Bringing back Black Country Folk from the past
Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) aims to tell the stories of real people who once called the Black Country their home or influenced its history. Using historic characters, buildings and objects, the Museum is able to bring back to life the stories of the past, telling tales of people who left their mark on the region – in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.
Last year was no different. A number of new characters were researched, programmed and delivered that were successful in conveying the hugely diverse stories that the Black Country has to tell.
‘Bostin’ Jubilee Bash’ and Mr Singh
During May half term, the Museum celebrated the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee with a ‘Bostin’ Jubilee Bash’ celebration, which took place from 28 May until 5 June.
As part of this event, BCLM researched and created the character of ‘Mr Singh’, who served as a catalyst to tell stories of South Asian migration to the Black Country in the 1950s.
The character was partially based on the memories of Mr Piara Singh, who migrated to Wolverhampton from India in 1951 and represents the first South Asian character to have been incorporated into the Museum’s story.
To support the development of this character, BCLM collaborated alongside actor and creator Vimal Korpal. Vimal workshopped the character of Mr Singh and the situations the character would be placed in with our historic characters team who portrayed the role or played alongside it.
Vimal said: “It’s really exciting that it’s [BCLM: Forging Ahead] all about diversity and inclusion. There are so many great stories out there and it’s wonderful to be involved and to have a story that relates to India, especially being of Indian background myself. It’s great to explore and share the influences the Indian community had on the British public back in the 1950s, especially as the themes and stories are still relevant today.”
The Mr Singh character was also featured in the Museum’s summer programme as a travelling salesman who frequented the newly opened Elephant and Castle pub. This meant we were able to further use the character to incorporate the stories of those who remember the public house as a safe and welcoming meeting place for the South Asian community in the late 1950s, a time when racism was rife.
‘Made in the Black Country’ and Gwen Lally
The Museum’s summer programme, ‘Made in the Black Country’, involved a short performance on the boat dock denoting a whistle stop tour of the area’s history. While researching the programme, our Interpretation & Research team felt it was a great opportunity to tell the story of Gwen Lally (1882-1963), the pageant master who would ultimately become the character leading the daily performances.
Gwen was a pageant master and theatre producer. She was born in Fulham and famously staged a pageant at Dudley Castle during the Festival of Britain (1951). When directing a pageant, she would be found with a megaphone in hand, always ready to give instruction, threat and (on occasion) praise.
Though Gwen never publicly identified as gay or an LGBTQ+ person, she mostly dressed in what is perceived as male attire, socialised in gay circles and lived with a female companion for most of her life.
While directing Dudley’s Pageant, Gwen worked 13-hour days to ensure that everything ran smoothly. It was a grand event, staged in the atmospheric setting of Dudley Castle across ten nights in June.
It depicted scenes from the town’s history, ranging from the Norman conquest to Victorian fetes, and from Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to the town to Dud Dudley’s Civil War experiences.
It represented the proud Black Country and had hundreds of local actors. Characters portrayed included the Earl of Dudley and ‘The Smith’ – a representation of the ordinary working man played by the conveniently-named John Smith. This character demonstrated how hard-working and skilful individuals supported the regions industrial prowess – ultimately a reflection of the stories we tell at the Museum today.
Last summer, Gwen returned to the Black Country as one of our historic characters, leading our very own Dudley Pageant and telling stories about Black Country history, focussing on what has made the region great and how its community ultimately shaped the world.
To support the development of this character, BCLM’s researchers worked with LGBTQ+ members of staff and actor and writer Jozey Grae. Jozey is doing their PhD at the University of Wolverhampton in non-binary representation.
Consultation is integral to ensuring that the stories we tell are representative of experiences of all groups and persons. It also means that we truly achieve our aim of telling histories which represent ‘real lives, real stories’.
‘Unwrapping Christmas’ and Carmen Salmon
For last year’s ‘Unwrapping Christmas’ programme, BCLM wanted to further expand on the concept of migration to the region, in line with the Museum’s Forging Ahead development.
One of the buildings currently being replicated on site is Lea Road’s Infant Welfare Clinic, which will serve as a springboard from which to tell stories of both the birth of the NHS and migration to the country to staff it.
To support this development, our Christmas programme featured ‘Carmen Salmon’, a mother of a new-born migrating to the UK from Jamaica in the Caribbean in the hope of finding work as a nurse. Carmen represents one of the 8,300 people who moved to the Black Country from the Caribbean by 1958 as part of the drive to fill jobs in the UK.
As part of the programme, Carmen discussed with visitors how difficult it has been to find work since she has arrived in the UK with her child, alluding to the intersectional discrimination a Caribbean mother such as her would have faced.
At this time, gender roles became increasingly rigid, with men being expected to work and women expected to act as housewife and mother. This was reflected in an informal marriage bar in most workplaces, where women were expected (often pushed) to resign from their employment once married, so they could care for their husbands and focus on having children.
By contrast, Caribbean mothers considered full-time employment to be an integral part of being a parent, so would share childcare responsibilities amongst members of their family and community so that they too could go out and earn a living to support their child.
On this basis, Black women were likely to experience intersectional prejudice and discrimination at this time. Firstly, on the grounds of their race and secondly, due to their deciding to take up employment instead of a role as a full-time homemaker and mother.
Carmen represents this history by being a mother character who is presently seeking employment as a nurse since moving to the UK. Her cousin, a second character named Hyacinth, is excited to spend some time looking after the child once Carmen finds employment, providing a reference to the Caribbean style of community childcare.
The future of our character programming
The Black Country has a rich and diverse history. In order to authentically tell the story of the Black Country, it’s vital that BCLM shares stories of people that are as diverse as the region itself, reflecting the vast array of experiences of the people that have called the Black Country their home.
2022 provided an excellent starting point from which to start building a richer variety of characters into the everyday fabric of the Museum’s story. We look forward to using the leap forward in time provided by our BCLM: Forging Ahead development to unearth more exciting stories of ordinary Black Country folk who did extraordinary things while making the Black Country their home.