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Female Voices

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Hazlehurst Studios, working in partnership with Norton Priory, have commissioned five of the studio’s female artists to explore the role of working women in Halton, taking particular inspiration from the rich history of Norton Priory to create this body of work.

Whilst there is a huge amount of information about the roles of men at Norton Priory, there is a gap in knowledge around the work of their female counterparts, as this was rarely documented.

Women at all levels of society worked at Norton Priory: from educators and household team members in the grand mansion, to the alewife that brewed ale for the Abbot. There were also trades away from Norton Priory, such as female dominated cottage industries like lacemaking, whose items would be sold to prominent households in Halton.

These trades were often overlooked or even “accidental”, such as wives filling the gaps of their husband’s skills or roles not considered a “job”, being quietly filled by female relatives of male workers. This exhibition is a showcase of the female worker and how their often forgotten voices helped shape Norton Priory, from the 16th century Alewife to the modern day Archaeologist.

Hazlehurst's Artists

Cathy Rounthwaite, Claire Pitt, Ellie Watson, Mima Cornish and Rachael Prime

This has been funded by Halton Borough Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of the Celebrating Halton’s Heritage project, which has delivered a programme of heritage activity as part of Halton’s Borough of Culture 2021 celebrations.

Cathy Rounthwaite - Jean Bennett

There are extensive records from the last two gamekeepers at Norton Priory; Mr Threadgold and Mr Bennett. These diaries, notebooks, game books, photographs and other documents demonstrate the essential part played by their wives.

In an oral record from 2011 Jean Bennett speaks of her life as a gamekeeper's wife and her involvement in her husband’s work. She took responsibility for hatching and raising pheasant chicks, with broody hens in coops in the walled garden. She kept records and accounts, also completing the game book after each shoot, recording names of participants, the type of game and where it was shot. She would take rabbits to sell at Warrington market in hessian sacks, something her husband refused to do. She also tells of providing refreshment for shooting guests, having a cup of tea in her kitchen with Lord Trevor from Chirk Castle, and serving three course dinners after the shoot – the only time she received payment for her work.

This collection of stoneware pots references game pie dishes, something which would be familiar to the gamekeeper’s wife and each represents a different role she carried out. The ceramics have been smoke fired in sawdust with appropriate combustibles such as grasses, leaves, twigs, egg shells and wire to give colour and pattern and finished with beeswax.

Cathy Rounthwaite is a member of Hazlehurst Studios, Hazlehurst Print and also Markmakers, the Halton based art collective. Although she initially studied embroidery and textiles, she has been a printmaker for several years. More recently she extended her practice to ceramics and is part of the House of Clay studio.

Mima Cornish - Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson is a landscape architect who worked for Warrington Runcorn Development Corporation in the 1980’s, and designed some of the flower borders for the Walled Garden at Norton Priory. Margaret’s plans were drawn in a linear fashion, with the plants plotted as circles of varying size. The plans that the artist was first shown were Margaret Wilson’s plans for the rose walk, the pathway that leads the visitor directly forward into the heart of the Walled Garden.

Margaret Wilson was in turn inspired by the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll ( 1843 – 1932). Gertrude Jekyll was famous for her innovative approach to planting and is credited with designing over 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America. Gertrude Jekyll was friends with William Morris, and many of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The fact that two women were responsible for the ideas that were used in the Walled Garden at that time, made it instantly interesting for this exhibition.

Mima always finds herself working with the natural forms of circles, spirals and labyrinths and is constantly inspired by nature’s forms and colours. Roses are her favourite flower. When she saw the original design for the rose walk, with Margaret Wilson plotting the different rose plants with flat circles, she was immediately inspired. As she researched the rose colours, and discussed the intentions with Norton Priory’s ranger Paul Quigley, it became clear that the planting was designed to take the eye of the visitor into the further part of the garden, transitioning through white, yellow, pink and into darkest reds and purple in the distance.

Mima has designed her piece to reflect the journey of the eye, but using the circles to create a spiral. All the colours she has used, reflect the actual roses that Margaret Wilson planned.

Ellie Watson - Dr Carla Burrell

‘Dr Carla Burrell - In Focus’ - Ellie Francesca Watson

Hand drawn portrait depicting Dr Carla Burrell - Osteoarchaeologist. This portrait was drawn using graphite charcoal & ink. The charcoal used is sourced by Norton Priory and favoured by the artist.

Dr Carla Burrell has been volunteering at Norton Priory since 2014 as an osteoarchaeologist - the study of human skeletal remains. She believes that Norton Priory holds a wonderful collection in their museum and has had the privilege of studying them and included them in her PhD findings. More recently, Dr Burrell has been an active researcher investigating Paget’s Disease of Bone at Norton Priory alongside a team of scientists.

Dr Burrell states that the most important aspects of her and her team’s work is the ability to share their findings - She is keen to keep Norton Priory up to date and involved in their work. Dr Burrell uses the research in such a way that can be used in the gallery displays, newsletters, magazine articles and public outreach activities. Dr Burrell has enjoyed working with the younger generations at Norton inspiring them to consider a STEM related topic in their educational journey.

Dr Burrell thanks Norton Priory and states that they have provided a huge stepping stone in both her personal & professional career development. She believes that without Norton Priory’s support, she would not have found confidence in herself or her research. Dr Burrell describes Norton Priory as a ‘fascinating place’, filled with ‘beautiful and supportive souls’ and says she is always in ‘a happy place’ when working with them.

Ellie Francesca Watson is a local artist from Runcorn, Based at Hazlehurst Studios. She specialises in drawn portraiture. She uses an unorthodox combination of charcoal, graphite & ink to capture a broader spectrum of depth and tones within her portraits. Her sole purpose is to convey a sense of realism and personality within her work. She aims to pay tribute to her subject’s physical appearance, using an honest and upfront approach.

Rachael Prime - Lacemaker

There are limited records around lace making in Runcorn, a few photographs and entries onto the census record exist.

Jean Bradburn mentioned lacemaking within her book “Runcorn at Work: People and Industries throughout the years” stating:

“Lacemaking was a traditional cottage industry in Runcorn. This could have originated through the pilgrims passing through Runcorn, as lace was used by clergy as part of vestments in religious ceremonies.”

Lace was a way for women to gain independence, but it came at an extremely high cost. They would have to work ten to twelve hours a day, under candle light, even during the winter months, affecting their eyesight. During the 19th century, Lace schools were popular to send young girls to teach them the skill, but it also created a rock bed of ill health, due to the poorly ventilated and overcrowded conditions.

The noble men and women of Norton Priory history would have benefited and bought from the lace industry. Using it, for example, as neck ruffs in the 16th century, cuffs for jackets in the 17th century and then after the industrial revolution, even on aprons, once the cost dramatically reduced due to mechanisation of the craft.

Usually focusing on embroidery and other textile techniques in her work, Rachael Prime felt drawn to the world of the Lace Makers. Using an historic photograph of a veteran lace maker as inspiration, Rachael created a piece exploring digital illustration and the photographic technique cyanotype. She created the cyanotype part of the project alongside other women during a Women's Institute camping event, exposing the large piece of fabric by working together.

Claire Pitt - The Ale Wife

An“ale-wife”to mean "a woman that keeps an ale-house", synonymous with the word "brewster".

Women were the main brewers of ale, from religious ceremonies in Ancient Mesopotamia, for those that worshipped Ninkasi - the Goddess of Beer (6000 years ago) to the 1600s were drinking ale was an everyday occurrence.

The Alewife referenced in Norton Priory’s records doesn’t get a name, for she is only recorded as a wife, William the Joiner’s wife to be exact. Let’s imagine her as Alice, a popular name in the late 1400s/early 1500s when she was born.

At the time Alice was brewing the ale for the Abbot at Norton Priory in 1522, the dissolution of monasteries was heading Norton’s way (14 years later). We don’t know how this would have affected Alice and her husband, but the timing also coincides with the decline of ale making being a female led profession.

Around the time of our alewife, Alice, the poet John Skelton was penning the “The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng”, this is not a flattering imagining of an alewife, in fact it sums up all the popular misconceptions of the alewife, from her supposed hideous visage to her sinful ways.

A popular myth is that the Alewive's were the inspiration of witches we commonly picture now, although this is false. The Alewives’ large hat was to attract customers in a crowded area, making them literally stand out in the crowd. The broomstick, was not a broomstick, but in fact an Alestaff, which would adorn the alewives abode, attached like a flagpole, to indicate that alemaking took place and was available to purchase.

In this piece - Claire has created an illustration depicting an Alewife, with an elongated hat and an Alestaff protruding from it. There are also smaller scenes of devilment which alluded to the popular views of the times that alewives led the way to hell. Not only tempting poor souls, but also finding themselves as playthings for the devil.

Claire has also created cyanotypes - these are a traditional photographic technique, the subject matter being Oat, Wheat and Barley which were commonly used in the ale making.

We would like to thank Lauren Quayle from Quayle Social for photographing our work so beautifully.

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