Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: James Stearn, the Head Porter who died of grief

This note, on the death of James Stearn in 1918, forms a tailpiece to "Magdalene College Cambridge and the First World War" (

James Stearn, Magdalene's Head Porter, died in July 1918, broken by the death of his son the previous year. The College employed relatively few full-time male staff, and few of those were young enough to have served in the First World War.[1] Nonetheless, James Stearn may be regarded as one of its indirect casualties.

James Stearn was born at Histon, near Cambridge, in 1855.[2] His father, William, an agricultural labourer, was a native of the village, as was his mother Louisa, a name James would pass on to his own daughter. He spent much of his childhood living beside Histon's pleasant village green, but it would be a mistake to assume that life was idyllic. Labourers had suffered severely from unemployment during the eighteen-thirties. The development of fruit-growing provided more work, but farm wages were low and life was undoubtedly tough.[3] The arrival of the railway from Cambridge in 1847 pointed to the way out, although young James probably trudged the five miles along Histon Road and down Castle Hill to seek work in town. Sometime in 1874 or 1875, he became an under-porter at Magdalene, the start of a 43-year association with the College which would see him rise to the rank of Head Porter.[4] 

It is unlikely that much will ever emerge about his working life through the next four decades.  When it came to porters, Magdalene did not exactly employ a cast of thousands. A.S. Ramsey, President (i.e. vice-Master) from 1915 to 1952, remembered two under-porters supporting James Stearn: 'Little Willie', "a good-natured man with mutton-chop whiskers, much liked by undergraduates" plus a big-built man called Harding. "The under-porters were paid very small wages and must have had some difficulty in eking out a scanty existence with tips and money earned from waiting in Hall." Two porters always spent the night in the Lodge, the three men sharing the duty in turn. Sleeping accommodation was a boarded-off and unventilated alcove: not surprisingly, Little Willie died of tuberculosis.[5] As head porter, James Stearn was expected to maintain a Himalayan dignity, and he was remembered as an "unchanging, inscrutable figure" sitting in the Lodge.[6] He may have been the "weary and courteous" porter who escorted an inquisitive tourist around the College one day in January 1904, not realising that he was welcoming A.C. Benson, who would do so much to change Magdalene. Benson noted that his guide had "a kind of blight over his spirits", remarking, "We're at a low ebb, Sir. We have only forty and could hold sixty."[7] It was common for college servants to embrace the feudal atmosphere of Cambridge, and to define their own sense of self-worth through identification with the institution for which they toiled. There is an echo of this in the death notice for James Stearn in the Cambridge Independent Press in July 1918, which stressed – almost certainly in line with his wishes – his 43 years of service to Magdalene.[8]  Indeed, the College asserted its right to define that identity: as Head Porter, he was always addressed, apparently ex officio, as 'Peter'.[9] The origins of this practice are not recorded: perhaps it was an allusion to the Head Porter's responsibility for the keys to the Magdalene paradise.[10] 

Thanks to census information, slightly more is known about his private life, although there are still mysteries that can probably never be resolved.  At the time of the April 1881 census, James Stearn was living at 30 Albert Street, a narrow street of face-to-face terraces off Chesterton Road, about a quarter of a mile from Magdalene. He was married, to Elizabeth Foreman from the nearby village of Fulbourn, who was five years older. Their first child, four-month old Sydney James, had been born around the turn of the year. Given that James Stearn's wages were poor, it is likely that Elizabeth was also working. By the time of the 1891 census, they had moved to number 1 Albert Street. In place of the usual odd- and even-system, Albert Street cottages are numbered up-and-down, so the Stearn family had effectively moved a short distance down the terraces. And, by 1891, they were indeed a family: a second son, Ernest had been born in 1883, followed by two daughters, Louisa in 1886 and Laura in 1889. It is not difficult to imagine James Stearn slipping out of the house on a dark morning and hurrying to Magdalene along the banks of the Cam – or we might visualise the parents taking their youngsters to play on Jesus Green on a Sunday (not too boisterously, of course).

As with most Victorian families, the Stearns knew tragedy. An entry in the 1911 census, recording three children alive and two who had died, suggests there had been a fifth baby that did not survive infancy. Ernest, their second son, was eighteen in 1901, and working as a kitchen porter, although the college that employed him is not known. We might expect him to disappear from the family home as he made his life of his own, but the fact that Sydney's death notice in 1917 describes him as "only son" of James and Elizabeth suggests that Ernest had died before 1911: no other information has emerged.[11] Louisa and Laura both trained as dressmakers. Louisa married, probably around 1905, and combined motherhood with work as a bedmaker's assistant. Her two small boys were staying with their grandmother in Albert Street at the time of the 1911 census, while James and Louisa were away visiting Sydney's family. 

The eldest son, Sydney Stearn, married in 1904. At the time of his death, his wife, Catherine Eleanor Stearn, was living in Romsey Terrace, a pleasant street off Mill Road. Unfortunately, no information about him can be traced in local census returns. In 1917, his Navy record reported him to be 37 (in fact he was 36), and a Leading Signalman, which his proud parents elaborated in their death notice, describing him in more detail as a "First Class P[etty] O[fficer]". Sydney Stearn was not a 1914-vintage patriotic recruit, but had chosen the Royal Navy some years earlier as a long-term career. The Navy's decision to entrust him with signal duties indicates that he had received a sound basic education in the elementary schools of Cambridge. In 1911, Catherine was living in Chatham, with their five year-old daughter. Sydney's name had been entered on the census form as head of the household, but crossed out, probably on the instructions of an enumerator: the amendment indicates that he was away at sea. Catherine probably brought her daughter back to Cambridge when war broke out to be closer to family. Dependants would not have been encouraged to remain in Chatham, a town now crowded with service personnel and also a likely target for enemy raiders – by sea or air. 

During the First World War, Sydney Stearn served with the Dover Patrol, one of the Royal Navy's highest priorities. Using a combination of destroyers and minefields, the Patrol effectively sealed off the Straits of Dover to ensure safe passage for supplies and reinforcements across the narrow seas to Calais. Destroyers were relatively new warships, small and lightly armed, but capable of fending off torpedo boats and submarines by gunfire, depth charges or – if necessary – ramming them. The Dover Patrol was a dangerous posting. Sydney Stearn was on HMS Foyle, an E-class destroyer (they were named after British and Irish rivers), which also spent some periods based at Rosyth and at Portsmouth. Designed for speed and with a very slight 550 tons displacement, like all destroyers Foyle was boisterous at sea, and it is likely that her crew were very often soaking wet.[12] Early in 1917, the Admiralty was forced by political pressure to adopt a convoy system in response to the German submarine campaign. HMS Foyle was redeployed to wider escort duties up and down the English Channel.

In mid-March 1917, Naval high command would have known there was a German submarine on the loose in the Channel.  On 12 March, UC-68 had torpedoed a collier, SS Tandil, off Portland Bill in Dorset, killing four merchant seamen. The U-boat was also laying mines, one of which damaged the troopship Orsova, forcing it to run aground on a Cornish beach on 14 March. No doubt all vessels were warned to keep a special look-out for mines, but in the early hours of a March morning, not even the most eagle-eyed night watch could be relied upon to spot every threat. Around dawn on 15 March 1917, HMS Foyle was on escort duty three miles east of the Eddystone lighthouse when a collision with a mine caused a massive explosion that sheared off most of her bow, ripping into the forward mess decks where 27 sleeping sailors probably never knew what had hit them. An armed merchantman, the John O'Scott, came alongside, boldly ignoring the risk that the U-boat might be nearby to follow the age-old rescue code of the sea. The John O'Scott transferred survivors to two other destroyers in the convoy, and then attempted to tow the stricken Foyle stern-first to reduce the strain on the damaged bow. The tow line was soon transferred to the naval tug Illustrious, which had hastened out from Devonport. However, despite cautious handling, at around 2.30 that afternoon, HMS Foyle foundered and sank.[13] The German submariners were unable to celebrate their petty triumph. Three days earlier, off Start Point in south Devon, UC-68 had been blown apart by one of its own mines.

Sydney Stearn was one of the 27 men killed by the explosion. Since it was seven weeks before a death notice appeared – probably the work of his parents – in the Cambridge Independent Press, it seems likely that it was some time before the family was notified of Sydney's death.[14] We cannot know how often Sydney Stearn contacted his wife and his parents: HMS Foyle was hardly a convenient environment for writing letters, and there would have been few opportunities to post them anyway. Perhaps, though, prolonged silence gave James and Elizabeth some premonition of disaster. The sinking of HMS Foyle was not reported – indeed, it has never been officially announced. The curt telegram announcing Sydney's death would have been delivered to his wife, Catherine Eleanor in Romsey Town. Perhaps Elizabeth learned that her son was dead when a distraught daughter-in-law arrived on the doorstep in Albert Street. Maybe she rushed along the familiar pavements of Chesterton Lane to insist that Peter the porter must become James the husband and father.[15] Of course, all this is, can only be, speculation. All we know is that the events that heralded this terrible bereavement happened in the streets and the buildings that remain today, the familiar backdrop to people's lives and hopes and studies.

Magdalene offered no haven from the horrors of the War. With few undergraduates in residence, its buildings had been taken over by the Army and were used to train officer cadets. In mid-May, over eighty of them qualified for commissions, and, as the Head Porter struggled with his grief, there would have been an air of grim congratulation in the air. Magdalene added its own pastiche of academic ritual, giving each cohort of young men that passed through a farewell dinner in Hall as they left for the Front.[16] Utterly devastated by his loss, James Stearn found it hard to cope: "he lost his son who was in the Navy", A.S. Ramsey recalled, "and this he felt very keenly, and the blow seemed to break him up."[17] Ramsey's comment seems cold, as if he were surprised to discover that a College porter could have such human feelings. But to read it in that way is probably to take it out of context. Thousands of families had lost men in the War, and were simply expected to carry on with life and work together to achieve the eventual victory. A Head Porter, "unchanging, inscrutable" in the words of the Magazine, was assumed to project an inflexible manifestation of ordered masculinity. Nonetheless, it was soon clear that 'Peter' could not go on. He retired, early in 1918, at the age of 63, well short of the State pension age. Ramsey must have been closely involved in the necessary arrangements. As bursar in the decade after 1904, he had rescued Magdalene from the brink of ruin, only to see its finances thrown into disarray after 1914 by the collapse in student numbers.[18] Now, in the absence of the Master, A.C. Benson, deep in a depressive breakdown and hospitalised in London, Ramsey was running the College with an efficiency that would never be fully recognised. With no pension fund to draw upon, no doubt he was forced to add to an already fragile balance sheet the few shillings a week that would now be paid to James Stearn as a retirement allowance. Perhaps that explains, if it can hardly excuse, the apparently unsympathetic and uncomprehending tone of his recollection.[19]

The Fellows presented their outgoing Head Porter with a clock, a traditional gift although one that made little sense for a man embarking on a life where timekeeping was no longer vital. He would have little opportunity to use his suddenly acquired freedom. On a winter day, the warm fire of the Magdalene porters' lodge and the familiar company of College servants would have been tempting, but it was probably tacitly agreed that so imposing a figure should keep away and allow his successor a free run. Perhaps James and Elizabeth vowed that they would one day look out to sea from the cliffs of Devon in the hope of establishing some sense of connection with Leading Signalman Sydney Stearn in his ocean grave – almost certainly a longer journey than either of these Cambridgeshire folk had ever undertaken. But his retirement did not last long: James Stearn died on 10 July 1918.[20] The Magazine offered a philosophical slant: "leisure, as so frequently happens to men accustomed to hard work, did not bring that rest that was needed".[21] It was a polite formula that avoided any hint that so manly a figure at the heart of a college for men had died of grief.

Of course, such a declaration by historian with no medical qualifications may be regarded as, at best, figurative and, at worst, fanciful. In the absence of case records, specialists would hesitate to say what killed someone so long ago, but they might well point out that the intensity and speed of the collapse of James Stearn's health indicated other factors, notably the possibility of cancer. Unfortunately, the level of health care to which he would have had access a century ago would probably have been incapable of diagnosing any such affliction, let alone providing any worthwhile treatment. Here we may turn the point around: if James Stearn was indeed felled by some wasting disease, the shattering blow of his son's death would have made it so much harder for him to resist. While his name may appear on no war memorial, we may surely regard James Stearn, Peter the porter who gave 43 years of his life to the College, as one of Magdalene's indirect casualties of the First World War, part of the emotional collateral damage that people on the home front suffered through the deaths of loved-ones on active service.

Sydney Stearn's name appears on the Cambridgeshire war memorial in Ely Cathedral, and also on the Royal Navy's monument at Chatham. His mother, Elizabeth Stearn, lived on into the nineteen-thirties, dying in her eighties.


[1] A memorial in St Botolph's church commemorates staff of Cambridge University Press and college servants (as they were known in those days) killed in the 1914-18 War. There are only four of the latter, from Pembroke, Corpus Christi and St Catharine's: The website of Trinity College implies that staff members were commemorated on its memorial. 24 members of the staff of St John's joined up: some must have been killed:

[2] I am, as ever, grateful to Gail Wood for census information.

[3] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, vol. 9:

[4] Since Histon was a Nonconformist stronghold, James Stearn probably supplied certification of his orthodoxy, without which the Master, the Hon. and Rev. Latimer Neville would surely not have employed him. The vicar at the time, the Rev. C.W. Underwood, was a member of St John's.

[5] A.S. Ramsey, "Bygone days at Magdalene", 4-5 (typescript in Magdalene College Archives). 

[6] James Stearn's opposite number at Trinity in the eighteen-nineties was a personage of such consequence that undergraduates claimed he was the illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales. Since the future Edward VII had briefly been a member of the College, this was perhaps not totally implausible. The joke spread to Magdalene, where a gyp (manservant) called William Wolfe "was called 'Edward' because of his resemblance to the Prince of Wales". Like James Stearn, William Wolfe was the son of a farm labourer from Histon, where he had been born in 1849. He was a college servant, presumably working for Magdalene, by the time of the 1871 census, when he was a lodger in Cross Keys Yard, now part of Benson Court. By 1881, he was married: his wife, Sarah Ann, was from Lolworth, a village up the Huntingdon Road.  The couple lived in Victoria Road, Chesterton, and later in nearby Holland Street, and took in boarders. (One was a mature student called George Gladstone, who was an undergraduate at a short-lived cut-price experiment called Cavendish College. When the Cavendish project crashed in the early 1890s, George Gladstone transferred to King's, and the buildings eventually became Homerton.)  Sometime in the Edwardian years, William Wolfe retired from Magdalene, with a pension, and enterprisingly launched into a new career as a pork butcher. Now a widower, with his sister keeping house and his 35-year-old daughter Ada presumably working behind the counter, he opened The Little Pork Shop in Bridge Street, between Portugal Place and  Round Church Street. His ham and sausage rolls were much patronised by Magdalene undergraduates. In 2021, the premises formed part of the Bella Italia restaurant. William Wolfe died shortly before Christmas 1912, in his early sixties. It is of interest that the Fellows were prepared provide him with a pension while he was still in his fifties. Magdalene College Magazine, March 1913, 144.     

[7] Quoted from Benson's diary by Ronald Hyam in P. Cunich et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge 1428-1988 (Cambridge, 1994), 222.

[8] Cambridge Independent Press, 12 July 1918.

[9] Magdalene College Magazine, June 1919, 173 called 'Peter' a "generic name".

[10] The custom lapsed when James Stearn retired: in the brave new world of 1918, working people were allowed to choose their own names. This strangely totemic practice of controlling people by naming them could extend to academics as well. In 1962, S.D. Garrett, a University Reader in Botany, was elected to a Fellowship. A respected and innovative scientist in his mid-fifties (and, incidentally, a Magdalene alumnus), he was known to colleagues, family and friends as Denis Garrett. However, the Fellows of Magdalene decreed that, as there was already a Denis on High Table, he must be called by his alternative forename, Stephen, within the walls of the College. In those days, it was a very odd institution.

[11] Cambridge Independent Press, 4 May 1917. Cambridge Independent Press, 16 April 1909 reported an E. Stearn as a member of the Chesterton miniature rifle shooting team, but there were several families called Stearn in Cambridge at that time. Stearn and Sons, Photographers of Bridge Street, was a well-known local business.

[12] Wikipedia says HMS Foyle was 226.5 feet (69 metres) long and 23.75 feet (7.2 metres) wide, with a speed of 25.5 knots (23.3 mph). Destroyers were the greyhounds of the Royal Navy, but they cannot have been comfortable. The ship had been built by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead in 1903.

[13] The John O'Scott was torpedoed in September 1918 with the loss of 18 lives.

[14] It seems unlikely that the Admiralty would have issued a preliminary telegram reporting Sydney Stearn to be missing: there was no chance that any sailor could have survived so big an explosion so far out to sea. 

[15] The bereavement can only have been made worse by the absence of a grave, or of any focus for mourning or, indeed, of any explanation of Sydney's death: given wartime secrecy, no details of the sinking of HMS Foyle were released, even to families. Perhaps a shipmate on leave made his way to Cambridge sometime, to offer his condolences and talk about life onboard. It is unlikely that an account of two dozen men asleep in hammocks being blown to oblivion could have brought much comfort.

[16] Magdalene College Magazine, June 1917, 88. The Army cadets were succeeded in 1918 by young Navy officers: two decades later, Cambridge porters still spoke in awed tones of the exploits of "the naval gentlemen". It was for the best that James Stearn had retired before they arrived. T.E.B. Howarth, Cambridge Between Two Wars (London, 1978), 25-6.

[17] Ramsey, "Bygone days at Magdalene", 5.

[18] Cunich et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge 1428-1988, 217-18 (chapter by Ronald Hyam).

[19] In 1919, the Magazine reported the death of the Reverend William Wilson, who had entered Magdalene in 1863. His only son won an exhibition to follow him to the College, but had gone to the Front before beginning his studies. He was killed during the German spring offensive in 1918: "His loss proved too much for his mother (who died soon afterwards) and his father". Magdalene College Magazine, December 1919, 24.

[20] Cambridge Independent Press, 12 July 1918. With the Germans still on the offensive in France, it would be another six weeks before signs emerged of the eventual Allied victory.

[21] Magdalene College Magazine, June 1919, 173. The tribute was belated because slim issues of the Magazine had been devoted almost entirely to the College's war dead for much of 1918-19.