Higher Education Postcard: Bridge of sighs

This week's card from Hugh Jones’ postbag tells a tale of cars and punts

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Cambridge!

This is the Bridge of Sighs, which crosses the river Cam, and links St John’s College Cambridge’s buildings on either side of the river. It was opened in 1831 at the same time as the College’s New Court buildings. Allegedly Queen Victoria’s favourite view in Cambridge, it is certainly one of the top two most frequent postcard scenes of the university (the other one is King’s College Chapel from the backs).

It’s not just a pretty postcard, it’s the scene of at least one of Cambridge’s legends. In 1963, some students suspended an Austin 7 from the bridge. It was, in some respects, a follow-up to a 1958 prank when some students hoisted an Austin 7 onto the roof of the university’s Senate House. The 1963 suspension was reported in the press at the time, although I can find no evidence, but there’s some interesting retrospective coverage here.

An image of a car floating under the bridge of sighs

The picture, from this thread on Reddit, shows the car suspended in the water. The car was not a working car – engine and gearbox stripped out – and had been acquired by the students from a garage. It seems that the car was floated under the bridge on a number of punts – some say four – lashed together. Cables were then passed under the car and up to the windows on the bridge, and then the cables were tightened from within the bridge to raise the car. I’m imagining it was something like the scene in the much underrated Shanghai Noon, in which Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson escape from prison with some rope, a bar and some, er, liquid.

There’s a lovely clip of one of those present at the time in this YouTube video – it’s a broader tribute from a son about his father, and from 1.07 or thereabouts for a minute and a bit you get to hear a direct witness of the events, including the reaction of the then dean of St John’s, one James Beasant.

It happened again in 1968 with a Bond Bug and two punts – sadly no pictures of this appear to exist on the web.

2 responses to “Higher Education Postcard: Bridge of sighs

  1. Ever keen to emulate Oxbridge, Durham students also had a penchant for suspending cars from bridges. In their case it was Kingsgate Bridge, the Ove Arup-designed concrete footway 20m above the River Wear.

    The first time was in 1964 when, according to legend, the students of St Chads College hoisted the college principal’s Austin 7 (why was it always an Austin 7?) high above the river as a Rag Week stunt. There is photographic evidence (https://i.pinimg.com/originals/71/8f/01/718f018ddca88cb899da6c3e33447aba.jpg), but I can’t confirm the supposed culprits or owner of the car (which, more likely, was sourced from a wreckage yard).

    The story goes that the students floated the car down the river on a barge dropped chains from the bridge and pulled it up, cutting off the excess chains, so that when the Fire Brigade were charged with removing it, they had little choice but to cut the chain and let the car fall. Who knows, it may be rusting int he depths even to this day?

    This was one of many stunts that eventually led to Durham Rag being banned by the local police. Another was when students broke IN to Durham’s high security prison and left a box of Milk Tray on the Governor’s desk. Rag returned the year after the ban under the new name DUCK (Durham University Charity weeK) and continues to this day.

    Apparently the car stunt was repeated in the 70s. The story goes that on this occasion it was the Mountaineering Society who suspended a mini. A quick Google yields very few results and no photos, so this may be apocryphal.

  2. I suspect by the 1960s Austin 7’s were cheap as chips and nearing end-of-life, so prime candidates for japes

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