Francesca Inskipp – Intrepid Explorer of Life.

I had known Francesca for many years before more recently moving into the flat above her in Market Terrace. I would drop in on her most days to say hello.  If it was anywhere around 5pm she’d say, with a twinkle in her eyes, “Would you like a drink?” If I said yes, which I invariably did, out would come gin and tonic for her and white wine for me. It was known as “gin-o’clock.”

After she turned 100 last year, I began to think that Francesca was quite possibly the oldest living person to have been born and brought up in St Leonards-on-Sea and I asked if I could formally record her memories. She agreed and we made a good start, but it wasn’t easy to find the right moment to continue. Then on the 24th July, aged 100 years and 8 months, Francesca died peacefully in her sleep.

During our many chats she shared fragments of her childhood growing up in St Leonards during the 1920s and 30s:  roller-skating, tea dances and afternoon theatre on the long-demolished St.Leonard’s Pier; Greek dance classes at the Queen’s Hotel wearing the special silk dress made by her mother. There were walks to Crowhurst with one or other of her many boyfriends. “We started young in those days” she said with her customary twinkle.

Francesca Inskipp was born Frances Mary Dupree in St Leonards-on-Sea, November 26th 1920. Her mother was sent down from London, as single mothers often were in those days, to give birth to her baby. Her father was a Malaysian Prince who met her mother whilst studying in London. Had the child been a boy they would have taken him back to Malaysia, but as a girl she was unacknowledged and remained with her mother. She never met her father and was brought up by her singularly determined mother.

“My mother ran her own Guest House on Seaside Road, where we lived. Later she sold up and bought a house in Kenilworth Road which she turned into flats. There was a flat in the top and a ground floor flat, a garden flat, which were let out and we lived in the middle. She was amazing really I think because she did all her own decorating. I left school in 1935 when I was 15. I was doing well there, but I left because my mother couldn’t afford to keep me. She had been a shorthand typist in London and was very keen on me doing the same thing. I did a course with a woman in Warrior Square and I could take dictation quite fast. I went to work at a solicitor’s office in Silverhill.”

Over the years Frances became known as Francesca, or Cesca. I can’t help thinking that Francesca’s heritage, her mother’s single-mindedness, contributed towards her own strength, determination and fearlessness.  As a successful woman, Francesca was many things to many people: from husband John, who died in 2007, to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; to the army of friends, students, clients and carers – all who loved and respected her and played their part in the changing seasons of her life.

There is no room to write about all that Francesca achieved in her long life. Publicly she will be remembered for her pioneering work in the field of Counselling; for the part she played in bringing this more immediate talking therapy to England in the late 1960s. As a teacher in schools she recognised its value as a more succinct tool in times of crisis than other lengthier approaches. She went on to introduce counselling skills into many different fields, working closely with her two beloved friends and colleagues, Hazel Johns and Brigid Proctor.

Privately Francesca and John loved to travel and explore different cultures. She was happy camping and trekking, tackling mountains and much more; travelling and staying in their VW camper van. She adored dancing – something she took to as a small girl and explored in adult life in many diverse forms.

“During the war there was dancing in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. They took the chairs out and turned it into a dance floor with an all-girl band playing on the stage. We would dodge bombs to get there, so much fun we had!”

Francesca shared a love of birds with son Tim. He’d drive down for the weekend and take her out to Dungeness or Rye Harbour to bird-watch. She loved listening to the chatter of sparrows as they grubbed around for insects on the Terrace. She’d often be found sitting outside with a book in hand, and hat, if it was too sunny. During the first Lockdown I would share my delight in the walks I was taking through the newly discovered (to me) footpaths in Upper St Leonards. She knew the paths well and remembered the variety of plants, trees and flowers that grew there and so every week in the absence of cut flowers, I would bring back a modest selection of whatever was in season to brighten her living room. Her favourite was the bluebell and in late March, impatient for sight of them, she’d ask, “Is it time yet?”

Francesca above all was a people person. She gathered them up like one might gather stones and shells from a beach, finding each one unique and fascinating. She embodied the myriad experiences that go along with a life spanning a century: a life lived to the full. She was a nature lover, sea swimmer, climber, trekker, abroad and at home; she camped with John, returning to Ireland many times to stay on their much loved Omey Island.

Francesca was always reading. Apart from the layers of the daily Guardian spread over the table, she had a pile of books on the go: novels, philosophy; poetry in particular – a love she shared with John; biography; books on spirituality and angels. She wasn’t religious but she had the enquiring mind of a mystic, always looking for the meaning of it all.

A few years ago I had a friend staying with me who was a former Trappist monk and hospice chaplain. Francesca asked if she could meet him. Without much ado she said, “I’d like to know how I can prepare myself to die well,” He looked at her for a few moments and said, “I think you already know how to do that.”

Francesca loved the company of women. Every year on her birthday she would have a “girls only” celebration and we would drink prosecco and toast her with slices of rather rich fruit cake, baked, iced and decorated by a friend. On her 100th birthday, determined to celebrate it, we all stood out on the Terrace on a chilly, dry November day in the midst of Lockdown and toasted Francesca as she sat with her subjects around her, the card from the Queen in one hand, a glass of prosecco in the other. She made it. Not just made it. She made it special. All of it.