Today’s blog is different, for this week the theme is not Church Matters, but Family Matters. For tomorrow Caroline begins her next adventure as after twenty years as HM Senior Coroner for Essex Caroline retires. Yes, as I already know from my own experience, retirement is an adventure. It has been said that growing old successfully requires “the curiosity of a five year old and the confidence of a teenager. There is nothing we can’t do if we want to do it”.
I say Caroline begins her “next” adventure, because for her retirement is just another stage of an ongoing adventure. At the age of fifteen, for instance, she was part of her school team which won the BBC’s ‘Top of the Form’ competition. Later she won a place at Girton College, Cambridge, to read history – and within the first week we met – and so the adventures continued. We married as soon as she graduated and moved to Manchester. There Caroline trained as a teacher and taught briefly at Bury Grammar School for Girls, one of her pupils being Victoria Wood, a celebrated British woman comic. From Manchester we moved to Zurich – I drove with our luggage, and she flew with our three-week old son, Jonathan. While I was finishing off my PhD, she was doing courses related to the Bible, pastoral care and church history.
Then off we sailed to the Congo! For Caroline that included learning Lingala so that she could haggle in the markets. Although we were living in the third largest city of Congo, Kisangani was still recovering from the ravages of civil war, so when she was expecting Timothy, we had to charter a single-engine Cessna and fly 500 miles to find a doctor for the birth. Three months later we drove to East Africa and to the Indian Ocean – what an adventure that journey was!
The next thirteen years were spent as a minister’s wife in Altrincham, Cheshire, but there was nothing settled about those years. In addition to the births of Susannah and Benjamin and being very active in the church, in 1980 Caroline became the youngest JP in Trafford, joining the juvenile bench in 1982. As if that was not enough, in 1985 she did a one year law-degree equivalent and gained the ‘Common Professional Examination’ with a view to becoming a barrister.
When we moved to Spurgeon’s College, London, in 1986, she transferred to the Croydon Bench, and also joined the Inner Temple, ate her ‘dinners’, and in 1988 was called to the bar after success in her bar finals. She began to shuttle around courts all over London and the South East, and in 1990 gained ‘security of tenure’ at 5 Pump Court in the Temple.
Her professional world was turned upside down with my ‘accepting the call’ to Chelmsford. Having developed a criminal practice in London, she now had to develop a practice outside of London – this time in family law. After a brief stint in Chelmsford, she moved to chambers in Cambridge and soon found herself travelling all over East Anglia. In addition she founded the Chelmsford contact centre for separated families which was based in our church; she became a part-time president of mental health review tribunals (1995-2000) and an assistant deputy coroner for Essex (1996-2000).
All this was in preparation for her major role, when in autumn 2000 she was appointed to the full-time post of HM Coroner for Essex and Thurrock; and then in 2013 she absorbed Southend and became HM Senior Coroner for Essex. With over 7000 reported deaths and over 800 inquests a year, she has been the busiest coroner in the country, officer ensuring the facts were ‘fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated’. Time and again she has been pressurised or threatened with judicial review, but she has stood up to the bullying. Over the years she has transformed her jurisdiction: her courts have all been centralised and there are now two busy coroners courts in Chelmsford served by three full-time and three part-time coroners; there is a large team of coroners officers and administrative case workers working together in County Hall, all now managed by the local authority rather than by the police. She was responsible for setting up the first coroners court support service outside London. Nationally she created training programmes for new coroners; pioneered mentoring for coroners; and developed courses for medical examiners. She has belonged to a select cadre of disaster victim identification coroners and oversaw the identification of the victims of the Sharm-el-Sheikh and Sri Lanka bombings, and the 39 Vietnamese victims found dead in a lorry in Essex. She has been very active in the Coroners Society of England and Wales: she became President of the East Anglican Coroners Society and the South East England Coroners, but in 2018-2019 the national President.
She has worked extraordinarily hard, and apart from holidays has been on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As many have said, she thoroughly deserved her recent award of an OBE, an honour which is given for service which has had an impact both locally and nationally. I am proud of her!
So this is the context in which I wrote “tomorrow Caroline begins her next adventure”. Goodness knows what the future holds. She has already been elected a governor for a new trust with three large acute hospitals, but I am sure that this will be but one of her many new interests.