What does a historical performer do? How do you bring alive the stories of thousands of women during WWI? And what is a FANY? Lindsey Porter chats to Kate Vigurs from History’s Maid to find out.
If you could sum up your job in a tweet, what would it be?
I'm a historian wearing two hats, an academic and a performing historian, bringing stories from history to life.
What does a ‘performing historian’ do?
I have a passion for history and I look to tell historical stories through performances. So I can often be found at historic houses and at events with my team of costumed characters from different moments in history. From medieval to the Great War, there are so many fascinating stories from across history and these can be enjoyed by every age. We hope our audience appreciates how our characters lived, acted and felt and that children feel inspired by what they see.
And our motto is quite simple, ‘authenticity, punctuality and tea’. There has to be tea, it’s such an English essential, whether hidden in a tankard or a flask, we can spend many hours in costume, often outdoors, so there has to be tea.
How do you go about creating your characters?
There are some characters that recur in my repertoire, but I will research a character from scratch for a specific season or event. I look into the time period and the kit and then I take eyewitness accounts from different sources and stitch these together to create one character. I think it is more interesting to have these ‘composite’ characters, as they can tell a fuller, more rounded story from that time.
I have been recently working on a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) character from 1913, pre First World War. The FANY’s were a Corps of women trained following the Second Boer War to ride side saddle on horseback as a first aid link between the front lines and the field hospitals. It was felt that a single rider could get to a wounded soldier faster than a horse-drawn ambulance and that these troops could be used during the World War I. The original uniform was a most impractical scarlet tunic with a navy blue riding skirt and a hard-topped scarlet hat with black leather peak.
When the World War I broke out the British Army chose not to use the Corps, who were now driving, so they drove ambulances and ran hospitals for the Belgian and French armies instead. By the end of the First World War the 450+ women were awarded many decorations of bravery.
One of my favourite pieces is a female Special Operations Executive (SOE) character from 1942, a housewife who was recruited by the Home Office to work in occupied France and based on true accounts. It’s fascinating and based on my PhD thesis.
Can you tell us what’s in your wardrobe?
It’s a really eclectic treasure trove. I have a replica 15th century suit of armour, an original Victorian side saddle, over 50 swords from the Roman period to the 18th century and weapons used by secret agents during World War II. Just to name a few things.
Is there an average week?
I can honestly say that every single day of my life is different. A few weeks ago I was performing at a Victorian gymkhana at Audley End, giving side saddle talks in full period style habit. The week also saw a day of research, a day of forward planning and a day of lectures at the University of Leeds.
From April right through until Halloween, this is our busiest time of the year with so many historical events and activities throughout the country. I am particularly looking forward to ‘A Woman’s War’ at Brodsworth Hall in August, where we are highlighting how the role of British women changed so dramatically during the first world war, from wealthy upper class ladies living in grand countryside estates to munitions girls doing their bit for the war effort. It’s not so often that we get to tell this side of the story and it’s really exciting to do this during the centenary of the breakout of World War I.
What do you love most about your job?
I really do love my job in every aspect. I never thought I would do history for a living, I thought I would be a stage manager, but this has it all, I am a researcher, a writer, a wardrobe mistress and a performer, all wrapped up in one.
You can see Kate and History’s Maid in action at English Heritage sites throughout the summer, including History Live - Europe’s biggest living history festival – Roman events on Hadrian’s Wall and WWI events at Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire.