What is Delivered by Freemans?
Eastern Angles Theatre Company is uncovering the stories and memories from one of the largest workplaces in Peterborough - Freemans Catalogue Distribution Centre. Freemans was a British catalogue clothing retailer founded in 1904, which opened a warehouse in Westwood, Peterborough in 1969.
This was the period when glossy catalogue shopping meant access to the latest fashions on a pay-per-week basis. But more importantly the stories from the people who worked there reflect the camaraderie and community spirit of the place, especially focusing on the Returns Shop and the Social Club.
The Centre, which at its height employed almost 2,000 people, not only shaped the city of Peterborough but was also nationally significant in the cataloguing and distribution trade - it wasn't just a job, it was a way of life.
The Delivered by Freemans project, in partnership with Vivacity Peterborough Archives Service and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund has included:
• 30 interviews with past employees, including pickers, packers, warehouse men, union reps, conveners, office staff, cooks, managers….
• All Wrapped Up In Westwood – a community play performed over 2 weeks at The Undercroft with over 20 community performers and professional creative team
• Unwrapped, a UROCK youth theatre performance as a response to the research and stories
• An exhibition and timeline
• A souvenir booklet with more excerpts from the memories
" Born and bred in Peterborough, I remember Freemans well, but have never really appreciated the scale and innovation of the company. I never worked at Freemans but, like Kath the character I am playing, I did enjoy a lively evening or two at Freemans Social Club, so do feel a great affinity and warmth towards her. The best part has been working with the visionary and patient Eastern Angles team."
— Suzanne, cast member on All Wrapped Up in Westwood
How did the project come about? Ivan Cutting explains...
We first picked up the signals around the extraordinary phenomenon that was Freemans on our Forty Years On radar when interviewing people about their move to the city or involvement in the Development Corporation. Nearly 20 of our interviewees mentioned Freemans and its special place in their lives: the good wages for women; the evening shifts that helped mothers with children; the shop; the weird “Returns” department; the diverse workforce; the social club; and above all the length of time some people worked there. It was clearly a project in the wings and, prompted by our previous partner, the City Archives, we duly brought it to the attention of Heritage Lottery Fund, who enthusiastically funded it.
In autumn 2017 we interviewed our first tranche of people who had worked at Freemans and got them to explain the 20-minute sequences of picking and packing that seemed to rule their day,the complicated grading system that determined anyone’s workload and rate of pay, and the extraordinary stories that surrounded the Returns department.
In the meantime, volunteers trawled through archives, newspapers and the internet to fill in the historical background and timeline. We also invited anyone with an interest in performing to come and share our research and help us turn it all into a play with a professional director, designer, composer and choreographer.
The result was All Wrapped Up In Westwood, a kaleidoscope of several elements: the actual words and stories of those who worked there and talked to us; similar verbatim accounts from contemporary figures like Barbara Castle (from Hansard); sketches around historical moments; songs; and finally, wrapped around it all, a fictional play exploring the background of a group of mostly women, hopefully typical, who worked there. This was presented at The Undercroft in Serpentine Green for ten performances in October 2017.
However, one story eluded us, that of The Freemans Five who under the leadership of worker Rene Pickstone and TGWU official Sid Simms launched a case for Equal Pay in 1984 that took Freemans all the way to the House of Lords and was only finally resolved in 1993. The women won their case, but although we had the result, unpacking the nine-year journey was altogether more difficult. But our luck was in and at the last performance of All Wrapped Up In Westwood, Rene came to see the show and showed us her scrapbooks. In addition, our Freedom of Information request was granted and released many of the details of the various hearings. Since then we have completed a screenplay treatment of Rene’s story, performed at the Women’s Festival at the Town Hall, lodged all our interviews with the City’s Archives, created an exhibition and produced a booklet.
Who are Eastern Angles Theatre Company?
Eastern Angles Theatre Company combines heritage with theatre to make regional stories and hidden histories come to life on stage.
The company provide professional rural touring and site-specific theatre with a focus on new writing, new audiences and the development of new talent. Their stories and themes are derived from our sense of place, specifically East Anglia and the East of England. Since forming in 1982, Eastern Angles have blazed a trail across East Anglia over 30 plus years and expanded to national tours and Edinburgh Festival residencies.
Based in Ipswich at the Sir John Mills Theatre, the company has a second base in Peterborough at Chauffeur’s Cottage. Eastern Angles has performed across Peterborough including outside the city’s Cathedral, the Key Theatre and Nene Park. In October 2016, they opened a new theatre space: The Undercroft at Serpentine Green Shopping Centre.