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College Breweries: when drinking ale at University was safer than sipping tap water

From a College brewery to 3D photography, there’s lots to discover behind the scenes in Cambridge libraries in Open Cambridge 2017

Misbehaving himselfe at ye paper mill Inne, so yt he was faint to keepe in about three weekes and neglect ye Coll. Service.

Report on William Beale

Ever had a three-week-long hangover? Or wanted to drink beer because water could poison you? Well – you can see how Cambridge University staff and students experienced life and booze in the past thanks to a fascinating new exhibition at Sidney Sussex College library.

Like many Colleges, Sidney Sussex had its own brewery until the late nineteenth century, making weak (known as ‘small’) beer for the daily consumption of students and staff at a time when water was frequently unsafe to drink. The brewery operated from around 1596, when the College was founded and was probably located in the southern part of the College, next to the stables. It closed in 1890, when safe tap water had come to Cambridge, and a modernizing Master sold off the brewing equipment.

Stronger beer was, of course,  available outside the College in public houses, and the exhibition features several examples of students who came back from the alehouses ‘distempered with drink’, as well as a cook who got a three-week long hangover from a drinking spree. William Beale was ticked off in July 1674 for ‘misbehaving himselfe at ye paper mill Inne, so yt he was faint to keepe in about three weekes and neglect ye Coll. Service’. The same William Beale got into trouble again several years later ‘for his intolerable extravagancies’.

In the eighteenth century, tea began to be promoted as a more virtuous alternative to alcohol. The exhibition features an early pamphlet on the health-giving properties of tea that describes it as an ‘innocent, lovely liquor’ that can ‘change a beast into a man.’

The exhibition also reveals the College’s links with a famous tea dynasty. On show are some letters from Thomas Twining, a Fellow of Sidney who was related to the famous Twining family of tea importers and who was an early advocate of drinking tea in the afternoon.

The Parker Library at Corpus Christi College offers visitors the chance to see some of the oldest books in Cambridge and watch a demonstration of the traditional techniques conservators still use to look after them. An exhibition in the stunning wood-paneled library will showcase treasures from the library’s collection: manuscripts and books dating from the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, including several with full-page gilded illuminations. At the same time, conservators from the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium will be displaying the materials and techniques used for making and restoring early books, and showing off some of their recent conservation projects. Members of the public will also be able to try their hands at book-making by sewing sections into a textblock on a traditional sewing frame.

From the most traditional to the most up-to-date technology for preserving books: the Cambridge University Library is offering tours of its Digital Content Unit on Friday 8 September. Visitors will hear about the importance of digitisation and will be able to see the unit’s specialist equipment in action. Technicians there use hi-spec 80 megapixel cameras to photograph valuable items from the library’s collections and preserve them for future generations. They also make them accessible to the public and the worldwide academic community via the Digital Library. Not all the items they photograph are books, and the unit staff have developed their own ingenious solutions to challenging projects. To digitise a 4 meter-long Burmese map that had been used as a tablecloth, they had to build a huge flat bed and then program a camera to take 500 separate images that were later stitched together.

Other library events include an exhibition on Jane Austen at King’s College that includes the manuscript copy of her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon, and a polar animal trail in the library of the Scott Polar Research Institute that features artwork and photographs from Captain Scott’s last expedition.

Open Cambridge takes place 8-9 September and offers the public a chance to visit a range of stunning buildings and hidden curiosities. There are 97 events in this year’s programme, ranging from a backstage tour of the ADC theatre to the Cambridge fire station open day and a fine dining dinner at Corpus Christi College. Over 25 events are part of Open Eddington, showcasing the innovative architecture and sustainable design of the University’s new district in North-West Cambridge. A special series of events, India Unboxed, explores more than 150 years of close relationships between India and Cambridge.