OBITUARY: Bombed out of her home, Marlene Jefferson became Londonderry’s first woman mayor

Marlene Jefferson during her mayoral days
Marlene Jefferson during her mayoral days

Marlene Jefferson was part of the “exodus” of Protestants who left the western banks of the Foyle as the Troubles raged.

Not long afterwards, she became Londonderry’s first-ever female mayor.

When she was buried earlier this month, she was mourned by both Protestant and Catholic alike.

Born in Londonderry on April 17, 1934, she was the daughter of electrical contractor James Young, and Dolly Doherty.

The second eldest of 10 children, she attended First Derry Primary School, and left when she was 14, going on to work in a shirt factory.

She had married her husband James Jefferson (a building contractor) aged 21, and when her first child came along she left the factory.

They had both been committed unionists, and her son Craig told the News Letter about the time some UUP members had called at their home, seeking candidates for an upcoming election.

“I know that they came to my house to ask my father to be a candidate,” said Craig.

“They left with my mother as the candidate.”

He added: “Prior to her becoming part of the council she had always been known as ‘Jim Jefferson the contractor’s wife’.”

However, following her election, and particularly after she became mayor, “he was demoted – he was ‘Jim Jefferson, the mayor’s husband’.”

In her first electoral contest in 1973, she had topped the poll in her district as a unionist unity candidate with over 1,000 votes, standing under the aegis of a ‘United Loyalist’ (with the district’s two successful SDLP candidates winning 808 and 643 votes, respectively).

She was returned to office again in 1977.

During the early 1970s her house in Carlisle Street, on the western side of the city, had been blown up when the IRA targeted a newsagent’s shop attached to the home.

She later moved for a year to Academy Road, near the university (also in the nationalist-dominated west), but then relocated again to the relative safety of the unionist Waterside.

“That was part of the kind of exodus of the time,” said Craig.

From June 9, 1980, she was the city’s mayor.

Craig said she did her utmost to be a unifying force for the city, travelling to functions regardless of their location.

“My mother always talked things out and listened to both sides,” he said, adding that one of her closest friends during her council years was the Catholic Bishop Edward Daly.

“The world sees us in two camps, but generally speaking we try to live together,” the New York Times quoted her as saying in 1981.

She left the council in 1981.

Her work saw her granted an MBE – making her one of three family members to earn such an award (her brother Ian Young received one for services to business, and sister Sylvia Simpson got an OBE for her work in the police reserve).

Later in life she sat on the board of Altnagelvin Hospital, and was heavily involved with her church, St Augustin’s Church of Ireland.

She was also friendly with Patricia Storey, the Anglican cleric who became the British Isles’ first female bishop.

At the end of her life she was still living in the Waterside’s Richill Park, where she had moved in the 1970s.

She suffered a series of strokes and died in Altnagelvin Hospital on August 17.

Her funeral was held on August 19 at St Augustin’s and she was buried at Altnagelvin Cemetery.

Despite the funeral being held in an Anglican church, priest Father Michael Canny – clad in his Catholic clerical robes – did the readings during the service in recognition of her cross-community ethos.

She is survived by daughters Karen McCrossan, Melanie Angling, and Siobhan Jefferson, as well as son Craig, five siblings, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.