Preservative Party: In Their Footsteps


We’re delighted to welcome Lauren Theweneti from the Preservative Party in Leeds this week. We asked her to tell us about their First World War exhibition (which opens TODAY) and moving beyond statistics to find the personal stories of those involved…


Footsteps ww1.jpg
Lauren & Tillie holding Temple Newsam Auxiliary Hospital certificate (copyright Leeds Museums & Galleries)

Hi, I’m Lauren, a member of the Preservative Party. The Preservative Party is comprised of around twenty 14-24 year olds and we work with Leeds Museums and Galleries, especially Leeds City Museum, on projects and exhibitions for the general public. For the past few years we have been working towards our new exhibition called In Their Footsteps, which aims to tell the personal stories of people from Leeds who were involved in the First World War.

The project has been coming together extremely well and is now opening to the general public on  the 1st July 2016- exactly 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme.

As a group we have done extensive research into the war and the impact that it had on people’s lives. We hope that our exhibition will move past statistics and evaluate the conflict and its impact in a much more personal way, one which includes stories of those who we may forget were affected by the it.

The most significant way that we have done this is by expanding the themes of our exhibition. Instead of making this a project that focuses solely on the experience of soldiers we have also researched the lives of the amazing women who also had a huge impact on the war effort. We wanted to give a voice to the courageous women who are often forgotten in traditional evaluations, due to the fact that they very rarely went right to the Front.

My research looked specifically at nursing stories of the First World War, and through our research we selected three key nurses whose lives we were going to follow. These nurses – Annie Storey, Lucy Manley and Violet Towers – all nursed in Leeds at some time during the war, then either moved elsewhere in the country or were shipped overseas. We were lucky to work with Special Collections at the University of Leeds who hold their archives as part of the Liddle Collection. Our research was supported and they have allowed us to loan the objects for the exhibition!

Each of these nurses has an amazing story that we have tried to tell.

My favourite story follows the life of Nurse Violet Towers. Violet nursed at Beckett’s Park hospital in Leeds throughout the War. It was on one of the wards that she met the man that she would later marry. Relationships between nurses and soldiers were not really encouraged, yet this couple managed to keep their relationship secret throughout the war, with Violet’s soon to be husband then following her overseas after the War. It was stories like these that we wanted to tell. We want to be able to show people that life went on and there was some semblance of normalcy even when this devastating war was gripping the world.


Find out more:

@Preservative Party

In Their Footsteps

Leeds Museums & Galleries


Always the performer never the creator…?



Historical Dance specialist, teacher and choreographer Charlotte Ewart takes us through a history of women’s involvement in dance – and how they have consistently been overshadowed by their male counterparts…





This week I went to see Frankenstein, a newly commissioned ballet by Liam Scarlett the current wonderboy of the Royal Ballet. While not a perfectly formed piece it certainly had flashes of genius in it and I’m sure Scarlett is a man with a bright choreographic future. A Man. This new work was also brought to us with two leading male stars, the current male artistic director of the Royal, a male designer, a male composer and a male guest conductor. In such a female dominated profession and pastime – a pastime that despite Billy Elliot still is subject to gender stereotyping (how many boys go to ballet classes after all) – where are the women? Why, when there are so many more women in the industry at entry level, are there not more of us running companies and producing work at the highest level?

Was it always thus? Is dance yet another area in history where women have been marginalised and written out? I’m afraid to say that although there are noted female performers and women who have been used as muses, by and large it is the men – the choreographers – who are the celebrated ones.

Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuti from around c.1400.jpg
Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto, c.1400

I study and reconstruct dances from the past. Sometimes the distant past. Dance from the time of knights and princesses, dance from the time of Jane Austen and her male-obsessed peers, and dance from the time of the powerful Renaissance queens.

How do I do this? When I reconstruct any movement from the C15th onwards I refer to the few existing manuscripts that describe dance. Prior to this time it’s all conjecture – guesswork at movement gleaned from iconography, diaries, stories etc. Women feature prominently as performers, particularly in the iconography. We know women performed as dancers from the dawn of civilisation – many historians would have us believe they were all courtesans. I disagree. My current research is recreating C13th aristocratic European court dance. Some evidence lay in tournaments accounts. Tournaments are often viewed through the lens of knights competing at the tilt. Jacques Bretel’s account of the Tournai de Chauvency in 1285 gives us an intriguing view of the role the evening activities played in the event and the equal regard in which the evening was held.


Noble women ran the evening activities, which were lead by dance or dance-dramas and these evening activities were held in the same high regard as the tilting during the day. Why do we not know – because the accounts are scant and many records only refer to those who attended and who won what – how different we might look on things if the evening entertainment had been recorded in the same manner. (My research is ongoing, s watch this space!)

Of the actual notations, men write all. The first recorded choreography is from 1445. Written by the male dancing master Domenico di Pianaza. Others run throughout the C16th/17th. There is a simple explanation for why women were absent, as while some women of very high and noble status could and did publish, dancing masters were not from the noble class. A female dancing master could never therefore have existed. Like Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A room of one’s own’ (which eloquently argues why Shakespeare could never have been a woman), a woman could never have been a dancing master. However, a noble lady could commission a man to do her bidding and many of the manuscripts are named after, dedicated to, or for the use of certain high-ranking noble women. To return to Domenico, he dedicated his dances to Isabella D’Este. The purpose of his being was a woman.

Isabella d’Este
Isabella d’Este (Wikimedia Commons)

A century and a half later, we move really into a golden age of dance. With the advent of Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581, we reach a place where I believe women were very much in control of the art that was produced. Catherine de Medici commissioned Ballet Comique and, one could argue, it forms the basis of every subsequent court Masque / Ballet. The golden age of court masques – a form of theatre that combined music, dance, acting, acrobatics, elaborate set design, allegory and song – occurred from the late C16th up to the English Civil War, when the form was all but decimated. It continued in a different vein in France under the guidance of Louis XIV and grew into the birth of modern ballet.


Costume designs by Inigo jones for the Queen and ladies of the masque Oberon (1611): Did Anne of Denmark really perform bare breasted?


Women like Catherine, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria performed in virtuosic displays of graceful movement. And yet we study the Masque not through who motivated its inception i.e. the women, but their servants – in England’s case, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones most prominently. Yes, they may have been queens first and foremost, but I would suggest that it may be more interesting to look at how Anne appearing bare-breasted  represented and invoked an Amazonian power, or how Henrietta Maria used professional female performers during a time when the ‘accepted’ history claims that all women’s parts were played by men. We still have a popular notion that women didn’t feature on the British stage prior to the Restoration.

As we move into the Baroque and Regency periods, dance notation and teaching is still dominated by men, although we do continue to see star female performers and dedications to female nobility. By the late C18th / early C19th we also start to see female dance teachers appear. While not great in number, adverts for well respected women appear to teach ladies and gentlemen in the art of dance.

By and large however while we see female dancers revered, almost fetishised, it is still the men who get the glory. Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cherito and their peers were all celebrated prima ballerinas controlled and choreographed by men.


Pas de Quatre – The four greatest prima Ballerinas (Image- Victoria and Albert Museum)
Pas de Quatre – the four greatest prima ballerinas (V&A Museum)

We remember and hail Fokine, Bournonville, Balanchine, Ashton and the names bar a few of the women who danced their steps are forgotten. Many have heard of Nijinsky and his controversial Rite of Spring and lascivious L’apres midi d’faun but how many know about his sister Nijinska and her triumphant feminist piece Les Noces?



Bronislava Nijinska
Bronislava Nikinska


Dance is intangible. That is its greatest asset and its greatest weakness. Unlike a painting or a novel that survives to live beyond the death of its author, dance is truly existential. There is nothing more immediate and unrepeatable. The performer can embody the greatest beauty in one moment BUT only in that one moment then it is lost forever. The only tangible thing to hook onto in dance is choreography and the choreographer. And even in this age of emancipation and (almost) equal opportunities we find that women are being ignored and sidelined – doomed to be the performed but never the celebrated creator.

If we can’t manage it now, what hope did they have in the past?


Read more about the history of dance: The Female Choreographers Collective The Historical Dance Society (Formally Dolmetsch) Early Dance Circle My Website! Where are all the female choreographers. Good article on the first masque. Exploration of the Tounai de Chauvency


My Life as a Live Interpreter

LJ stylist
Image: Stylist magazine

This month we’re focussing on creating empathy with our interpretations of historical women. 

Here, History Riot-er Lauren Johnson takes us through an average day as a Live Interpreter, and how immediately impactful and affecting this form of Historical Interpretation can be for visitors.

Today when we meet, I’m Lauren Johnson, historian, writer, and twenty-first century scruffbag. Tomorrow I might meet you while I wearily clean dishes in the scullery at Audley End House. Or perhaps you’ll be kneeling before me, your queen, at Hampton Court Palace. If you’re really unlucky I might be shooting a siege engine in your direction at the Tower of London.

These are just some of the multiple identities I inhabit in my weird working life as a costumed interpreter. For the past five years I have worked at some of the most beautiful heritage sites in Britain, pretending to be people from the past. From the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, I’ve worn a lot of uncomfortable clothing, an enormous array of unflattering headgear and I now have very defined calves thanks to half a decade of stamping about on cobbles in completely flat shoes.

If you’re still not sure what I do for a living, you’re not alone. Live, sometimes called Costumed or Historical, Interpretation is still relatively unknown, despite there being a daily costumed presence at both the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace since the early 1990s. Live interpretation sits somewhere between re-enactment and theatre. The simplest way to explain it is to say that I dress in the costume of a particular era and engage visitors to a heritage site by, basically, pretending to be a historical character. For instance, I’ve quite often played Katherine Parr at Hampton Court Palace. As Katherine, I’ll do a mixture of timed performances with other interpreters – which all adapt to the audience we have – and wandering the Tudor route in ‘freeflow’, inhabiting the spaces and talking to visitors as if it’s still the 1540s.

Costumed Interpreter

However, my job is even a little stranger than that. I am the Research Manager for Past Pleasures, one of the oldest Live Interpretation companies in the UK. So I spend half my time in costume and half of it researching for the team. It’s a bit of a bipolar existence. One day I might be a princess holding court at Dover Castle in front of a packed great hall, standing to attention and cheering what I say. The next I’m all alone in a silent library, huddled over a pile of books. As Research Manager I produce research packs for the whole interpretation team at Past Pleasures, which gives them a way into an era or event that we are interpreting. That’s over 80 people, and during the four years I’ve done the job I’ve produced 60 packs, which is not a bad output compared with the number of essays I did during my degree!

You might be wondering how I got into a job like this. And certainly I would have done a few years back. I studied History at Oxford University, and during my whole time there I never knew that such a career existed. I had rather assumed I would go down the academic route of immersing myself in dusty tomes and hushed reading rooms, channeling all my desire to perform into the improvised comedy group I was part of, The Oxford Imps. However, while studying for my Masters I realised I didn’t necessarily want to just keep focusing more and more intently on one single era, or sit in silence for the rest of my working life. I wanted to communicate with others about History and explore all the periods I had never really looked into during my degree. It was after my Masters, while I was working as a classroom assistant in Bristol, that I heard on the improv grapevine about this job where you dressed up like a Tudor at Hampton Court Palace and I thought, ‘I have to do that!’ ‘That’, I learnt, was working for Past Pleasures, and after sending in a CV and essay, going for interview, and having training I finally started as a Live Interpreter in early 2008.

‘As we stood in the very rooms that the real Catherine Howard would once have passed through you could see a ripple of grim understanding pass over the crowd’s faces… We had come face to face with the past.’

I still enjoy attending conferences – it’s great to dip back into academia and meet world experts in their chosen field – but I think I have the best of both worlds now. I undertake research – sometimes quite intense, and always rigorous, combing through primary sources or historiography of different eras – but I also get to educate, perform and debate with the public about history more generally.

You do butt up against some strange preconceptions in this job. I once had a woman insist I could not be a real medieval character because I had eyebrows. On another occasion, my colleague – who was dressed as the seventeenth-century Duke of Monmouth – was asked, over the course of a single day, if he was Henry VIII, Robin Hood or Jesus. However, those peculiar moments are massively outweighed by the rewarding interactions you have, however briefly, with members of the public.

I remember doing a scenario about Catherine Howard’s arrest at Hampton Court, and it ended with me as one of her ladies in waiting being dismissed from Court. I had to explain what that meant to the crowd, and ultimately what would happen to Catherine, a character they had just seen escorted away to the Tower. As we stood in the very rooms that the real Catherine would once have passed through you could see a ripple of grim understanding pass over the crowd’s faces – there was one woman in particular, who went from grinning and playing along, seeing it all as a bit of fun, to realising that this really had happened, a matter of yards from where we were now standing, and it ended with a young woman being killed. By the end she had tears in her eyes. She had come face to face with the past, and it really affected her.

Costumed interpreter with crowds

I have also had moments where the driest of historical topics have utterly fascinated visitors, in a way that I think only costumed interpretation – and the human interaction it engenders – can achieve. Most children visiting the Tower of London want to know where the executions took place, where people were tortured and imprisoned, but one ten-year-old I met became absolutely entranced by a reconstructed document we had. It was the household account of a fourteenth century noblewoman, listing the number of herring being moved from one of her estates to another. Not exactly ‘ghoulish tales from the Tower’. But this boy sat with me at a table in the Medieval Palace for a good quarter of an hour, just reading through the clerical script, getting excited when he recognised words and asking where the herring ended up. His parents looked completely bewildered. I really hope that one day he becomes the leading academic on fish transportation of the high Middle Ages, and dates his interest back to that juvenile encounter with a lady in costume at the Tower.

I am incredibly fortunate to be doing this job. It combines things I am absolutely passionate about – History, teaching – with activities I love doing – researching, reading History books, and performing. But probably one of the most amazing things is simply working in the spaces that I do. Our breakroom at Hampton Court is in the old queens’ apartments. So Jane Seymour gave birth and died somewhere in that complex of rooms. Anne Boleyn lived there, and Catherine of Aragon.

At the Tower of London I’ve been in Thomas More’s cell and on the roof of the White Tower, which for 800 years was the highest point in all of London. The men’s changing room at the Tower is next to a portcullis and medieval painted beams.

It is just the most incredible place to work. Sometimes when you leave after a rehearsal at night you’re walking through these totally deserted, ancient spaces and you can feel that you’re a part of the history of that building. Which, for a historian, is pretty much the best feeling in the world.

This piece was originally blogged at Mother’s Always Right as ‘Life as a Costumed Interpreter’ in 2013. Here at History Riot we prefer the term ‘Live Interpretation’ (just because).

If you want to read more about what that is, have a look at our piece explaining Live Interpretation here.

Empathy – Historical Sanitisation or Human Celebration?

Rosanna Heverin, co-editor of History Riot, museum educator and live int476604_10151472031725257_417221119_o - Copyerpreter, discusses the role of empathy in the presentation of two exceptional women, Anne Boleyn and Amy Johnson.

Whilst walking round the Museums and Heritage Show a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Association for Heritage Interpretation’s stall, and they were kind enough to give me a copy of their bi-annual magazine. The theme they were exploring was empathy, and it got me thinking.

In my professional life, outside of being a History Riot-er, I am a museum educator. I have been lucky enough to teach at a glorious range of sites on a glorious range of subjects, from a rather frantic demonstration of the Tudor great chain of being in the splendour of the Great Hall in Hampton Court Palace, to handling Second World War artefacts underneath the fuselage of a Lancaster. But the one thing that doesn’t change, whatever it is I am teaching about, is that it is my job to engage and enthuse people of all ages about history. And the best way I can do that – irrespective of what era I am teaching about or what age group I am teaching – is with empathy. Getting children to imagine what it would have been like to be in Dresden or Berlin and look up at the night skies and see hundreds upon hundreds of Lancasters in formation. Asking women to imagine a world where they exist legally as property, first of their father and then of their husband. It is both a brilliant way into subjects and ticks a National Curriculum box for those stressed school teachers who are heroes for organising school trips to these amazing heritage sites.

A Lancaster flying over Germany on a bombing raid

But I have been thinking – for more specific learning experiences or heritage interpretations that are centred around a historical individual – how should we be empathising with these people? Is there a wrong way and a right way to empathise? Is it hiding the more negative aspects of these historical peoples’ characters to promote the good?

“Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason or innocent, so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide”

It is no secret that one of my favourite historical women of all time is Anne Boleyn. I believe she features on many peoples’ lists of favourite historical women (because I’m not the only one who writes these kinds of lists…right?). I have seen Anne interpreted myriad of ways. In Wolf Hall she was a rather sour faced, highly strung piece of work (played exceptionally by Claire Foy); in The Tudors she was ambitious and infatuated with the King (a hugely popular portrayal by Natalie Dormer). In The Other Boleyn Girl she is, brilliantly, a truly horrific human, bizarrely quick to decide sleeping with her brother is the only logical way to deal with the fact she has not yet given Henry VIII a son…Now I’m not saying these are wrong or right (although the last one is completely ridiculous). Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason (the Eric Ives school of thinking) or innocent (the Alison Weir version) – so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide on an Anne. But a heritage site, and educators and interpreters at those sites, have a greater responsibility than novelists or screenwriters.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors_
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

 Last summer, I saw a portrayal of Anne Boleyn in which she giggled, simpered, snogged Thomas Wyatt and shouted a bit. On stage, on film or on the page, this could have been an interesting dramatisation of a character. The problem is that Anne was a real person, not a creation, and we weren’t watching a play, we were stood in a historical site with an incredible reputation.

This interpretation had been chosen – it had been written by a playwright commissioned by the management team of the heritage site, and directed to be this way. It will have been researched and discussed and selected by the department in charge of live interpretation. The interpretation formed a free part of the site’s regular daily offer – people did not buy tickets for their day with the expectation they would see some museum theatre. Instead it was placed alongside static interpretation and knowledgable guides, so for those visitors who may not know too much about Anne Boleyn, this interpretation had every appearance of researched, reliable, trustworthy interpretation.

Heritage sites have a high cultural capital. Visitors, quite rightly, expect heritage sites to deliver accurate research in an engaging way. Watching Anne flirt with Wyatt was faintly amusing, but almost certainly inaccurate (there is no documented proof that Anne and Wyatt had a physical relationship of any sort or at any time), which felt wrong to me, and utterly devoid of empathy. Listening to the murmurs of visitors around me (“ooh, she was a right madam, wasn’t she?” “you can see why she had to get her head cut off”) was difficult. I have taught about Anne and I have interpreted Anne, and whatever camp you fall into – innocent or guilty, Ives or Weir – the un-debatable truth is that she was a person. A woman who lived and breathed, and loved and danced, and argued and felt afraid and frightened. A woman who died when her daughter was only two years old.

“Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.”

In creating Anne as a caricature, the portrayal lost humanity and so invoked no empathy in the audience. Every fascinating, engaging, controversial, thought-provoking aspect of her life, of Tudor Queens and of Tudor womanhood was ignored. And I realised – it is the pursuit of empathy for the historical people we discuss that helps create this vital dialogue between visitors and heritage interpreters, especially live interpreters. Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I am currently writing an education session for Key Stage 2 children about Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson was undeniably an incredibly fascinating woman. She was the first woman to fly to Australia, she was at one point the only woman in the entire world to be an engineer and she was the inspiration for many young women who took up flying in the 1930s, who would make up a part of that vital force, the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) in World War Two. Jane Cartwright, as a part of Spectrum Drama, does a lovely workshop about Amy when she completely enthrals children with the tale of Amy’s flight to Australia.

amy j
Amy Johnson

 What she doesn’t mention, and what I am not planning to mention in my session, is that Amy was also referred to as the ‘Gimme Gimme’ girl for her apparent love of freebies; that she was not necessarily a great pilot; that she had a sense of entitlement borne of her fame and that, simply put, she probably wouldn’t be the easiest person to sit and have a coffee with. Yet all these traits make her incredibly empathetic and are very understandable – she had worried about money most of her  life (hence the love of freebies), she had the guts to fly to Australia so who cares if she wasn’t great at landing, she had had to fight for every scrap of her fame and she had lost her sister at a young age and been treated horribly by men so yes, perhaps she was a little prickly. So why am I not going to mention them?

Primarily it is because we need more STEM role models for children, especially girls, so that is what I am going to focus on. It is also largely because it would be slightly ridiculous to try and get Year 4 pupils to consider the long-term ramifications of childhood austerity. But also because Amy, like Anne, was a real woman who lived and was brilliant. Empathy isn’t the sanitising of the aspects of history we don’t like. Empathy is the discussion and celebration of what made historical people just like us; it is a way of bringing a site to life; it makes research sing and sparkle from the page and it brings the past closer than any other skill heritage interpreters have.

Empathy is vital. Without it, we have a country of soulless and dull museums and historic houses, and the people who lived there once upon are relegated to being caricatures. But with empathy? Then we have something magical.

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and and co-editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin

Meet an ATS Girl

Amy Rhodes, actor and live interpreter, talks us through the process of creating and delivering a interactive costumed presentation, “Meet an ATS Girl”, and introduces the fascinating role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the Second World War.

Since 2012 I have been engaged by Griffin Historical, on behalf of English Heritage, to deliver a talk, ‘Meet an ATS girl and learn about many of the important roles women played in the Second World War’. The talk is part of a programme in a performance tent at the World War Two weekend at Dover Castle. Armed only with an aircraft recognition poster, a set of model planes and my trusty ‘37 pattern uniform, I love the challenge of enticing people away from the life size spitfire and the living history encampments to learn about the early history of women in the military.


When I started researching the ATS (women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) I was fascinated by the subject. The ATS was formed by Royal warrant in 1938, but its origins can be traced back to the middle of the First World War. The Women’s Legion was formed in 1915 to enable women to volunteer their time and cook for the Army. By 1916, and with heavy casualties on the Western front, the British Government acknowledged that women could take over certain non-combatant roles to enable more men to go and fight on the front line. In 1917 this voluntary service became the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) who received Royal Patronage in 1918 becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC).

Some of the cooks of the WAAC

In 1939 there were only five jobs suitable for ATS recruits: cooks, orderlies, medics, clerical staff or drivers. But as the war went on more job opportunities opened up. I chose to concentrate on the role of women in the Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) mixed batteries on the Home Front who worked alongside the gunners of the Royal Artillery. General Sir Frederick Pile of AA Command suggested that women be allowed to fill in the manpower gaps by undertaking all duties on the battery, with the exception of heavy manual labour and the actual firing of the Anti-Aircraft guns.

“With the talk beginning to take shape I had to consider how I could include the public. The talk was publicised as a ‘learning’ experience, and was taking place in a performance tent, so how could I make it interesting and engaging for all ages?”

 I settled on the idea of getting the public to have a go at aircraft recognition using the public warning poster. I prefaced the task by explaining about the importance of swiftly identifying any approaching aircraft. Then I issued the children with binoculars, and using either model planes or original playing cards – used for training by the ATS – I would endeavour to engage the public and provoke some audience participation. I asked them to think about the four key aspects of aircraft recognition: WEFT (Wings, Engine configuration, Fuselage Shape and Tail type). The response to this activity is always positive, with everyone having a chance to join in and be included without feeling coerced.

On to the next challenge! How to present this topic when there are many people, both men and women, whose military service during WWII, either as a volunteer or through conscription, is in living memory?

For the first couple of years I presented the talk in character as Private Whitfield, an ATS aircraft spotter and telephonist, but I found that being in first person made it confusing – people were believing I really was in the army! So this year, 2016, I decided to present the talk as myself – in uniform  – which instantly solved the problem of misleading the public. I amended all of my seemingly personal experiences, borrowed from accounts written by members of the ATS, such as Vee Robinson, author of ‘Sisters in Arms’, who recalled having to soak her badly blistered feet after her first day of square bashing with the drill instructor, to general observations and experiences of the ATS.  The result this year was that I only received one question about whether I had served in the military – prompted by a uniform faux pas.

In ATS uniform at Dover Castle

“These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education.”

The feedback I generally receive from the public is varied, from ex-servicemen having an opinion on working alongside women, to people who had mothers who served in the ATS. However, many people did not realise that women featured so prominently in the Second World War. Or that by 1945 the jobs available to the ATS had swelled from 5 to 100 – not only serving at home but also overseas in Europe, North Africa and the West Indies. These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education. They moved away from the domestic roles of their mothers and carved a brighter future for the women of Britain.

The ATS memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

Right to fight? A female history of violence

Actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter Lucy Charles takes us through a brief history of women’s involvement in violence – whether as protest, war effort or martial art.

EWDHaving exercised my right to vote in yesterday’s elections, my thoughts wondered to fellow Royal Holloway alumna Emily Wilding Davison, and the violent means undertaken by the Suffragettes in order for us to be able to mark the ballot paper. (Emily Wilding Davison died as a result of injuries she received at the Epsom Derby in 1913, trying to draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement.)

Emily and I share the same university, the same belief in equal rights with men, but I would not have laid down my life for the cause, so how far would I have gone? Would I have smashed windows, chained myself to railings, fought with weapons against those who stood in my way? Throughout history women have had to fight, and overstep the boundaries of convention to be heard and to secure change. Boudicca in England, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, Joan of Arc in France, Nzinga Mbande in Angola, Nakano Takeko in Japan – these are just a few examples of those who took up arms and led forces in combat for their cause.

Lucy Spitfire 2

Still from ‘Brodworth at War’. Women were not able to fly planes in active combat, only between domestic airbases. Their work as plotters were key in winning the Battle of Britain.

Women who fight continue to perplex those who promote the accepted view that women are the ‘fairer,’ ‘gentler’ sex.

There are countless deities dedicated to war from around the world, many of them goddesses, as well as examples of violent women in popular culture: Medea guilty of infanticide, Lady Macbeth inciting regicide, the White Witch guilty of terrorising Narnians and Buffy, on the flip side, on her nightly missions slaying the daemons of the west coast. The question of whether women can fight alongside men in the military is still a taboo for many, the recurring argument being that sex will get in the way and detract the attention from the task in hand. Sex and violence seem inextricably linked. Rape is a recognised ‘weapon of war,’ and is even mentioned in the Bible.




Empress Menen said in 1935, “women in this world are connected and have the same desires in maintaining world peace and love… In spite of the differences of colour, race, creed and religion between women in this world, they all hate war because the fruit of war is nothing but disaster.”

Empress Menen

Her words echo the plot of Aristophanes poignant comedy Lysistrata (written way back in 411 BCE ), an amusing, risqué plot that sees women reclaiming the power of sex. The play highlights the constant blight of the Peloponnesian wars. So fed up of losing their beloved menfolk, Lysistrata leads the women in a sex strike in order to achieve peace. The women further enrage the Athenean men by seizing control of the Acropolis and barring them, thus keeping them away from state treasure used to fund the fruitless wars.

In a similar vein, enraged by extortionate taxes used to fund years of war with France, Johanna Ferrour, an English commoner, was instrumental in what became known as the Peasants Revolt in 1381. She was ‘chief instigator’ of a mob of commoners who surged to London and, for the first time in its history, took the Tower of London. Convinced that the young King Richard II was being manipulated by the Lord Treasurer and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Johanna ordered their beheadings.

Women had to contribute in siege warfare, so as not to be seen as ‘useless mouths’, taking up valuable resources without contributing to the war effort. Operating siege engines from within the castle was imperative, as was the case in the death of Simon de Montfort, killed by women operating a mangonel at a siege in southern France. There is also evidence of active female participation in the Fechtbuch I33, Europe’s oldest known fight manual, circa 1300. Walpurgis is shown in combat with sword and buckler, one of the earliest visuals of women actively engaged in martial art form in the West.

I33 getty images.jpg
Still from a fight display with Matt Wood, at the Antiquarian Book Fair, for the modern reproduction of the medieval manuscript.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Suffragettes resorted to more proactive, violent means. They were encouraged to learn Jiu-Jitsu by Emmeline Pankhurst. Peter Blewett, Chief Instructor of The Budokwai, Europe’s oldest Martial Arts Club established in 1918, states that, “Judo translates as the ‘gentle way,’ whereby you yield to your opponents’ force, effectively using it against them. Jiu-Jitsu works with the same principle, Edith Garrud who taught Jiu-Jitsu to fellow Suffragettes was a slight woman and fought off police officers who had a minimum height restriction of 5’10. It was paramount that the Suffragettes were able to protect themselves. They were so effective at it, the term ‘Suffragitsu’ was coined.”


Budokwai poster (2).JPG
Poster from 1919 by S. Begg. The bottom right reads, “Judo, gentle art of self dance. Lady throws man.”

The old adage says that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword,’ and I have the luxury to hold this view because throughout history, there have been women who have engaged in the physical language the ruling establishment understood: violence.

Lucy Charles


A Day in the Life of a Writer




Our own Lauren Johnson (author, historian and editor of this here blog) takes us through the reality of a day in the life of a writer…




A day in the life of a writer sounds pretty exciting. If you’re like me aged 12 you probably picture dusty garrets, inglenook fireplaces and a quilt-covered heroine nibbling meditatively on a quill pen while writing The Next Great Work of History. Basically a cross between Jo March, Sir Walter Ralegh at the Tower of London and Carrie Bradshaw during those episodes in Paris.

Carrie Bradshaw Paris

The reality is rather more prosaic. Essentially my day boils down to ‘get up, eat, try to write, eat, try to write some more, eat, try to sleep’ with varying degrees of success at all of these tasks. Except eating. I always accomplish that one. And while I do occasionally have to bundle myself up in a slanket (the modern woman’s patchwork quilt) it’s usually because I’m too much of a skinflint to put the heating on, since writing is not all that lucrative a profession.

That’s also the reason I so consistently look like a survivor of a dystopian future – knitwear piled on thermals piled on boots, topped off with an enormous scarf. Well, that and the fact that when you spend your entire day inside your own head, the exterior of your body starts to diminish in importance.

So, a day in the life begins: having had my breakfast (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) I sit at my desk, in my ergochair – seriously, if you spend hours in a stress position like I do, you must get one of these, they will save your spine – and start to write. Ha, ha. Only kidding. I actually just stare at what I wrote the day before with mounting desperation, horror and frustration. Having realised that I am, at best, an idiot and, at worst, illiterate I then try to form up the reams of notes I have collated over the past several months into a structured, interesting chapter of a book.

The process here is pretty much the same whether I’m writing non-fiction (So Great a Prince, a history of the first year of Henry VIII’s reign) or historical fiction (The Arrow of Sherwood, a C12th origin story of Robin Hood). The only difference really is the degree to which I extrapolate and interpret – and the absence or presence of imaginary characters. Non-fiction rather frowns on made up people, for obvious reasons.

Al fresco writing, prolonging the pre-brain-dead-phase a little longer.

After a few hours of this, when I am clearly incapable of forming sentences and have sat starting at a blank page for twenty minutes, it is time for lunch (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS).  Since I usually write at home, lunch is had slumped in front of the telly with a laptray of soup (I told you it wasn’t glamorous).

Then back to the grindstone – for a little while. After four years of writing, I have come to know the patterns of my working brain pretty well and unfortunately one of them is that shortly after lunch I will have a good two hours of complete and utter stupidity. Genuinely, I can barely stay awake, never mind write. During this ‘brain-dead time’ I try my hardest to do something that is good for my otherwise-ignored body, like move it on a walk or put it in the gym or take it to meet some other bodies with brains attached – sorry, I mean, friends. Because as guilty as I may feel at this protracted break there is resolutely no point trying to plough through the brain-dead time. It just leaves me tired and achey. (Breaks? ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS).

Once my brain activity is slightly restored I assume the stress position once more, stare at my laptop and write for another two or three hours, finishing for supper (you guessed it, ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) at about 7 or 8. Once I’m done in the evening, that’s it for me. I close the door on my writing and do something else for the night. Treating writing like a job rather than a hobby you should feel constantly guilty for not indulging is as important as any other habit I’ve learnt. If it’s a job you know that you have to do it every day, but you also know you have to have an occasional holiday and take the evening off. I don’t usually set myself a word count for the day. I prefer to have a specific narrative end point I want to reach: ‘I can’t finish until I’ve written this section about bears’ or whatever. (Yes, there is a section about bears in my history book.)

The evening is often spent alone, since after 12 hours of solitude I am not great company. Writing all day does weird things to both your eyesight and your brain. Despite having occasionally written some fairly decent sentences during the day – with words and commas and everything! – by evening I find myself incapable of human speech. It’s like my tongue has forgotten how to form words. My fingers, meanwhile, twitch. All in all it doesn’t make for a very active social life. ‘Shall we invite Old Squinteyes McTwitch out for a pint?’ ‘You know she’ll just sit in silence and occasionally utter malformed sentences.’ ‘Let’s ask anyway.’ Unfortunately, having forgotten how to speak, I am unable to accept the invitation.

In any case, in the last phases of writing-up, socialising with modern, living human beings starts to seem like a mad distraction from the 500-year-past existence in which you’re living, 16 hours a day. Even when you’re not writing or reading, you’re thinking about the world of your work. It’s like having a really weird new boyfriend. It becomes an obsession.

And what no one ever tells you about having your writing published – which is, after all, the ideal end result of all this effort – is that it means it’s finished. Over. Norwegian blue. When people say ‘kill your darlings’ this is why. Because whether you kill them in rewrites or your editor does in proofs or your deadline forces their destruction, those darlings are going to get it. Once the writing’s no longer your private scribbles but a printed, public book the work is – in a very real way – dead. You can’t change the structure. You can’t add in that conversation between your imaginary characters. You can’t correct the stupid mistake you made on p.197 and have only just noticed. The book, baby, is finito. And that is a very weird, curiously sad state of affairs. When I wrote the last chapter of So Great a Prince, looking beyond the year of 1509 (where I’d been living for 18 months) to four decades of turbulence and change in the country I had so lovingly recreated I genuinely felt like crying. All these figures who had been so real in my imagination – who were real, and exist in paper form for anyone to read about – were dispensed with in a few sentences. Bye bye, Alice Middleton. Farewell, Thomasine Percyvale and your blue-saddled horse. Hasta la vista, William Compton. Writing the end of that book was a form of mini-bereavement.

So that’s a day in the life of a writer for you. Frustration, excitement, obsession, boredom, unduly belated grief. And then, if you’re lucky, you get up and do the whole thing again, swaddled in knitwear and biscuit crumbs.

Roll on, Book Three…



Counterfeiting, Crime & Catherine Heyland



Educator Megan Gooch (Learning Producer for Historic Royal Palaces) introduces us to Catherine Heyland, a coin counterfeiter risking her life for her trade…



Spending a penny was a dangerous business in 1788. Seriously. If the money you spent included a counterfeit coin, you could be convicted of high treason and executed.

Today, when the rate of counterfeit pound coins is estimated to be 3% of those in circulation, you’ve almost certainly ‘passed off’ a counterfeit coin in your time. You criminal! Luckily the punishments are not so severe these days. In 1788 men would be hanged, drawn and quartered for this crime, and women burned at the stake, which was somehow deemed a more modest end for the ladies.

So it was a pretty desperate, bold or foolish young woman who engaged in the nefarious activity of not just using counterfeits, but making them. Catherine Heyland was such a woman.

Heyland and her accomplices were caught red-handed in 1787 in a garret workshop full of incriminating evidence. Catherine was wearing an apron, stained black like her hands, from the noxious nitric acid used to clean newly minted coins. There were crucibles full of molten metal, coin moulds for casting the fakes, and damningly, some brand new fake shillings.

Catherine’s defence at the Old Bailey was that she borrowed the apron, she hadn’t known her male accomplice very long, and she’d just walked in the room before the raid by the authorities. The court convicted her of high treason and she was sentenced to death, doomed to await her punishment in a gloomy, cramped and unsavoury cell in Newgate Gaol. She was imprisoned there for 14 months before given a reprieve.

Instead of execution by burning, she was transported to Australia, arriving there aboard the Lady Juliana in 1790, after a gruelling 390 days at sea. The ship gained notoriety as a floating brothel for the ship’s officers and seamen at ports along its journey. Catherine was sent to work on Norfolk Island until she was pardoned by the governor in 1796. After which she found a husband who farmed and made furniture, and had two sons.

Catherine wasn’t an unusual young woman. Counterfeiting and ‘passing off’ fake coins was a huge business in eighteenth-century London, and women were a key part of the criminal enterprise. They were useful for spending the new fake coins in markets and shops, disguised as honest housewives.

Catherine’s punishment was also typical of eighteenth-century law, a lengthy stay on ‘death row’ in awful prison conditions, before being shipped in worse conditions to Australia to complete her punishment and forge a new life.

Cheery stuff. Now, I’m off to check I’m not harbouring any fake coins in my purse…



A real shilling made in 1787, the kind of coin Catherine Heyland was caught counterfeiting © Arthur Bryant coins


Writing Women into History

As it is Women’s History Month we’re looking at how women’s history is represented in different media. Here, our very own Lauren Johnson discusses why she didn’t include a chapter about women in her latest book…

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out now, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that:

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.


Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.


©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)



This piece was originally posted at Lauren’s blog on International Women’s Day 2016.

Lauren tweets at @History_lauren and her website is

‘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.

‘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.  

‘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.

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