Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lewisham Red Players

In Lewisham Local Studies library today I came across a reference to a 1930s radical theatre group locally called the Lewisham Red Players.

It seems that they were part of the Workers' Theatre Movement, linked to the Communist Party. According to Class against class: the Communist Party in Britain Between the Wars, (Matthew Worley, 2002): “Communist theatre groups had begun to appear throughouth the country by the turn of the decade. In London alone, ten such troupes, including the Red Star Troupe of West London, Red Radio of Hackney, the Red Magnets of Woolwich, the Red Front of Streatham, the Red Players of Lewisham, the Red Blouses of Greenwich and the Yiddish-speaking Proltet, existed by 1931’. South London was evidently a focus for this kind of theatre.

The Lewisham Red Players performed in Lewisham High Street and elsewhere, with their group chorus going:

“There is a word you mustn’t sat – revo-lution
All the same it’s on the way – the workers’ revolution
Every day the world turns round - revo-lution
A few more turns, it will resound - revo-lution
It’s coming here, it’s coming there - revo-lution
The ground is tumbling everywhere – the workers’ revolution”.

(source: Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800–1976, edited by David Brady, 1980)

The Red Players included in their ranks Charlie Mann, editor of the Workers' Theatre Movement journal 'Red Stage'. He was the son of veteran Communist and trade unionist Tom Mann, who lived in Brockley.


Andrew Brown said...

There's a choir, who's name evades me for the moment, which seems to be carrying on the tradition.

The person that did my admin support when I was a councillor was a member (and may still be) and they sang at various secular events. I think that John Hamilton - a former mayoral candidate - also has a link to them.

I certainly remember the choir singing at the re-opening of Telegraph Hill park.

Andrew Brown said...

Google reminds me it is the Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir.

Anonymous said...


Contributed by Michael Walker of Unison.

A short history of the Clarion Vocal Union

Montague Blatchford wrote a series of articles on choral singing in The Clarion, and as a result of these articles singing classes and choirs were formed in different parts of the country. By the middle of 1895 more than a dozen of these choirs had been formed, and Montague Blatchford had become leader of the Clarion Vocal Union movement nationally. His stated object was 'to encourage unaccompanied vocal music [performed] creditably and with understanding'. By far the biggest local group was in his hometown, Halifax, where by 1895 there were 146 members plus an 'elementary class' of 48, and an orchestra.

The average weekly attendance for rehearsals was 120, and Mont Blong was teacher and conductor. It was in South Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire that the CVUs, like the Cycling Clubs, took deepest root; and soon they were eager to arrange inter-club meets. Hardcastle Crags, a beauty spot near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, not far from the border with Lancashire, became a regular venue for CVU picnics and outdoor concerts. At the first of these gatherings, on Saturday 1st June 1895, there were present about a hundred Clarion members, with 150 relatives and friends. Many came on their bikes, proudly wearing the new silver badges pinned in their caps. The mixture, according to the report in the paper, was of 'sandwiches, laughter, tea, tobacco and singing'. There was also a thunderstorm, followed by a rain-soaked dash to the railway station where songs echoed round the platforms as they waited for their trains home.

Glasgow and Bristol both had choirs by 1896, when national CVU membership reached 1,250. The second Hardcastle Crags Meet that year attracted more than 2,000 people to listen to massed choirs on the hillside, and speeches by Caroline Martyn and Keir Hardie. On Jubilee Day, 1897, a big rally was held at Bolton Woods, and so much enthusiasm was displayed that it was resolved to have a joint Concert and Contest each year.

In May 1899 the first CVU United Concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester took place, with 450 singers in fourteen choirs competing for the ivory and gold Challenge Baton which had been presented by the Clarion Board. This was to be an annual event for the next thirty years, bringing hundreds of Clarionettes to Manchester, cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Songs were specially written (like the 'Song of the Clarion Scout') and poems were set to music to form an extensive Socialist repertoire. Young composers and musicians were drawn to the cause, like Gustav Holst, who was a regular cyclist and often rode with his trombone strung across his back.

While studying at the Royal College of Music and living in a bed-sitter in Hammersmith, Holst became the first conductor of the Socialist Choir there. He wrote reports for The Clarion about the choir, one of whose members was his future wife Isobel. Holst's fellow student Rutland Boughton, set poems by William Morris to music, and they appeared in the Clarion Song Book published in 1906. The Clarion Board of Directors presented a Baton of ivory and gold which has been keenly contested for, and, until 1915, Annual Contests took place without a break. In 1915, the Contest, which should have taken place in Sheffield, had to be abandoned owing to lack of railway facilities, and it was only in 1922 that, on a small scale,it was revived. A major Clarion Vocal Union festivial was held at the Manchester Albert Hall on 24th May 1924, with choirs from Bradford, Hyde, Leeds, Oldham, Rochdale, Sheffield and Manchester (I believe won by Bradford CVU).

The Baton was won in 1923 by the Sheffield Choir. Although the actual contest adds a zest to the evening's enjoyment, the best part of the Concert has always been the singing by the massed Choirs. Unaccompanied pieces are generally chosen, and these range from the glees and madrigals of the Elizabethan masters to the part songs and folk song arrangements of modern composers. Clarion Choirs still exist in Birmingham, Sheffield and Nottingham.

Anonymous said...

In 1929 Philip Poole joined the Worker’s Theatre Movement, which consisted of about thirty local groups from Manchester, Glasgow, Liverppol, Sunderland, Castleford, Greenwich, Woolwich, St Pancras and one in Wales. Poole became the first Secretary of the Worker’s Theatre Movement in that year, with Tom Thomas as chairman, a man Poole called the “leading spirit of the movement”. Joan Horrocks was involved in organising the music side of the Movement. The group was, according to Poole, “strictly (Communist) Party” or sympathisers. Poole was also involved in the production of “Red Stage” the Worker’s Theatre
Movement journal which was produced by a son of Tom Mann, Charlie Mann. Poole was also active in his local (Hackney) Red Radio group, which had a pitch off in a cul-de-sac in Aldgate. Red Radio performed once a week a number of political sketches and songs and had its own signature tune:
“We are Red Radio,
Workers’ Red Radio,
We Show you how you’re robbed and bled;
The old world’s crashing,
Let’s help to smash it
And build a workers’ world instead”.

Phillip Poole held the position of secretary of the Worker’s Theatre Movement from 1929 -1933 during which period it had a small office at 90 Grays Inn Road, London.
Michael Walker