As a writer involved in the development of text and scenes for the Machine Women project, the research trips to Chatham and Luton were rich, illuminating and in terms of collating material to inspire creative work, tremendously fruitful.
In Chatham Luan, Lisa and I spent time on the Lightship LV21, in the Chatham Dockyards Museum, and in the ropery.
LV21 is a 40 metre steel-hulled retired lightship, and was an evocative place to work. We set up a workshop space where we explored themes central to the project. We spoke to older women who had worked in factories during the latter half of the 20th century. They told us stories about the everyday reality of factory work – the repetition and tedium, and the camaraderie and daydreaming that kept them going. We also interviewed local people with connections to the dockyards. They described the dockyards as a vibrant place to work, thronged with people, energy and activity, before Thatcher closed them in the 1980s and this thriving community was finally dissipated.
A behind the scenes tour of the ropery in Chatham’s Dockyard Museum offered a glimpse of what life was like for the women who worked there during Britain’s Naval supremacy. Making our way through the internal industrial work spaces and the mile long rope walk, we learned about the processes of rope production. We were shown the purpose and action of individual machines, the physical movements required to manipulate them, and the technical terms and phrases used. A picture began to emerge of a hot, riotous, dangerous and dust filled environment where unguarded spinning machines turned endlessly and women toiled for 16 hours a day. Certain details are particularly rich and evocative:
- the ‘Rogue’s Yarn’, a red, vein like thread twisted into the heart of the rope during manufacture to identify the place of production and expose any sub-standard workmanship;
- the piles of rope that fell in mountainous coils like golden hair, feminine and anomalous against the dark, heavy iron machinery, giving a sense of the gothic fairy tale, enchantment, and entrapment;
- the camaraderie, loyalty and community, the song and the banter that was the human side of such mechanised, callous environments.
In Luton our research revealed the industrial heritage of a town that had once been a trading giant and a magnet for migrating workers. Visible traces still remain in the form of factory buildings that have been turned into bars, or are left empty and desolate, or, the case of The Hat Factory, transformed into an arts and theatre venue. Through our relationship with the Hat Factory and Community Engagements and Projects Coordinator Caroline Wallace we were allowed access to people and places which provided us with some superb research material. We met and interviewed two twin sisters who are trimmers at two hat factories that still exist. Both in the trade since their early teens, they follow an ancestral line of women hat makers going back to the Victorian era and they shared some wonderful insights and stories: ‘It’s in our blood.’
We also visited the cottage industries which still trade from terraced Victorian houses and remain much as they were 150 years ago. We looked at the processes for making Sinamay hats using many of the traditional techniques and antique machines from that period. And there we met some of the fascinating characters and skilled workers who have been part of the hat trade in Luton for their entire working lives.
Working collaboratively alongside Luan Blake as an experienced theatre maker and Lisa Woolf as a seasoned producer has been enlightening and inspiring for me as a writer. The themes we are exploring in the Machine Women project are universal, reoccurring throughout history yet still relevant in the present day: women and labour, woman’s body and the mechanised world, repetition, ritual, rhythm, female relationships, restriction and endurance, pride, heritage and community. Our research trips have encompassed the experiences of women working in factory settings both historically and currently.
The work in progress we have created to date for Machine Women would not have been possible without our visits to Chatham and Luton and our partnerships with the people and venues there. All of this has fed into the development of written text, draft scenes and explorative performance workshops for the Machine Women project and will continue to inform our creative journey.