re:collection ArtsFest 2013 5 Women of Lyme - a tribute to some modern “Western Women”
re:collection has been an Arts Council-funded project. All the artists involved in this project used the Lyme Regis Museum and its collection as their starting point and then went on to interpret whatever in the collection inspired them in their own individual way. I was inspired by the 1644 Siege of Lyme Regis which took place during the English Civil War as well as the play produced locally in 1984 called “The Western Women” set during that time - and some 21 st Century women of Lyme. The project began in the spring of 2012, the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee. One of the first things I noticed on walking into the museum last year was a large wall display telling the story of the 1644 Siege of Lyme Regis and the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion (see fig. 1). It struck me as extremely ironic that at the same time that Lyme was festooned in patriotic flags and paraphernalia to celebrate the Jubilee, here was a record of Lyme’s proud history as a Parliamentarian town in the 1640s. On further research I discovered that Lyme was alone in this area – in a sea of Royalist-supporting towns; the nearest Parliamentarian towns being Plymouth and Poole! That resistance turned into a siege which lasted 8 weeks. One reason the siege lasted so long was that the townsfolk were able to get supplies brought in from the sea, something that couldn’t happen in a land-locked town. Another reason often given was that the townswomen were very actively involved: “the women of the town would come into the thickest of the danger to bring powder, bullets and provisions to the men, encouraging them upon their works” *. There is also an often-repeated story that they wore men’s clothing while helping the men in order to deceive the Royalists into thinking there were more men defending the town than there actually were. When I came to researching this story, I discovered that the evidence for the women dressing as men was very thin. Much of the story appears to have come from a strange poem written some time after the siege by the Reverend James Strong in tribute to the women of Lyme Regis. The poem is entitled “Joanereidos” - he compares the women to Joan of Arc. It’s possible that another reason for this story having become such a legend in recent years is due to the play by Ann Jellicoe entitled “The Western Women” (see Fig. 2) and based, I suspect, on the Joanereidos. The play was performed by many members of the community back in 1984 at the Woodroffe School and the participants who are still around in Lyme today have fond memories of their involvement. Since the siege happened 369 years ago and there is little source material to tell us what the women of Lyme really did or didn’t do, we can only conjecture. I believe it is reasonable to assume that when any community is under siege ALL the inhabitants, including women and children, are bound to be involved in some way, whether fighting or simply fetching and carrying. Although the story of the siege is a fascinating one, about 6 months into the project it occurred to me that the idea of women fighting for, or at least struggling to improve, their community in whatever way, might be more relevant to modern Lyme. In the 18+ years I have lived in Lyme I have been aware that women in this community seem to play a larger part than might be expected in a small seaside town in the West Country. I therefore decided to change my original proposal and instead look at the contributions of a few women who, I feel, have made the town of Lyme Regis a better place. Of course, this was always going to be a personal choice. I spent some time thinking about who I should approach. I felt I wanted to look at women from different age ranges and backgrounds. I also felt it was important that at least one or two of them were women who had lived in Lyme for most, if not all, of their lives. Two of the five women I originally chose are not the same as the ones I eventually featured; one decided she didn’t want her portrait painted because she felt too self-conscious and the other I decided wasn’t quite right for the project. Very sadly, another of them, Barbara, died in December last year. (Only a month or so prior to this she had agreed to be one of my subjects.) However, her family were happy for me to feature her in my project and were very helpful in giving me access to her photos and press cuttings. I felt I needed to feature at least 5 women and so set about approaching a further two women who, thankfully, were happy to participate. The other four women I eventually featured were all extremely understanding and helpful in giving up their time to talk to me and allowing me to take photos and have access to their press cuttings and other material in which they featured. It had been my plan to paint the women’s portraits but I also felt that a simple portrait of each of them wasn’t enough to show what the women had done – nor was it likely to be particularly interesting on its own. Nevertheless, I spent much of June, July and August painting the portraits, so that at least I’d have something to put on the gallery walls! After a great deal of racking my brains, thinking and sketching out of possible ways in which to present my subjects, I suddenly thought about all the shoeboxes I have hoarded over the years on the basis that “they would come in handy for something one day”! It occurred to me that I could allocate a shoebox to each portrait which I would then decorate appropriate to whatever it is they are known for and then place in the box items I found to represent them. I would also scan and print out some of their press-cuttings and include them in the box, too. Thus each person’s box was displayed on a shelf below their portrait and if you looked inside it you’d see various items which reflected the contribution they had made to their community or different aspects of their lives. You could also glean a little more about them from the press-cuttings. Barbara: Barbara’s box was covered in Christmas wrapping paper because Christmas was clearly very important to her. For decades she ran Christmas savings clubs for local people, she also organised the Over 70s Christmas Dinner and raised funds for the Christmas lights in Broad street every year. Fifteen years ago she founded the Easter Bonnet Parade in Lyme, just one of the huge number of fund- raising activities she instigated on behalf of various charities and organisations. Barbara was a town councillor for nearly 20 years during which time she was mayor twice, in the 90s and 00s, serving both times for three years. During her first term she oversaw the twinning with St George’s in Bermuda. Then, in 2010, she was awarded the MBE for services to the community. Cheryl: Like Barbara, Cheryl is another locally-born woman who has raised a great deal of money for various causes. Her box was covered in wrapping paper with skateboarders on it – because her most recent fund-raising activity has been on behalf of the proposed skate park here. In the past few years she has raised money for two hospices, Macmillan Cancer Support, Lyme Regis Youth Football Team and the Lyme Regis Majorettes. Cheryl is quite an inspiration, she doesn’t just sit in committees talking about fund-raising, she’s known for getting out there with the collection bucket – and no-one says “no” to her! Rikey: Rikey is a children’s author, illustrator and teddy bear designer – hence the teddy bear wrapping paper around her box. Her parents both died early from cancer. She created a bear inspired by her mother, the sales of which raised £97,000 for Cancer Research UK. A few years later she raised another £20,000 via Relay for Life, again for Cancer Research UK. For several years now Rikey has been campaigning to re-open the Three Cups Hotel, a building in the centre of Lyme’s main street which has lain derelict for over 23 years. Rikey has also been a town councillor for the past 2 years. Lucy: Lucy’s box is wrapped in silver wrapping paper because she’s a silversmith and jeweller with her own workshop/shop in Lyme Regis. However, I have included her because, at 22, she became the youngest-ever town councillor in Lyme and, 8 years later, she is still battling on. Originally, she fought for her seat on a youth ticket and she is still working hard to see more facilities in Lyme for young people. Having supported the establishment of the local youth club, the Hub, Lucy has continued to fight for a skate park to be built in Lyme, a facility which was first mooted 30 years ago! However, she hasn’t confined herself to “youth” issues; she has a particular interest in housing in an area where house prices are so high and where so many houses are bought by second-home owners. Until earlier this year, Lucy was the manager of LymeNet, the community learning centre here. During her years there, she worked extremely hard, constantly writing funding bids to help keep the centre going. Eventually, she won 4 years’ Lottery funding and, to date, the centre remains open. Lucy is also my daughter. Gail: Gail is a traditional boat builder – hence the wrapping around her box depicting the Cornish pilot gigs she has built over the past few years. Originally from Scotland and an acting teacher and a sign language interpreter, in 2005 she gained a City & Guilds bursary to study boat building at the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy, focussing on traditional wooden boats. She was successful from the start and had soon built her first gig. More gigs and other traditional boats have since followed and she now has her own workshop next door to the BBA. However, what makes Gail exceptional is her belief that the wider community needs to be involved in, connected with and informed about traditional crafts. Her gigs have been made for use by the local gig club and, whenever one of her boats is launched, it is a community event. She has managed to engage people from all walks of life, from socially excluded young people to royal warrant holders, by letting them try their hand at it. Pat Campbell *Geoffrey Chapman, in his little book “The Siege of Lyme Regis” (1982), used this quote which came originally from Whitelocke’s “Memorials”, written in 1732.
Fig. 1
Fig. 2