Life Stories from St John’s: the famous & the forgotten

Library exhibition 9 September – 9 December 2022


For over 450 years the lifeblood of St John’s College has been the people who live and work inside its walls. Some have dedicated a good part of their lives to this College, while others have just passed through. Many have become famous and even more remain forgotten. This exhibition brings together a few of these life stories.

Walking the Tightrope

During the first hundred years, the scholars and fellows of St John’s College had to manoeuvre many obstacles. MS 293, a late medieval psalter, reflects on the College’s hesitant adjustment to Protestantism soon after its foundation. MS 17, the Thorney Computus, tells the story of a former president who had to beg for an important book to be returned to the College library.

Privilege & Diversity

Today, St John’s College puts a lot of effort and resources into recruiting the best students regardless of background, which has established a socially diverse student community. Unfortunately, historic examples of diversity at St John’s are rare. MS 279, a letter written by George Austen, father of the novelist Jane Austen, illustrates the closed nature of St John’s admissions policy until the mid-19th century. The College’s Debating Society Minute Book from 1903-1913 shows an early discussion about Great Britain’s colonialism. MS 322 highlights the influence some women had at St John’s even though women were not admitted as members of the College until the late 20th century.


The letters displayed offer glimpses into the private lives of three very different members of St John’s in three centuries. They stand for the tens of thousands of letters that have arrived and left the College since 1555. MS 326, written in 1619, represents the letters students received from their parents. MS 328 from 1810 is believed to have been sent to a College servant. Closing the exhibition are two letters written in late 1961 by the poet and novelist Robert Graves at the start of his tenure as Professor of Poetry.

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