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School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

Exploring women's lost voices through fiction

What did partial women's suffrage in 1918 mean for the women who still couldn't vote? Novelist and lecturer Beth Underdown talks about the process of researching her fiction commission for the National Trust's historic Quarry Bank mill in Cheshire.

In 1918, women in England gained the vote - but not all women. To mark the centenary of this change in the law, I was commissioned as a writer in residence for the National Trust at Quarry Bank - a working cotton mill and estate in Styal, Cheshire.

My commission has formed part of the mill's Lost Voices programme of events, looking at the centenary of partial women's suffrage and focusing particularly on some of the hitherto-unheard women who lived and worked around the mill in 1918.

My starting point for the residency was to use the Trust's archive, in combination with broader research, to ask what gaining the vote might actually have meant to the women of Quarry Bank in 1918 - because this cannot have felt like a moment of pure celebration.

Not only was it surely a strange and fraught and exhausted time to be alive, but the vote itself was not granted across the board: only to women over 30, who had also to be either the occupier (or married to the occupier) of a rateable property. This left young women, poor women and unmarried women all more likely to remain disenfranchised.

My fiction commission for the residency, Love makes as many, concentrates mainly on women featured in Dr Ruth Colton's exhibition for the Lost Voices programme. Using the Trust's archive, I was able to look at a range of sources, from the war diary of Helen Greg (who was part of the family who owned Quarry Bank) to the estate's rent book (which allowed me to figure out who lived next door to whom in the factory worker's terraced houses).

I was also able to incorporate into the commission some of what Quarry Bank means to those who work and volunteer there now, which I approached by asking people for their ghost stories – things they might have seen or heard around the site.

This elicited some fascinating responses, and as my research continued, more parallels between 1918 and 2018 began to emerge. The weaving machines have been silent at Quarry Bank this year for the mill's refurbishment, and Love makes as many focuses on a few days during which they also fell silent in 1918, stopped by a cotton shortage - mere weeks before the end of the war, and a couple of months before the general election at which some women would, for the first time, be able to cast their votes.

The residency has created a really nice ripple of opportunities through the University and beyond - from the postgraduate students from the Centre for New Writing who have had the chance to offer creative sessions in Quarry Bank's partner primary schools, to the printing of the fiction commission with Hot Bed Press, one of Manchester's fantastic small presses.

The residency was funded through the Arts Council-supported Trust New Art (TNA), a programme intended to connect people to National Trust places through contemporary arts. Many of TNA's previous commissions have been for visual/material artists rather than writers, and it has been fantastic to be part of the Trust's process of understanding what writers can offer to them as an organisation - and what they can offer to writers.

Manchester Literature Festival has been the third partner in the residency, and will be hosting two events showcasing the commission in October, including a site-specific performance at Quarry Bank itself.

Bringing live literature into this new space has just been one of the lovely features of undertaking the residency, along with the chance to produce a piece of work that will, I hope, allow the National Trust to highlight a special place and complex piece of history in a slightly different way.

Find out more about Beth's Manchester Literature Festival events at Quarry Bank (6 October 2018) and in Manchester (16 October 2018).