Dr Frances Alexander, former Mayor of High Wycombe, died on 7th September 2020 aged 84. Frances made things happen that she cared passionately about. 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.
Frances 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, campaigning towards 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. She stood again in South East Essex in 1979.
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 which saw the candidate Jean Gabbitas win the seat by 24 votes. This was also Candy Piercy’s first campaign, and she caught the election bug from Frances and went on to become the top Lib Dem trainer of agents and campaigners.
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 in Desborough Road; 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.
In 1969, Frances nursed her father while he was dying from lung damage sustained when gassed at Passchendaele in 1917. She knew the terrible effects of war in Europe and was committed to the European Project and international understanding. Even recently, she was part of the local Remainers’ Group ‘Pulse of Europe’, campaigning with them from her mobility scooter in Wycombe’s public spaces.
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 in confidence by planning smaller then longer trips around the world staying in each others’ homes & organising gatherings. However for her last decade, Frances refused to fly, as she felt she had done 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 in the Rye 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.
In 1963, she married Eric Alexander, then a chemistry teacher who went on to become a technical and creative author. As a thinker and visionary, Eric was a supportive collaborator for Frances, and their discussions fuelled her actions.
After getting married, the couple moved to Newcastle where Frances started a private nursing agency. She would find easy jobs for women returning to work after childbirth, and build their confidence by increasing the complexity of the work. However, she almost died after contracting meningitis in 1968. She battled to recovery, enduring seven lumbar punctures, and went on to bring up her two infant children, Louise and Philip. She sold the Northern Nursing Service and used the profit to buy a family home in High Wycombe in 1969.
Career advice for girls in the 1950s was rudimentary: Frances was told she could be a nurse, secretary or a teacher. She chose nursing and trained at the London Hospital in Whitechapel and went onto become a staff nurse. She moved into midwifery in Oxford where mixed with the students, meeting many notable figures such as Arnold Wesker, Dr Richard Stone, Michael Kustow, Ken Loach and Dudley Moore. In the 80s while teaching at Wellesbourne School, she was in charge of careers advice for girls and making them aware of broader roles available to women.
She was a governor at King’s Wood First School for 11 years, and chair for 9. Together with the Head Teacher, she developed ‘Parents As First Teachers’ (PAFT) to help new parents with their children. As Chairman of Policy and Resources, Frances commissioned a survey of deprivation, undertaken by Professor Stenson, in 1995. He recognised PAFT as a means of reversing the deprivation cycle, and it has become established in Bucks and in many areas of England.
Frances loved history and over many decades investigated and gave talks on the history of High Wycombe. She wrote a book for children on the history of the town: ‘High Wycombe, Then and Now’.
She received recognition belatedly when in 2013, she was made an Honorary Burgess of the Town 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.
To celebrate her 80th birthday, she organised an environmental conference – ‘Can Women Cool It?’, based in High Wycombe but with delegates from around the globe, some skyping in. The conference focussed on the urgency of action for climate change, with presentations from female scientists showing that once carbon is in the atmosphere, it takes many centuries to clear.
Her last year was spent living in Hughenden Gardens Village, where, from her balcony, she enjoyed a view of the whole town whilst tending six young fruit trees, watching the red kites soar by, and welcoming visits from family and friends.
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.
Dr Frances Winifred Alexander (née Pelling). Born 6th November 1935, died 7th September 2020. Married to Eric Alexander. 2 Children. 4 Grandchildren.