Amongst the Ward Library’s photograph collection are nine massive, leather-bound photograph albums of Peterhouse sports teams. The first photograph in the first album is dated 1886 and the final one in the ninth album is 1963.
Each photograph shows a sports team: rugby, football, athletics, tennis, cricket and, of course, rowing. Hockey makes its first appearance in 1899, and squash in 1950. In the absence of matriculation photographs prior to 1946, these portraits are usually the only image that we have of students, and sometimes of Fellows, and are often consulted by the families of Petreans, looking for images of their forebears. The use of these albums for enquiries and for reproductions in publications had meant that the albums were in poor condition and so the college began a programme of digitising the images and having the albums cleaned and conserved.
Then followed a long process of cataloguing each photograph onto the Ward Library catalogue and indexing each individual Peterhouse student featured. These records are on the Ward Library catalogue at http://lib-rel.pet.cam.ac.uk, and anyone with a “Raven” password (University of Cambridge) can click on the Electronic Access link at the bottom of the record and see the image. Adding the photograph collection records to the Library catalogue has meant that enquirers can view the photographs of Petreans at the same time as any of their publications or holdings donated to our “Peterhouse Collection”. A rewarding task was sending an electronic image of their great-grandparent to a family in Australia, who were thrilled to see what he looked like for the first time.
The albums give us a wonderful record of the faces and fashions of young, male undergraduates over seventy years, from the heart of the Victorian era to the beginnings of the “Swinging Sixties”.
The images, sepia, and then black and white, are high-quality and many are as sharp as when they were taken, except where periods of use and exposure to light has caused some to fade. The photographs, when attributed, were taken by the local photographic firm of Hills and Saunders. Each album page has the names of the students handwritten below, making identification straightforward except in the case of rowing teams where the names are arranged by their position in the boat. In these instances students can only be identified if they appear in other sports teams. Many students, presumably the more “bookish” ones, never appear at all, while some students seem to appear in nearly all the teams, leaving one to wonder how much academic work they achieved.Tom Askwith, who was to go on to row in the Olympics in 1932, appeared in 13 rowing team photographs. He narrowly missed rowing in the same boat as James Mason, the Hollywood actor-to-be who starred in films such as North by Northwest and Lolita.
The fascination of the photographs is how they are unchanged and yet always changing. The buildings are the same, the students are always young and seated in the same way in two or three seated and standing rows. The tennis players hold their rackets and the hockey players their hockey sticks. But the clothes change, the tennis rackets change, the haircuts change and the expressions on the faces change as life becomes less formal, so that one can tell immediately from what decade they originate.
Although the majority of the photographs are taken in recognisable corners of Old Court or Gisborne Court, sometimes the scene is is in the gardens, or Deer Park, and a number of early photographs show an ivy-covered wall with Gothic arches which stood on the fourth side of Gisborne Court where the new Whittle Building now stands.
The rowing teams were often pictured in front of the boathouse, both the current one built in 1928 and the previous one. Occasionally glimpses can be seen of outside life as bystanders appear in the background, watching the proceedings, or bicycles are propped up, or a car bonnet is seen.
Despite the ban on undergraduates keeping dogs in College, a number of pets appear in team photos. Jack Russells, spaniels, terriers and kittens sit on their owners’s laps. In two photos a horse is included. The pet is often named and “Rustie” features in several. These appearances are entertainingly documented by Philip Pattenden in The Peterhouse Annual Record 2003-2004, p. 67-76.
Although every undergraduate is fully and nearly always accurately named, the titling of college “servants” is an interesting indicator of the changing times. A boatman will sometimes be depicted with the rowing teams, and an umpire with the cricket teams. At first these are not named, then they are given their surname, in inverted commas, such “Phillips” or “Turner”. Eventually this becomes Mr Turner, without inverted commas. As the students remain young and fresh-faced, the staff member ages. Turner first appears in the back row of the cricket team in 1897 with a fine black moustache, possibly in his early middle-age. Almost self-effacedly, he stands at the end of the back row, and often avoids looking directly at the camera. By his last appearance in 1928 he is an elderly man with a trim, white moustache. His flat cap has been changed for a trilby and his tweed jacket for a dark suit and tie but he still seems a figure on the edge of the proceedings.
Students’ birth dates and full names were obtained from the various Admissions to Peterhouse volumes and added to each record to make identification easier. The period leading up to 1914 has a melancholy feel as so many of the students were to die in World War I, which can be seen by their early death dates in the catalogue records. Of the eleven men in front of the old Peterhouse boathouse in the Lent Term 1914, two were to be killed by 1916.
The same applies to the late 1930s photographs when many students were soon to die, particularly in the Battle of Britain. During the periods of both World Wars the photographs cease, and following World War II the students are generally much older men, many of them straight from the services, having fought throughout the war.
As the 1960s approach, hairstyles become longer and clothes and expressions more casual. Sadly, from 1963 onwards there are no further photograph albums, until the last decade when Peterhouse JCR have added some recent sports photographs to the library collection. But the quality of these photographs, welcome though they are, and including women sports teams at last, bears no comparison with the fine black and white images of these early albums.