Phoebe Winch 1931-2023

There may be some LDV readers with elephantine memories who can recall Phoebe Winch who died last week in Bristol aged 92. 

Described by Tony Greaves as “an outstanding community politician” she joined the Liberal Party in the early 1960s after attending a Jo Grimond meeting and served the inevitable apprenticeship as membership secretary in a (then) derelict Surrey seat. In 1966 she moved to Dorset and started campaigning on local issues – rural bus subsidies and the like – and then led a successful campaign to stop Sherborne being moved from Dorset into Somerset under the proposals for local government reform. This provided the platform for her election as the first Liberal ever to sit on Sherborne urban District Council in 1971. Two years later she was elected to the reformed Dorset Council County beating the sitting Tory by a majority of 2 to 1 in an election with an astonishing 69% turnout. This was the first time a Good Morning leaflet and a blue letter had been used in Dorset, and while now old hat, their impact was astonishing. 

On the renamed Sherborne Town Council, she ensured the introduction of a Public Question Time at Council meetings and stopped the extraordinary tradition of holding Planning Committee meetings in secret! She became Sherborne’s first female Mayor in 1976 – ending something like a billion years of male domination. The sky did not fall in. 

She lost her County seat in 1977 (partly the result of a poor national result but also because she supported comprehensive education in a grammar school-dominated town) and resigned her town Council seat two years later in protest at the decision of the Town Clerk not to accept Focus Grumble Sheets as expressions of public views. “I will not sit on a Council which only listens to the middle classes writing on Basildon Bond paper” she said as she left the Council Chamber.

In 1980 she moved to Bristol and was agent for Don Foster in his first successful council campaign but turned to being an “inky-fingered Liberal” printing, she estimated, about 4 million leaflets over a period of 20 years.

On the national scene, she was a member of the Standing committee of ALC then ALDC – and was the organisation’s first President. She would travel around the country with the likes of Roger Hayes and Andrew Stunell running training days for councillors and campaigners, wrote ALC booklets including an informal – and funny – history of the first ten years at the Birchcliffe Centre. She was a member of the Assembly Committee for many years, a Director of Hebden Royd Publications and stood as the anti-establishment candidate for Party President in 1983 –losing to Geoff Tordoff after “Grass Roots for Phoebe” stickers appeared all over Assembly. She was awarded an OBE in David Steel’s resignation honours list, a tribute to the work of ALC, she felt, rather than for anything she personally had done.

As she aged, her political activity reduced to clerical work addressing envelopes and the like, but she let her membership lapse in protest at the 2010 coalition. However, her Liberalism continued unabated; she cared passionately about the Brexit result and felt a strong sense of Schadenfreude as she watched the Tories struggling to square that particular circle. While supporting the party in local elections, she never regained a real commitment to the national party, feeling that the national party was no longer willing to take courageous, Liberal positions on a host of issues, pulling its punches with a leadership too driven by focus groups and polling samples, at the expense of their core Liberal beliefs and values.

Her funeral is at Canford Crematorium, Bristol  at 12.00 on Monday, 23rd October.

* Nick Winch is Phoebe Winch's son and a former Liberal Democrat member and activist.

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10 Comments

  • Phil Gilchrist 11th Oct '23 - 2:04pm

    Thank you for setting out mum’s considerable achievements over the years and her contribution to the party and local democracy. I think I met Nick in the early 1970s and hearing about Phoebe’s determination in when I was a student in York. The party owes so much to the foundations laid with the help of key people like Phoebe .

  • I never actually met your Mum, Nick, but I can identify with so much of your comments. You have every reason to be very proud of her. RIP.

  • Tony Baines 11th Oct '23 - 4:42pm

    Met Phoebe in Bristol as a student there in the late 1970s. She was a Liberal inspiration and soon had us going to by-elections and fighting all the seats on Bristol City Council, the first time that had been done. I remember her standing for party President with the “Grassroots for Phoebe” campaign which certainly ruffled a few feathers.
    Her energy and enthusiasm for the cause was unstinting and she inspired many many others along the way.
    Thoughts are with Nick and her family and other close friends at this time.

  • David Blake 12th Oct '23 - 9:34am
  • Phoebe was such a charismatic person, she had me involved with Dowrey Printing printing before I knew it and in its final years it moved to our cellar, printing election and Focus leaflets sometimes till the early hours of the morning. She was a lovely lady and a joy to know. RIP Phoebe you will be missed x

  • I provided Phoebe with Dowry’s first offset litho machine and trained her to use it. At this distance I can’t recall whether I stayed at her and her husband’s house or whether she picked it up so quickly that I didn’t need to. I’m glad she took to the task! Four million is a lot of leaflets.

  • Steve Comer 14th Oct '23 - 9:52pm

    I have many great memories of Phoebe from my time as an activist and in my first spell as a Liberal Councilor in the mid 1980s. She was always there to give the benefit of her advice from her years as a community politician, but was always positive and constructive, even if she was being critical. I remember many late nights in the basement of her house trying to stop the folding machine jamming!
    I only met her once in more recent years when we both attended a BBC Question Time broadcast from Bristol, and yes, hers one one of the (few) questions submitted that was put to the panel.

  • David Rogers 17th Oct '23 - 7:54am

    Like the comments already made, I too have fond memories of Phoebe – consequential on involvement with ALC in those days and many years of Assembly/Conference attendance. I believe I visited her house in Bristol once, although I cannot remember the circumstances. She was indeed a stalwart of community campaigning for decades, and an inspiration to those of us who came later. I was elected to East Sussex County Council in 1977 (firstly Brighton, later Newhaven), then to Brighton BC (1979) and Lewes DC (1991). Condolences to Nick and others who were close to her.

  • I was so sorry to hear this news. Like Judy and Steve, I met Phoebe in Bristol in the early 80s and benefited greatly from her encouragement, wise counsel and keen political insight – which made the frustrations of operating an offset litho machine worthwhile. She made a huge contribution to the revival of liberalism in Bristol and more widely, and was a genuinely good person and I feel privileged to have known her.

  • John Farrand-Rogers 12th Apr '24 - 2:26pm

    I was very sorry indeed to hear that Phoebe had died. This was by reading a piece in the ALDC newsletter, effectively a reprint of Nick’s piece here. As well as being an outstanding and inspirational Liberal and Lib Dem, she was also a marvellous person. I almost looked forward to having to go over to Dowry Square to pick up the latest leaflets…..

    It was nice to read here the tributes from old friends from my time in Bristol – glad to see they are all going strong – at least I hope they are….

    I am, though not perhaps so strong….. I volunteered to be a paper candidate last May, on the understanding that a “real” candidate would appear. I looked for one harder than anybody…. but the inevitable happened. Nobody turned up, And then I did too much campaigning……

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