Chichester champion gets the city's highest honour, following in the footsteps of astronaut Tim Peake

Tony French MBE has received the highest honour Chichester can bestow on an individual - the Freedom of the City - in recognition of his outstanding service to the community over more than 40 years.

Saturday, 13th July 2019, 3:58 pm
Updated Saturday, 13th July 2019, 4:58 pm
Tony French MBE pictured at the Council House in North Street following the presentation of the Freedom Scroll.
Tony French MBE pictured at the Council House in North Street following the presentation of the Freedom Scroll.

Following in the footsteps of astronaut Tim Peake last year, the Freedom Scroll was presented by Mayor Richard Plowman to Anthony John French at a packed ceremony at the Assembly Room in North Street today (Saturday July 13).

It recognised his many years of service as a councillor and his eminent service to the wider community in Chichester - and is an honour given to very few individuals.

Several generations of his family proudly attended alongside civic and community dignitaries and a Deputy Lieutenant representing the Lord Lieutenant of West Sussex and in consequence the Crown.

Tony French MBE pictured at the Council House in North Street following the presentation of the Freedom Scroll.

Councillor Anne Scicluna outlined the many reasons why Chichester City Council had resolved that Tony should be admitted as an Honourary Freeman of the City of Chichester.

Quite apart from his extensive work as a city and district councillor and 40 years of council public service, she said 'Tony has found the time and energy to do many other things for our city and its people.'

"In 1965 he helped to found Chichester Round Table; he helped to found Chichester Lawn Tennis and Squash Club in the early 1960s. He saw it expand from just two squash courts to the extended building and 1,800 members, making it a major club of which he is still a trustee.

"Tony was one of those determined local people who helped to save the old Central Boys' School in New Park Road from being demolished, and he helped to set up the New Park Community Centre in that building.

"He also served on the management committee of the Fernleigh, he has been a fundraiser for the Planetarium, he has been a volunteer and skipper for the Chichester Canal Trust, and is now their vice-president since 2018.

"He has been a great enthusiast for Chichester twinnings ... and since 1983 Tony has been a member of the Corporation of St Pancras, better known as the Wheelbarrow Club, raising a great deal of money for local charities and supporting the club's almshouses."

Tony responded by thanking everyone for attending this 'special day in my life' although he observed wryly that 'sadly one of the benefits …driving sheep through the precinct is now disputed – shame it isn’t a car park freedom anywhere in this unique city!'

"To be serious, I am most grateful and do thank you, Anne, for your kind and generous speech – we have both enjoyed over 40 years of service on the city council."

He made it clear in his public comments that he felt that Anne too deserved a similar honour.

"I look back on many events and special occasions in this, the Assembly Room where I have attended over 40 Mayor makings, including three for Anne herself, two of my own and one each for my son Martin and my ex-wife Eva who both were long serving East Ward councillors on both city and district councils.

"Not only that, but several public meetings and over 30 Award Ceremonies. I held fundraising events with my Mayoresses; a Valentine’s Ball in 1986 where we raised money for the then embryonic St Wilfrid’s Hospice and a Dinner in 2012 in conjunction with the firm Cook which helped my charity Newbuild at the New Park Centre where we raised over £50,000 in the mayoral year.

"I should not forget to mention the major works done here at the beginning of this century, all detailed in Barrie Fletcher’s short booklet, Chichester Council House, which I commend to you.

"The new Assembly Room, without a stage was formally opened by the 10th Duke of Richmond in 2002 who was awarded his own Freedom some six years later and where I was privileged to give the citation. And I also, greet and welcome another recent Freedom holder, the Emeritus Dean, Nicholas Frayling, who I am delighted to see in the audience today, whose award was given in 2013 As indicated, Freedoms are given sparingly and in my 40 years only nine have been given - and four of those to military and civic units.

"Nor can I forget the family events that have taken place here ... the memorable day when my eldest grandson, Ben, married Sian in the Council Chamber and whose wedding breakfast that evening included a loud set by Willie Austen’s band and the more solemn day when Eva’s funeral took place here, a first for the Assembly Room - followed some years later for Anne’s mother during my second Mayoralty. Eva’s Wake was probably the last time so many of my family gathered here, notwithstanding my 75th and 80th birthday bashes when many other personal guests attended.

"And I shall forever remember the 27th March 1986 when 92 of us luncheoned with Her Majesty the Queen and HRH Prince Philip, after her Maundy Service at the Cathedral. As Mayor I sat between them. Earlier this year, I was sitting facing where I sat that day watching a performance of the opera, Push, commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day performed by a reduced cast and orchestra prior to a performance for MPs in the Speaker’s Apartment at the House of Commons; my congratulations to councillors Clare Apel and Martyn Bell for their initiatives in organising and running those events.

"It is a great pleasure to welcome four generations of my family here today son Martin,an ex Mayor and Mayoress Karen, their children Ben, Jemma and David and my great grandchildren Toby and Amy, as well as my extended family and both my sisters!

"I should really start by thanking my parents who both died some years ago for my genes and early education. They taught me to be independent and helpful; my sisters Jean and Diana taught me to understand women! I was brought up in modest but pleasant surroundings. The war interrupted my education and at the age of eight, having fled Bristol to Nailsea when the blitz was at its height, I walked to the station, caught a train and two buses to attend a four hour school day!

"At ten, I started boarding at Reading School and proved I was not academically-minded, but I played cricket, rugby, won my weight at boxing twice, played tennis and excelled at athletics including distance running.

"I was fortunate when called to do my National Service in July 1950 to be selected and at eighteen commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to Northern Ireland but it did make me a little too serious at a young age. After two years’ service, which I much enjoyed and learnt from I returned to Bristol and worked at Wills and then went for a marketing training with a Unilever subsidiary in London for three and a half years.

"I entered Oxford by the backdoor, getting after a two year course an Oxford Diploma in Economics and Political Sciences and at the second attempt, I was awarded one of only 25 mature student scholarships and chose St John’s College, Oxford to read PPE.

"I had met Eva at Ruskin College and came to Chichester almost exactly 59 years ago, with two children one aged three and one only four months old! Two years in Whyke Lane were followed by nine years in West Wittering. I worked at Shippams for ten years as Marketing Executive, Sales Promotion Manager and Marketing Manager. From then on I really never worked full time so I could carry out my council duties. I was first elected in June 1973 for the new Chichester District Council in East Ward and again from 1979-2015. You’ve already heard about my 40 years on the city council.

"I still have my marbles and whilst I certainly accept that I’m slower than in the past, I have abiding memories in this Assembly Room and the Council House where I have spent more time than at - the New Park Centre,the Fernleigh Centre and the Swanfield Centre. Maybe a bit less than at the Lawn Tennis & Squash - now Chichester Racquets and Fitness - Club and East Pallant House, where I became the longest serving member - even as a Liberal Democrat! - and I believe that my most valuable contribution to the Chichester community was performed during my four years as Chairman of the District Council from 1995-1999, where liberal values of tolerance and service to the community were firmly laid, accepted and, I believe, have continued largely in the subsequent administrations.

"But of course I could not have done any of this but for the help given by family and colleagues. You know who you are and I salute and thank you all, publicly. I thank longtime friends from Shippam days ,and the Twinning and Friendship clubs where Eva, Rachael and I have been active for over 50 years. I should like to pay special tribute to Rachael and Jo and to all who have helped arrange this ceremony today and the triumvirate who have brilliantly served this city for twenty years or more – Rodney Duggua, Marianne Hoskins and Helen Monckton who has moved on to another role.

"I urge this new, younger and more diverse council to take the lead, together with a refreshed Chichester District Council and face up to the challenges ahead, a possible Brexit, the Southern Gateway and A27, our infrastructure and new housing estates ,the road system and air and water pollution. And to continue the links already established with the Chichester Community Development Trust and include it with a central role in the proposed Chichester Neighbourhood Plan.

"I firmly believe the future can be rewarding and finally I thank you, city councillors, for giving me the highest award you can bestow and holding it in this historic Assembly Room, I am most grateful … and good luck in all your endeavours!"

According to the Chichester City Council website, the historic origins of freemen or burgesses can be traced back many centuries to the former municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth century. At that time, freemen enjoyed considerable privileges, including the ability to elect officers of the corporation and its Parliamentary representatives.

"For the municipal boroughs to appoint men of national importance, was not merely an act of recognition, as these individuals could possibly secure economic or political benefit of the borough.

"However, major changes to the role and influence of freemen were swept away by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 that led, among other things, to the creation of an elected local government, as we know it today.

"Legislation enables councils to admit as Honorary Freemen and Honorary Freewomen, ‘persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the city council, rendered eminent services to the City’.

"Associated with Freedom of the City is ‘Freedom of Entry’ and this has enabled the city council to grant such an honour on a number of regiments and RAF Tangmere who have rendered conspicuous service to, and are closely associated with, the city. This particular ‘Freedom’ enables the service units to march through the streets with ‘bayonets fixed, drums beating and Colours flying’."

A list of Honorary Freemen of the City admitted since 1901 is on display on a board in the Assembly Room Ante Room at the Council House.

In recent years, Chichester City Council conferred Honorary Freeman status upon the men and women of the West Sussex Fire Brigade (2000), 47th Regiment Royal Artillery (2008), the Duke of Richmond and Gordon (2008), The Very Reverend Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester (2013) and Tim Peake CMG (2018).