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Mary Hare (1866 – 1945), Suffragette, Women Police Volunteer, Teacher

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black and white photograph of MAry Hare wearing her women's police volunteer uniform. It's an image from the waist up. She is staring straight at the camera with a serious expression. She is wearing a buttoned up jacket, a white shirt and dark tie. She has a hat on.

Mary Hare

Mary Hare was a trailblazer in many different ways. Not only was she one of Britain’s first ‘police women’, she was also a pioneering teacher of deaf children, and a passionate suffragette determined to change women’s lives for the better.

When the Brighton Gazette quoted Mary Hare announcing that the Suffragettes were poised to ‘rouse Brighton’ at a meeting in 1908, it must have sent a chill through many of their readers’ veins. Although an early member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), she had joined the breakaway group of women disenchanted with the Pankhurst leadership, the Women’s Freedom League in 1907 and become secretary. Speeches and quotations from meetings she chaired regularly making the newspapers of the day.

It wasn’t only in women’s suffrage that Mary Hare was determined to break new ground.  Arriving in Hove from London in 1895 at the age of 29 and settling in St Michael’s Place, Hare was also a pioneering teacher of deaf children, and had already run a small school for deaf and dumb children from her mother’s house in London.  At the time, many children born with hearing or speech impediments would be considered mentally disabled and ruled out of the chance of an education, frequently ending up in the local asylum.  Teaching ‘oralism’ – lip reading, mimicking lip movements and speech, Mary Hare found that deaf and dumb children were as apt as any other to learning, and worked towards stopping their exclusion from education and society in general.

In Brighton and Hove Mary Hare became a pivotal figure in societies which promoted women’s equality.  President of Brighton Women’s Co-operative Guild, in the 1911 census, she became notorious for being one of the women who spoiled her form by scribbling ‘women do not count therefore we will not be counted’ on it. In early 1915, with the war a few months in, Mary Hare decided that Brighton needed an all-female police force to support the work of the men.  Very much without the blessing of the local constabulary, she set up a group of women to do just this, the Women Police Volunteers.   In April 1915, the wonderfully named Chief Constable Gentle of the Brighton Police informed the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic that he ‘disapproves entirely’ of Hare’s efforts to police the town.   There was already a body of women set up to do this, he explained to the Graphic, the officially sanctioned ‘Women Police Patrols’, a group of ‘ladies of position in the town’ and they were quite happily operating within the guidelines set down for them by the male police.  Understandably the local press were in a froth of excitement with the prospect of not one but two groups of Brighton’s young ladies dabbling with law enforcement and many newspapers had fun explaining the duties and conflict between the official body and Mary Hare’s rogue force.

front page of the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic. It's a very yellow photo, indicating the paper has aged. Taking up half the front page is a photograph of 7 Women Police Volunteers. The front 4 are sitting with their hands in their laps and there are 3 standing behind them. They are all wearing their police volunteer uniform, which is a long skirt, a blazer, shirt and tie and a hat.

Mary Hare and her team of police volunteers on front page of the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic, , 3 April 1915

The duties of the official Women Police Patrols, according to the article in The Graphic, was solely ‘to give proper advice to young girls in the town, and to establish clubs if possible, for their social benefit.’  People would not have had to read too far between the lines to know that this was a ploy to combat the phenomenon of ‘khaki fever’, the name given to the result, many feared, of the mixture of unattached women, soldiers in khaki uniforms and the heady atmosphere of war.   The Women Police Patrols, organised by the National Union of Women Workers, would help keep at bay this potential cocktail of depravity and loose morals, with the ‘clubs’ they meant to set up giving girls with time on their hands opportunities to enjoy activities of a more wholesome nature than hanging around the streets waiting to be seduced by a handsome soldier.  While agreeing that the women and children of the town were vulnerable at this time in history, Mary Hare had more far-reaching plans for her Women Police Volunteers.  They would help people in general, she explained to The Graphic, and ‘bring about general improvements.’  Although they didn’t have official certificates, a room in the Town Hall and perhaps weren’t even ‘ladies of position’ in the town like the official Women Police Patrols, Mary Hare’s Police Volunteers were organised to a military degree.  They all followed training in drill, signalling, first aid, self-defence, procedure and rules of evidence in police courts.  They spent their time supporting women and children, whether witnesses or prisoners in the intimidating environs of police courts, and patrolling lonely areas.

Rather than merely wearing a genteel armband like the Women Police Patrol, Mary Hare’s force wore a full-on uniform, not dissimilar to the male police, of dark blue suit and bowler hat. Mary Hare herself was described by an amused local as looking ‘particularly smart in her uniform and bowler hat’.  The authorities persisted in failing to be charmed, however, and despite Chief Constable Gentle’s orders to cease, the Women Police Volunteers continued.  ‘We are out to do good work in Brighton, and we have had unsolicited testimonials to the effect that we have done good,’ Mary Hare reasoned simply.

Mary Hare went on to live in Goldsmith Road and then San Remo on Hove’s seafront.  In 1916, at the same time as running her Women Police Volunteers, she founded the Dene Hollow Oral School for the Deaf in Burgess Hill.  Following Mary Hare’s death in 1945, the school renamed itself in her honour and in 1949 moved to Newbury, Berkshire. The Mary Hare School in Newbury, Berkshire is now the largest school for the deaf in the UK. It teaches children from Year 1 to 13 and continues to fulfil Mary Hare’s vision for auditory/oral education.  In her will Mary Hare wrote ‘my efforts on behalf of the Deaf have been my greatest joy in life.’

Written by social historian, Louise Peskett. Part of our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series.