Life of Harriet Walker and child labour brought to the stage

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Child labour still has the ability to make us shudder. The notion of taking children out of school to do dangerous or back-breaking work for negligible pay seems so wrong that it’s hard to imagine a time when it was considered not only acceptable but the norm.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Common Ground, the theatre-company founded by Suffolk actors Pat Whymark and Julian Harries, are staging a new work Harriet Walker – Forgotten Lives which looks at child employment in the late Victorian era and into the early years of the 20th Century.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

The play not only gives voice to the thousands of young people put to work in Suffolk over the best part of a century but the title character was plucked from a book by Jack London where he chronicled the life of a young woman who was forced to work in a white lead factory in order to support her unemployed father and brother in east London.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Pat said: “Although that was a London story, the experience was not too dissimilar from situations to be found in this part of the world at Ransomes in Ipswich or Garrett’s of Leiston.”

Pat Whymark co-founder of Common Ground and writer-director of Harriet Walker - the tale of Victoria

Pat Whymark co-founder of Common Ground and writer-director of Harriet Walker - the tale of Victorian child labour in Suffolk.

In addition to factory work, children were often taken out of school in Suffolk to help with the harvest. And in addition to factory and agricultural work, youngsters were also employed at many of the big houses to work as servants or in the grounds.

Pat Whymark and Julian Harries rehearsing with Common Ground theatre company.

Pat Whymark and Julian Harries rehearsing with Common Ground theatre company.

Pat and Julian have been busily harvesting stories from vintage newspapers and journals stored in the Suffolk Records Office as well as tapping into the knowledge held by staff at the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket and The Longshop Museum, on the site of Garrett’s Engineering Works in Leiston.

Although the play has a strong Suffolk focus, the inspiration for the work came when Pat stumbled across a young London girl called Harriet Walker in a book of true-stories from Victorian London called People of the Abyss, penned by Jack London, after he had spent some time living rough in the East End.

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“He was doing what journalists do. He had heard these tales of squalor and hardship, so he went out there to see for himself and actually lived the life.

“He was shocked by what he discovered. He spoke to the people and they spoke to him because he had become one of them. Because he was an American, he side-stepped the class issue.”

Jack London was very much a socialist and encouraged the unionisation of the working-classes and his views were very much shaped by the people he met and the stories he unearthed on research projects like this.

For Pat, the story of Harriet Walker leapt out from London’s book. “It was a heart-breaking tale that I couldn’t get out of my mind. She worked in this factory to keep her family fed and to have a roof over their heads.

“She worked in a toxic environment, none of the workers were offered any protection and she died from lead poisoning at the age of 17. She’d only been there a year.

“She walked six miles there and back. She dusted in a white lead factory and she inhaled so such lead dust that she became ill and died from lead poisoning.

“Her story is going to form the central spine of the piece and all the other tales will weave their way around it. She acts as a kind of spirit, simply because her story is so tragic. Sadly I don’t think her story is unique.

“When I read that in Jack London’s People of the Abyss, I knew it had to be a story that would have been repeated all over the country.”

This then triggered her own research into youth employment in Suffolk during the same period – the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

She said that the play was structured as a drama-documentary and has episodes scattered through-out the piece with the spirit of Harriet Walker giving the narrative a focus and a central figure for audiences to latch on to.

“Memories are so wonderful. We love being able to utilise stories that have been handed down and personal stories have that lightness and quirkiness about them. We don’t want it all to be grim.

“Life is a mixture of happy and sad, good times and bad times and it is woven into the fabric of our world and that provides the highs and lows needed for good theatre.”

She said that the focus of the performance was going to be heavily influenced by movement. They weren’t planning to use a set but get the actors to portray machinery and have teamed up with former Suffolk Youth Theatre director Michael Platt who will act as their movement director.

“We will look at how these machines worked and then reproduce the movement on stage with bodies, sticks and ribbons representing pistons and fly wheels.”

The production is accompanied by a short film created by Hadleigh-based filmmaker Claire James, daughter of actors Mona Bruce and Robert James, which picks up the various themes and people in the play and gives a flavour of the world as it was as the 19th Century became the 20th.

The film will be screened before and after the performances and will be offered as a resource to local archives.

“My dad left school at 12. Anyone who lived in rural East Anglia were pulled out of school in the summer to help bring the harvest in. Many teenagers, of course, then didn’t go back. They started work for the local landowners and many girls became maids or servants in the big houses.”

Pat said that they were incredibly grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for awarding them £9,300 to enable the project to go ahead.

“It enables us to do the research, to spend time investigating the history.

“I have tapped into the British Newspaper Archive and got articles about factory accidents, young people working in dangerous environments unsupervised.”

But, it’s not all gloom and doom. Research pulled up plenty of stories of cheeky young workers getting one over on the bosses and illicit romances below stairs.

“The stories are all real but we have created some composite characters and spread the stories around. It has to work as a piece of theatre work as well as a piece of social history.”

She said that their story comes after the Factory Act which meant that all the children were over the age of 12 but in rural areas such as Suffolk there was very little enforcement of the law.

“Kids were still doing dangerous work, boys were still being sent up chimneys, little kids were still being sent into the fields. One of the things that really struck me from our research was how far people had to travel for work.

“We have this impression that everyone had jobs on their doorsteps – that in the past everyone worked where they lived – but our research has shown that people used to walk miles and miles each day in order to get to work.

“Although there’s never a good time to be poor, this period was especially harsh – particularly when you juxtapose these appallingly working conditions with the tremendous prosperity experienced by the upper echelons of society.”

Some verbatim material has been woven into the script as she been able to gain access to diaries of working people from the period.

“These are fascinating. Once literacy improved and ordinary people started keeping diaries then a whole new world is opened up to us.

“Interestingly, those letters and diaries sound incredibly modern. Apart from a few words here and there, the letters of actual people you can’t tell if they were written yesterday or more than 100 years ago – and that makes it more poignant because it gives us a connection to the people. It emphasises that they were just like us.”

A great source of material was Frank Grace’s book Rags and Bones which is all about Ipswich during that era. “Also archives are so easily searchable now. It’s all online and you type in Factory accident, Ipswich, for the relevant years, and a wealth of material comes back.”

She said that an entire social history is laid out before you. “For example: you are looking up this young girl who got her arm caught in a steam mangle while working at Footmans then across the page, there’s a story of a man who swallowed 24 frogs for a bet. So all those things make up a patch-work of what life was like at that time.

“So we have tried to include as much as we can. The places also make it come alive. We have a man who was the Fagin of Ipswich. He’d had an accident at Ransomes and he’d been set up in a shop on site, by means of compensation. He then recruited workers, engine-fitters, to strip metal which he would then fence. And just to make sure he wasn’t implicated if they got caught, he got them to store it in their houses.

“We also found a young lad in the archive who was killed in an accident at the Orchard Iron Works – his inquest was held at The Greyhound. It was a regular occurrence in those days to hold an inquest in the local pub.”

The script has been refined and developed as rehearsals have been getting under way with a cast ranging from young teens to early 20s and drawn from all over Suffolk.

“We’ve got people from all over – Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Debenham, Hadleigh – so it’s bringing in people from all over Suffolk.

“It’s a very physical performance. So there’s a lot of room for actors’ input in the performance and there has been some improvisation in developing character – how they stand, how they move etc – the actual play itself is carefully scripted.”

Pat said for her the play is about the ordinary people, the unsung heroes. “These are the men and women who built Ipswich and Suffolk as we know it today. They are the people who shaped the modern landscape.”

She said the big difference between then and now was that the poor in rural Suffolk in the Victorian and Edwardian ages had such limited horizons.

“They didn’t expect to go far either – either in terms of physical distance – they expected to live, work and die in the same area all their lives and they didn’t have any ambitions of social advancement or great educational attainment.

“That existed right up to the First World War. One of my grandpa’s brothers was playing on the village and the recruiting office came along and said: “Coming to war, lads: foreign travel, see the sights.” He signed up on the spot, went off and his mother never saw him again. He was 17. He went off to play and never came home.”

The adult roles are being performed by Julian Harries and Lynne Whitehead, who has worked extensively in community theatre for both the New Wolsey and Bury Theatre Royal.

Harriet Walker – Forgotten Lives is being performed at the DanceEast studio on October 19. Tickets can be booked at

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