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Alumna Caroline Willbourne awarded Honorary Fellowship

Alumna Caroline Willbourne awarded Honorary Fellowship

  • Date26 August 2022

Bedford College alumna Caroline Willbourne (Philosophy & Greek 1967) has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship in recognition of both her distinguished career in family law and her longstanding support for the College as a member of the Bedford Society Committee. She spoke to us about her time at Bedford College, her career and her continued support of the College to this day.

Caroline Willbourne landscape (1).jpg

The daughter of a legal civil servant and the Secretary to the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary in the House of Lords, Caroline had a peripatetic childhood until the family settled in London in time for her to go to secondary school. A lover of amateur dramatics, Caroline’s sense of performance determined her to pursue a career as a barrister.  

Caroline became the first member of her family to go to university and read Philosophy & Ancient Greek at Bedford College. It was a period, she says, which has had a profound effect on the rest of her life.

“I benefitted enormously from having studied at Bedford. I arrived there in 1964 as a ‘young’ 18 year old, having been educated at an all girls' school. I was the first person in my family to go to university, although that was against my father’s wishes. He was an Edwardian (born in 1896), who believed that girls got no benefit from higher education – a waste of time and money, he used to say. But my mother was a forceful lady and she insisted I should go. The compromise was a women’s college, ie Bedford.”

A timetable clash led to a fortuitous arrangement where Caroline was individually tutored by Professor Bernard Williams, regarded as the greatest British philosopher of his era. “Looking back on it, I think he must have seen potential in me of which I was unaware,” she says. “He already knew that I aspired to become a barrister, so he gave me one-to-one ethics tutorials, which fired my enthusiasm for getting a fair and just result. I spent three very happy years at Bedford, honing my public speaking skills, doing drama and being active in the students’ union. I am sure all this helped me on my journey to the Bar.

“I was in my second year at Bedford when it first admitted men, which at the grand old age of 19 I thought was a bad idea. I was a feminist at heart, and I hope I still am, but the first intake turned out to be friendly chaps, so I had to eat my words. The merger with Royal Holloway was well after my time, but with hindsight I can see the wisdom of that decision too. It was certainly a big change which some thought would lead to the extinction of Bedford, but what actually happened has been a melding of two strong entities, thus creating an even more successful institution.”

 

Caroline received her Honorary Fellowship from fellow Bedford alumna and Chair of College Council, Dame Margaret Hodge MP

 

After graduating in 1967, Caroline did some research work for Professor Bernard Williams on ‘divorce without consent’. This was just before the implementation of the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 and was a foretelling of Caroline’s future specialism in Law. Caroline cannot overstate the importance of Professor Williams on her career and determination to succeed: “Quite simply, I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for him,” she says.

Caroline was called to the Bar in 1970 by Inner Temple and went into a general set of chambers, refining her practice over the years to specialise in family law. In 1990, Caroline was a founder member of the 1GC Family Law Chambers, with a group of five other barristers who wanted to specialise in family law. Renowned for its expertise in all areas of family law, the set has now grown to over 90 barristers and Caroline has remained with them ever since.

1993 was a significant year for Caroline as she trained and qualified as a mediator, to help separating couples find a better way forward than going to court. She was also appointed a Deputy Judge, specialising in financial remedy work, and elected a Bencher by Inner Temple, an accolade accorded to her for work she had done for the Inn over many years. It is a role in which she remains active today, sitting on the Scholarship and Outreach Committee, and mentoring at least one Bar student a year.  

To this day, the Bar is regarded as an exclusive profession and one which Caroline is determined to help promising students succeed in: “Mentoring is one of the things I feel very strongly about,” she says. “The drive to get people on the road to success has been a very powerful influence in my life.”

Caroline’s other professional achievements include Fellowship of the Royal Society of Medicine, training doctors in how to give effective evidence in court.  

In 2013, Caroline became a founder member of the Bedford Society Committee. “I have been a huge advocate of the Society because it kept alive the Bedford name and its influence,” she says. Caroline is a donor to the Bedford Society Scholarships Fund and the Greatest Needs Fund, supporting future generations of students.

“Both Bedford and Royal Holloway were pioneers in their day in providing university education for women, all of whom had hitherto been excluded from higher education. If my father were alive today, he would be amazed by this and would certainly not believe that I was able to achieve as much as I have, thanks in large measure to Bedford.”

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