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Sign of the times

  • 08 December 2021

For over 40 years Terry Drake has had a subtle but important role at Gonville & Caius College.

The 71-year-old signwriter is responsible for the black and white hand-painted names on doors and staircases of Caius, identifying the residents of College rooms.

Born and bred in Cambridge, Terry left school aged 15 and, encouraged by his grandfather, took on an apprenticeship with Swainland Signs in 1965. After five years making tea and learning the trade, he did a further two years before travelling around Europe on his motorbike with his then girlfriend, who became his wife.

He returned to take up a plastering apprenticeship, but as the weather turned, he asked for his job back with Swainland Signs. Among the tasks in his 12 years with the firm was signwriting at Caius, and in 1982, after setting up on his own, Terry approached the College.

Terry says: “I walked into the Porters’ Lodge and Mr Baldwin was the new Head Porter. I asked if I could do the signwriting. He asked for my qualifications and I showed him my work, and then he gave me the job.

“I’ve always liked signwriting at colleges because they give you a list and let you get on with it. If I make a mistake, they tell me. And if they’ve made a mistake, I tell them!”

The letter ‘s’ is the hardest to write, but Terry says the challenge comes at the start of each day.

“The hardest letter I do is the first one in the morning, because I don’t know if my paint consistency is too thick or thin,” he says.

Terry works at colleges across the city, museums, paints vans, facias, “anything”.

He adds: “I’ve written a phone number on the back of a tortoise which kept wandering off. It kept disappearing, sometimes for weeks at a time. I only did it once – I think this one was pretty old.”

Terry at work

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