Voices from The Knitting Circle
What do you think about The Knitting Circle so far?
“I once lived and worked in a 2,000 bed, long stay hospital, set in beautifully designed grounds with a fabulous sweeping driveway that would put Peyton Place to shame. Built in 1927, it was originally designed as a Colony to house people with epilepsy and became a repository for people cast out of society for the most spurious reasons. It transformed as policies changed in an era of moral panics and became the last port of call for people with learning disabilities.
Harperbury hospital and the people who lived and worked there, will remain with me until my dying day. There was the Essex cluster and the Hertfordshire cluster. Thousands of people were forced to survive in these ‘bins’. People like you and me, diagnosed, labelled and cast aside. In an effort to create friendship groups of people who might make compatible friends in a living situation, I ran a women’s group on the Social Education and Assessment Centre in the mid 80’s. The Knitting Circle is written from the stories of some of the members of that group and from the testimonies gifted to me by people who survived the asylums.”
With these words Julie McNamara summarises the experience that motivated her to create The Knitting Circle. The production gave us a chilling glimpse into a lost world and painted an extraordinary picture of the lives of women who survived Britain’s long care system. The involvement of those who gifted their stories to the production took many forms and continued throughout and long after the close of the tour at Bristol’s Brewery theatre in 2013.
We are the Bees
In 2013, three contributors to the production, survivors of the asylum system, made a guest appearance at the closing performance of The Knitting Circle in Bristol. They took to the stage to thank their audience and take ownership of the show. Their support for the production was extraordinary. They attracted more than thirty fellow survivors in a full house and gloriously appreciative crowd who joined us on the final night of the tour. In this clip Rosie, Mary and Carole thank the audience after a live performance of The Knitting Circle in Brighton.
Knitwitz – Hilary Porter’s wonderful exhibition of knitting
Hilary Porter is the artist behind the hand-knitted exhibition that toured alongside the production. Hilary is a published poet, creative writing tutor and workshop facilitator. She also happens to be a mental health system survivor. Julie talked to Hilary about the meaning of her work:
“What do the brick patterns represent?” I asked. “That’s the wall of Homerton Hospital. I’ve seen that too many times.” “And the other walls?” “That’s Hackney Hospital. That other one’s the wall near the clinic.” “What about the egg?” I asked carefully. “Well, it’s an egg isn’t it. Nothing deep there. That’s my favourite breakfast!”. Of course the fried egg was the first artwork to sell. Hilary was delighted at the first hot sale from her exhibition.
The Knitting Circle was dedicated to Betty, Miriam, Anne, Joyce, Dorothy, Linda, Rosemary, Rachel, Priti, Nan, Celia, Iris Noden, Sister Mary Francis Maronda, and to the thousands of women who were forced to live in the Asylums. Their lives were not made easy, but they taught me much about the irrepressible human spirit and the art of laughter amongst the tears.
“It was the mischief that got us through. That’s how we survived.” Mary, aged 76