Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Loughborough Legend

The Loughborough Legend, staged production
So, I've just been to a staged production of a play at the Cope Auditorium, and hot footed it home so I can write this blog post quickly, whilst the thoughts are fresh in my mind!

The story was researched and written by Pamela Roberts - author, historian, and new playwright! 

Imagine it, a battered, forgotten suitcase, handed down a couple of generations. When opened it was found to contain an array of papers, articles and photographs, documenting the life of a fascinating man, a man who was born in Antigua, to a white father and a black mother, who made the difficult journey to Washington, via New York, to study law and classics, before attending at Yale for a year and then studying Semitic Languages at Harvard. As if that weren't enough, he then went on to study at the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge Massachusetts for a year and then spent two years at Jesus College, Oxford, where he gained a BA in Theology and a Diploma in Anthropology (the first black student so to do).

James Arthur Harley was born in Antigua in 1873. He had a desire to learn and do well for himself, hence the travel to the States and the UK to study for various qualifications. Once he had gained his degree in theology, he became a curate, and then a priest, before training as a toolmaker to support the UK during the First World War, and finally becoming a local politician.

He held various positions in the church in various locations - Shepshed, Marshside in Canterbury, Deal in Kent - before settling in Shepshed and becoming a local councillor.

The staged production at the Cope Auditorium, put on by LU Arts, and involved a cast of six or seven, reading from their scripts, covered the life of James Arthur Harley, and his wife.

What was most interesting to me was the relationship James had with his wife, Josephine Maritcha Lawson, a young lady of very good family - the Washington elite, in fact - whom he met in Washington when he was studying for his law and classics degree, and was choirmaster in the church attended by the young Josephine - she was 17, he some 12 years older. Josephine's mother did not approve of the developing relationship between her daughter and the tempestuous Harley, but Josephine traveled to Oxford to be with Harley and became his wife in 1910. 

She was enthralled with Oxford, and felt at home in the city, there being people of wide ranging backgrounds all around them. On the night of the 1911 census, Josephine and James were boarding with the Young family at Eason in Wells, Somerset. Moving to Marshside in Canterbury was quite difficult for poor Josephine, Marshside being a tiny village outside of Canterbury, rural and quiet. She had no friends, apart from James' parishioners, and as James spent so much time away from home visiting these people, she felt isolated and lonely. 

As a qualified teacher, and daughter of a man who was regularly at the White House fighting for the emancipation of the black people, long before Martin Luther King in the 1960s (1), and of a woman whose family established the Frelinghuysen University (2) and who taught, travelling the world lecturing, Josephine felt unfulfilled by the drudgery of keeping house and home. This may well have changed with the birth of Josephine and James' son, Arthur, but sadly his life was cut short. The impression from the play was that the relationship between Josephine and James never really survived Arthur's death, and Josephine went back to America, alone, never to return.

Heartbreaking story on many fronts. It's difficult enough bringing children into the world today when relatives live only 200 miles away: trying to imagine the loneliness that Josephine must have felt as a young black woman, in a tiny English village, having just lost an infant is almost impossible. 

That neither of them re-married is, I think, significant. I think fundamentally, they always loved each other, were devastated by the death of their son, but perhaps had little support or understanding from those living nearby, and James's calling taking him away from home for so long and so often would have meant they would have struggled to support each other and come to terms with their loss. Maybe the story would have had a different ending if James and Josephine had been born and brought up in the UK. Who knows.
Josephine resumed her teaching in the US, and died in 1934, being buried next to her father's grave. James became a councillor for Shepshed in 1934, and died in 1943, being buried in the Oaks in Charnwood cemetery. 
The lychgate of Oaks in Charnwood church

The path to the church
Harley's grave in the middle distance
Harley's grave

Harley's grave

Harley's grave

Harley's grave
Close-up of the roses engraved on Harley's grave

(1) For a biography of Jesse Lawson see the this article.

(2) For a brief history of the Frelinghuysen University see this heritage trail.

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Dyer, Lynne (2017). The Loughborough Legend. Available from: [Accessed 7 May 2017]

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  1. Dear Lynne,

    I have just come your post about my play the Loughborough Legend. Now renamed as A Scholar and A Statesman. The play was hosted at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester in June 2017, to a packed audience, including the High Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda. The High Commissioner was so impressed with the paly that the High Commission financially supported a London showcase of the production in November 2017. I am currently working on developing a full production for this year.

    I am pleased that you found Harley's story interesting.

  2. Hi Pamela! How fantastic to hear that the play is really taking off in a big way now! I had a very enjoyable time at the staged production in Loughborough last year, and if I'd realised the name change, I would have gone to Attenborough Arts Centre for a second viewing! Glad to hear the London showcase went well too. Looking forward to reading of the success of the full production later this year! Thank you for reading the blog. Lynne


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