Lives Remembered: Frances MacKeith, peace campaigner


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The Independent Online

Frances MacKeith died peacefully at home in Winchester on 14 December 2011 aged 97. Her long life encompassed over half acentury of campaigning for peace. She had the gift of friendship with all age groups. She was brilliantly well-read, a doyenne of crosswords, an enthusiastic player of the violin and viola, a great walker and naturalist, the creator of a beautiful wild meadow, the befriender of many a refugee and traveller from overseas. She was entirely without vanity and had no malice in her heart. In personal matters she might follow the Quaker guideline "In case of emergency remain silent", but in public matters she was a fearless, determined and outspoken advocate for peace and internationalism.

Frances Millais Culpin ("Jo" to family and old friends) was born in Young, New South Wales on 28 March 1914. Her medical parents had married while working in Shanghai and were enjoying an extended year-long honeymoon visiting Australia. This link with Australia was to remain strong and she spent four years there during the Second World War when sent there to be safe from the London bombing as the young mother of two children.

She travelled extensively in Europe with her parents and in 1931 had attended a Munich rally held for Hitler at which she and her mother appeared to be the only non-Nazis present. She was proud of her degree in German at University College, London, graduating in 1936, and went to Germany as part of her education, spending time at Tübingen and Heidelberg Universities. Close friendships there and her love of the German language and literature remained with her throughout her life.

Through her father Millais Culpin, a distinguished psychologist and early psychotherapist, Jo met Stephen MacKeith, a young psychiatrist, and they married in 1938. They enjoyed a rare and enduring marriage until Stephen's death in 1995. Together they raised six children. Although her life was for many years taken up with her family, and teaching "A" level German at a girls' school in Croydon, her political activism burgeoned with the Aldermaston March in the 1950s and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square in the '60s, in both of which she played a full part and encouraged her children to do the same.

Jo joined the Quakers in Winchester, where the local Friends called her "The Peace Woman", regarding her with both respect and apprehension because of her proactive stance. As an active member of Winchester Peace Group in the 1980s, she supported Greenham women, taking food and firewood chopped by Stephen.

In her eighties, Jo took Nonviolent direct action against Trident, three times at Faslane. In court she drew respect from police and magistrates, one of whom acknowledged her "transparent honesty" when she defended herself with her considerable intellect, integrity and lack of posturing.

Well into her eighties she travelled considerable distances to take part in demonstrations against nuclear and conventional weapons, and at Aldermaston a 90th birthday party was thrown for her.

She taught prisoners at Winchester Prison and, unfazed by their swearing, was amused to overhear them deciding that she should have the unchipped mug. When imprisoned herself for an afternoon for demonstrating against the Iraq War, Frances spent the next few hours explaining Quakerism to her cell-mate, a young shoplifter, and putting up Quaker stickers ("Make Peace, not War"). Strengthened by her intellect and quiet authority, and a profound sense of humanity, she was an inspiration to many, not least her own family.

Alice Tomic

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