Thomas Gray, Peterhouse College

Thomas Gray

I can’t believe that nobody told me before about Thomas Gray’s homemade fire escape, which you can still see on the outside of Peterhouse College – the top window. Robert Mack, in his biography of Gray, has an engagingly detailed retelling:

In the first week of January 1756, Gray happened to notice in one of the London newspapers an advertisement announcing the sale of rope ladders at the shop of one Ephraim Hadden, near Hermitage Stairs, Wapping. He immediately wrote to Wharton, asking him to purchase such a device and send it on to him at Peterhouse. ‘I never saw one’, Gray admitted of the article in question, ‘but I suppose it must have strong hooks, or something equivalent, a-top, to throw over an iron bar to be fixed withinside of my window’. He further specified: ‘It must be full 36 foot long, or a little more, but as light and manageable as may be, easy to enroll, & not likely to tangle’. Wharton promptly sent such a ‘machine’ to Cambridge – complete, apparently, with ‘Firebags’ designed to carry one’s hastily-gathered valuables to safety as well – and Gray at once set about attaching the contraption to his bedroom window.

(from Thomas Gray: A Life, Robert L. Mack)

About six months after Gray had got everything set up, some undergraduates decided to test out the machinery, and shouted ‘Fire’ from underneath. Accounts differ as to what happened next – the introduction to my edition of Gray spends several pages trying to refute the charge that he flung himself down the rope ladder in a nightgown, and landed in a cold bath the undergraduates had concealed at the bottom – and perhaps this is indeed an embellishment. (It sounds like something from Last of the Summer Wine.) In any case, Gray complained about their behaviour to the Master, decided his concerns weren’t being taken seriously enough, and within a week changed colleges.

Sometime later, when Gray was happily living in ground-floor rooms at Pembroke across the road, his contemporary Christopher Smart observed that ‘Gray walks as if he had fouled his small-clothes, and looks as if he smelt it’.

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