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Amateur performers in the workhouse


Post by Jenny Hughes

This is a follow up to the post below … another debate about the ethical value of theatre in the workhouse, this time from 1894. It also provides a nice antidote to the Marylebone Guardians’ snubbing of amateur dramatics below!

Here, the writer is concerned to ensure readers don’t get the impression that rates are spent on frivolous amusements for the Guardians themselves (there were frequent public outcries about Guardians of the poor treating themselves whilst attending Board meetings at the expense of the tax payer through the 19th century). There’s also a clear sense of theatre being a legitimate and worthy middle class pursuit, with its introduction to paupers in the workhouse providing an opportunity to model good behaviour and ‘rational recreation’. The theme of efficacy and value for money will be depressingly familiar to artists engaged in social theatre projects today:

‘A brief discussion on the question of entertainments at the workhouse varied the routine business at the weekly meeting of the Chorlton Guardians yesterday, and though an objection was made by one member to the custom of giving concerts and amusing evenings to the inmates, the general opinion we are glad to say, did not seem hostile to the practice. As the Chairman said, “the custom was for Guardians who incurred expense on such occasions to meet it out of their own pockets”, and we have no doubt that those who undertake this responsibility always feel rewarded for the outlay. We venture to say that if the costs of the entertainments which now and then brighten the lives of those who have no homes of their own were thrown upon the rates the most rigid economist would have but feeble complaints to offer. One of the most satisfactory signs of the times is seen in the increasing willingness of amateurs to apply their ability and experience to the gracious task of making the unfortunates in our hospitals and workhouses less conscious of the difference between the conditions of their lives and those of the more fortunate who have never felt the pinch of poverty or the restraints of hospital discipline. We cannot send the paupers and patients to theatres and concert rooms, and we are of course a long way from the time when every workhouse will have its own company of actors and vocalists; but if music and good plays are desirable privileges for the rest of us, we ought to be gratified when amateurs are willing and able to allow those who cannot possibly come to town to enjoy them, to share to some extent in the benefits of healthy recreation. Moreover, the entertainments at the Chorlton workhouse are likely to be all more useful because it seems to be the custom for some at least of the Guardians to form part of the audience.’ (Editorial – The Manchester Guardian Feb 24, 1894).

The reference to resident theatre companies/amateur dramatic groups in workhouses is intriguing! I’ve not found one yet in the UK, though there is a Danish example that I’ll post about soon, and also there were some workhouses that were extraordinarily active in supporting cultural activities for inmates, around this period of time – again, more soon …

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