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The only way is Rochdale (1) …


Post by Jenny Hughes

One of the ways I am taking this research forward is to focus on a specific locality – Rochdale in Lancashire, home of the Rochdale Pioneers and the cooperative movement, and a centre of Chartist fervour leading up to and around the period of the Reform Act of 1832 and New Poor Law in 1834. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act re-organised poor relief nationally, re-introducing principles of poor relief articulated in the Elizabethan poor laws which has become a little ‘loosely applied’ with industrialisation, free market and global trade in the late 18th century. The 1834 law invented the principle of ‘less eligibility’ – whereby those in receipt of poor relief should be kept in conditions less eligible than the labouring poor – and it also limited ‘out-relief’ – if you were in financial trouble following 1834, you either faced starvation (or leant on the informal ‘makeshift’ economies of the labouring poor), or agree to come into the ‘house’ (the workhouse) and work in return for the means of subsistence. In this period then, the poor law introduced a conditional relationship between a person’s ability to ‘perform’ as a productive unit and her/his right to the minimum resources necessary for survival. It is this relationship – so politically and philosophically provocative for theatre and performance scholars – that I am interested in exploring in the broader research project. The demand for work and principle of less eligibility were in fact a part of the Elizabethan poor law too, but practices nationally had relaxed, with those in charge of agricultural and early industrial labour recognising that the means of employment was seasonal and unpredictable, hence the need for out-relief equivalent to wages to maintain the workforce whilst out of work.

I’m interested in Rochdale because (a) they really didn’t like the poor law very much, and lots of working people who had made good livings and become manufacturers via early industrialization entered into collective political activity with labourers to fight it – the town became a focal point for radical political activity in the period leading up to and following the introduction of the poor law, and the poor relief practices that followed were inflected with this in interesting ways. The Rochdale Pioneers emerged from this hive of activity, and what you can see in the decades that follow (to generalize more than slightly!) is a tension between the forces of ‘competition’ and ‘cooperation’ in how socio-economic and cultural development unfolds … theatre, cultural activity, from entertainments in the workhouse to amateur drama groups inside the coop education movement, sit inside this context and a closer look at them will – perhaps – reveal interesting perspectives on the relationship between theatre, economic development and politics. Also –I’m interested in Rochdale because – (b) I’ve been a little bit involved in contemporary theatre projects with ‘workless’ communities in the town – I want to put the contemporary and the historical together as part of a ‘place-responsive’ piece of research, and see what happens.

So – to the matter of this post – yesterday, I spent the day in the excellent ‘Touchstones’ – which houses Rochdale’s Local Studies Unit – looking at microfiche of the Rochdale Observer (the local newspaper since 1856). Like the national newspapers, it highlights a fair amount of ‘entertainment’ in the Union’s workhouses, especially post 1860s. When looking at the reports on these entertainments, you get a powerful sense of Rochdale as a site of diverse range of associational activity directed towards care for the poor, in which theatre and performance play some part. Cultural activity is embedded in ‘performances’ of the charitable dispensation of pleasure, moral guidance, social development and sustenance. Here are some highlights:

In April 1899, the annual concert at Buckley Hall Orphanage (for young Catholic boys), included singing and a brass band played by the boys. The programme concluded with a ‘sketch’ called “Demons of the glass” (which bears a resemblance to the infamous Zammo story in the children’s BBC drama in Grange Hill in the 1980s – ‘Just Say No!”). Here, ‘the bulk of the acting fell to Master A. King who impersonated the character of James Pennington, a reckless, passionate drunkard.’ A fairy appeared to this character in a dream ‘and summons to his vision the characters of disease, poverty and crime, and finally his intended wife, hungry, and homeless, with a ragged sobbing boy at her side’. Needless to say, the drunkard wakes from his dream and vows that in the future he will shun ‘the demon of the glass’ (Rochdale Observer, 19th Apr 1899).

Finally – a quick overview of some of the activity on Christmas day in Rochdale in 1877 (this was the Christmas following the opening of the massive new Union workhouse, Dearnley, which later became Birch Hill hospital in Rochdale – now closed):

At Dearnley workhouse itself – the large hall was decorated and 300 paupers treated to a Christmas dinner of ‘good old English fare … which disappeared with marvelous rapidity’. Dinner was followed by a performance by the Orpheus Glee Club, and humorous songs, recitations and a violin solo from the Guardians and the workhouse officers. The celebrations ended with dancing accompanied by the piano and violin.

At the Rochdale Temperance Society – the entertainment consisted of a recital of the ‘sacred drama’ called ‘Joseph and his brethren’ performed by society members, accompanied by ‘very good’ scenery and costumes, followed by a string band. The event was very well attended despite the ‘severe snowstorm’.

At the Chapel for the Destitute – an annual tea party was given for 400 people. There were speeches and recitations, followed by ‘an efficient choir’ which sang ‘appropriate anthems and hymns very well’, accompanied by a harmonium.

And – the Town Hall hosted an ‘annual treat’ for orphans and fatherless children, with 700 children present. Clothing was distributed and the “Singing Pilgrim” entertained the children during their tea. Also – ‘a remarkable instance of how children are trained to bad habits came to light’ – one boy refused to drink his tea without rum, stating that his mother always put rum in his tea! (Rochdale Observer, 29th Dec 1877).

A BIG thank you to staff at Touchstones for all their help with grappling with the microfiche reader!

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