Today’s theatre is seriously diverse. The Birmingham Rep’s current programme, for instance, lists forthcoming plays about a granny pirate, an Eritrean refugee, aspirational binmen, and the No 11 bus.
Even so, as one who finds local government not only interesting, but bursting with dramatic potential, I’ve noticed that there are still amazingly few plays featuring Wolverhampton councillors. So, when one turned up recently at the Drum Arts Centre while I was out of the country, I was pretty miffed.
Happily it was a touring production, and I was both pleased and fortunate to be able to catch it when I returned – at Bromsgrove’s estimable Artrix arts centre.
Fortunate because the tour was part of Women’s History Month, a month each year dedicated to highlighting the achievements of ‘Women of Character, Courage and Commitment’.
This year’s month was March, and Bromsgrove was the tour’s last date – though hopefully not the play’s last appearance.
The play is The Sistren, written and part-acted by the multi-talented Therese Collins and produced by the Gazebo Theatre, a long-standing professional theatre, now, thanks to Wolverhampton City Council, with a fine new base in Bilston Town Hall.
We have, then, a Wolverhampton production, featuring a Wolverhampton councillor, and with a title that, since its Chaucerian origins as the everyday plural of brothers and sisters – brethren and sistren – has been politicised by the women’s movement as a synonym for sisterhood.
All three of the play’s characters are indubitably ‘Women of Character, Courage and Commitment’ and all, as befits a History Month production, are dead – or, more accurately, deceased spirits. Spirits of three remarkable women who fought for women’s advancement during their lives, and who have returned with the sistrenly mission of using their collective wisdom and experience to assist one (unseen) present-day woman facing a particularly traumatic decision of her own.
The three, in order of their Google popularity, are Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), Claudia Jones (1915-64), and Emma Lloyd-Sproson (1867-1936).
Wollstonecraft would be described today as a radical feminist. A novelist, educationist and philosopher, her most famous work was the revolutionary Vindication of the Rights of Women, which called for girls to be educated alongside and to the same standards as boys, and for women generally to be accorded the same fundamental rights as men.
Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad, but brought up in the US, where she became a journalist, communist activist and black nationalist, as a consequence of which she was repeatedly imprisoned and finally in 1955 deported to the UK.
Here, she devoted her political campaigning skills to the cause of the British African-Caribbean community, protesting against racism in all forms, and in 1958 founding and editing Britain’s first Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.
But probably her most remarkable contribution to British life was her founding, in the immediate aftermath of that year’s bitter race riots, of the now internationally famous Notting Hill Carnival.
I knew of Claudia, having visited her grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery, immediately next to her lifelong hero, Karl Marx. The only thing, however, I previously knew about Emma Lloyd-Sproson was her nickname, ‘Red Emma’.
She’s lucky, though, for she’s the character played in The Sistren by Therese Collins, who’s written herself a really cracking, humorous, and pivotal role, and, if in this very democratic production there’s a star, it’s surely her.
She was born in West Bromwich, one of seven children of a heavy-drinking canal boat builder and his wife. Growing up in extreme poverty, she had little formal schooling, and at the age of eight was picking coal from the pit mounds.
In her teens she moved to Lancashire to find work, began teaching in a Sunday school and attending the church debating society – her first venture into public speaking.
The second and radicalising venture was an election campaign meeting at which Lord Curzon refused to answer her question because “she was a woman and did not have the vote”.
Returning to Wolverhampton in 1895, she purchased a business, joined the Independent Labour Party, and married Frank Sproson, the party’s local branch secretary, with whom she would have three surviving children.
Through Sproson, she met Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and became an increasingly active suffragette, regularly getting herself arrested and then choosing prison and hunger striking, rather than pay a fine – a cycle that continued until 1912, when she decided to turn her energies to local politics.
After contesting two unsuccessful local elections as a Labour candidate, she was elected in 1921, becoming Wolverhampton’s first woman councillor and, by triumphantly waving a red flag from the town hall balcony, earning herself the soubriquet ‘Red Emma’.
She would serve for six years, fighting in 1924 a successful by-election after being censured by her own Labour leadership for exposing, as a member of the public health committee, financial irregularities in the administration of the local fever hospital.
Now, here’s the thing. I may have barely heard of Red Emma, but she is known and commemorated in Wolverhampton as the town/city’s first woman councillor by, for example, a Wolverhampton Civic Society blue plaque on the front of the magistrates’ courts and a most handsome portrait hung in the civic centre.
Here in Birmingham, though, where the city’s first women councillors were elected a whole decade before Lloyd-Sproson, there is, as far as I’m aware, no equivalent civic recognition at all – which seems a shame, as necessarily these were exceptional individuals.
The November 1911 municipal elections in Birmingham were a mini-general election, following the huge boundary extensions that took in Aston Manor, Erdington, Handsworth, Kings Norton, Northfield and Yardley, and enabled Birmingham to supplant Glasgow as the second city of the Empire – another centenary that might have received more attention than it did.
The very first female councillor elected was Ellen Frances Pinsent, representing the Liberal Unionists in the Edgbaston ward – rather appropriately, given the Edgbaston constituency’s record of being represented for over 60 years now by women MPs.
Pinsent was quickly joined by Margaret Frances Pugh, returned in an Erdington North by-election as an Independent, and a year later, also in Edgbaston, by Clara Martineau, daughter of fellow-councillor Neville Chamberlain’s uncle.
Clara Martineau was to serve the longest, being re-elected, generally unopposed, until her death in 1932. She sat on the powerful education committee for 15 years, chaired the special schools sub-committee, and could be said to have her legacy in the Clara Martineau Charity, which promotes the education of Birmingham children with special needs.
Pinsent preceded Martineau as chair of the same sub-committee, and her name similarly lives on in the Dame Ellen Pinsent Special School in Kings Heath, whose children she herself would once have been personally involved in selecting, and – extraordinary as it seems today – would have referred to officially as ‘feeble-minded’.
This primitive terminology may be one of those bits of history we’d now prefer to forget, along with the eugenics policies also enthusiastically supported by Pinsent (and Churchill, Neville Chamberlain and many others). It does seem a shame, though, if genuinely admirable and commemorable individual achievements get overlooked in the process.
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham