Early History

Contributed by Julia Powles
There is nothing more uncomfortable than entering a room and being stared down icily by its occupants. Or sitting on a couch only to have an unfamiliar and unpleasant person plonk down beside you, so close that they are touching; their body rising and falling at your shoulder with every breath. In 1958-59, these insights were used mercilessly as tactics in the carefully orchestrated plan that led to the graduate takeover of the Samuel Butler Room and the eventual recognition of a graduate society at St John’s.

In 1957-58, when the graduate population hit 100 for the first time, a band of students decided that it was high time they had a room to call their own. They saw an opportunity in the recent extension of the junior common room (now K1, Andrew Nethsingha’s rooms) into the I2 set in First Court (rooms that had at one time been a bicycle room). The JCR Committee was engaged in tastefully furnishing the new rooms, with grand plans to make them into a profitable bar or coffee-house. The rooms were named in April 1958 after the Johnian polymath Samuel Butler, on the occasion of the centenary of his graduation from St John’s, after he outranked three other contenders in a public opinion poll: Peter Mason (former President); Henry Wriothesley (third Earl of Southampton); and Richard Bentley (who became Master of Trinity, so little wonder he didn’t win). Though some wanted to honour Dr. Vivian Fuchs (not “the Victorian Fu*%s”, as I first read, but the explorer who just traversed Antarctica), he was dismissed as inappropriate (which seemed sensible, given my reading. But it was in fact because Dr Fuchs was still very much alive).

The enterprising graduates hatched a stakeout plan for the new rooms, organising a rota of sit-ins during popular times after lunch and after dinner, and deploying as necessary the unsociable tactics of stare-down and invasion of personal space. In February 1959, they obtained authorisation from the JCR for a rather innocent-sounding “experiment” (and expressly not “a BA privilege”) to bring and cook their own coffee in the Samuel Butler Room. After a four-month trial, graduate student Ken Blythe reported enthusiastically to the JCR about the experiment’s success. With the arrival of the new academic year in October 1959, the JCR agreed to install a graduate representative on the Committee – man with a mission, Brian Jeffrey. Within a month, Jeffrey raised the issue of BA rights and requested official recognition of the rooms for the sole use of graduates. The general view of the Committee was that “the de facto recognition of the Samuel Butler Rooms to BAs should not be extended de jure”. Undeterred, Jeffrey returned a month later with a more substantial proposal, to be put to the College Council, and supported by the example of the Middle Common Room of Lincoln College, Oxford (the first of its kind, which, incidentally, was championed by Lord Howard Florey, Nobel Prize recipient for the discovery of penicillin). In January 1960, the Council was reported as having found the de facto position both satisfactory and sufficient. Jeffrey made another proposal a month later, and this time (assisted by the fact that either he or Ken Blythe had an uncle amongst the tutors) he was successful, with a Council Minute on 19 February 1960 recording that the room would be officially recognised for BAs. The ownership of the ante-room was to be determined by usage.

One of the graduate students at the time – Prof. Roger Griffin or Yogi, still an active Fellow, though nominally retired (and still running sub-four-hour marathons) – recalls that the status of the nascent SBR Society increased considerably when one of the students, Australian Arthur McComb, purchased a 1935 20/25 Rolls Royce in December 1959. In it, groups of Johnian graduate students would cruise through town, to the countryside, or across to our sister college at Balliol in Oxford, parking directly under the window of the Master’s Lodge and stating with a flourish “St John’s has arrived”. Their other preferred mode of transport was punt, where, clothed in gowns after dinner, they had a fool-proof strategy of ‘accidentally’ sinking passing punts. They would rear-load their punt, run up onto another, and then all rush forward in an apparently earnest effort to assist. As their unfortunate victims scrambled to salvage themselves and their vessel, the Johnian graduates would chortle their way back to St John’s, before settling for a coffee in the Samuel Butler Room.