Dr Frances Alexander (1935-2020)

This is a longer piece than we would usually publish, but we feel that it is important that Frances’ contribution to her community and wider society is marked.

Dr Frances Alexander, the former Lib Dem mayor of High Wycombe, died last week aged 84. Frances made things happen.

Things she cared passionately about: new organisations, new practical solutions in High Wycombe, groups for the advancement of women, ways to address environmental damage, events to bring her family together. She embodied the idea of ‘Think Global, Act Local’. Her achievements are wide and resounding, and she touched the lives of very many people.

Frances became politicised while listening to the 1967 Abortion Bill Parliamentary debate on the radio. As a midwife, Frances had seen firsthand the suffering caused by illegal abortions and, having heard no female voices during the debate, she realised the need for more women in Parliament.

She didn’t feel she could ask anyone else to do something she wasn’t prepared to do herself, so put herself forward as a Parliamentary Candidate. Later, she became a founder member of the 300 Group, working for roughly equal numbers of women in Parliament.

She fought her first 1974 general election as Liberal candidate for South East Essex, receiving 13,891 votes. Her second Parliamentary election was in October 1974 when she stood in Stepney and Poplar, a constituency which previously had no Liberal Party organisation, so everything needed setting up from scratch. And in 1979, she stood again in South East Essex.

Frances used to attend by-election campaigns where she learned campaigning techniques and in 1988, she put these into practice as the agent for the Liberal candidate in the council by-election campaign which saw the candidate Jean Gabbitas win the seat by 24 votes.

This was also Candy Piercy’s first campaign and she caught the elections bug from Frances.

After twenty years of fighting local elections, Frances was elected to Wycombe District Council for Green Hill and Totteridge Ward in 1991. She learned the ropes of being a councillor so that by 1995 when the Liberal Democrats and Labour took control of the council, she was prepared.

During the first year of the new administration Frances chaired the council’s senior committee, the Strategic Policy Board, helping to put the parties’ election commitments into practice. She served as Chairman of the Council in 1997/98 and Mayor of High Wycombe in 1998/99.

As Chairman of Council, Frances took ‘Local Agenda 21’ as her theme: sustainability in local development. Among other achievements, she helped Funges Meadow become designated as a nature reserve; opened the Central Aid Furniture Centre; and opened council-supported business start-up units in Cressex. Frances drove forward the pedestrianisation of Wycombe’s High Street.

As Mayor, she chose the theme of ‘Loving High Wycombe’. Gardens were created, trees planted and imaginative local projects carried out. A memorial to those who served during World War II was unveiled at Wycombe Air Park and the entrance to the airfield was greatly enhanced due to her efforts.

Frances organised a series of stone plaques which today continue to mark the ancient boundary of the town and she restarted the annual ritual of beating the town bounds. She visited every school in High Wycombe and gave them a High Wycombe flag, a flag of St George, a Union flag and the flag of the European Union. She told pupils about the history of the town and its mayoralty and notable local citizens.

It was Frances’ vision of peace in Europe and global understanding which was behind Women Welcome Women, which she founded in 1984, now known as ‘Women Welcome Women World Wide’ (5W). The organisation continues to grow, with thousands of members in over 70 countries and across six continents. Many of its members gained confidence by planning smaller then longer trips around the world staying in each others’ homes and organising gatherings. But for her last decade, Frances refused to travel by plane, as she felt she had flown more than her fair share.

By the late 1990s, Frances was becoming increasingly concerned with the damage human habitation is wreaking on the planet and brought together 19 local environmental groups to establish Wycombe Environment Centre on Holywell Mead, rebuilding a disused café by the Lido. This provided a space for people to see and debate the issues of global warming and environmentalism through many exhibitions organised by Frances and the team of volunteers.

Career advice for girls in the 1950s was rudimentary: Frances was told she could be a nurse, secretary or a teacher. She trained in nursing at the Royal Free Hospital and after a few years became a staff nurse at the Whitechapel Hospital. She moved into midwifery in Oxford where she mixed with the university students, meeting many notable figures, such as Arnold Wesker, Dr Richard Stone, Michael Kustow, Ken Loach and Dudley Moore. In the 1980s, while teaching at Wellesbourne School, she was in charge of careers advice for girls and tried to broaden the roles available to women.

She received recognition belatedly in 2013, when she was made an Honorary Burgess of High Wycombe for her many decades of dedication to the town and its people. Following her inauguration in 2014, Bucks New University bestowed an honorary doctorate to recognise the work she had done for the environment. And in 2015, Frances was voted a ‘Local Legend’ along with four other Wycombe ‘Legends’, resulting in an eco-friendly bus being named after her.

Her legacy is enormous and an inspiration for so many. Her concern for the future was a driving force, and the innumerable seeds she planted ensure that the ideals she represents will always live on. It is now down to us to follow her example by taking action for a better world.

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This entry was posted in Obituaries.

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