50 Years of Women at St John’s: Jane Newsome (née Whitehead)

Jane Newsome was part of the first intake of women at John’s in 1973. Here is her story.

Jane Whitehead was part of the first intake of women to be admitted to St John’s College in 1973.  She graduated in 1977, having done a year in France as part of her degree in French and Russian.  In 2016 she was awarded the MBE for her work in the Prison Service. 

The development of her vocation to work as a prison chaplain was a long journey from her days at John’s.  Starting her working life as a secondary school teacher, she found teaching French in inner-city Tottenham to students, the majority of whom English was already their second language, increasingly frustrating, as it was not touching the needs of this deprived community.  This led her to work as a residential social worker for the diocese of London under the late Lydia Gladwin (the wife of John Gladwin who had been a tutor at John’s during Jane’s time).  In this work she supported adolescent girls with babies.

It was the experience of working as a volunteer first with Voice for the Child Care advocating on behalf of young people held in a secure accommodation for very serious offences but too young to be detained in prison.  The unit was in the parish in Birmingham where her husband David was the vicar.  Jane and David met at John’s in 1977 and got married in 1981.  It was later when she volunteered with the chaplaincy team at Winson Green Prison, that crystallized Jane’s sense of calling to prison ministry.  She was accepted for ordination in 1996 and her vocation to prison chaplaincy recognized.

Jane served almost all of her 15 year ministry in the Diocese of Lichfield, first as prison chaplain at Stoke Heath Prison in Shropshire, where she was co-ordinating chaplain and then as Managing Chaplain of Swinfen Hall outside Lichfield.  Both were young offenders’ institutions for young men.  Swinfen Hall housed inmates between 18-25, who had committed very serious offences, with a high proportion of life sentences.

Recognised by the Prison Inspectorate as running one of the best Chaplaincy Teams in the country, at Swinfen Hall Jane was responsible for an ecumenical and interfaith team representing over seven different faiths.  It was her firm belief, she said, “that we would have little to offer the prison, its inmates and staff, unless we modelled respect and collaboration amongst ourselves, rejoicing in our diversity whilst each maintaining the integrity of our own faith. This is especially important when working with young people whose experience of the adults looking after them has often been of dysfunction and discord.”

Jane had a particular concern for supporting prisoners’ families, often said to be serving the silent sentence.  In both prisons she started regular family days where families could have a whole day with their sons, which for many provided the opportunity to start to rebuild broken relationships. “Helping to rebuild family relationships” she says, “is one of the factors that helps offenders to turn away from crime on release from prison.”

Working with volunteers from local churches, and at Swinfen Hall particularly with the Mothers Union, Jane introduced a parenting course for young men who were fathers, called Being Dad. This gave young men, who often had very negative and damaging experiences of being parented, some skills and ideas about how to be a good dad, as well as providing them with a safe place in the prison to talk about their children. The special family visits for fathers that she facilitated in both prisons then gave the young men the opportunity to try out some of the parenting skills they had learnt in the parenting classes, and to bond with their children and partners.

The voluntary work that was also recognized in her award of the MBE including 5 years supporting David in running the team of Festival Pastors at the V Festival, Weston Park, the West Midlands largest music festival at that time, attracting 90,000 people.  They also worked as Late Night Listeners, Lichfield’s ministry to the night-time economy. 

Since 2006 they have volunteered with the organization Hands at Work in Africa, which works in 8 countries of Southern Africa with orphans and vulnerable children in some of Africa’s poorest communities. 

This led both Jane and David to resign from their roles in 2015 (David latterly was Director of Ordinands for the Lichfield Diocese) in order to serve full-time in a voluntary capacity as the charity’s UK National Coordinators, working and advocating on behalf of the charity.

Jane and David have two daughters (Kate and Rachel) and four grandchildren. Rachel was at John’s herself from 2005 to 2008.  Both David and Jane would say that their passion for social justice and the marginalized stems in large measure from their time at John’s.

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