‘Nothing surprises us’: What The Porter Saw

They’re the backbone of the university, an ever-present feature ensuring each day runs smoothly for visitors and students alike. Without them, we’d be screwed. But what do the porters themselves have to say?

“The hours are the same, but each day is different”, the head porter at one college told me. Due to the precarious nature of the Oxford reputation, few colleges agreed to be named in this piece for fear of inciting a Daily Mail storm ‘exposing’ debauchery. Those who were willing to talk, however, provided a unique snapshot into life behind-the-scenes of the university. The Oxford Student quizzed a wide range of porters on their most memorable experiences during their time at Oxford, with surprising results. Think it’s all lost keys and directing tourists to Christ Church? Think again. Pranks on tourists, rescuing a student locked in the loo, and writing detective stories on the night shift are all part and parcel of being at the hub of college life.

A permanent fixture in the lodge, porters are the all-seeing eye of the college. No need for CCTV: these guardians of the night have probably a better idea of the ins and outs of what goes on in the college than we do. They silently clock the heaviest drinkers, the most diligent workers, and the most disorganised  drifters – and that’s just the staff. We wanted to know what were the nuttiest things the porters had seen over the years. The answer? Just about everything.

‘There’s nothing the students can do that can surprise us’, one porter told me. Like what? Naked runs round the quad are a frequent occurrence at one college, along with moped races and skateboarding down the railings. Another porter recalled seeing all the statues around college covered in underwear, and another remembered dealing with irate MCR members when all their furniture was piled up on the front quad. These stories of the invariable student pranks are interspersed with more touching, and downright bizarre, tales of student life: one JCR member at a central Oxford college requested to have her hamster buried in the front quad (and was allowed); another student caused the porters’ eyebrows to finally be raised when he propped up an authentic WW2 machine gun in his room ‘for decoration’. It’s not just the sights that are sometimes a cause for concern: one porter told me of one student coming in to ask where he could get his sperm frozen.

But what about the porters themselves? They play pranks too. One set of porters told me of how they filled a fellow porter’s golf bag with ladies underwear (a seemingly recurring theme), only to open it in front of everyone on the golf course. At one of the colleges most popular with tourists, gullible visitors are just too easy to resist. “A very large overseas gentleman came in one day, and slammed his fist on the lodge demanding he see something famous”, recalled the head porter. “The college was closed to the public, but he was insistent, so we sent him down to Cornmarket to see a very famous site. He never came back to thank us, but we hope he cherishes the picture he got of McDonalds”. Another night porter told me how he writes detective stories during his shifts.

It’s being at the focal point of the college that the majority of porters found most rewarding, when asked about the best aspect of the job. “We’re a surrogate family”, said one. Nothing fazes them either – whether it’s stealing a memorial bench or planting 300 condoms around the front quad, the porters have seen it all before. And in fact for many, it’s a perk. When asked about the pranks and the piss-ups, a head porter who organised the underwear joke on his colleague had this to say: ‘Too much salt ruins a meal… but just a little enhances it’.

Madeleine Maxwell-Libby