Wolfson says farewell to Mike Wignall, Head Porter for 10 years

Mike Wignall

This week Wolfson will say goodbye to a much-loved and central figure at the College: Head Porter, Mike Wignall.  

Mike Wignall

Mike joined Wolfson in 2008 as Deputy Head Porter and progressed to the role of Head Porter in 2011. 

Over the last decade, Mike has steered Wolfson’s friendly and talented Porters’ Lodge team through exciting new changes, including the creation of a new Porters’ Lodge, as well as guiding the team through the recent challenges of the pandemic. 

Jo Cheffins, Wolfson College Bursar, said: “Mike has left a lasting legacy at the College and I know that the staff, students and fellows will all have wonderful memories of him over the years. Since I joined Wolfson in 2019, Mike has been a great help to me personally and a consistently reassuring presence here for everyone. He’s played a part in so many people’s lives at College; we will all miss him, but we wish him the very best for his next adventures.”

Mike will be replaced by Andrew Fowles, formerly Senior Porter under Mike since 2017.

Graham Allen, Wolfson College Vice President, said: “A Head Porter is a cornerstone of many aspects of College life – welcoming visitors, ensuring our safety, and having a “sixth sense” to spot a student in need of help. Mike has led the team with distinction through a decade of substantial growth in the scale and complexity of the work of the Lodge. His skill, kindness, and perceptiveness have made a huge mark on all of us in College and I’m very thankful for his wonderful contribution. He leaves the Porters’ Lodge in very safe hands, and I know Andrew will have benefited greatly from Mike’s knowledge over the years.”    

As his final week in College comes to an end, we spoke with Mike to look back on his life before Wolfson, his highlights in College, and what he’s going to do next.  

What brought you to Wolfson and what did you know about the College before you joined?  

I’m afraid to say that I knew very little of the life of the University and its colleges in general! My wife was starting to get more and more teaching work in Cambridge, after completing her PGCE at Homerton College, and she had digs up here while we maintained our home in Essex. Gradually, through being in Cambridge more and more, I saw some of the colleges and remarked that they could be a nice place to work – little knowing that it would come true. I think that, like a lot of people, I thought all colleges were run pretty much the same, but I discovered after being here a while that each one has a distinct personality and way of doing things. Wolfson’s gentle, friendly, inclusive relationship between the staff and students was a delight to discover in those early years.

What was your working life like before you joined Wolfson?  

After my ‘A’ levels, I went to work for my family’s small firm, repairing and renovating car and lorry radiators. Although it was at times very hard physically, I was younger then and it was a great grounding in the world of work and being part of a small team. I will always remember those years as being such a privilege to have shared that period working with my father. When, after being there 11 years, the materials and methods used for car radiators starting changing, we had to make a decision whether to heavily invest in new machinery and, as my father was nearing retirement age and I did not see my long term future in the business, we decided to sell up.

After a few months without a job, I was lucky enough to secure a role for the Metropolitan Police as a Security Officer at the Palace of Westminster. I enjoyed a variety of security roles there over the next 17 years, including being a Deputy Senior Security Officer for many years. Being interested in politics, something I shared with my father, also helped in keeping the job relevant for me during that time.

Can you remember your interview at Wolfson? 

Yes, I had already had an informal visit to the College and, probably because I didn’t imagine I would ever get the Deputy Head Porter role, not having had any type of interview for 18 years, I wasn’t at all nervous and just enjoyed meeting the people on the panel. I guess the evidence suggests that this gave the right impression that day.

What have been some of your favourite moments over the last thirteen years? 

While always being a big challenge as a Head Porter, the June Events/May Balls have also provided great satisfaction in having worked with the student committee for many months each year, hopefully guiding them on the right path – rather than being too dictatorial – and being part of the successful final result of some great nights. 

As I became more experienced in the Head Porter role, I began to enjoy more and more the interaction I had with the Senior Members, Emeritus Fellows, and Fellows of the College, particularly at nice College events such as the Foundation Day dinner when everyone arrives to have a pre-drink in the Front Court and it feels like a celebration of all the different parts of the College membership coming together. 

Being an enthusiast for most sports, I’ve also very much enjoyed supporting Wolfson teams or individual students in their sporting achievements whilst at the College. For example, I have seen Varsity Football and Power Lifting events involving Wolfson students as well as supporting the College football team in inter–college matches a few times, including a final when I kept the Porter on duty updated about the score by phone!

What are the most common questions you got asked at Porter’s Lodge?  

‘Can you let me into my residential block, I’ve forgotten my key’, and therefore must have forgotten to lock their room when leaving it. ‘I’ve received an email from a courier saying my parcel is here, but I can’t find it’; often the emails go out from companies before we even get the parcels. 

What’s been the strangest interaction or the most peculiar question?

Andrew, my successor as Head Porter, and I have never forgotten the night of a June Event, as they were called then, when, on a patrol of the external perimeter of the event, we came across a ground floor room with curtains open and full lights on with 6 or 7 male students sitting around only in their boxer shorts - we never did discover why this was and were perhaps scared to ask.

What have you enjoyed the most about being at Wolfson? And what will you miss? 

I will miss the members of staff with whom I’ve had such a good relationship, the cheerful conversation, the willingness from them to always go that extra step to help those around them in the College. All Porters, past and present, have been so different and have seen life from so many different viewpoints and angles before joining Wolfson – there are some I would want with me every time when there is an emergency to handle, others whose knowledge of random and various subjects I have found amazing, and others again who are the most cheerful, funny and positive company.  

I’ve enjoyed those times when some of us got together to watch cricket at Fenners or met for a drink or to see a band at a local pub, and I hope for myself and for society in general, that the possibility of these things may come back sometime soon. 

I will also miss those times, pre-pandemic, when the College was fully open and we were able to have more interaction with the students and visitors to the College. I do miss those days, there have been some fascinating, interesting, people coming through this College in my time here, and when I read about them or see them on TV or hear them on the radio in the future, I will be proud to have played a little part in their lives here. 

How do you think you’ll feel when you leave that Lodge for the last time? 

If on that last day I feel as I do now, I’ll think that it’s the right time to move on. When I left both my previous jobs, it was the right time for both of them and I think it will be the same this time. I wanted to support the new Bursar when she arrived a couple of years ago, and then the pandemic sadly arrived around this time last year. But now is the moment to hand over to a safe pair of hands in Andrew, who has always been extremely supportive since he arrived here as a Porter in 2013 and even more so when he took the role of Senior Porter in 2017.

What are you going to do now?  

In the short term I need to have a rest, mentally particularly. The Head Porter job is not one that can be switched off as you leave the College gates, and it’s always in my mind, even on days off (a notepad at hand is invaluable for letting the thoughts go until they can be dealt with later). 

My wife Véronique has been so supportive to me over the years. She has thrown herself into College life and has helped out at College events such as the 50th Anniversary celebrations; attended communal College gatherings for Eurovision watching; or those heady days of success for the College in University Challenge; and, importantly, supporting (with some bemusement I’m sure) the President’s annual cricket match each year which I played in many times (I would have liked to say ‘I starred in’ but it isn’t quite true and Chris, the previous Bursar and the team captain then, might read this!). 

So I would like to give back some time to her and hope, desperately hope, we can go to France again soon to see her family, something she has not been able to do for over a year now. Further on, I am sure I will work in some capacity, voluntary or paid, in something that sparks me – I am, after all, not retiring as some people have assumed!