These Lancashire Women are Witches in Politics by Anna FC Smith and Helen Mather explored how portrayals of Leigh women from pre-Peterloo Reform Societies as witches and beasts can be repurposed within contemporary social and political contexts.
The project was presented as part of The Turnpike’s Activations programme, where artists come together to experiment, create with communities and test new approaches towards positive social impact. Throughout this process, artwork was co-created with a broad spectrum of the Leigh community through participatory workshops, talks and events.
In May 2021, The Turnpike welcomed the artists back into residency at the gallery, where they created an extraordinary making and meeting space which awaited the return of the local communities who had been creating remotely throughout lockdown. The space resembled an enchanted forest ripe for conspiracy and creative action.
Outdoor foraging workshops, online making sessions and talks, as well as the distribution of materials and resources to people's homes and care settings, enabled the project to evolve throughout ever shifting circumstances. Collaborating with a regular group of 27 people who were sent free packs of materials, the artists ran creative workshops on Zoom every other Friday.
“It’s such a calming hour,” says Helen Mather. “Each week the group looks at a bit of the history of the reformers and has a go at making. We have been creating more tassels, medals, and plaques. All these things are part of the pageantry of the Leigh Female Reformers but they are also items that demonstrate power — the power of the people who make them, to be creative and to be together.”
This extraordinary body of work made by the community comprises hundreds of embroideries, tassels, sigils and ceramics, costumes, banners and emblems that speak of resilience and agency. The project united the vision of children, the creative skills inherent within communities, the magical energy of nature and the radical heritage of the town.
At The Turnpike’s gallery space, these interwoven elements were presented as folkloric objects, where banners and pikes stand like a forest populated with the beasts of the people. The project connected the community with their environment, history and agency, empowering them to roar together — sympathetic, empowered, and enfranchised.
In the spirit of reform movements, a series of hustings were held across the town, inviting public debate and performance.
During lockdown, the artists also continued the events they hoped to hold at the gallery as an online programme, which is now available to watch on YouTube. They hosted two talks about the Leigh Female Reformers, one by local historian Yvonne Eckersley and another by the Blackburn academic Ruth Mather. There has also been a musical performance by London artist Rachael Finney, poetry by local poet Louise Fazackerley and an in-conversation event with LGBTQ+ campaigner Jess Eastoe.
“It has been incredible to see how our art project has brought people together and given them some solace and fun during lockdown. We have built up a community of people who are coming together over a shared love of creating and history. Through Zoom conversations, to little messages and notes, everyone has expressed how much it has meant to them to be a part of this and it means the world to us. It demonstrates how important art is in the everyday.”Anna FC Smith, artist