A year of fun and laughter for city’s last mayoress

First published Sunday 31 May 2015 in The Argus

NORAH Fitch loves children. She dedicated her working life to fighting for them to make sure they had the happiest childhood possible. During her years as a child social worker and a guardian of the court she looked out for scores of youngsters.

But she retired early to take up the mantle as mayoress of Brighton and Hove, supporting her husband Brian as mayor. Even then she still helped lots of youngsters – throwing parties for disadvantaged children and donating money to childcare organisations.
And now she is eager to get to know her newborn grandson.

Norah, 62, and Brian, 74, are exhausted from a year packed full of engagements – but show no signs of slowing down with a move to Eastbourne and a host of family events planned.

Happy childhood

A Hovian through and through, Norah Buckley was born to Irish parents Sheila and Tim in their Beading Avenue home – barely half a mile from the house she has just sold in Holmes Avenue.

Brought up as a catholic alongside her brothers Paddy and Brendan and sister Maureen, she attended Cottesmore St Mary’s Catholic School and Hove County Grammar School.

“I had a brilliant childhood. We didn’t have any money. I was born in the council house where my mother lived until she died in 2005 aged 91.
“We were loved and it became clear to me that a lot of children did not have that,” she said.

She threw herself into the mood of the Swinging Sixties – moving to London to live with friends, and later married her first husband.

A humbling career path

Initially keen to train as a lawyer, she instead became a social worker and spent time in Merseyside in the 1990s.

One case during her time in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, stuck with her so vividly it made her determined to continue standing up for children who had nowhere to turn.

She said: “Every Friday afternoon a woman in her 40s would come into the office. She would never say what she wanted on the first few visits. Then she told me she had been sexually abused by her father when she was a child. I suggested where she could get help as I was not experienced in this area but she wanted to speak to me.

“So from that point I spent Friday afternoons with her and we followed a programme set out by my manager. She told me her marriage had failed because she couldn’t cope with her past.

“She was so brave and I was so humbled. She was just an ordinary, nice, working woman.

“No child should have to go through that and grow up to be an adult like that. This moved me more than anything I have done in my working life.”

When her marriage failed Norah sought solace in returning to Hove to be near her mother and moved into Holmes Avenue in 1993.

She said: “Hove is my roots. It is what has made me who I am and it was where I wanted to come back to. I wanted the support of my mum as a single parent. We were very close, she was my best friend.”

She continued her work across Brighton and Hove and East and West Sussex, managing teams of social workers and leading meetings. She found carrying out mental health assessments particularly rewarding.

She spent time as a child advisor in Newhaven and Seaford, running the child and family team for two years, and heading up another team in the west of the county. During this time she and her staff managed to dramatically reduce the numbers of children in care.

Her previous experience led her to train child protection teams, police officers, nurses and teachers in working with sexual abuse victims. She wrote the first series of child protection procedures for West Sussex – a strategy to make sure children did not slip through the net.

Romance blossomed

Her return to Sussex led her to meet Brian – who was also divorced – in 1995 when he saved her from some uninvited advances at a party.

She said: “We were at a New Year’s Eve party. There was a very drunk builder who decided he was going to become quite amorous. Brian spotted my efforts to repel this man and helped me out. Looking back it was very funny.”

They married in 2003, with part of the celebration taking place in Brighton Town Hall as a mark of Mr Fitch’s political ties to the building.

Job change

Later that year she opted for a change of scene, working very briefly for the Church of England as the director of the family social work team. But on the suggestion of a colleague she applied to become a guardian of the court – which requires at least ten years’ experience in the childcare field – and took up the role working in courts across the whole of Sussex in 2004.

She became “completely absorbed” in the court-appointed job to represent the interests of a child who has been abused or is likely to be abused. This could range from children who have problems with alcohol and drugs, those who are a victim of physical or emotional neglect, sexual abuse and domestic violence – which Mrs Fitch said was prevalent. It could also involve children with disabilities and parents with learning difficulties.

“I loved it, it was a job that utterly consumed me in the end,” she said.

“I had a role that allowed me to ensure their best interests were met.

“Emotional abuse was very difficult to evidence.

“You need the strength to make a case on the behalf of a child who is unable to on their own.”

Particularly complex cases led her to represent vulnerable youngsters in the High Court on occasion. The job was worthwhile and rewarding but she admitted it was “heartbreaking” if the court did not rule in favour of her recommendation.

She said: “This happened to me twice. You have to respect the decision of the court. Then you are not meant to have any involvement with the child once the court has made its final decision.

“Right from the off you had to be clear with the children that it was short-term. I always knew what would happen to them afterwards but you could not see them again. I have bumped into some of the children, sometimes they remembered you but often they were just too young.”

She remembers her very last case where she said a young girl should be allowed to still live with her mother, adding: “It was absolutely the right decision for her to go home. Two months later I was sent a picture of the girl by her mother. It was just lovely, it rounded off my working life.

“I find it very sad there are cuts now in public services. Social workers work extremely hard and under great pressure.”

Early retirement

On hearing of Brian’s nomination as mayor, Mrs Fitch took retirement a year early in March 2014 so she could accompany him on his engagements. They put their life on hold to dedicate their time to the city’s Good Samaritans, and focused on injecting fun into their responsibilities.

She said: “I loved my work but I was glad it finished. We had both been so busy, we were like ships in the night. As mayor and mayoress we learnt to work together – I was used to doing something my way and he was doing it his way. He didn’t seem to understand my way was best. We made a good team in the end – I was good at the headlines and putting an argument together and he was good at working out where the argument was needed. Brian has always been a man with a plan and I just help put them into action.”

The pair hosted and helped to organise 64 receptions in the Mayor’s Parlour, took 2,000 people on tours of the council chamber, and attended 500 events.

This included two Christmas parties for vulnerable children – one of which they managed to convince Jamie Oliver to sponsor when they met him on Hove Lawns as he filmed with fellow chef Jimmy Doherty.

Mrs Fitch said: “He was a lovely, thoughtful man. He will do anything for children and his sponsorship meant we could run both parties with no extra costs.”

Her role as mayoress also gave her an added confidence in social settings.

“I was never very good at parties – I did not have the confidence to strike up conversations. But after meeting so many wonderful people as mayoress I could talk about so many things with ease. It really was very moving to see the good work people do and for us to show our gratitude,” she said.

Mrs Fitch was the last ever mayoress of Brighton and Hove. As her term concluded, so did the use of the title. Brighton and Hove City Council has since decided the mayor’s partner should always be referred to as a consort – although Mr and Mrs Fitch believe the mayor should choose how they should be labelled.

New horizons

After a whirlwind year, the couple are preparing to relocate to Eastbourne to be closer to Mrs Fitch’s daughter Mary and her six-month-old grandson Finley.

A string of holidays, travelling adventures and family weddings all also planned before the end of 2016.

Mrs Fitch added: “We were doing so much at Christmas last year with our roles the family did not really get a look in. I love Christmas and we can’t wait for a big family get together this year.

“We’ve got so much to do; we’re moving house, we’re getting to spend more time with family and there will be holidays, my son and my daughter are getting married. It is all so exciting.”

Mr Fitch, who handed over the title of mayor to Lynda Hyde earlier this month and, with it, said goodbye to 38 years in local politics, said they will never lose touch with the city they both love.