Historic castle which was birthplace of 'princes and princesses' during Second World War is explored in new play

A new play explores the story behind the princes and princesses of Willersley who made their entrance into the world in a historic castle.

By Gay Bolton
Thursday, 17th June 2021, 12:03 pm
Derby University students McKenzie Barwick, Abby Gains and Charlotte Joliffe are the performers in The London Mothers.
Derby University students McKenzie Barwick, Abby Gains and Charlotte Joliffe are the performers in The London Mothers.

Willersley Castle near Matlock was used as a maternity hospital during the Second World War for 4,000 women from London, many of whom were unmarried.

The mums-to-be were evacuated to the picturesque setting after the Salvation Army’s Mothers Hospital in Clapton was badly damaged during the Blitz.

It’s an episode in the region’s heritage that fascinated artist Heidi Luker whose first play, The London Mothers, which premiered online earlier this month.

Mums-to-be from Clapton, London, board the coach to Willersley Castle.

Heidi said: “This story was determined to be told against all odds and it’s been a privilege to share a hidden piece of history that was on my doorstep.”

The Derbyshire-based artist said: “I came across an old article in the Matlock Mercury and learned there had been reunions held at the castle since 2010 for the princes and princesses of Willersley and the 2020 reunion would have been the 80th anniversary since the unit was set up.

“But it was a black and white photo of a group of pregnant women standing in front of a bus with a pile of suitcases and a sign with the words ‘Off to Willersley’ painted on it, that really sparked my interest.”

With Derbyshire Record Office and libraries temporarily closed during lockdown, Heidi had to resort to social media to find people who were born in Willersley Castle. The castle eventually became a Methodist Guild hotel until it was permenantly closed during lockdown.

Willersley Castle, near Cromford.

She said: “People came forward from the Facebook callouts and emailed me, from places as far away as New York and Vancouver.

“I came across a story in a London Facebook group for people born in the Mothers Hospital about one of the original midwives. It was written by her great cousin, journalist Kim Wells, and I asked permission to interview her cousin, Kathleen. The lovely 98-year-old Kathleen Bateman’s compassion for young unmarried mothers and her insights into how people felt during the war inspired the direction of the play."

Heidi spent a couple of months gathering information for the script. She said: “The play was written fairly quickly once I started. This was the first time I had written a play, I had experience collaborating on devised plays as a theatre designer but as soon as I wrote one scene, it began to flow which was a really good feeling.”

The novice playwright faced a number of obstacles en route to getting it to the performance stage. Heidi said: "The whole project has been hit by many challenges, least of all Covid-19 to Willersley Castle going into closure soon after we started. This was a major setback as the play was to be performed there. Fortunately, Cromford Mills stepped in and offered to host it as an outside performance but they were forced to cancel all outside performance as the second lockdown seemed imminent.

Wirksworth artist Heidi Luker's first play, The London Mothers, will be premiered online on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.

"At this point it seemed impossible that it would ever happen, until the theatre stage arts department of Derby University Theatre Arts were already on hand to help with staging and filming it live. Fortunately, Kit Lane, course leader, made the bold decision to book the filming of a live performance in Derby Theatre Studio. This provided valuable hands-on experience for third year students who hadn't had a production to work on since March.

"I had a month to cast, find a large enough rehearsal space and rehearse the play!

"There were loads of technical issues, students have to go into isolation, or having a couple of days notice to buy remaining costumes and material before shops closed for lockdown, then leaving costumes for 72 hours before trying them on.

"I would say that one of the strangest things I encountered was in our first read-through together of the play, when Derby University third year acting student Charlotte Jolliffe, who plays Mary, was in isolation in her bedroom in the first week. She was literally a voice, on speaker, coming from a mobile, which we propped on a chair so she felt like part of the group!

"The cast were brilliant and all pulled together. Doreen and Gladys were played by first year Derby University students Mackenzie Barwick and Abby Gains.”

Councillor Barry Lewis, chairman of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site Partnership, said: "This is the final commission of our creative programme for the Great Place Scheme, and it's wonderful to see different parts of our heritage site brought to life by artists over the last three years."

The film is available to watch, with subtitles, on the Derwent Valley Mills website or on YouTube at www.youtube.com/derwentvalleymills