefers to call it  by an alternative name, the Old Brewery Yard. Financial support from A.C. Benson had enabled Magdalene to begin the acquisition of properties across the street during the First World War. The conversion of the brewery began shortly after Mallory's death: although styled a court, it was initially simply a hostel in what probably remained a crowded residential neighbourhood. David Roberts carried out some rebuilding in the 1950s, but apparently using the original foundations and in some case sections of wall. It may be significant that Mallory Court H was known as Mallory Cottages until the 1970s. D. Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise. A.C. Benson: the Diarist (London, 1980), 324, 374; [R. Hyam], Magdalene Described (Cambridge, 1982), 27; R. Hyam, "The Magdalene Clearances", Magdalene College Magazine, ns. xlvi (2001-2), 75-87 (at 81, Hyam notes that the Old Brewery Yard is "now easily identifiable as Mallory Court".) See also and There is no number 19 in modern-day Magdalene Street.

[39] The first 36 female undergraduates were admitted in 1988, and were generally welcomed. K. Derham, "The First Women Students, 1988-1991", Magdalene College Magazine, ns. liii (2008-9), 43.

[40] C. Stevens, "Reflections of a Don's Wife in the 1940s", Magdalene College Magazine, ns. xlvii (2008-9), 71.

[41] P. Lubbock, ed., The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson (London, 1926), 310.

[42] The portrait is illustrated in P. Cunich et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge 1428-1988 (Cambridge, 1994).

[43] The London correspondent of an Australian newspaper pointed to the contradiction in the moralistic system of appointing mature bedmakers but making them work so hard that they had to bring in younger assistants. "The bedmaker herself, being a married woman, is, of course, above all suspicion; but the practice of permitting helps, young girls of sixteen or seventeen, is fraught with ... danger to undergraduate morality".  Empire (Sydney), 20 February 1861. After the Second World War, bedmakers were usually married women who worked from about 7 – 10 a.m., in effect supplementing family income through part-time work. They no longer supplied food, nor did they carry water. Colleges gradually ceased to employ them from about the 1970s, when it was discovered that undergraduates could in fact make their own beds. However, as late as 1994, Emmanuel imposed a £20 guest charge upon undergraduates who entertained their sexual partners overnight. The move was intended to spare the college's bedmakers the embarrassment of coming across young people making love. Canberra Times, 2 May 1994. (Australian newspaper sources consulted via the National Library's accessible Trove website). I pay tribute to Mrs Gates, the fragile elderly lady whom I encountered as a freshman in 1964. With my lower-middle-class background and social-democratic principles, I asked what she wished me to do to make her life easier. "Oh no, sir," she replied with charming deference, "you're here to work." In 1964, this was a message that might have been more generally radiated by the institutions and culture of Magdalene

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