A former school in West Derby is named after one of the most influential women Liverpool has ever seen. Margaret Beavan, the unmarried ‘little mother of Liverpool’ who became the city’s first female Lord Mayor in 1928, had an eventful year in office. However she did make a misjudgement of character when she called Mussolini ‘one of the most wonderful men’ on a visit to Italy in 1928.
The daughter of an insurance clerk, Margaret was born in 1877 and brought up being taught that hard work would be rewarded. As head girl of her school, she encouraged pupils to help those less well off, donating a Christmas tree to poor children in the dockland areas
In 1901 she set up the Liverpool Child Welfare Association, which sent children to the countryside to convalesce and also founded the Leasowe Open Air Hospital in 1913, providing post hospital care. It was estimated that over 100,000 children took advantage of these services and her persistent requests for donations led to her being known as the ‘little mother of Liverpool’ although some less complimentary folk called her he ‘clever beggar.’ Nationally, she was Vice President of the National Association of Maternity and Child Welfare and a member of the National Council of Women of Great Britain.
Margaret became the first female Magistrate in the city and after being elected as a ward councillor for Prince’s Park in 1924 she was selected to be Lord Mayor for 1928, taking on her duties in November 1927. That month she welcomed Iraq’s King Faisul to the city, taking tea with him at the Town Hall after he had ridden on the Overhead Railway.
On 19th January 1928, Margaret held a function for other female mayors at the Town Hall. Nine of the other twelve from around the country attended, with the crowd who gathered to watch them arrive consisting mainly of men. Wearing her ceremonial robes, Margaret spoke of her wish that they could work together to encourage teamwork amongst both men and women.
One of her most bold statements as Lord Mayor was to call for people under the age of 21 to only be sent to prison in exceptional circumstances. This came after a visit to Walton Gaol in March, where she learned boys who had met certain levels of behaviour were allowed to play football, chess and dominoes. As a Magistrate at the country’s first dedicated juvenile court that was established in Liverpool in 1925, she had a keen interest in youth justice.
The following month, Margaret performed a key moment in the development of the local transport network when the holing through of the Liverpool to Birkenhead tunnel was completed. After Chairman of the Tunnel Committee Archibald Salvidge broke through the rock, Margaret shook hands with the Mayor of Birkenhead.
When two local children held a bazaar in their home to raise funds for the Liverpool Babies Hospital, Margaret was glad to attend the dedication of he cot which the £25 raised bought for an insitution she had founded in 1916. However she was soon in need of hospital treatment herself when she lost her footing and collapsed at the Liverpool landing stage after a stormy crossing from Belfast on 3rd May. She was admitted for treatment in a dazed condition but soon discharged.
Fully recovered from her hospital ordeal, Margaret went on an official visit to France and Italy later that month. As she left England she told the press ‘I am looking forward to meeting Signor Mussolini, I regard him as one of the most wonderful men of the present age.’ At this time, Mussolini, who came to power in 1922 aged just 39, had skilfully created the illusion of democracy and free press in Italy, whilst also improving agriculture and infrastructure. This meant her views were understandable as it was only the following decade that his totalitarianism became apparent.
Margaret arrived in Milan on Sunday 27th May and a reception was held in her honour at the Town Hall, where she was handed the Gold Medal of the city. She then moved on to Rome, meeting the city’s Governor and Mussolini on the 30th. They conversed in English and Margaret told him how much she admired the spirit of Italy under his leadership.
Despite remaining a spinster all her life, it was not something that Margaret advocated as he term of office ended. Speaking to a party of young women who were emigrating to Australia to work as domestic servants in October, she told them being unmarried was okay at first by the time they got to her age (she was by then 50) a man became useful to have around. She predicted that most of them would be married within a year or two and it would be the best thing that could happen to them. The response to this was a flood of marriage proposals, many of them including photographs, but Margaret declined them all. In addition, she also received letters from young women asking for help in finding a husband, but politely pointed out that this was not part of her Lord Mayoral duties.
After handing over Lord Mayoral duties to she was invited to sit on the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure, which spent a year looking at the powers of the police to investigate crimes and the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions. She was then nominated as the Conservative candidate for the Everton constituency for the General Election of May 1929, due to the retirement of the existing MP Herbert Woodcock. Margaret was widely expected to successfully defend the seat for her party and become Liverpool’s first female at Westminster, but with unemployment on the rise and the General Strike of 1929 fresh in the minds, she was beaten by Labour’s Derwent Hall Caine.
Early in 1931 Margaret contracted pneumonia and went to the Leasowe Hospital. She failed to recover and died on 21st February. Amongst the many tributes was one from the Stipendiary Magistrate Stuart Deacon who said ‘She has blazed a trail and the torch she has left behind will be carried by others in years to come’. The Margaret Beavan Special School in West Derby (below), which provided education for 70 children, was named in her honour although it closed in 2004.