Mary Hare was a significant and in some respects notorious figure in early 19th century Brighton.  She was a fascinating character on several fronts, and particularly ahead of her time in championing the rights and wellbeing of deaf children and women.

Mary Hare

She leaves a lasting legacy as a revolutionary campaigner for the inclusion in society and education of deaf children, in an age when such children were often abandoned or corralled in asylums. Her revolutionary ethos was that deafness was not a mental disability, but a sensory impairment presenting the deaf child with additional barriers to learning, which could nonetheless be overcome. Through championing the approach of oralism, using speech and lip reading rather than sign language, she found deaf children’s ability to learn and engage was equivalent to that of other children, and pushed for high standards of achievement. She acted not only as a teacher but also an examiner and inspector of other schools for the deaf.She contributed evidence and recommendations to the 1886 Royal Commission on the Education of Deaf Children, and was active in the newly established Association of Teachers of the Deaf, supporting the equal rights of women teachers. Her first school in Brighton, founded in 1895, was based at 17 St Michael’s Place, soon to be marked by a blue plaque. The school later moved to Hove, then Burgess Hill, and to this day is the UK’s largest non-maintained special school for the deaf.‘My efforts on behalf of the Deaf’ she wrote, ‘have been my greatest joy in life.’

Mary was also President of the Brighton Women’s Co-operative Guild and a dedicated suffragette.  In 1908, while chairing a meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Queen’s Road, the Brighton Gazette reported her as proclaiming that the suffragettes ‘were going to rouse Brighton’. In common with others disillusioned with the Pankhurst leadership, she joined the Women’s Freedom League and in 1913 became its Secretary. The organization campaigned for sexual equality, and was prepared to break the law – for example by not paying tax – but rejected violent militancy.  In 1911 she spoilt her census return as a way of highlighting the campaign to give women the vote, scrawling across it ‘Women don’t count and therefore we will not be counted.’
From 1915 Mary on her own initiative set up an independent women’s police force in Brighton to help vulnerable women and children, who she was convinced needed more support locally. This was against the advice of the Chief Constable of the time, who preferred the more socially elevated and biddable ‘Women’s Police Patrols’ who concentrated on discouraging immoral behaviour.  In contrast, Mary’s Women Police Volunteers, wore military uniforms and were given training in martial arts, first aid and giving evidence in court, offering practical assistance in less than salubrious circumstances in poor areas and in prisons. Mary, as ever, forged her own path where she saw the need, declaring: ‘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 and her team of police volunteers on the front page of the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic, 3rd April 1915.

On Saturday 23rd March 2024, the Mayor of Brighton unveiled a Blue Plaque in honour of Mary Hare, at 17 St Michael’s Place. For information and photos of this special day follow the link:

By Sue Delafons