Belonging in archives

Wingrove_1Louise Wingrove is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Drama: Theatre, Film and Television. Her research is focused on how the lives of working women were represented by serio-comediennes on the Victorian music-hall stage, using the characters and careers of Jenny Hill (1848-1896) and Bessie Bellwood (1856-1896) as case studies.  Most of her research is archive based, piecing together long lost careers, songs and venues through files of reviews, photographs and sheet music.

I didn’t do GCSE history, deciding on Geography after being told by my teacher that those with a nervous disposition should avoid the tales of war told on the syllabus.  At college and university, my focus was whole-heartedly on Theatre and Music; with Literature and Psychology guest starring, but still the worlds of Sociology, History and Politics never really came into play.  Theatre was my all – the immediacy, the audience, the buzz of writing and directing.  So, following some dabbling in stand-up comedy at the age of 18, my choice to do a PhD stemmed from a fascination with audience psychology and the exploration of the reasons why women are so often deemed “not funny.”  It combined all my key interests and I was passionate about it.  But all that changed with one small exercise:  “Look back through the decades to the roots of modern stand-up comedy and note how womens styles have changed throughout.”

I had never been to an archive.  I had no idea how to access catalogues, who to email for help, or even how to log and organise the data I found.  However, as time progressed, and with the help of many a patient archivist, I started piecing it together and what I found gave me a bigger buzz than I could have ever expected.  The first time I saw actual newspaper cuttings and photographs of Jenny Hill I felt as if doing a PhD – well – made sense!  I had to find out more about the women I had found and I had to tell the world about them.  I had a responsibility to these women!  I became obsessed with trawling through newspapers to find what characters they performed as and how they were effected by social movements and events – the fight for Suffrage, the Married Women’s Property act and the Education Act.  How the Governments affected them and – more importantly – how they reflected and gave voices to working class women.

Luckily there have been many eureka moments for me in the archives, from the first time I met Jenny Hill and Bessie Bellwood in the archive boxes containing aspects of their lives and careers, to each moment I found a new piece of sheet music.  For every eureka moment I have had, there have been thousands of frustrating ones too, though.  The records lost, or too fragile, or seemingly non-existent.  But strangely they balance each other – keeping me going but stopping me from being complacent (and even more of a bore to those around me who have to hear every little detail!).  Last June, through the British Library’s online newspaper archive, I found an interview with Jenny Hill in the theatrical newspaper The Era.  In this she describes her famous character “The Coffee Shop Gal” and how she was based on a real girl working in a Shoreditch coffee house.  She and the composer wrote this song based on their observations made through visiting the same establishment constantly.  That, combined with her accounts of buying second-hand costumes and holidays with East-end girls, starts to uncover her observational working method and helps support my theory of her as an early observational comedienne.  I may have discovered this in June, but I still do a little happy dance whenever I re-read it! 

I think that, when considering ‘a year in the life of a PhD’, I look back over my last two years and see how quickly all your initial ideas and pre-conceptions can vanish, leaving you in a world of research that you never expected, or even wanted, and yet fits you so perfectly you can’t remember a time without it.

~ Louise Wingrove, PhD Candidate, Drama