Fun Facts

Collected by Julia Powles.

With thanks to numerous porters, staff, fellows and students for quirky and enlightening discussion. All images are reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

  1. In the large-scale refurbishment of the Divinity School, which involved dropping the floor by
    a foot and ceaseless clanging at 7am, builders uncovered no less than 300 skeletons from when the
    site was a graveyard in the 14th-15th centuries!
  2. The chairs in the Buttery Dining Room are made from recycled German car batteries. How about that?
  3. The best-known College ghost is the smiley and benevolent James Wood (matric. 1778, BA (Mathematics) 1782 , BD 1793, DD 1815), former Master, who as a student lived in the cheapest room in College at the top of the southern tower in Second Court. To keep warm, he nested up to his waist in straw. The poor guy therefore had to study in the dark, because he couldn’t light any candles! You can see his statue in the Chapel.
  4. There are 33,000 bottles of wine stored in the bowels of our fine College.
  5. The Old Library has a book called ‘Vox piscis, or, the book-fish’ (published 1627) containing reprints of three treatises said to have been found inside the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market on Midsummer Eve 1626. Pretty weird!
  6. Another cool thing in the Old Library is William Heberden’s (matric. 1725, BA 1728, MD 1739) ‘Materia Medica’ cabinet (1740-48), which is full of all kinds of bizarre (and gross) stuff thought to have medicinal virtue, including (in drawer 24 alone) bits of elk’s hoof, boar’s tusk, bezoar stones and a preserved skink (with eyes!).

  7. You know that portrait in Hall, with Lady Margaret looking very pious? The prayer book, or ‘Book of Hours’, lying open before her actually exists, and is in the Library… Ah, libraries.

  8. We’ve got a copy of ‘Hocus Pocus Junior’ (London, 1638), the first magic book in English. Our copy is actually bound in the middle of a book about Oliver Cromwell! As well as standard tricks with cups and balls, coins, and rope, there are instructions on ‘How to seem to cut one’s nose half off’, ‘How to breathe fire out of your mouth’, and ‘How to vanish a glass of beer’ (not that we need much advice on the latter…).
  9. One of the College’s most unusual treasures is the mortuary roll of Amphelisa, Prioress of Lillechurch. This remarkable manuscript involves the stitching together of some 370 religious prayers as the roll made a far-reaching tour of religious houses around the country in the 13th century.
  10. The SBR’s namesake Samuel Butler (matric. 1854, BA (Classics) 1859) wanted to be an artist when he graduated. To self-finance training at various art schools in London, in 1859 he set off to become a sheep-farmer in New Zealand. Within 15 months of departure, he had established a sheep station amounting to 40,000 acres, and was in charge of 2,000 sheep! This period inspired one of his most famous works, Erewhon, about an intrepid station-hand that comes across a curious race with backward habits. Through this, Butler mounts an effective social critique on the criminal justice system, religion, and evolutionary thinking in Victorian society. By the time he returned to England after five years in NZ, he had almost doubled his original investment, from £4,800 to £8,000. This allowed him to study art, though he later lamented that the formal training stunted his flair. Incidentally, you can download Erewhon for free.
  11. It is often said that only the Queen and St John’s fellows are entitled to eat swan. There are indeed college records of swan-keeping going back to the 17th century, as well as proof of the consumption of cygnets through to 1896. Until 1986 ‘swan’ was served (in some form or another) at May Balls. However, this was either reconfigured turkey or a kind of pressed swan (Spam for the elite, if you will). So although it is no longer served today, we are not really missing out…
  12. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the College kept dogs on the pay-roll! They were often seasonally employed, during spring and summer, for use in pest-control and other matters.
  13. Of the 24 members of the Order of Merit (self-descriptive British honour of very high rank), three are Johnians: the Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick OM KBE FBA FRSE (matric. 1935, BA (Classics/History/Theology) 1939, DD 1955); Dr Frederick Sanger OM CH KBE FRS (matric. 1936, BA (Natural Sciences) 1939, PhD 1944); and Professor Sir Roger Penrose OM FRS (matric. 1952, PhD (Mathematics) 1957). Dr Fred Sanger is the only currently living double-Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry 1958, 1980). Only three others have ever won the Nobel Prize twice.
  14. Honorary Fellow Nick Corfield (matric. 1978, BA (Mathematics) 1981, CASM 1982), who generously donated towards the development of Corfield Court, is not only a serious tech leader and innovator, but he runs a half-marathon EVERY DAY. He returned to speak to students and ‘geezer’ them on a few runs in 2012.
  15. Since 1951, the SBR has had an exchange agreement with a couple of the historic student nations (similar to colleges, founded in the 1600s) at Uppsala University in Sweden. Traditionally, one of our members is invited to the Södermanlands-Nerikes or Värmlands Spring Ball in May and an associated international exchange week, and in return they are invited to our May Week and Ball. Our representative is chosen from the outgoing SBR committee, while theirs is selected based on contribution to the nation. The costs are covered by the College (rather than the SBR) and host nations. In 2012, two guests were invited for the return visit. Who will it be in 2013?
  16. There are currently around 350 graduate students at St John’s.
  17. The TV room in the SBR suite is known as the Peter Nicholls Room. The room is named after Prof. Peter Nicholls (matric. 1953, BA (Natural Sciences) 1956, PhD(Biochemistry) 1959 , ScD 1976). When he was a grad student in the late 1950s during the coffee-fuelled stakeout and takeover of the Samuel Butler Room (read about that here), Nicholls was wont to expound at length on all manner of topics, sometimes (by his own admission) without any special competence. Some of his colleagues suggested that he should do so only in the smaller adjoining room which would therefore be called the Peter Nicholls room. It was just a joke without official sanction. He says he curbed his tongue a bit and was never actually confined to ‘his’ room. Nevertheless, the joke has persisted and the room still retains its original name!
  18. Stories about our socially-reluctant alumnus Paul Dirac (matric. 1923, PhD (Physics) 1926) are legion. Here at John’s, the fellows coined a new unit of measure – a long, painful and awkward silence was known as ‘one Dirac’. One of Dirac’s contemporaries was another famous Johnian, the much more sociable William Hodge (matric. 1923, BA (Mathematics) 1925, ScD (Pembroke) 1950). At a talk in 2012, one of Hodge’s students, the distinguished Professor Sir Michael Atiyah (himself a Trinity man) noted that, despite constituting half of the Mathematics faculty and both living at John’s, Hodge and Dirac had no intellectual exchange. He joked that this was just as well, for Atiyah himself has made a living in the gap between the two!
  19. The College serves around 1,200 meals a day, with pretty much everything made in its tiny kitchen (including ice-cream but excluding bread, except on special occasions).
  20. The Divinity School was reopened in 2013 as a splendid facility with purpose-built rooms for lectures, meetings and other College requirements. This was not, however, the first or only option for use of the building that was discussed by the fellowship. Other ideas that were given considerable thought included: (1) some kind of interactive tourist centre; (2) an exclusive hotel; and (3) an even more exclusive fish and chip shop. Imagine: ‘The St John’s Chippy’!
  21. Our college boat club, the Lady Margaret Boat Club (LMBC, or ‘Maggie’) was founded in 1825 as the first boat club on the River Cam. The scarlet jackets adopted by club members in 1852 are the origin of that sartorial icon, the ‘blazer’.
  22. Electricity only arrived at St John’s in 1911.
  23. Some colleges have been particularly strategic in their investments; notably, Trinity, with Bursar TCN’s foresighted purchase of land on each side of the Channel Tunnel. The John’s way is more akin to ‘accidental strategy’. For example, the Sunningdale estate was just a sandy piece of land in the 16th century that made no money for two centuries until the foundation of the very famous Sunningdale Golf Club, of which we own 11.5 lucrative holes.
  24. The oldest complete book in the Library is the Southampton Psalter, from around 990.
  25. Since Sep 2012 with the retirement of Malcolm Underwood (after a phenomenal 38 years of outstanding service), we have had a new Archivist in College, the fabulously energetic Canadian Tracy Wilkinson, who was formerly at King’s. One of her initiatives is the ‘Top 5 from the Archives’ – a monthly update of highlights from the collection. Also see the ‘Special Collections Spotlight’.
  26. John’s alumnus Fred Hoyle was one of the original and paradigmatic science communicators. He famously coined the term ‘Big Bang’, though this was used as a term of derision because he himself was a steady-state theorist. His telescope is on view in the Old Library.