Friday 19 May 2017

Votes for Women!

Over the weekend of 20th and 21st May, Chester will play host to their very own Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Based at Storyhouse, WOW will feature a line-up of talks, performances, panel discussions and workshops dedicated to celebrating women and girls worldwide. The festival hopes to bring women and men together to examine the obstacles still faced today and how they can be overcome.Thanks to WOW, I was intrigued to delve into Chester’s past to discover how women of Chester have strived to make the world a fairer, more equal place.

Little is known about Chester’s connection to the ‘Votes for Women’ movement, however the discovery of an article written in 1939 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of women’s enfranchisement, sheds considerable light on the activities and organisations in Chester dedicated to achieving votes for women.
‘Chester saw some of the activities of the suffragettes who worked for the cause with energy and enthusiasm, and were careful, as a rule, to keep within constitutional bounds.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)

This sparked an idea! Given that newspapers were the principle means of communicating to a mass audience and the most widespread media form in the Edwardian age, I wondered whether it would be possible to piece together Chester’s suffrage past using old editions of local newspapers held on microfilm at the Record Office.I discovered a number of local newspaper reports detailing the peaceful activities of organisations that had set up branches in Chester, particularly the Chester Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffragist Societies (NUWSS). An article written by a ‘Lady Correspondent’ remarks that all branches of the NUWSS, including the Chester branch, stood for the ‘enfranchisement of women worked for on peaceful and law-abiding lines, and that the recourse to violence is destructive.’ (Chester Chronicle, 18th July 1914, MF 204/38).Unlike more militant organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, evidence suggests that organisations in Chester concentrated on legal and peaceful means of drawing attention to their cause by arranging speeches, events and the sale of merchandise to raise funds. The Women’s Freedom League even opened a Suffrage shop at 45 St. Werburgh’s Street where they sold merchandise such as badges. 
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

Chester Chronicle, 16th February 1918, MF 204/268

Despite the preference for legal and peaceful means of protest in Chester, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the more militant WSPU, visited the city in January 1912. Despite the Hall not being filled, reports indicate that Mrs. Pankhurst received a ‘good reception’. Speaking with ‘great clearness and… putting her points with telling effect’, Mrs. Pankhurst declared that she wanted ‘every human being, if possible, to have some control over the spending of taxation and the making of laws’. Mrs. Pankhurst also spent time defending militancy commenting that ‘it was not the reasonable patient person who ever got anything’ and posing the question ‘Were the women of Chester prepared to help?’
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

The article I first found in the Cheshire Observer dated 1939 reveals that there was one particular incident that saw the events in Chester make widespread national news.
‘There was a notable incident however, when their zeal outran their discretion and they brought themselves in conflict with the law. It occurred in the summer of 1912, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, was the victim of their violence.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)
On his return from Dublin, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith paid a visit to Chester. Arriving at Chester Station on Saturday 20th July 1912, the Prime Minister made his way to the Town Hall to meet the gathered crowds.
‘About twenty past two there was a commotion among the crowd… The Prime Minister had arrived… The fleet of cars sailed into the Square almost noiselessly, and the third car, decorated with blue ribbons, contained the Prime Minister.’(Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36)

‘There was a spasm of violent excitement among the crowd as it stopped. Something had happened which not everybody could see, but everybody could see a stalwart policeman pounce on a protesting young woman and forcibly haul her off to the lock-up. She was a suffragette, a bag of flour had been thrown (it was said) at the Prime Minister’s car, and she had been arrested for it’.
Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36
A report from the Cheshire Observer dated July 27th 1912 harked at the ‘Exciting and alarming incident’, describing how the ‘excited lady’ appeared to ‘rush out of the crowd and hurl something at the car’.
‘Instantly, P.C. Baker secured the lady, and at almost the same moment another lady was heard shouting and pushing through the crowd. P.C. Wakelin pushed her back… As the lady in custody was taken past his car on her way to the Police Office, she jeered at him, and the crowd returned the compliment to her.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)

Reporting on the aftermath of ‘The Chester Incident’, the Cheshire Observer recounted events at the Police Court. Charged with the assault of Frank Clark who had been driving the car that was hit by flour, the assailant was identified as Mary Phillips, a journalist from Cornwall. Giving evidence, the Chief Constable asked ‘the Bench to make an example of the defendant.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)
‘There was no doubt that the missile was intended for the Prime Minster. If Cabinet Ministers could not travel about the country without attempts being made to assault them, then the country must be coming to state of anarchy.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35). Despite denying the charge of assault and protesting that if she had intended to injure the Prime Minister or damage the car she would have used a more dangerous missile, Mary Phillips was found guilty. She had the choice to pay 5s. in fines and additional costs, or receive seven days imprisonment in the second division. She refused to pay the fine, but it was later paid by a ‘prominent Chester Liberal’ whose identity remains unknown still.

Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35

By piecing together the newspaper articles above, we can come to understand that the women of Chester were engaged with the political campaign to give women the vote and furthermore, that the streets of Chester did witness militant action to advance this aim. 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to around 8.4 million  women over the age of 30 who met certain conditions, including owning a property. It took a further decade for women to receive the vote on the same terms as men with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 extending the vote to all women over the age of 21.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Some Theatrical Entertainments in Chester in the18th and 19th Centuries

Here in Chester, in 2017, a new theatre opens its doors on Northgate Street.  The first production on the Storyhouse stage is a new adaptation of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.  Go back nearly 250 years, to a time when ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ was a very popular hit show, and the New Theatre on Northgate Street is welcoming the Venetian’s Company of Performers, from Sadler’s Wells, London.  The Chester Courant of October 1768 carries an advertisement for the show, highlighting the entertaining delights of ‘Stiff Rope Dancing’, ‘Lofty Tumbling’, the ‘diverting tricks’ of Monsieur de Monkeyro, Miss Wilkinson and Signior Georgi on the ‘Musical Glasses’ and a Pantomime.

What was then known as the New Theatre started life as the Chapel of St Nicholas in 1280 and had a variety of uses over the years before becoming a theatre.  In 1777 an Act to Licence a Theatre (ref. acts/b/51) saw it converted into the Theatre Royal.  With the premises now being officially licensed, the players could perform without the risk of being raided by the city magistrates, halting the performance.  In the mid-19th century it became a concert hall and its last incarnation as an entertainment venue was as a cinema, which closed its doors in 1961.  Nowadays it is better known to residents and visitors as Superdrug.
I was interested to see what other theatrical entertainments were on offer years ago, and though we don’t have an extensive theatrical collection, it does have its moments!  For example, looking at the 19th century playbills we hold, you can see that the touring companies that visited the city set up their shows in a range of places, not just the Theatre Royal.  ‘Thiodon’s Mechanical & Picturesque Theatre of the Arts’ was playing in the Royal Hotel Assembly Room, offering the eager public the delights of mechanical figures depicting the ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Buonaparte Crossing The Alps’ with his army of 30,000 men, ‘announced by an extraordinary instrument consisting of sixteen trumpets’.  The evening’s entertainment concluding with a ’Storm at Sea’ complete with ‘agitation of the waves … Lightning, Thunder etc’!  Other companies performed at the Royal Britannia Theatre near the Bowling Green Inn, the Pantheon on Grosvenor Street and at Latimer’s Theatre, where you could see ‘The Bohemian Girl! Or the Deformed of Notre Dame!’  The venues and performances may have varied greatly in quality, but all seemed to finish off the evening’s entertainment with, at the very least, a dance and a comic song but more often, a Farce - ‘How To Settle Accounts With Your Laundress’ being a notable example.

The posters not only outlined tempting teasers for the unfolding drama, but were full of spoilers.  The audiences for ‘Ambrose Gwinett or A Seaside Story’ could be lured into the theatre with the prospect of a ‘Press Gang’, a ‘Bloody Handkerchief’, an ‘Ugly Postman’ (always suspect!) and an ‘Unwelcome Guest’!  With the promised peril of an accusation of ‘Murder’ and our hero sentenced to be ‘Hung In Chains’, you might think the audience felt they simply had to attend to discover the outcome, but no such thing!  The poster reassures us that we will see ‘Innocence Triumphant’ and the play will culminate with the ‘Death of the Guilty’!  Hurrah!  Presumably, 19th century audiences preferred to know exactly what they were committing to on a night out.

Over on Northgate Street, the Theatre Royal was playing host to Signor Stanislaus, ‘The Wonderful and Unrivalled Fire King!’  During the first half of the evening he showed off his strength - raising a table with his teeth, on which stood a soldier, lifting a variety of heavy weights - backwards, and having a stone weighing 300lbs broken over his head with a sledge hammer!  The second half of the show saw him perform even more amazing feats – holding red hot iron in his hands and mouth, even biting off several pieces (!?) swallowing blazing pitch and finally, the ‘Polish Salamander Will Stand Bare-footed in a Large Fire of Blazing Charcoal!!!’  To bring the audience back to its senses and send them home happy, the evening ended with the usual Farce.

However, not all theatrical events ended happily. One performance, in a building on Watergate Street in 1772, ended in tragedy. Our Local Studies collection has a poem which was ‘Occasioned by the late dreadful Explosion of Gunpowder, on the Fifth Day of November, 1772 … whereby a Company assembled at a Puppet-Show … were blown up, and many killed and wounded.’ (ref. 014203) After describing the event, the poem continues with prolonged moral ‘Reflections, Expostulations and Exhortations …The whole designed as a Terror to evil doers, and an Alarm to those that are asleep.’ There is an article in the November 1979 edition of Cheshire Life, written by John Bridge, which tells the story of the night’s events. The Puppet Theatre was held in Eaton’s Room, part of a multi-storied building on Watergate Street. The room below it was a warehouse where 800lbs of gunpowder were stored! The building was almost completely destroyed and, given the date and the contents of the warehouse, it would be a very funny Bonfire Night story, if it were not for the great loss of life. Nineteen died in the explosion and fifty-seven people were admitted to hospital, four of whom subsequently died, and a further thirty had minor injuries.

But to end with something jollier – no, not a Farce, but a Circus! Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal!

On seeing these posters, one of our volunteers remarked ‘Like in Sgt Pepper? Mr Kite?’ and indeed he was.  A quick search of the internet revealed that the song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ was inspired by an old poster for a performance of Pablo Fanque’s circus as a fund raiser for a fellow artiste, Mr Kite.  Pablo Fanque was an English equestrian performer and circus proprietor and the first non-white British circus owner in Britain.  Circuses  were extremely popular in Victorian Britain, and his topped the list for nearly thirty years.  He was famed for his dancing horses, most likely what we would now call dressage, and the London Illustrated News reported that ‘…the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind.’  However extraordinary the dressage skills of his horses may have been, the poster illustration of waltzing horses does seem a little generous!  Alas, the only Cheshire connection, apart from his Circus performances in Chester, is that he died in Stockport on 4th May 1871.  He was buried with his wife, in Leeds.