BY the time Githa Sowerby died almost 40 years ago, she had destroyed a wealth of information about her life.
A disappointed woman, the writer of children’s stories and 1912 Geordie drama Rutherford & Son was convinced that people had lost interest in her work.
Fast-forward to 2009 and the situation could hardly be more different.
A book about her life, written by first-time author Pat Riley, has just been published by New Writing North and tomorrow Rutherford & Son is making its North East debut at Northern Stage in Newcastle.
For 67-year-old Pat from Leeds, it’s hugely satisfying that Gateshead-born Githa – part of the famous Sowerby glass-making dynasty – is finally receiving her due recognition.
On discovering the play, Pat was struck by the fact that such a gritty, no-punches-pulled family saga, set against the backdrop of a glassworks, was written by a woman – at a time when few dared step out of their husband’s shadow let alone cast a critical eye of such unladylike issues as factory conditions and women’s rights.
A determination to find out more about this opinionated and outspoken bright spark proved the start of a journey of discovery which has resulted in her book, Looking for Githa.
“Initially I had no thoughts of writing a book. I’d only ever written a chapter in a text book on staff training,” says Pat, who used to work in local government.
It all started when she retired in 2007 and decided to embark on a degree course.
She explains: “I’ve had a lifelong interest in theatre and when I retired I wanted to study something just for love.
“I decided to do a degree in theatre studies and one of the plays was Githa Sowerby’s most famous play Rutherford & Son.
“I thought ‘what a fantastic play’ and became very curious about her.
“In 1912 women were mainly confined to domestics, yet here was an Edwardian woman writing an attack on capitalism and domestic tyranny in the most searing terms.
“She wrote about topics she wasn’t supposed to know about.
“I thought ‘how did she get to know this’? and I decided to find out about her.”
Easier said than done it seems as there was little readily available information about the woman whose tale of love, betrayal and class strife – published under her initials to give the impression it was written by a man, so allowing it a fair hearing – was a huge hit in 1912.
It made its debut in London, Githa having written it on her family’s move south when the fortunes of the world-famous Sowerby glassworks, on the banks of the Tyne, were in decline.
Says Pat: “It ran for 133 performances then 63 in New York and, by the end of the year, it was produced in Canada and Australia and translated into most European languages.
“Yet I could find out nothing about her – that was like a red flag to a bull!”
Githa’s play – she went on to write seven more, unpublished, plus children’s stories – largely disappeared without trace and this will be the first time it has been staged in the North East.
Research by a determined Pat began to open doors and brought her into contact with the play’s director Richard Beecham and, to her delight, with a daughter of Githa’s.
Joan Smith is 91 and lives in London. Despite being disabled with arthritis, which rules out her travelling north to see the play, she is “a really bubbly person” says Joan.
“She explained to me that her mother had delegated most of her care to a nanny and was a self-contained and undemonstrative person so they were not close in that way.
“She wasn’t sure how much help she was going to be so I said ‘why don’t we look for Githa together’?
“I showed her my genealogy research and she told me about her childhood and parents' marriage.”
Together they discovered the story of a woman who forged her own path in a family of pioneers.
While Githa’s grandfather, who made Sowerby’s glassworks world-famous, is thought to be the inspiration for her brutal patriarch in Rutherford & Son, it was through listening in to her father’s business conversations at their Low Fell home that she learned about the harsh realities of business.
On moving to London, Githa joined The Fabian Society and, while not a suffragette, she also believed in equality for women: her views no doubt keeping her husband – also a writer, who contributed to Punch magazine which was known for its lampooning of women – on his toes.
The success of Rutherford & Son brought her financial security and she was able to support her sister, an illustrator who provided the art for her children’s books, in her work.
“But just before Githa died at 93 in 1970 she was convinced no one cared about the play and she destroyed all her photographs and her personal correspondence,” says Pat.
But, after she got to know Joan, she was surprised one day with an unexpected wealth of material for her book.
“One day Joan produced a massive Ascot hat box and asked me if I’d like to look at it. Inside were all the original manuscripts of Githa’s plays, newspaper cuttings, theatre programmes and correspondence.”
The archive, which is now on permanent loan to Tyne and Wear archives, was then followed by another fascinating find.
On learning that Githa’s elder brother had emigrated to Canada, she’d said to Joan: ‘we’ve got to try to trace that part of the family’.
Three months later, after contacting the Victoria Genealogy Society of British Columbia and a local newspaper, looking up obituaries for relatives’ names, they tracked down the brother’s great great-daughter, who had inherited about 200 of his family images.
Many of these pictures, including informal photographs of Githa and locations connected to the Sowerbys in Gateshead and Newcastle, are included in Pat’s book.
The Canadian descendants are coming to see a performance of Githa’s play as well as the unveiling of a ‘blue plaque’ by Gateshead council in her honour.
“That’s one of the most rewarding things – giving this history back to Githa’s daughter, her children and grandchildren,” says Pat.
:: Looking for Githa, by Pat Riley, is published by New Writing North and Threshold Theatre. Priced £7.99, it can be bought at Northern Stage or online from New Writing North or Amazon.
Rutherford & Son opens at Northern Stage, Newcastle, tomorrow and runs until October 3. Visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call (0191) 230-5151.