Longer-term members of St Mary’s will remember Penny Wilkinson. Penny sadly died in early September, following a long decline with Multiple Sclerosis. Her husband Richard gave this moving tribute at her memorial service and has kindly agreed to allow us to publish it in this month’s newsletter.
PENNY WILKINSON – 10th June 1945 – 9th September 2015
Penelope Ann Radcliffe was born in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire to Keppel and Elaine Radcliffe on the 10th June 1945. The family was close-knit and, despite going very much their separate ways, Penny remained close to her brother Robin and sister Jocelyn all her life, so it was a joy that they were present at her departing.
The family home, Fortrose in Stoke Poges, Bucks, had a large garden where they had a happy childhood. She enjoyed airgun practice, tree climbing, badminton and croquet in the garden and bell ringing was a hobby she pursued for as long as she was able. Encouraged by her mother Penny became a girl guide eventually achieving the status of a Queen’s guide, a distinction of which she was very proud.
She followed her sister from a little local school to the Holy Cross Convent before sailing through the Scholarship (11+) and being sent by the powers that be to Slough High School. There she rather lost interest in schooling although she earned 9 O Levels. She saw no point in taking A Levels so she was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland to learn French and recover from the effects of Slough High. She always said that all she learned at finishing school was how to shuffle cards – which she could do with considerable dexterity – and to smoke. She always had a hankering for Gauloises even to the end.
On her return home she attended the Windsor Secretarial College before working for a solicitor based in Slough. After a year she took a break and travelled to Sicily to work as an au pair. She then returned home to her parents who had moved to The Old Tavern in Compton Dundon, Dorset. There she helped them in the tea rooms.
In 1967 she worked briefly as a data processing clerk for Westland Aircraft before moving to London. There she worked as a secretary with Interfast Limited and then John Bremaeker & Partners for five years. In 1975 she joined Baring Brothers, and remained with them until she retired on medical grounds.
Most mornings she left for work on her ancient bicycle ‘Emmeline’ which she chained to the railings outside South Kensington tube station before going on to the City. Unpretentious and modest she always described herself as just a secretary. She worked for a number of the Bank’s directors and in her final years for John Dare whose area of expertise was Korea and the Far East. She enjoyed her time with Barings and within her work space she instituted the ‘atrocity corner’, where she kept the more tasteless corporate gifts. Her desk was untidy and her filing system unique to herself and we all remember her spidery handwriting written in green ink.
Penny was always very practical; she enjoyed DIY and was a bit of a risk taker. There are memorable photographs of her walking along the roof of the house to paint the chimney. She was very talented at crochet. Her skill is apparent when looking at her surviving pieces of work. A tapestry covered stool in her sitting room bears witness to her skill at ‘petit point’. The loss of the use of her hands as the MS progressed sadly meant that she lost this ability, which caused her great distress.
A little eccentric, she was a paid up member of the conservative party with views in the Thatcher mould regularly referring to people with left wing views as ‘pinkos’. She was no fan of modern art and was quite scathing of ‘bent angle iron’ sculpture which sometime litters our public spaces. In keeping with her character she drove a ‘Charleston’ burgundy and black Citroën 2CV christened ‘Francois’. She enjoyed a drink with a particular fondness for sherry and beer served in a pint glass ‘jug’, of course. Even in the last weeks of her life she regularly asked to be taken to the pub.
In 1986 she met Richard in a friend’s house and it is true to say that there was almost immediately a strong mutual attraction. Whilst not being vain she had a good dress sense (despite a liking for Snoopy sweat shirts, jolly coloured and patterned tights and leggings) with a fondness for Kurt Geiger shoes and was most elegant when the occasion demanded it. On the other hand there is a happy memory of her walking bare foot across the grass in Kensington Gardens wearing tatty shorts. She enjoyed wearing jewellery and had a particular love of earrings. She always admired John Donald’s jewellery insisting that he made her emerald and pearl engagement ring. Richard was taken a little by surprise by Penny’s minimalism. She was quite clear that she did not like pictures on her walls and the only glasses in her kitchen were two Jobs milk tumblers!!! During their first Christmas together he was taken aback when she produced her Christmas decorations – four cheap baubles – which she proceeded to hang from the corners of her square shaped Japanese lampshade.
Richard and Penny quickly became an item before he was posted to the Outer Hebrides for a year. During this time they spoke daily on the ’phone though care had to be taken not to ring when the ‘A’ Team was on the TV. She provided a great deal of emotional support to Richard who was going through a very difficult time. It was during this period with typical honesty she told him that she had manifested symptoms of MS but that they had gone into remission. Their son Jak was born in March 1988 and they were married in St Mary’s Church Battersea in June. She was dressed in blue with a jolly boater and the highest heels she had ever worn. Penny gloried in her pregnancy. Richard has the lovely memory of her walking through the archway of Haythorn House looking beautiful in a Laura Ashley frock and stroking her ‘bump’. Jak was much loved and the apple of her eye and all her computer passwords incorporated his name. While walking in Battersea Park with Jak and Amber she was very miffed when a stranger stopped to admire the dog and showed no interest in her new-born. It was always a great sadness that as her disease developed she was unable to play a more active part in his life.
She had a simple Christian faith and for many years was a regular member of the St Mary’s congregation. But her primary interest was being a bellringer. She was particularly proud of having rung at Canterbury Cathedral during one of the band’s outings. The bellringers were described by John Clarke as being on the rakish end of the church spectrum – very much in line with Penny’s character. She was for a time the band secretary, which she found to be really rewarding.
After a few years they went to Richard’s 25 year Dartmouth reunion dinner. She woke him in the morning to say that she had ‘heavy legs’. They returned to London immediately and on the Monday visited the doctor who confirmed that the disease had returned. She was put onto steroid pills straight away and referred to St Thomas’ hospital for a course of intravenous steroids. Thus began a ride on the MS rollercoaster which Penny described as being like a bouncing tennis ball which bounced up and down but never bounced back to its starting point. During this journey of physical decline there were a number of points where changes in her physical abilities occurred. Sometimes they were sudden such as when she started to use a stick and adopt a wheelchair or fitted with a catheter and other times one became aware only slowly that there was something else she was unable to do such as her ability to speak and use her computer and ‘possum’ ‘phone.
She approached her condition head on with typical courage and optimism. During the periods of remission she continued to work, driving into the City in her adapted car. Sadly there was a very sudden major change in her condition that left her in a wheel chair and she was forced to retire. She was given a very generous settlement by Barings and a jolly send-off where she was presented with a lovely watercolour of Putney reach and a large number of appreciative notes and letters. She was particularly taken with a copy of St Jude’s prayer given to her by Christopher Heath which gave her comfort and she carried with her until it fell apart.
She approached her enforced retirement with enthusiasm and acquired an electric mobility scooter on which she journeyed all over London, frequently with Amber under her legs and Jak riding on the back. On a trip to the Science Museum the scooter fell apart in Exhibition Road; the museum curators were most helpful and Jak was given a personal tour of the museum. On another occasion she drove into a door at Peter Jones breaking the glass. The ‘partners’ were most forgiving. She used the scooter so much that when it came to be serviced the engineer was taken aback as he had to change the tyres which had worn out. It was a sad day when she could no longer control the scooter.
One of her great joys was the pleasure she got from the family’s ‘maison secondaire’ in Dulphey which had been bought as a shell and had been modified where possible to deal with Penny’s handicap. In keeping with Penny’s style there are no pictures on the walls of the salon!!! The change of environment once or twice a year was a tonic and, despite some concerns, both she and Richard had a marvellous holiday this summer where most of the family visited for a celebratory weekend. She enjoyed the sun and was bouncing with life and participated in a rowdy game of buying rummy.
As the disease followed its inevitable course some of her friends found it difficult to accept her decline and vanished from our circle. There were however others who made every effort to remain in touch and regularly called. They know who they are and they are thanked.
During the last couple of years she suffered from a number of medical problems. She was fitted with a pacemaker and more recently she suffered from urinary infections which resulted in alarming mental confusion and her being admitted into hospital. Antibiotics were very effective. The confusion disappeared but she was effectively mute and unable to eat or take her medication by mouth. She was eventually fitted with a RIG to allow her to be fed through a tube. Fortunately with time a limited power of speech returned and she could eat soft foods such as fruit and yoghurt properly.
As she slowly lost the power of speech it was quite clear that she did not lose her ability to comprehend what was going on around her. This was exemplified when, during our small Friday evening soirées, she would sit quietly in her favoured position by the window following the conversation, and then, suddenly when she heard someone say something quite crass she would utter a single word ‘bollocks’ resulting in a break in the discussion.
Throughout the MS years she only broke down on a couple of occasions. Otherwise she accepted her fate with dignity and courage and was always ready with a smile and eager to go to the pub. What you saw in Penny is what you got, a very attractive, intelligent, practical, humorous, beer-drinking, Gauloise-smoking, loving person who enjoyed her family and life, and despite her handicap she certainly did not want to die. We will not see the like of her again.