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News > Old Girl of the Year Award > Caroline Underwood receives OBE from the Queen

Caroline Underwood receives OBE from the Queen

Nominated by Emma Shorten (OG 1975-1979), Caroline is a fundraising expert who has worked at the highest levels of business, charity and government.
Old Girl of the Year 2018 winner - Caroline Underwood OBE (© PA Photos)
Old Girl of the Year 2018 winner - Caroline Underwood OBE (© PA Photos)

On my birthday in December 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited to Windsor Castle to receive an OBE from Her Majesty The Queen. As we drove up the Long Walk towards the Castle on a sparkling cold day, my 15 year old son who, until then, had been somewhat cynical having had to put on a formal suit, said ‘Gosh Mum this is actually quite cool’. And it was.

Looking back at my days at Prior’s Field, I had no idea that one day I would be honoured in this way. I realise how cloistered we were from the outside world with no social media, few exeats (only two a term) and a phone call home once a week.

So it’s not surprising that most of us left school with no inkling of what we wanted to achieve in the outside world, let alone who we wanted to become. I only became Head Girl because there were so few of us in the Sixth Form. I only went to university because Mr Groves, who taught Geography and Music, encouraged me to. I only did English because I was quite good at it, thanks to Miss Sumpster making us read the classics, and I only did philosophy because someone said that it would be useful context for English.

What I do have are happy memories of midnight feasts (we tried to make jelly in the washbasin, which was vile) and Sunday afternoons watching films in the gym (a highlight of Sundays was having crisps with a mini separate sachet of salt); of cuddling Matron’s over-indulged dachshunds in sewing club and of clandestine meetings with Charterhouse boys. But there are some miserable memories too; of not being allowed to have showers and only being allowed to wash our hair once a week over the basin (why?); of homesick girls drooling over glossy pictures in the recipe books in the library; of dreary teaching consisting of interminable lessons of dictation and 11-year-olds humiliated by sixth form girls who made us run around the tennis courts at midnight as a punishment for talking after lights out!

And yet, somehow, during my seven years at school the influence of the formidable women that formed PF must have been absorbed by my DNA. I was third generation at PF - my grandmother Sylvia Cogswell having become an prominent orthoptist at a time when few women were working in medical research, and authoring Lyle and Jackson’s Practical Orthoptics in the Treatment of Squint; my mother, Susan Block, being one of the bravest women I know.

I won an academic scholarship to PF for the princely sum of £100 per year, but it meant that at ten I was the youngest girl in the school for a year; this in turn, meant that I represented the school at Julian Huxley’s memorial service at which Yehudi Menuhin played, something I will never forget.

I left PF with an inherent determination to make a difference in the world somehow or other. I knew no one who worked in charity or international development, I knew little about poverty, hunger and war.

But I did know about art and the profound impact it can have on people’s lives. So, post University of Bristol, my first job was the most junior post at the Royal Academy of Arts, where I learned from artists I met in corridors and galleries, Royal Academicians like Eduardo Paolozzi (you see his work every time you go through Tottenham Court Road tube station); and Sir Roger de Grey: Sir Hugh Casson was President of the RA and at the annual staff party (for which, having no money and nothing suitable to wear, I had wrapped reams of scarlet crepe paper into a dress and a turban) Sir Hugh said to me - the most junior member of staff - ‘I am sure you will go far if you are brave enough to wear that!’ I never imagined I would.

Then I went to Sydney. My first year, to make ends meet, I did four jobs, as varied as selling plastic dinosaurs in the Australian Museum on Sundays, to cocktail waitressing at night - but my main interest was as a volunteer in the John Power University collection. After seven years of journeying with the collection, eventually becoming Director of Marketing and Fundraising, it evolved into the new Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay, a major new player on the arts scene.

A return to London in the early 1990s and a series of roles in the arts followed. I set up the Philanthropy Company in 2002 - the same year as my gorgeous twins were born - and since then I have worked with scores of fantastic organisations from The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust to BAFTA to the University of Oxford to the South Bank Centre. For three years I had the privilege of working as a Director of Save the Children and now I work with arts organisations, schools, universities and international charities. I am also very happy to be a Trustee of UNICEF UK and a Governor of the Dragon School in Oxford.

So you see, although I did not know it at the time, I am sure that, somehow, the spirit of the pioneering women who formed Prior’s Field, their inspiration and, yes, the boredom of my time at school, managed to percolate and influence my career; and this in turn led to the great honour of being recognised with an OBE. Little could I have imagined during those long winter afternoons sitting on radiators in the covered way…

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