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Guest post: Pauline Holmes on writing 'The Lion Queen'

Pauline Holmes describes herself as 'a 60 something poet and storyteller with the mind of a child and the wrinkles of someone much older.' Though Pauline more often writes poetry about dogs, (she was the winner of the Inspired by Dogs poetry competition,) in 2021, Wordsmithery commissioned her to write a poem about Chatham's infamous and tragic 'Lion Queen'.

Fast forward to now... and we are delighted that Pauline's new play, based on Ellen Eliza Blight, the tragic teenage Victorian lion tamer, will premiere at Medway River Lit in June.

Pauline Holmes in tiger makeup
Pauline Holmes

Lion Queens

In the mid-19th Century, it was the latest ‘must have’ for travelling shows to employ women as their lion tamers. These ladies were known by industry and public alike as the Lion Queens.

Spoiler Alert! Unfortunately for our Lion Queen, Ellen, her story doesn’t have a happy ending. She was killed by a tiger whilst performing at her uncle’s travelling menagerie when it visited Chatham.

In Victorian times there was no health and safety or animal welfare systems. So, writing Ellen’s story was quite an eye opener for me. You could argue that sixteen was too young to start a lion taming career. But Nellie Chapman, the tamer Ellen replaced, was also sixteen when she started performing. Nellie had run off with rival showman, George Sanger, a few months earlier which is how Ellen got the job.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of writing and researching Ellen’s story, from time spent looking at press cuttings at Medway Archives in Strood, to looking up examples of Victorian slang on the internet. Do you know what an arfnarfn’arf husband is? He’s one who has a great many ‘arfs (half pints of booze) half in the pub, half at home.

It's been fun trying to find a way to allow a dark but gentle humour to weave through what is potentially a bleak story; a tale of love, loss, greed and blame. So, I’ve written a series of six dramatic monologues from the point of view of some of those present on the night Ellen died. These include Ellen herself, her uncle, George Wombwell (famous at the time, heralded as the world’s greatest showman) and his younger sister, Elizabeth, who was also Ellen’s mother. I thought the tiger’s point of view should also be heard. Obviously, he has a very different take on the matter and his life as a captive animal.

At the beginning of 2021 I’d never heard of Chatham’s Lion Queen. My interest started when I received a commission from Wordsmithery. They asked me to write a 10-minute poem about Ellen for an event called Greetings from Mudfog to be performed at the Brook Theatre later that year. I Googled her name and it sparked an interest that has never left me. The piece I performed went down a storm but that wasn’t the end of it. Ellen’s story had me hooked and I wanted to know more about her, the Wombwell’s and the life of the Victorian travelling show community.

A story worth telling

I’ve always been a solo performer, but after I came back from the Edinburgh Festival, I decided I’d like to try collaborating with others as a way of bringing Ellen’s story to life. I mentioned my idea to Susanna Hodder from Medway Council’s Culture Team at the Brook Theatre. She was really enthusiastic and very encouraging, putting me in touch with Aidan and Miriam Dooley from Play on Words Theatre Company. It turned out Miriam had seen a feature on the Lion Queen years ago at the Guildhall Museum, Rochester and had always thought it a story worth telling. They were very keen, so I started to write, even though at that stage we’d no idea where, when or how we might bring it to life. A few weeks later, I bumped into Barry and Sam from Wordsmithery at a gig in Faversham, told them what I was doing and they said they’d like to have it as part of Medway River Lit.

I spent the next five months trawling the internet, sourcing books, scribbling notes, and constantly writing and re-writing the monologues until they came together as a one-hour play. I asked Gary Studley to help me edit. It’s one thing to write for ones-self, quite another to write for others to fathom. His help with punctuation and page layout was invaluable. Then, with fingers crossed I sent my Baby (the script) to Miriam and Aidan. They loved it, and with Aidan Dooley as director, have since found professional actors to play the various parts namely, Jack Faires, Miriam Cooper, Laura Harris and Tommy Murray. Oh, and I get to play the part of the tiger!

The whole process has been a joy. But I also have a personal interest. My grandfather ran away from home to join a travelling show when he was a teenager. According to my mother he became an acrobat and later toured as 'Dick Nestah, Comedy Juggler' where he met my grandmother, Annie Magee, a music hall singer. They must’ve come across the enterprises of Wombwell’s and Sanger’s on their travels and I’d love to know what they’d think of their grand-daughter writing the story of Ellen Eliza Blight, the teenage Lion Queen.

A photo of Pauline Holmes with tiger makeup
Pauline's tiger makeup was done by Riven Gray.

'The Lion Queen' by Pauline Holmes will form part of a double bill with Nina Telegina's 'Renegades' on Tuesday 6 June at The Glassbox Theatre, GIllingham.


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