20th March 2009 at 00:00

Joan Dillon Browne 1912-2009

To her students, she was an aloof figure, striding briskly through college with handbag on arm. But Joan Dillon Browne was also a pioneer: one of a quietly determined handful of women who rose to the top of their chosen professions, back when female ambition was all too often frowned upon.

Browne, who died last month at the age of 96, was founding principal of Coventry College of Education, taking on the post in her mid-thirties. Throughout her career, she championed women's education forcefully and relentlessly.

Joan Dillon Browne was born in 1912 and showed academic ability from an early age. Encouraged by her teachers, she applied, and was accepted, to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read history.

After university, she trained as a secondary teacher. But, unable to find a job in Depression-era Britain, she spent a term in France conducting historical research. This inspired a lifelong love for the country, its language and culture.

She then returned to Britain and to her first post, as history teacher at Howell's School in Denbigh.

She joined the Labour party but, disillusioned that offers to help were met only with requests to lick stamps, she transferred her allegiance to the Communists.

Later, she moved to teach at a girls' school in Bradford. But she remained politically active, campaigning on behalf of the unemployed. The affectionate tag Red Joan followed her for years afterwards.

During the Second World War, she was appointed vice-principal of Furzedown teacher training college in London. In this role, she returned to Wales, evacuated with her students.

Then, in 1948, she was asked to become founding principal of a new training college for women in Coventry. She was 36 years old; many of her employees were male, and much older. The need to impress her authority on older staff may have accounted for the characteristically aloof manner remembered by many.

Browne oversaw the transformation of Coventry College from a small collection of huts into a spacious, lawn-filled campus. She had a strong sense of the college as a community, valuing academic, administrative and domestic staff equally.

JD, as she was known to her students, believed firmly that teaching should be a graduate-only profession: teachers should be able to draw on a wide range of knowledge in order to stimulate their pupils. And she insisted that until primary teachers were required to be graduates, like their secondary counterparts, their job would always be considered second best.

Sharp-tongued and quick-witted, Browne was often an intimidating presence. And the demands of her job meant she could be brusque. But she invariably saw the best in people, and was unfailingly compassionate, tolerant and caring.

Under her leadership, the college roll grew to about 1,500 students. Among them, in the 1970s, was future education secretary Estelle Morris, who remembers JD as someone who had the respect and loyalty of all her students and staff - "a pioneer in showing what women could achieve, long before it was fashionable to do so".

In the 1970s, Browne expanded the college again, this time to admit men. She also developed strong links with Warwick University, which made her an honorary professor when she retired in 1975. The two institutions eventually merged in 1978.

She was appointed CBE in 1972 and received the Coventry Award of Merit in 1978.

In retirement, her work continued: she wrote and published on various aspects of local history, including a biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

She has no surviving relatives, but many friends and grateful students.

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