‘Death Makes me Poor’: Telling Women’s Stories in British History

Kathy Hipperson & Simon Kirk of Time Will Tell Theatre in ‘Death Makes me Poor’

As part of Women’s History Month we have been talking to heritage practitioners and historians about Women’s History and the many ways of telling the stories of fascinating females throughout time.

Here we talk to Kathy Hipperson, one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, about her most recent work, which focuses on forgotten stories from History – with women front and centre of the tale.

Time Will Tell Theatre is a theatre company specifically put together to add more drama to history! However we aren’t particularly interested in the well-known, often told bits of history, we like to find bits that, as a rule, not many have considered. And this year we have been commissioned to tell two very specific, virtually unknown stories.

The first, set against the backdrop of The Great War, featured the charter of a Royal Society; the second a story from the British Civil Wars, featured petitions to Parliament. The one thing they had in common was their involvement in women’s history in Britain.

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‘The Way to the Stars’ at the Royal Astronomical Society

‘The Way to the Stars’, a piece commissioned by the Royal Astronomical Society, was performed at the society’s meeting held in January 2016 and celebrated the Centenary of the first female fellows to be voted into the society. The performance was half an hour and was a journey through time, from female Ancient Greek astronomers to those risking their lives during World War One to track the path of comets.

While the rest of the country was enduring the pain and uncertainty of war in 1916 the Society’s male fellows decided to approach the Privy Council, to ask for all male terms and references in their charter to be changed to something non-gender specific. This then would allow female fellows to be voted into the society. Our journey in researching, writing and performing this play introduced us to some wonderful female astronomers, including Mandy Bailey whose article about women in the RAS is fascinating.

Recently we performed ‘Death Makes Me Poor’ as part of an opening to a new exhibition at the National Civil War Centre, Newark. The exhibition itself is called ‘Battle Scarred’ and is a look at surgery, medicine and military welfare during the British Civil Wars, when Parliament fought against King Charles IAt first glance the exhibition might appear to be all war and gore, but it includes petitions to Parliament from those wounded fighting in the war AND from the widows of those killed.  

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‘Death Makes me Poor’ at the National Civil War Centre, Newark

The story of Parliament’s passing of this ordinance and its attempt to honour its commitment to serving soldiers and their families is interesting on many levels, but the parts of the tale that were particularly relevant to us in telling the women’s story were these:

  • Only those injured, and the widows of men killed, whilst fighting in the service of Parliament during the Civil War could apply for support. (Meaning that royalist widows got nothing!)
  • While those injured in war had, in the past, been allowed to personally petition for pensions, this was the first time that widows and female dependants were allowed to do so.
  • The widows could be from any level of society. The only requirement was that they could draft the petition. It wasn’t just for the privileged wives of officers.

Part of the reason for this ordinance was the same motivation as that of the British government in 1915: to encourage men to join the cause by referring to their wives – “come and join the army, if anything happens to you we will look after your family and widow”. But the really important thing is the acknowledgment of Parliament’s responsibility to support the women themselves if needed. It gave women of all statuses a new found legal right.

Unfortunately the reality was, that as the wars dragged on, the pensions and payments given were woefully inadequate, and the money given to the widows of officers was far more generous than the £2 or £3 offered to widows of soldiers. But the significance of the ordinance in women’s history is huge!

But only short lived. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and from then on only those who had supported the royal cause during the war were allowed to petition. Even then, it would seem those Royalist widows who did petition were less likely to gain a pension –  more likely a single, gentle arm-patting, one-off payment.

This new, radical acknowledgment of women within the law courts would no longer break any new ground.

 

I am in awe of the passion of those female astronomers – working so hard at their science with great commitment, knowing that their work could only be recognised through men,and we should not forget the role of the men of the Royal Astronomical Society who, with what seems like very little pressure, changed their charter to bring about history.

And then the strength of those widows of the 17th Century is staggering. According to their petitions, they had in many cases been subjected to abuse during the war, so to then enter the male legal world to ask for help was extremely courageous. They were often required to appear in person at their hearing, standing alone before a court of men to ask for support.

As our projects for the rest of the year look towards the Battle of Hastings, King Arthur and the Gospels at Lindesfarne I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of telling these stories of women in history.

Kathy is one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, a theatre company set up to work mainly in the heritage industry. Simon and Kathy have been working in the field of historical interpretation and education for over 15 years, both training as actors now can be found putting on site specific and historically specific productions across the country.

Find out more about Kathy here.

Follow Kathy on Twitter.

Tell us what you think of this piece: Tweet @History_Riot !

 

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