50 Years of Women at St John’s: Sue Evans

Alumna Sue Evans reminisces on her four years at the College in the 1970s, as one of the first women to be admitted, as well as recounting her life since.

I arrived at St John’s ‘by accident’ or Providence, like most of the first women. 

I did not know that the College had decided to take women students in St John’s Hall and had applied to St Mary’s College, having come from an all-girls school and being rather nervous of men! However, the ‘religious stuff’ on my UCCA (or what would now be called UCAS) form got me diverted to become one of 23 women in a college of 127 men…if I’ve remembered the figures correctly! St John’s had only expected 12 women, I think, and had decorated 28 North Bailey accordingly, but as us women got better A-Level grades than the College had expected, they ended up with almost twice the expected quota. Having arrived on the Bailey, I was duly installed in a shared room in Linton House, by a kind student who carried my bags, but was then disappointed when I said I didn’t row! Fortunately, my roommate (Patsy Walker) was the right size to be a cox! 

Some of the male students took a while to get used to us.  I remember an almost serious debate in the JCR as to whether we should be admitted as ‘Honorary Men’ – something similar having been arranged for a cat in an Oxbridge college! However, under the kind and watchful eye of Sue Brown (installed in 28 North Bailey to look after us) we thrived. A College Entertainment featured some of us singing an adapted version of “Three Little Maids from School”, which described her as “guarding our virtue devotedly”! 

Here is a page from the programme for T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. I think everyone there is from John’s. I sang in the choir for that one and it was wonderful to perform in the Galilee Chapel. 

Being in a predominantly male and Christian environment was wonderful in many ways. I remember being particularly grateful at exam times. Friends in the women-only colleges often became very anxious and worked too hard, sometimes to the detriment of their health. My memories of St John’s include students peacefully playing croquet after lunch and then saying, “Oh, I suppose I’d better go along and do that exam now!” College Entertainment often parodied this with sketches about careers interviews concerning students who might not have brilliant results but could always “go into the Church.” There are more important things in life than academic brilliance! 

We had a lot of fun – the Chapel Choir sang well and inspired cathedral congregations during the holidays. The Kings’ Men did great dramatic performances, many of the actors being from St John’s. 

Part of the fun involved playing tricks on one another. Water fights were common, and the stairs in Cruddas must have been kept very clean by the cascades of water that flowed down them. The Senior Tutor’s fence somehow ended up in the river, and my nightdress on the flagpole! 

Jonathan Pye (now a senior and most distinguished Methodist Minister) was famous for playing tricks and was paid back one evening by having his room ‘translated’ to the organ loft of the former St John’s Chapel (by then a library). He proceeded to sleep there, and a very conscientious student was surprised by his alarm clock the next morning! Even tutors played tricks. Christina Baxter painted the ceiling of her sitting room a deep blue. One day she looked up from her rocking chair to see that someone (the word on the street was that it has been Michael Vasey) had covered it with silver stars! 

I had the dubious honour of dripping water on Adrian Dorber (then President of the Students’ Union, later Dean of Litchfield) at the St John’s Day celebration! 

Other memories include the great Sponsored Croquet Match, lasting about 3 days, which got into the Guiness Book of Records – the players got very fed up with being given Complan in their breaks and were in danger of being quite dotty by the time the doctor called a halt! There were also some memorable visits by former students – one gentleman (whom I perceived as ‘elderly’ – probably about the same age as I am now) told us that in his day, if a student had a woman visitor, he had to put his bed in the corridor. In Cruddas, that made the corridors impossible to navigate!  

A picture of me with Johnny, my colleague in the NHS, who, sadly died last year aged nearly 17! This was taken by a member of staff at the Hospitals Carol Service in Lincoln Cathedral in 2019. Johnny has just put his paw on my knee – I think he thought the bishop’s sermon was a bit long! 

I am so grateful to St John’s for my four happy years (I stayed on to do a PGCE). I became a history teacher in a Church of England High School, which I enjoyed, but left to train for Ministry at Lincoln and became a deaconess in 1984, and a deacon in 1987. I worked in Salford, where I met my husband Tom Broadbent, Chaplain of Salford University, who had trained at Ridley with several men I had known at St John’s! I later worked in another inner city parish in Manchester until 1992, when Tom and I moved to Suffolk, where we combined parish work with College Chaplaincy (Tom) and Prison Chaplaincy (me). It was in Suffolk, in 1994, that I became one of the first women priests. I continued to work in prisons until 2009, when Tom and I worked in parishes in Lincolnshire, and from 2016-20 I had a part time post in Mental Health Chaplaincy, working with my PAT dog, Johnny. Tom and I are both retired now…but still working in parishes in Lincolnshire!

Tom and I were never able to have children. We did a bit of fostering, but also had many animal companions – dogs, cats and a horse. Now we have just one dog, Tara (see right). 

Below is a picture of Tom and I with my parents and some children from the parish on the day after my ordination as priest, in 1994, when I first presided at the Eucharist. I am sure that my experiences as one of the first women at St John’s helped greatly when I became one of the first women deacons and one of the first women priests! 

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