The town of Battle in East Sussex has already been linked with two women in this series of pioneering Sussex women, social reformer and feminist, Barbara Bodichon, and innovative cook and cookery book writer, Eliza Acton. As a town of just over 6,000 people, it has really punched above its weight where world-changing women are concerned.
No surprise, then, that it’s linked to today’s woman, Sister Mary Joy Langdon, who has the renown of being Britain’s first female retained professional fire-fighter before going on to create an innovative charity, introducing inner-city children and young people with disabilities to horse riding and equine therapy.
Sister Mary Joy grew up in Battle in the 1950s and went to the Charters Towers School in nearby Bexhill. Her path crossed with that of the East Sussex Fire Brigade in the long, dry summer of 1976, which has gone down in record as one of the most severe droughts since records began. With the risk of fires at an all time high, fire brigades up and down the country put out a call for new recruits and Sister Mary Joy volunteered to join her local fire station at Battle. She told the Argus newspaper in August 2016 that ‘everyone was a bit surprised’ when she simply went into the station and offered her services. Although she was accepted as a ‘detained’ fire-fighter, available on an on-call rather than a full-time basis, the brigade made no allowances for her because she was a woman and Sister Mary Joy told the Argus she was treated like ‘one of the lads’. She had to maintain the same fitness as men and pass the same tests, including carrying an 11 stone man for 100 yards. Her work covered not only fire fighting but also attending road traffic ambulances, drink-drive situations, gas leaks and animal rescue.
Women fighting fires wasn’t a first. During both World Wars women volunteered to help fire brigades and were trained in fire fighting, but Sister Mary Joy’s formal appointment as a professional fire fighter was the first in peacetime, and the story made national news. The press, anxious for a positive story from the doom and gloom of the drought, widely covered her story, with TV cameras even turning up to the fire brigade’s training centre in Maresfield to greet Sister Mary as she arrived to train.
Sister Mary Joy remained with the brigade from August 1976 until 1983. In 1978 it was announced that female fire fighters would be accepted into the fire service nationally.
The year after she left, Sister Mary Joy joined the Roman Catholic congregation of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. She wasn’t able to leave her fire fighting past completely behind her however. One day in the mid 1980s when she was returning from a family visit in Battle to Wolverhampton where she was then based, she saw a car flip over on the Tonbridge Bypass and was able to help rescue the driver by promptly pulling him free moments before the fuel tank exploded, engulfing the car in flames. Sister Mary Joy told The Argus ‘I wasn’t even in the fire service but it was only because I had the previous experience that I could help.’
In 1989 Sister Mary Joy, a keen rider, founded the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre in London. This charity, formed when she acquired three abandoned Shetland ponies and a piece of scrubland in the shadow of the famous prison, was an attempt to give inner-city children, in particular children with physical and learning disabilities, the opportunity to connect with nature and animals, learn to ride and benefit from equine therapy, as well as a connection to a less formal, more accessible way of learning.
Now three decades old and with the actor Martin Clunes as patron, the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre has helped thousands of children, many of whom have difficulties fitting – or settling – into a conventional classroom environment – to acquire skills, gain confidence, address fear and anxiety, and benefit from learning to care for horses at the Centre. From those first three Shetland ponies it has now gone to being home to 20 horses and ponies with a large indoor riding arena built in 1994 through the BBC TV programme ‘Challenge Anneka’. Not only children use the Centre’s services but also groups of people with Alzheimers who can visit and benefit from spending time with the ponies.
Sister Mary Joy told The Tablet magazine in December 2019 ‘what a privilege to have helped [the children] through their life. Another miracle is seeing children learning to walk through riding. […] Children who are regarded as ‘non-achievers’ come here and start to achieve. It’s not all about riding either, we offer courses in feeding, grooming and fire safety: the ponies are a catalyst for learning.’
One particular supporter of the Centre was riding enthusiast and artist, the late Lucian Freud. He visited for the first time in 2002 and despite Sister Mary Joy not recognising him and giving him a beginners’ book on how to paint horses, the two struck up a friendship. Freud helped to support the Centre and would drop in with gifts of carrots and apples for the ponies. His drawing of one of the Centre’s horses was sold to raise funds for the Centre.
Sister Mary Joy’s incredible work at the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre led to her being selected as an Olympic torch bearer in the 2012 London Olympics. In 2018 she was a worthy recipient of the British Empire Medal.
Unfortunately, due to the present Coronavirus pandemic, the Pony Centre is facing an unprecedented challenge to survive and it’s unlikely that it will be able to be fully operational for the rest of the year. Sister Mary Joy has launched an urgent crowdfunder appeal to ask for donations towards feeding the ponies, maintaining their upkeep, and being able to continue therapy riding lessons and other learning experiences for children with special needs, adults with dementia, and others who get so much out of this unique place. If you would like to help, please go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/y6xd3-a-cause-i-care-deeply-about-needs-help
Read the full article on Sister Mary Joy Langdon in the Argus newspaper
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett