how it came about…

One of the things that acta is well known for is telling untold stories from the everyday experience of working people of Bristol; both past and present.

In 2014 and 2017 we devised and presented a new play called ‘Gas Girls’, which retold the stories of Bristol women and men who worked at the Mustard Gas factories in Avonmouth during 2017-18, and the horrific toll this dangerous work took on their health.

This play ended with the war in 1918, but it had always seemed to me that there was more to tell. I was particularly haunted by a line from one of the characters ‘Now the war is over, the men will want their jobs back, you mark my words’. What would happen to all those skilled and empowered women? How would society deal with them? There wasn’t time in the play to answer those questions, but they stayed with me.

Then, while researching the Bristol Unemployment Riots of 1931/2 (a subject for another time!) we came upon a few lines which referred to the Tramways riots of 1920; a very terse clue which sent us looking for more information about this incident. What we discovered we found very shocking; and disgraceful; but at the same time, helped us to answer the questions that had been left at the end of Gas Girls.

The Clippies of the title were young women who worked on the trams operated by Bristol Tramways. They had been recruited at the height of the War in 1916, and were universally loved and respected by the people of Bristol… until the War was over.

By April 1920, there were 6000 ex-servicemen who couldn’t find work, many families in extreme poverty, war widows who struggled to make ends meet, and an economic depression beginning to bite. The flags had long since stopped waving; tensions were high, tempers were short, and the people of Bristol were looking for someone to blame for the austerity which blighted their lives.  And the Clippies were right in the firing line.

Clippies tells the story of the young women who worked on the trams, but is set in the context of the social conditions of the time; the pressures of poverty, the extremes it drove people to, the damaged and bitter men who had fought a war and expected something in return, the impact on families. All the elements that led to the climactic and dramatic events of 28-30 April 1920 – and the aftermath.

Overall, the play is about women, and women’s rights – to work, to have equal pay, to be respected and treated well – and it highlights so much which has changed, but sadly, so much which has yet to change, in the last 100 years’

Neil Beddow – Co-deviser and script-writer, Clippies