Who was Norwich's wartime 'guardian angel'?
- Credit: Archant Library
It is 80 years since the so-called Baedeker Raids caused death and destruction across Norwich….the Luftwaffe singled out the city because of its “beauty and its unique historic interest.”
Over two nights at the end of April in 1942 around 240 men, women and children died, many more were hurt and made homeless, and large parts of Norwich were destroyed.
Heroes and heroines emerged as people were carried from the smoking ruins of their homes as the bombs fell on residential areas causing appalling injuries and heartache.
Water shortages hindered the fire fighting. The electricity and gas supplies had been hit. Norwich was on its knees.
Following the raids mothers would be seen pushing their prams out of the city at night…to sleep wherever they could.
Many people came to the rescue of others – including one Ruth Hardy who, a few years later, was appointed the Lord Mayor of Norwich.
She had qualified as a Home Office ARP Instructor in 1941, the year before the Blitz, and then became the honorary organiser of MAGNA – the Mutual Aid Good Neighbours Association.
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It was formed in the city to encourage co-operation between the ARP wardens and other voluntary organisations. A hand of friendship, a shoulder to cry on, and so much more.
Ruth did a wonderful job and was loved and respected by people of all ages and from all walks of life. She was there at a time of need when some families were left with nothing.
When King George VI was introduced to Ruth during an unannounced visit to Norwich in October 1942 he heard about the work of MAGNA and told her: “Mrs Hardy, there is too little friendship in the world today: do keep up this wonderful work when the war is over.”
The MAGNA Ladies were regarded as guardian angels. From helping the sick and injured to keeping the air raid shelters clean and tidy.
So who was Ruth Hardy?
Her parents Phipp and Susannah Peachey had 10 children, with Phipp working as a warrener, first at Lakenheath and then on the Colman estate at Bixley near Norwich.
Ruth was born in January 1890 at Lakenheath. When the family moved the children went to the village school at Trowse and then Ruth attended the Norwich Municipal School (later the Blyth) and stayed on to train as a teacher working at Cromer.
It was in 1912 when she married Bertie Harry Hardy, the son of a Trowse bricklayer who became a well-known and much-loved teacher.
After serving in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War he joined the staff at the City of Norwich School as Master of French. Described as modest man with a gentle sense of humour, Harry retired as deputy headmaster of this famous school in 1952.
He and Ruth had a daughter Marion in the summer of 1922 and Ruth went on to run a primary school in Unthank Road, Norwich.
When war was declared she took on a prominent role in public life, dedicating much of her time to helping others as the organiser of the wonderful MAGNA.
A member of the Independent Labour Party, a political party which accepted men and women as equals, Ruth stood for election in the Heigham Ward to the City Council towards the end of 1945 and won.
She became a respected public figure, serving on the boards of various charities and, in 1950/51, became the third female Lord Mayor of Norwich, the first socialist and the first married woman. Her daughter served as Lady Mayoress.
In her acceptance speech she said: “When first asked to accept this office I instantaneously refused. Until I realised that I was not doing something that I have repeatedly asked women to do, to help men shoulder the burden of local government."
“I believe there is a need for more and more women to give the inspiration and intuition which they possess, to help and solve the problems of local government,” she added.
And how the people loved her. They cheered their “housewife” first citizen wherever she went.
Ruth remained a councillor and continued to support many groups and organisations across the city. She died in February 1975 aged 85.
With thanks to Phyllida Scrivens whose award-winning book The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich 1925-2017, published by Pen and Sword, is for sale in the shops, online or from the author at email@example.com
Also look up Joe Mason’s brilliant blog for memories of Ruth, his aunt, at joemasonspage.wordpress.com