Dr Caroline Withall

Student spotlight details

Caroline studied history at university, but later trained as a litigator, eventually becoming Director of Legal for a regulatory body. But the law didn't hold her interest as much as her first love - history. She returned to education on our MSc in English Local History.

'Although enjoying a successful career, I did not really enjoy law as an occupation and was interested in changing to an academic career. However, to leave a good job was a hard step, therefore starting the part time MSc course in 2007 was an excellent way to test the water and see if it would be something I would want to pursue in the long term. I chose local history because it offered a chance to really explore different communities and places, and also to compare and contrast with the national picture and use the locality as a testbed for theories and premises.

'The course quickly reignited my interest in studying, leading me to conclude a career change to academia was both possible and desirable. I decided to pursue a DPhil, extending the research I had already done for my MSc dissertation; I had been introduced to the subject area through the Advanced paper I took in my first year of the course. With the support and encouragement of the tutor I applied for a full time DPhil Economic & Social History with the History faculty at Oxford, and was lucky enough to be awarded full ESRC funding.

'The DPhil focused on child labour in the industrial revolution. This may seem a well-worn path as everybody is familiar with the image of Victorian children toiling in mines and mills. However, much less is known about children who worked in port towns, and my research shone the spotlight in this new direction. This led to developing a particular interest in boys who were apprenticed to the sea; in particular, from my archival work I realized there was a rich treasure of trove of documents relating to this subject that were untouched.

'This discovery lead to the research career I have been fortunate enough to pursue since completing the DPhil in 2015. I developed a proposal to utilize the untapped records of the Marine Society, held at the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Archive. I was delighted to be awarded the museum’s Caird Senior Research Fellowship, which I held from 2016. I am currently a British Library Research Affiliate, consolidating my research of the past few years and writing a book about these forgotten boys who were sent to sea on merchant ships in the 18th and 19th centuries.

'I think any preconception that a part-time course may somehow be easier was quickly dispelled. There is no 'dumbing down' and you have to be organized and disciplined. But the rewards for the hard work pay off. With such a diverse age range in our group, I was not sure initially how active the seminars would be, but in fact the wide cross section of people contributed to a warm and supportive environment with lively debate flourishing.

'To anyone considering returning to study I'd say 'take the plunge'. Although hard work it is extremely rewarding to pursue an interest you have a passion for, with supportive tutors who will encourage you to explore your own personal interests further.'

Learn more:


BBC Radio Oxford

On Tuesday, 15th January 2019, four of our students, including Caroline, spoke to BBC Radio Oxford's David Prever on the station's Breakfast Programme about their experience of Continuing Education. The interview coincided with the formation of a new Commission dedicated to the furtherance of adult education, which met for the first time at Balliol College the previous week. 

Joing Caroline: Sue Brearley, Shamim Chowdhury, Caroline Withall and Richard Broadbridge, along with our Director, Professor Jonathan Michie.