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Image for the news item 'Flights of Fancy ' on 9 Mar 2021
Some Emma staircases

The main residential buildings at Emmanuel are arranged, as in most of the older Cambridge colleges, on the staircase rather than the corridor principle. Today, each stairway is designated by a letter and the rooms leading off it by numbers, producing ‘addresses’ of D3, Z6, etc, but this handy form of notation was not used until relatively recently; before that, room locations had to be described using very cumbersome terminology. Preserved in Emmanuel’s archives are two volumes listing room occupants for the years 1702-1784, in which individual chambers or sets are identified by tortuous descriptions such as ‘New Brick building second staircase towards the Field: Second story upon the Right hand 3 studys in the Chamber’ or ‘The Old Range of building in the Quadrangle opposite to the Master’s Gallery: the uppermost story in the stone staircase the chamber on the left hand’. No wonder a snappier form of identification was eventually devised!

The exact date at which Emma adopted the alphanumerical system is surprisingly difficult to pinpoint, but it must have been in the mid-1890s or soon afterwards, since the stairway letters of the Hostel (H, J, K) cannot have been assigned before 1894, when the building was extended and the number of its staircases increased from one to three. The new designations had certainly been introduced by 1900, when they make an appearance in a tutor’s admissions notebook. Incidentally, the reason that L and M staircases are located in so recent a building as South Court is that these letters were originally assigned to flights of stairs near the Hall Screens and in the north-west corner of New Court, respectively, for there were a few residential rooms above the Kitchen until it was rebuilt in the 1950s.

As well as providing an important record of chamber occupancy, the eighteenth-century room lists contain other fascinating details, such as the changing nomenclature of various parts of the college. Front Court, for instance, was then known as ‘the Quadrangle’, and the Paddock as ‘the Piece’. The medieval range on the western side of Front Court, demolished in the 1770s, was called the ‘Cloyster building’ (its replacement, the Essex Building, also incorporated a cloister). In 1749 a chamber on the ground floor of Old Court was designated ‘The Prayer Room’, the provision of which, if we accept the name at face value, is puzzling, for the chapel was only a stone’s throw away.

Two other rooms in Old Court acquired names that were unquestionably fanciful. Directly above the Prayer Room, on the first floor, right hand, of what is now called F staircase, was a set rejoicing in the sobriquet ‘Castle of Otranto’. This name must have been conferred after 1764, the year in which Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic thriller The Castle of Otranto was published. It is to be hoped that no skeletal apparitions afflicted the occupants of Old Court. The novelist Hugh Walpole, a distant kinsman of Horace, came to Emma in 1903; as a subsizar he would have been allocated a room on the top floor of either F or G staircase - so not in, but perhaps close to, ‘Otranto’.

On the top floor, right hand, of G staircase was a chamber christened ‘Parnassus’. In ancient mythology Mount Parnassus was home to the Muses, and thus associated with the various arts and sciences practiced by those nine goddesses. The room’s name, then, may have been an homage to scholarship, or more mundanely, an allusion to the fact that after ascending three steep flights of stairs the occupants felt they were truly up among the gods. There is a third possibility: Mount Parnassus was also sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine and wine-making, who in his Roman incarnation was the origin of the word ‘bacchanalian’…

The room lists do not indicate how long these two chambers were known by their whimsical names, nor which of their occupants bestowed them, but whoever they were, they clearly had a taste for the fantastical. Gothic horrors and classical Immortals – whatever their inspiration, the names have a far more romantic ring than F3 or G6!

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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