Saturday, 15 May 2021

A venue and dates are now in place for The Godmother

 It gives me the greatest pleasure to tell you that my first play, The Godmother, is to be performed at The Trinity, on George Street, Burton-on-Trent, on December 9 and 10, 2021.

The Trinity – which used to be George Street United Methodist Church - has a special place in the story of Lily Thomas, the Burton woman at the centre of The Godmother. It feels to me as if Lily is coming home.

I am also honoured that the talented students of StageScreen, founded and run by Heather Gallagher, will be premiering the play.

It was at The Trinity that I began writing The Godmother in 2019. Every Friday, until the pandemic broke out, you would usually find me at one of the ‘hot-desks’ that Steve Wardle, owner of The Trinity, has created on the balcony of this beautiful building. 

Interior of The Trinity, George Street, Burton
L to R: Heather Gallagher, Elaine Pritchard and Steve Wardle inside The Trinity.

Local freelancers, like me, can book a desk for an occasional day or more regularly. It’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing by working from new surroundings.

103 years before opening night                          

In the course of my research I found out that the George Street church had been a big supporter of Lily’s fundraising during World War One. They often let her use the Sunday schoolrooms – now converted to apartments – for concerts. These were one of many events across the town that raised money for Lily and her helpers to buy food, medicine and clothes that were sent off in parcels every two weeks to every man from Burton held in a German prisoner of war camp.

Also, exactly 103 years before the planned opening night of The Godmother, on Monday December 9, 1918, The Burton Mail carried reports of a thanksgiving service that had been held at the George Street Church on the previous day. That service was attended by Lily and many of her ‘godsons’, which was how she referred to the prisoners she supported. By that date, many of them had been released and sent home to Burton. They joined with Lily to give thanks in the very space where the play will be performed.

Opportunity to join the cast

The Trinity has been lovingly and sympathetically converted by Steve and his team and many original features have been preserved including the stunning stained glass windows, much of the beautifully carved woodwork and the ornate ceiling. I found it a calm and inspiring place to work on my play and it did make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I realised its close connections with Lily.

Stained glass windows at The Trinity
Original stained glass windows inside The Trinity

The StageScreen students will be starting rehearsals for the play in September and there is still an opportunity for any under-18s to join the Saturday morning classes if they want to take part in this and the other exciting end-of-term projects and productions that Heather and her tutors have planned for the school over the next 18 months.

Restoring Lily to the spotlight

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of Lily’s death. As I wrote previously, I think it’s very sad that few people in Burton know about the tireless work that Lily and her helpers did between 1914-1918. Lily fought red tape and negativity for years, but she never gave up. She wasn’t officially honoured after the war ended and for many years her grave in Stapenhill Cemetery was neglected. Her only daughter died childless, and she’d left her home in Guernsey when she married in 1906, so there are no descendants here in Burton (as far as I know) to keep her story in the public eye.

Thanks to the efforts of local historian Malcolm Goode, and supported by funding from East Staffordshire Borough Council, Lily’s grave has been restored. But, it might be nice to do more to remember the lives she saved by getting food and medicine to men who were starving and suicidal. Hopefully, these first two performances of The Godmother will be the start of returning her to the spotlight.

Grave of Lily Thomas before restoration
Lily's grave was in a sadly neglected state

Grave of Lily Thomas after restoration
Lily's grave following restoration

My thanks to Heather Gallagher, Steve Wardle and Hannah Beesley, The Trinity’s events manager, for sharing my passion for telling Lily’s story.

You can follow more about The Godmother play and Lily Thomas herself on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Introducing 'The Godmother', Lily Thomas

 

When I became a parish councillor, a couple of years ago, I met Burton historian Malcolm Goode and heard the story of Lily Thomas for the first time.

Lily is one of the unsung heroines of the home front in World War One. When the conflict began in 1914, she was a 39-year-old widow living in Stapenhill with her four-year-old daughter.

She decided to start a ‘little bit of war work’, as she called it, after learning that five Burton men were being held in German prisoner of war camps and had written home to their families about poor conditions.

By the end of the war in 1918, some 500 Burton men had been taken prisoner and Lily and her small army of volunteers had sent them over 25,000 parcels containing food, clothes and medicines. 

I began reading the columns that Lily wrote during the war in the Burton Mail and her memoirs, which she self-published in 1920. Her voice rang out from the pages and I became determined to make more people aware of her story. The best way seemed to be to bring her back to life on stage. Although I’ve written for a living since I was 19, I’d never written a play - until now.

The first draft of my play 'The Godmother' has just been completed and I’ll be posting news soon about its premiere in Burton Upon Trent before the end of 2021.

England remembers

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lily’s actions saved lives. In her memoirs, she recounts the words of one officer from Burton who told her that suicides by despairing, starving men were frequent in the early months of the war.

He told her: “It is impossible to adequately describe the difference in the morale of the men as soon as the parcels began to arrive. Before they had been despondent in the extreme, and many of the deaths would not have occurred had the men had an incentive to live. As soon as parcels from strangers arrived, there went up a mighty cheer – ‘Hurrah! England remembers’. From that moment new life coursed through the veins of the men, and instead of the stony silence, whistling, singing and shouting became the order of the day, with jocular guesses and bets as to who would be the next to receive a parcel.”

So why has she been largely forgotten – including in her own home town?

A hundred years ago, everyone in Burton knew Lily. During the First World War she developed an impressive communication network including trusted British prisoners who were given responsible jobs in the post offices that were set up inside the prison camps. She invented a code that she managed to smuggle to them so that information could be exchanged, evading the wartime censors, and sounding like innocent news about friends and relatives. When serving soldiers came back to the UK to rest or recover from injury, Lily made a point of visiting them, learning more about how things worked in Germany and building trusting relationships. All this meant that Lily became the ‘go-to’ person for families across the town. They knew she would have information on injured and captured soldiers weeks before any official news was published.

No honours for Lily

Lily’s husband Edward had died when her only daughter Marguerite was one and Lily never remarried. Marguerite married but she and her husband did not have children. Perhaps a lack of descendants was one reason why Lily's name slipped from people’s minds.

Another factor may be that after the war ended, Lily received no official honour for her service. There was a homecoming party with many of the returned prisoners. They held a whip-round and bought her a tea service and donated towards a new bicycle for her.

The Order of the British Empire was introduced in 1917 to reward service in World War One. Many honours were awarded for work on the home front as well as bravery by members of the armed forces. But no awards came Lily’s way. She was an outspoken woman. Remember, this was before women had the vote and when they had less rights in law than men. It's clear that she ruffled a lot of feathers to get the job done. Maybe she upset too many decision-makers?   

Her efforts were ridiculed initially with many people believing that the parcels would never reach the Burton men, that the war would be over very quickly or that the Government would ensure that food and essentials reached the prisoners. But Lily would not be swayed. She fought red tape and complied with ever-changing rules and bureaucracy throughout the war.

Why 'The Godmother'?

The Burton prisoners affectionately called Lily their Godmother and she was delighted to return the tribute and called them her godsons. 

Lily was born and brought up in Guernsey and I'm continuing to research more about her early life there, but the play focuses firmly on the war years in Burton.

If you would like to follow the story of Lily, and the upcoming premiere of The Godmother, you can follow her on Twitter @LilyThomas_WW1 or at a new Facebook Page, LilyThomas.TheGodmother.