Meet the married couple who became the ceremonial heads of Oxfordshire councils in the same year

Published: Wednesday, 17th May 2023

While it’s not unusual to hear about a married couple both becoming elected councillors, it’s exceptionally uncommon for both to be the ceremonial heads of different councils in exactly the same year.

This was how the story played out in 2022/23 for Cllr Susanna Pressel, Chair of Oxfordshire County Council and her husband James Fry, the 62nd Lord Mayor of Oxford. In their normal roles as councillors, Susanna represents the Jericho and Osney division at County Hall and Osney and St Thomas ward at the city council. James, meanwhile, represents Walton Manor at the city council.

And it hasn’t just been any year. This was the year when the pandemic finally began to abate, meaning that the community events and functions to which such civic figureheads are invited began to happen once more. It was also the year in which the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was celebrated and a period that witnessed the first change of monarch since the 1950s – when King Charles acceded to the throne upon the sad death of his mother.

For two important figureheads to be at the helm during such a momentous year, as well as sharing a marriage and a home together, you’d have to be a tight knit double act to make it work – and Susanna and James can definitely be described as that, with the sense of humour to match.

At many events, organisers have been the beneficiaries of local government’s answer to a “two for the price of one” offer. If James was invited to an event as Lord Mayor, they didn’t only get Susanna as the Lady Mayoress Consort, they also received her as the Chair of Oxfordshire County Council as well.

James has spent the year attempting to beat Susanna’s record of attending 636 events – equivalent to almost two a day – when she was the 48th Lord Mayor in 2008/09 James said: “I said at a council meeting a few months ago that I suspect I had done 100 to 200 events as Lord Mayor, and I estimated I would need to do five a day to catch up with her record. I did manage to attend 10 parties in the afternoon of the Jubilee. I cycled around Oxford and ate a lot of flapjacks. But it was nowhere near enough to beat Susanna’s record.”

Both roles are the ceremonial heads of the respective councils. Lord Mayor undoubtedly sounds much grander than Chair of the county council. “I’m higher status” quips James when asked about the two positions. “No”, replies Susanna with a smile. “I represent the county as a whole, including the city”.

Onwards the repartee between the two goes – James describes the Lord Mayor’s role as having more gravitas while Susanna replies with a smile on her face that the word he ought to have chosen is “ostentation”.

In reality, they both know how important the jobs are in terms of being the face of the councils they represent with the many big private and public sector organisations in the county but also with the grassroots of the communities both councils serve. The council year 2022/23 has seen “life as normal” gradually resume. James and Susanna have been attending annual events that each of their predecessors have dutifully attended for decades but that were put on hold for two years because of the pandemic.

“Undoubtedly the pandemic has had an impact. People were coming back from being in lockdown and were trying to be cautious at events”, said Susanna. Meanwhile James believes some institutions may have lost some continuity in terms of the annual cycle of events and the organisation that goes in to setting them up because of the disruptive influence of COVID-19.

Quite apart from the pandemic, the duo also had a unique year with the summer being book-ended by two events of national and international significance linked to the monarchy. In June they were attending events to mark the Platinum Jubilee. Then they had the far more sombre duty of marking the death of the Queen and the accession of King Charles III. Both spoke to a large gathering of people at Carfax for the proclamation of the accession of the new King on a warm September Sunday afternoon a few days after the announcement of the Queen’s passing.

Apart from those momentous occasions, there have been other highlights. James said: “Some of the civic services we attended are very impressive – very grand events that I will always remember. However, the visits to primary schools were the most enjoyable. The children often have no idea what a Lord Mayor is and they think I’m a King. They loved holding the chain and understanding how heavy it is. More generally when attending events around Oxford you come to realise just how diverse the city is.”

Susanna said: “This has been one of the highlights of my life. It’s been an immense privilege. It’s extraordinary to represent the whole county – and such a wonderful county. It was a delight to visit some of our astonishingly beautiful towns and villages.  I’ve tried to use the time to remind people that the councils are elected to represent everyone and to raise the profile of local government. I decided I would try not to take lifts or get taxis to any civic engagements and instead would use public transport. That has been quite challenging – particularly in the evening when trying to reach one of Oxfordshire’s many small villages. It has made me far more aware of the difficulties of rural connectivity.”

The couple, who met in the 1960s when both were active in the anti-racism movement, are now preparing for their lives to get back to some form of normality – however when James steps down he will become Deputy Lord Mayor and thus will still often be on the circuit of events in 2023/24.

May is the month when the handover to successors happens at the annual general meeting of both councils and at Oxfordshire’s district councils and councils across the country. However, both will still be active in their communities with Susanna adding to her 27 years as a city councillor and 14 years as a county councillor, while James will add to his 11 years’ service as a city councillor.

There are other things on the agenda too however: “I’ve got a long list of things I’ve been putting off this year”, said Susanna. “Gardening, housework, tidying up – it all needs doing”.

The Lord Mayor of Oxford traditionally uses the year to fundraise for local charities of their choice. James chose to raise money for Aspire, Asylum Welcome, and Emmaus. He has raised already raised more than £10,000 with more to come for the charities.

The first recorded Mayor of Oxford is Laurence Kepeharme (1205-1209). The Mayors’ names stretch in an unbroken line until 1962, when the dignity of Lord Mayor was granted to Oxford by Queen Elizabeth II. Councillor James Fry is the 62nd Lord Mayor of Oxford; Councillor Susanna Pressel was the 48th.

The role of the Chair of the current Oxfordshire County Council dates back to the 1970s when the council was created – although the previous incarnation of the county council had the same role going back to the 19th century.

Cllr Susanna Pressel’s chosen charities in her year as Oxfordshire County Council Chair were Age UK Oxfordshire, ARCh – inspiring children to read, Asylum Welcome and the Oxfordshire County Music Service. She has held receptions to celebrate all four charities and to say thank you to the staff and especially the many volunteers who give up their time to keep them going.