Sheffield theatre show tells of women fighting to break the chains of poverty

A new show tells the amazing story of women workers who fought for and won better wages and the fearless female union organiser who led them.

Monday, 25th February 2019, 16:01 pm
Updated Monday, 25th February 2019, 16:02 pm
Neil Gore and Bryony Purdue in Rouse, Ye Women! the story of a successful strike by women chain makers

Rouse, Ye Women! looks at Mary Macarthur, organiser for the National Federation of Women Workers, and the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, who took strike action in 1910 to demand a living wage.

The show’s co-writer and performer Neil Gore said: “Mary Macarthur is not in our consciousness and she should be, not just for this but for many things she achieved in a very short life. 

Bryony Purdue as trade unionist and strike leader Mary Macarthur and Rowan Godel as chainmaker Bird in Rouse, Ye Women! the story of a successful strike by women workers

“She put all her efforts in and I don’t think she had time for anything else other than ‘righting the wrongs’, as it said on the banner of the National Federation. There was so much to do.”

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Mary devoted herself to working with women in the sweated industries like the chainmakers, hammering out chain links in sheds in the backyards of their homes with their babies and children for 5 shillings (25p) for a 50-hour week.

Horror stories about the way the women were treated included one worker who gave birth to a baby, then went straight back to work 10 minutes later as she could not afford to stop.

Neil said that infant mortality rate for women doing piecework at home was sky high and bosses in those industries moved slowly in response to campaigning, so “she set about kicking them up the backside, getting it done”.

She raised enough money to pay the strikers so they could stand firm for 13 weeks and not buckle under economic pressure to go back to work.

“The strike became a massive topic of conversation all around the world,” said Neil, after it was covered by Pathe newsreels.

Scottish folk singer Bryony Purdue, who plays Mary, said: “She is a fantastic woman. I found so amazing the fact that she gave people the ability to make their better and didn’t just do it and leave.”

Bryony said that Mary worked with the women to empower them to fight their own battles.

She worked as a draper’s shop assistant for her father in Glasgow and became inspired aged 22 to get involved with union work after hearing a speech in 1901 by charismatic campaigner John Turner, describing the appalling conditions of other women workers.

The show, described as a folk opera, uses original music to help tell the story. Bryony said: “I studied opera and a lot of what I’ve done is stories told through singing, so it makes perfect sense.

“It’s pretty much all original music, apart from a couple of songs they’ve used before. John Kirkpatrick (who co-wrote the show) is a pretty big name in the folk world.”

Bryony said of Mary: “What I’ve been most struck by is her tenacity and feeling she would have been a very positive and kind person.

“She was more like a primary school teacher than a strict headmistress, but when she needed to be she was absolutely fearless, standing up to these men.”

“She is an amazing person to play,” added Bryony.

Fellow folk musician Rowen Godel is playing Bird, one of the strikers. She said: “The relationship between bosses and workers was changed forever by the collective action of these brave, strong women and their story provides us with a powerful socio-historical context for understanding issues of poverty, gender, discrimination and slavery today.

“Their voices need to be heard again and I am hugely excited to be a part of this production.”

Rouse, Ye Women! is at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield until March 2, Cast in Doncaster on March 6, Wortley Hall, Sheffield on March 20 and Rotherham Underground on April 10.