Brighton’s first female Mayor, Margaret Hardy MBE (1874-1954)

When recalling the name Margaret Hardy, a number of Brightonians will no doubt cast their minds back to the teachers, uniform and fellow students of their former school. ‘Maggie Aggie’ as some knew it operated as Margaret Hardy High School for Girls from the mid-1940s until 1989. In today’s Pioneering Women of Sussex blog, we shine a light on the lady behind the school’s name.

Portrait of Miss Margaret Jane Hardy, Mayor of Brighton 1933-1934

Margaret Jane Hardy was born in Brighton on 18 March 1874. Margaret’s father William passed away when she was 12, leaving her Welsh mother Leah widowed at the age of 54. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, mother and daughter lived together at 49 Preston Road. Margaret was a dedicated Baptist and a member of the Florence Road Baptist Church from its foundation in the mid-1890s. She was also a passionate educationist and taught children of the Sunday School, later becoming president of the local Sunday School Union. Fundraising events were held at her home to support the school and union’s activities.

When Britain declared war in August 1914, the Young Man’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) was quick to extend its work across to the Channel to support troops. Before the month had passed, the Y.M.C.A. Women’s Auxiliary was formed in a bid to scale up effort, the organisation previously being ‘for young men by young men’. Margaret signed up.

In areas of conflict, the Auxiliary looked out for the welfare of soldiers in huts behind the Front. ‘Ladies of the red triangle’ administered first aid and a welcome cup of coffee or cocoa. They provided for the intellectual, social, moral and spiritual needs of soldiers. The huts gave much needed respite and the means and a place to write letters home. For many, the huts were places of normality and a small but precious reminder of home.

Miniature Y.M.C.A. Hut Day fundraising flag, 1914-1918

The Y.M.C.A. became the largest organisation involved in welfare work with troops and other war workers. By 1918, over 40,000 women had served in the Auxiliary at home and abroad. There are accounts of women working 48 hours or more in a single shift, such was the dedication of the volunteers such as Margaret. All were unpaid and had to meet their own living expenses. Margaret’s mother passed away within a year’s service with the Y.M.C.A. in France. She gave a further three years to the organisation and was made an MBE for her ‘devoted service in France for the troops’.

Upon returning to Brighton, Margaret continued to immerse herself in the activities of the church and civic affairs. She identified with many women’s movements in the town and was keenly involved in the Baptist Women’s Movement. From 1922 she served a year as the President of the National Free Church Women’s Council. In the same year she became a magistrate. Margaret was also a member of the Steyning Board of Guardians which was responsible for the administration of the workhouse and children’s home in Shoreham until the late 1920s.

In 1928, the Borough of Brighton was extended to include the parishes of Rottingdean, Saltdean, Patcham, West Blatchington and parts of Falmer forming ‘Greater Brighton’. This created a new Hollingbury ward which Margaret was elected councillor, supported by the National Council of Women of Great Britain. She would be one of only seven women elected to the Brighton council in the interwar period.

In November 1933, Margaret was installed as the town’s first female Mayor. This was met with great caution from a female correspondent of the Brighton and Hove Herald, proclaiming, ‘We can prophesy an increasing degeneracy of life in England that will reach its lowest point with the zenith of feminist influence.’ They needn’t be worried.

Margaret’s term as mayor was a busy yet an enjoyable one which oversaw the town’s continued growth and modernisation. She is described as being almost inseparable from the office but also a very visible public servant. Her calendar was filled with a plethora of eminent occasions. These included the opening of new amenities such as the Astoria cinema, Sports Stadium Brighton swimming pool, Brighton Aquarium indoor bowling green and the switching on of a new generator at Brighton Power Station. Press photographs of these events appear to capture her jovial nature. She had a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh which might not be all too apparent from the men in some of these images.

It is said that Margaret probably enjoyed ruling over the Council Chamber and her male colleagues during her term as Mayor. She was noted for her ‘flair for keeping them in order with so little trouble’. In the Mayor’s Parlour at Brighton Town Hall, Margaret replaced the sherry that used to welcome guests with boxes of chocolates. These were reserved for the children of visitors whom Margaret would ask after, requesting parents to “give them my love – and a box of chocolates each!”.

The lack of alcohol in the office of Mayor Hardy might be down to her religious grounding as much as her professionalism. Margaret does seem to have been socially liberal in her outlook however and didn’t hold back in poking fun at protests against wearing swimwear in the town. Whilst very capable of rising to all manner of distinguished occasions, she maintained her support for children’s services and the vulnerable, evident in the praise received from her involvement with the Southover Street and Whitehawk canteens (soup kitchens).

Margaret Hardy School badge, c1970s

At the conclusion of her term as Mayor, Margaret was made an Alderman in respect of her eminent service to public life. Further honorary appointments were bestowed upon her including President d’Honneur of the Brighton and Hove French Circle of which she was a ‘formidable member’, a position she served from 1935 to 1952. Fittingly her name would be perpetuated, seemingly, in the Margaret Hardy County Secondary School for Girls in October 1945. The name ceased when the school was amalgamated with the all boys school Patcham Fawcett in 1989 and became Patcham High School.

Illness had prevented Margaret from taking an active part in public affairs in her later years which might have been rather frustrating after a life devoted to the service of others. On 10 December 1954, Margaret Jane Hardy passed away at the age of 80, leaving ‘a very large number of townsfolk in all walks of life with a real sense of loss of a very real and intimate kind’. Even in death, Margaret continued to look out for the vulnerable, leaving a gift in her will to establish the Margaret Hardy Fund to prevent and relieve poverty amongst the Florence Road Baptist Church congregation.

Margaret paved the way as the first woman to attain what was once the most important role in local civic office, ‘the first citizen of Brighton’. Yet it took almost two decades for Brighton to elect its second female Mayor, Dorothy Stringer OBE (1894-1977). An equally committed public servant, Dorothy’s career followed a similar path and recognition of her service came in 1955 when a new secondary school was named after her. An OBE and Freedom of the Borough were to follow and Dorothy Stringer High School continues to carry her name. Although ‘Maggie Aggie’ is no longer, it is hoped that Margaret’s life will continue to be remembered.

Since 1986, a policy of female and male mayors in alternate years has existed. More information about the history and role of the Mayor of Brighton & Hove can be found here.

Written by Dan Robertson, Curator of Local History & Archaeology

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