Miss Hardy and ‘The Main Gay’ Caravan

At the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection, it is our aim to discover more about our early members and to put stories to the hundreds of names that feature in our Edwardian lists and minute books. In our latest blog Curator of the Club’s Collection Angela Willis explores the remarkable story of Club member, Suffragist and entrepreneur Miss Susan ‘Susie’ Hardy (1866 – 1953) and how, thanks to some incredible good fortune, it came to being rediscovered by the Club.

In 2018, I was fortunate to spend time undertaking research in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. The Caravan and Motorhome Club (formerly known as The Caravan Club) was working in partnership with the National Motor Museum Trust on The Drive for Change, a project celebrating 100 years since women first won the right to vote. Part of my research led me to cross reference the Library’s records of members from suffrage organisations with our own Caravan Club List of Members dating from before the First World War. I had a hunch that amongst the often progressive and independent women who featured in early Club membership numbers, there must have been those who were active in the campaign for the vote.

Two small boys standing at the front of a horse drawn caravan
Miss Hardy’s nephews pictured with ‘The Main Gay’ at Cathedral Close, Salisbury, around 1911. The brake mechanism is clearly visible.

This was the first time that I focused on a name in the Club’s 1913 List of Members, Miss Susan ‘Susie’ Hardy of Harncroft, Old Blandford Road, Salisbury, who was also listed as the Secretary of the Salisbury branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and who took up the post in 1909. This was an organisation headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett who, in contrast to the militant Suffragettes, supported more peaceful methods of campaigning for the vote including lobbying and creating printed propaganda. However, at the time of the project any further research into Miss Hardy drew a blank. All that we knew was that Miss Hardy had been both a Club member and a member of the NUWSS.

Three women seated outside a horse-drawn caravan
Miss Susan Hardy pictured on the steps of her caravan ‘The Main Gay’, with two of her sisters Lavinia (left) and Effie (right). Woodgreen, New Forest, 1920.

You can imagine how delighted I was when, three years later, I was contacted by Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in Architectural History at Oxford Brookes University, who was researching Miss Hardy and two of her equally remarkable sisters Lavinia and Lileen. Elizabeth was able to put me in contact with Miss Hardy’s family, her great-nephew Peter Hardy and great-great-niece Penny Spencer, setting about a chain of events which has enabled the Club to learn more about the remarkable story of her life, and also to piece together some parts of our own Collection that are linked to her. From the wealth of information provided by her family the story of an incredible woman has re-emerged.

At only 15 years old in 1881, against a backdrop of a male dominated society, Miss Susan Hardy set on a path to become a successful businesswoman. She entered the business of her father, a Wholesale Grocer, Chemist and Mineral Water Manufacturer in Salisbury, later rising to become joint manager and then a managing director when it became a limited company, until her retirement in 1931. As a female pioneer in the business world, and a prominent personality in the commerce of Salisbury, the absence of the right to vote must have understandably been felt as a great injustice for Miss Hardy, like so many of her contemporaries. For a number of years she was involved with the Salisbury NUWSS, while her obituary of 1953 sketches her many other interests and achievements. During the First World War she was responsible for opening a canteen and recreation room for soldiers of the Southern Command, and after the conflict spent a decade as the Honorary Secretary of the Salisbury branch of the League of Nations Union. She was also a founder of the Salisbury Poetry Circle and along with her sisters was a great champion of education for women, which included the support and encouragement of her own great-niece. What her obituary omits however, is that the way in which she spent her leisure time placed her firmly amongst the pioneers of the caravan holiday.

A horse drawn caravan pictured on the left with a group seated beside it
‘The Main Gay’ pictured at The Caravan Club New Forest Meet, Cadnam, Hampshire, 1914.

Miss Hardy was part of a group of women who made up a third of the total membership number of the fledgling Caravan Club in 1913. Formed in 1907, in a time when women were often prohibited to join male dominated organisations, the Club was a progressive and welcoming place for female members who found opportunities to join the committee and chair meetings in favour of male counterparts. Thanks to Miss Hardy’s great-nephew I was able to get my first glimpse of the horse-drawn caravan that she once owned, named ‘The Main Gay’, in a charming picture which featured his father and uncle with the ´van as children. The caravan was towed by a horse named Rufus, who was kept at Godshill near Fordingbridge over the summer months.

Caravans, a motorhome and a tent pitched in a clearing
A view of the Club’s New Forest Meet, Cadnam, Hampshire, 1914, with ‘The Main Gay’ to the right.

I set about searching through the Club’s Collection to see if I could find out more about the caravan, maybe who built her and if it had attended any Club events. In a photograph album extremely familiar to me, I found a picture which was undoubtedly of the distinctive ‘The Main Gay’ pitched in a forest glade at the Club’s 1914 New Forest Meet in Cadnam, Hampshire. Containing only a few annotations in the distinctive hand of Club founder J Harris Stone, the name of the caravan or its owner had not been recorded in the album, so this was a most welcome discovery. In the photograph, the caravan is surrounded by fellow members, although sadly not its owner, yet a report of the event from the Salisbury and Wiltshire Gazette confirms Miss Hardy’s attendance amongst over one hundred others. This made it the largest Club gathering to that date, and for many years after due to the impact of the First World War. Here, Miss Hardy would have undoubtedly encountered a number of personalities related to the organisation including the innovative caravan builder Bertram Hutchings from Winchester, Club Committee member and enthusiast of outdoor pursuits Miss Grace Simmons plus a pioneer of motor caravanning and prosperous mill owner of Ashton-under-Lyne Albert Fletcher.

A girl in fancy dress standing in front of a shell of a caravan
Miss Hardy’s great-niece Jennifer in fancy dress by ‘The Main Gay’, in its later life as a summerhouse.

From information provided to the Club from Miss Hardy’s family, ‘The Main Gay’ was not only a much loved mode of holiday for Susan herself, but it also gave equal enjoyment to her family. Her brother George is known to have enjoyed tours in the caravan, adding a brake mechanism prior to a holiday on the Isle of Wight, a modification which can be clearly seen in the picture of the caravan from the New Forest Meet in 1914. His son Leslie enjoyed a trip in 1920 to Woodgreen in the New Forest, with a group of friends known as ‘The Bachelors’. Here, Miss Hardy along with two of her sisters Lavinia and Effie paid a visit to the group where a wonderful photograph was taken with the three ladies outside the caravan. In later years, ‘The Main Gay’ was retired to Miss Hardy’s garden in Bouverie Avenue, Salisbury, where it was used as a summerhouse and also doubled as a makeshift stage which inspired the imaginations and performances of her great-niece Jennifer and her brother, Richard.

The story of Miss Susan Hardy’s life has been retold with sincere thanks to her great-nephew Peter Hardy, great-great-niece Penny Spencer and Dr Elizabeth Darling who have provided a wealth of information and photographs.

Further Reading:

Learn more about Susan Hardy’s sister Lileen, pioneer of early years education and founder of a kindergarten for the children of Edinburgh’s Canongate slums, in a blog by Dr Elizabeth Darling.

You can also discover more about Club members and the campaign for the vote here.

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