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Major – Matron – Mayor: Service for Denise Capstick spoke of a woman cut down in her prime

Amid the exalted surrounding of Southwark Cathedral dignitaries, army and nursing colleagues and many more gathered to pay tribute to Matron, Mayor and Major Denise Capstick on what would have been just her 57th birthday.

The former Bermondsey Liberal Democrat councillor’s thanksgiving service at the centuries old Gothic Cathedral was the perfect setting to celebrate the life of a woman that held the office of Mayor of Southwark in 2002-2003, was a Major in the Army with a service record of 30 years and spent numerous more years as a nurse and matron in hospitals across the country including Guy’s and St Thomas’.

Just four months on from her sudden death from brain cancer the service included people from all political persuasions, but it was clearly a chance for her party colleagues to pay tribute to her. They painted a picture of a woman that was devoted to civic, military and community service. However, the tributes also emphasised a fun-loving woman cut down in her prime that enjoyed nothing more than having a glass of wine and belting out rather bad musical renditions of ‘Hey Big Spender’ and  ‘Like A Virgin’ on karaoke, either in fundraising events at Millwall or while on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Denise with her beloved dog Millie just three weeks after having an operation to remove the brain tumour

Fondly referred to as Denzi, her fellow former councillor and best friend Lorraine Zuleta, took to the high altar saying: “She was a bundle of energy and fun, generous, hardworking and courageous, a passionate woman. She served her country, her borough and her community with great enthusiasm and joy. I was fortunate enough to accompany her on many mayoral adventures including one with our twin town Langenhagen in Germany. How she loved to see the barmen in their lederhosen.”

And her friend from the Army Reserves Lt Col Joanne Cooke recounted their first meeting, joining up at the same time. “While most of us turned up in trainers and tracksuits I remember clearly Denise walking around the corner with her big massive blonde hair, false nails and a purple wheelie case. And at that point I thought, surely she is not going to make it. However, first impressions are not always correct, thirty years of commissioned service.”

Rising to the rank of Major in the Territorial Army, now the Army Reserve, serving her country in the first Gulf War in Saudi Arabia and later in Basra in Iraq and Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, Major Capstick carried out three tours of duty. Joining up in 1988 in a branch of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corp, she quickly earned the title of Captain a year later and was a Major by 1999. Three tours is unusually high for anyone in the Army Reserves as recruits have to often juggle full-time jobs, as Denise did.

On the front line attending to soldiers’ injuries she received the Gulf Medal as well as The Queen’s Gold and the The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medals.

Dedicating her life to public service she was elected as Liberal Democrat councillor to Bricklayers ward in 1998 and continued as ward councillor in Grange ward until 2014.

Winning the support of her town hall colleagues she was elected Mayor of Southwark in 2002 and became the Executive Member for Health and Social Care in 2006, where she is best remembered for the work she did to improve standards in the borough’s care homes. She put more budget into upgrading the quality of care and reducing the threshold for accessing it, when many councils were raising the threshold. Denise was a regular visitor to care homes and day centres.

The former leader of Southwark Council Nick Stanton, speaking of a time when the Liberal Democrats held the balance of power at the Town Hall, spoke at the service on Wednesday, recounting why he took the bold decision to appoint Denise as Mayor despite only being in her 30s. “It had been somewhat of a tradition that the mayor was a long service award,” he said. “But I had two reasons in my mind. One was that Denise had a smile that would light up a room. Denise was a consulate people person, she loved meeting people, she loved hearing people’s stories, she was really, really good and threw herself into it with gusto. She also, at chairing raucous council meetings, had a bark that could silence a parade ground.”

Referring to her work ethic he related how she would spend her Christmas Day with the former MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Sir Simon Hughes, at Guy’s Hospital for a dinner laid on by Bermondsey Care for the Elderly, off to various council sheltered housing units, then round to the police, fire and ambulance stations; ending his tribute with: “I hope she rests in peace, because by God, she earned it.”

Sir Simon, then took the altar to pay tribute to her, tears welled up in his eyes and he was visibly chocked when said to the assembled crowd: “It is almost impossible to think of a life without Denise. Never have I had a more unswerving, brave, caring, constructive, enthusiastic, loving and positive friend;” before reading out the constitution of the Liberal Democrats.

In the grounds of the cathedral, after the service, Simon helped light two birthday cakes, one for Denise and another for her sister Jann. The two amazingly celebrates the same birthday.  Jann thanked everyone and the following day they came again to Borough to scatter Denise’s ashes in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital.

A nurse by profession, Denise continued her work after leaving Bermondsey most recently as an Advanced Nurse Practitioner at the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust. She worked as a nurse, nursing sister and matron for many years at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals. Included among the many hymns, the regimental march of her former regiment and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the lofty cathedral played a recording of Geoff Morrow’s ‘Thank You NHS’. And the money collected in memory of Denise will now, so fittingly, go towards the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation, and will be used to support the work of the Cancer Centre at Guy’s Hospital.

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