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Shepherdess Walk Dramatic Society

by Reg Walker


A wonderful collection of memories has come the way of HMSOldies as a result of the thoughtfulness and persistence of Delphine Tyrell, who works for a furniture firm in New Eltham, and the astuteness of Kathryn Daniels at HMSO (OPSI) Norwich.

During a house clearance in Norbury, near Croydon Surrey, Delphine came across a bundle of programmes and photographs from the Shepherdess Dramatic Society. Having a theatrical interest herself, she tried in vain to find someone who would have an interest in these items, and eventually found Kathryn, who put her in touch with HMSOldies.

The bundle duly arrived, with the information that the name of the person who had carefully preserved the items for so many years was ‘Miss E Bennett. The 1954 Staff List reveals only one candidate — Miss Emma Catherine Bennett, Supervisor in ‘D’ who was born on 19 January 1903 and joined HMSO in 1919. Incidentally, she was on a pay scale starting at £405 pa in 1954. The name ‘Emmie’ on a couple of programmes seems to settle it.

It would be remarkable to think that Miss Bennett lived to the age of 103; perhaps we will never know. SO Review  dated June 1958 noted that ‘Of two invalids who have been so long absent from Shepherdess Walk, Miss Emmie Bennett (Add. Supervisor) has regrettably had to retire on grounds of ill-health. She will be missed by many friends and members of the Dramatic Society for which she has worked very hard. Our best wishes also go to Mr Willmott (AWS) who is still away on sick leave.’ (A relative of NA ‘Chester’ Willmott, perhaps?). However, SO Review  of August 1958 tells us that ‘Rehearsals for the next production, Agatha Christie’s A Spider’s Web  have already begun. Miss Kay Barrow is the leading lady and Miss Emmie Bennett now becomes a lady out of retirement, for she is to take a part in the play.’

There are 106 photographs, unfortunately not annotated, and 37 programmes. The earliest is dated 1928; the latest 1962. Brief details are as follows:

Concert and Musical Evening 16 March 1928. One of the playlets — A Sister to Assist’er   featured Mr WE Rickard as Mrs Millie May and Miss E Bennett as Mrs McMill, her landlady.

The Society’s 4th performance was held on 14 March 1929. Miss Bennett played the part of Cinders in a one-act play. Other performers included Mr WE Rickard, Mr F West, Mr V Allen and Miss Pallett.

The performance on 29 and 30 January 1936 featured, among others, Emily Bennett, Pamela Leader, Rose Bullen and Rosina Cracknell. The plays were produced by CAJ Argent and one of the stewards was WH Jameson (ITW1– HEO – when I started in Cornwall House in 1963).

The programme for 18 and 19 November 1936 tells us that the Patron of the Society was Sir William R Codling; the President RJ Palmer; the Vice-Presidents E Phillipps, W Hawkins, EW Ede. Officers were AE Brewer, Mrs VL Thomas, CAJ Argent, FT Hillman, A Huggett, Miss H Perry, Miss RF Cracknell, Miss M Harding, Miss E Bennett and Miss DF Hughes. Orchestra directed by AE Brewer and Make-up was by ED Mortelman. Wilhelmina Mortelman played a part in Waterloo  by Arthur Conan Doyle (with some foresight, as Wilhelmina ended up working in Cornwall House, Waterloo, as EO in ITW1c under her married name of Wilhelmina Robbie).

The 2d. Programme for the first two-act play, Ladies in Waiting  performed in December 1937, was signed by the cast and included an advert for Morton’s Christmas Catalogue. Suggestions for presents for men were slippers, pipes, handkerchiefs and pullovers; for women overalls, gloves, stockings, toilet requisites.

In April 1938 they performed Miss Tracy  and it was mentioned that the Monthly Subscription for Acting Members was 6d; 4d for Honorary Members.

The Lilies of the Field  was performed in November 1938. Miss M Todd (who was ITWIb in 1963) was one of the programme sellers. April 1939 saw Noel Coward’s The Young Idea.  The President had changed to LC Dashfield and Miss Todd was no longer a programme seller. The December 1945 programme for Dear Octopus  was signed by the cast, which saw the return of Marjorie Todd in the part of one of the children. Frank Davey, Mina Mortelman and Reginald Vine also featured. The cessation of hostilities had obviously liberated the Society and they felt that they could give Christian names of the performers.

Tony Draws a Horse  was performed in April 1946 at the Cripplegate Theatre, Golden Lane EC1. Norman Robbie played the part of Alfred Parsons and Mina Mortelman the part of Mrs Parsons. (Mina was possibly using Mortelman as her stage name as she married Norman around this time). Coward’s This Happy Breed  hit the boards in January 1947, with the programme signed by Misses Mortelman, Todd and others. Ladies in Retirement  in June 1947 had HW Dodge (who was to become DCRS) as Property Master. Programme 3d.

Inflation had hit by January 1948 for the performance of Ivor Novello’s We Proudly Present.  The programme price doubled to 6d. David Reynolds, Arnold Martyn (another CRS-in-waiting) and Paddy Ellmers had joined the group. And So To Bed  in May 1948; The Shop at Sly Corner  in September 1948. Madame Louise  (February 1949) featured Reginald Vine (who went to Layout) and Marjorie Stoakley (one-time PS to DS) among others. Double Door,  October 1949, was performed by a dozen players including Margaret Lewindon and George Hillier (he was to become ADPB). The Courageous Sex,  May 1949. See How They Run,  January 1950, featured Frederick Frogley with Messrs Vine, Martyn, Palmer and Barber and Misses Ellmers, Cracknell, Palmer. CAJ Argent was president; ACA Taylor a Vice President and A Gravatt was property Master.

The Chiltern Hundreds,  May 1950; On Monday Next,  May 1951, saw Alec Gravatt take to the boards, as did Peter Jefford (who moved to Norwich and CCTA). Random Harvest,  September 1951, where Len Ellis and Gordon McKenzie were ‘back room boys’). No programme is available for Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage  performed in January 1952, but the piece in SO Review  said that ‘Emily Bennett as Miss Marple had a part that suited her to perfection, and she made the most of her dramatic moments . . . the vicar, played by Reginald Vine, was an excellent study . . . Harry Edwards, as their nephew, gave a truly ‘boyish’ performance.’

The Poltergeist,  May 1952, was produced by Hugh Baker (a Civil Service Commission employee) and featured Ivor Arkinstall with the first mention of ‘Mrs M Robbie.’ The Strange Case of Blondie White,  October 1952, included in the cast Barbara Went, David Roberts (‘a welcome newcomer, playing the part of Smith from Hendon College’) and Harry Edwards. ‘Rehearsals were conducted under great difficulties, owing to summer leave, but the result shows that the Society is still keeping its high standard’).

Will Any Gentleman,  January 1953, was subject to review by Evaline Fuller (Welfare EO) who tells us that ‘the acting was of a high standard throughout but Norman Robbie as Henry Stirling deserves special mention.’ Rebecca, October 1953 featured Dennis Smith, Peter Bonnet, Ernest Bolt. No programme for A Worm’s Eye View  from March 1954 but the review referred to ‘an evening of hilarious fun . . . it was Kay Barrow’s best performance to date . . . Brenda Cakebread was a cockney gem and a very good first performance . . .Terry Soutar made a very handsome Squadron Leader . . . good work behind the scenes from Emily Bennett, Bill Askew, Mary Skipp and Lilian Rodmell.’ Madam Tic Tac,  October 1954, with Vicky Topley, Ern E Bolt and ‘Chloe, played by Marjorie Todd, is a virulent strumpet who is embittered because she has served a prison sentence.’

Rattigan’s Playbill  in March 1955 saw David Melson, John Nash (CRS again), Kay Barrow, Dennis Smith, David Lloyd Thomas (CRS) Terry Soutar (Tech Norwich) and Olive Curran in The Browning Version  and John Morgan (Romeo to Barbara Went’s Juliet) and a dozen others in Harliquinade.  As Long as They’re Happy,  October 1955, with Patricia Jellis, Brenda Cakebread; Relative Values,  October 1956, with Len Nethercott, Rita Jeames; Reluctant Heroes,  March 1957, with ‘Digger’ Dungate (who moved to Norwich, eventually in Training). The Whole Truth,  October 1957, Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web,  October 1958, Sailor Beware,  March 1959, with Emmie Bennett, Bill Lyon, Wilhelmina Robbie (whose performance Harry Edwards, in his review, said was ‘excellently timed and always convincing’) Trespass,  October 1959 (Harry Edwards didn’t like the play but enjoyed the performances). There is no programme for the March 1960 play Present Laughter,  nor for Dear Delinquent,  November 1961.

The final programme in the set was for Breath of Spring,  February 1962. With the move from Shepherdess Walk to Basildon, was this the last performance of the Dramatic Society? The play featured Kay Barrow, Bill Lyon, Molly Drayton, Dorothy Williams, Emily Bennett, Doreen Luer, Leslie Milton and David Ashford. Producer was Derek Valentine.

Additional information about Shepherdess Walk was published the in SO Review  during the 1950s and early 1960s in articles entitled Shepherd’s Talk and written by ‘Shepherd.’  To put things in perspective, the non-industrial staff numbers in Duplicating and Distribution Division were higher than any other HMSO Division: 661 in 1954 and 491 in 1968.

‘Shepherd’ gave details of summer outings to Clacton and to Margate (‘having picked up their genial chairman, George Calver, at The Black Prince, Dartford . . . we stopped at The Roebuck . . . and had high tea at J Lyons’). Then there was 1958 Christmas Social; ‘MC’d by Kay Barrow and Harry Burton, it was a lively occasion and was further enlivened during the evening by the sudden entry of nearly a score of Teddy Boys. The concern which showed on the faces of those present was natural, but the boys managed to relieve Harold South and Don Turner, who were behind the bar, of their stocks.’ There was also an appreciation to Tony Gummett ‘Chairman of the CSCA London Branch for his excellent chairmanship during the trouble over the Clerical Classes pay claim.’ Mention that ‘our friend, Jimmy Revell, EO in Testing and Training, has taken the plunge. He has married a charming Yorkshire lass.’ There was also the following description of a man who in the 1960s became EO in ITW1d: ‘Mr John O’Connor, of Orsman Road, will, I am sure, not mind if I say that he is typical of a certain type of man which the Civil Service seems to produce after a long period. Kindly, self-absorbed, independent, voluble, an enthusiast with a sense of other-worldliness but on good terms with everyone, he is doing some fine work as Secretary of the magazine PAX  — the name given to an association of Christians who seek to promote and encourage the practical application of Christian principles to the question of war. No-one can doubt his absolute sincerity.’ The last Shepherd’s Talk  I can find is from May 1961, when 78 staff were preparing for an Annual Outing to Calais.

Any corrections, clarifications or additions to the above are enthusiastically awaited.

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