Aroundtown Meets Jean Pursglove

They say all the world’s a stage, but for Swinton’s Jean Pursglove, her entire world has revolved around the stage at Rotherham’s Civic Theatre.

Jean has been part of theatre life at the Civic since it first opened in 1960 and is the only person who was there on opening day that is still involved today.

Over the last sixty years, she’s played every role possible, being centre stage as a performer and a wardrobe mistress backstage. She’s seen various household names perform, worked alongside every theatre manager at the Civic, witnessed every renovation, and even met royalty.

She now volunteers front of house, a role she’s held for nearly thirty years, wearing her many lapel badges for long service to amateur dramatics with pride.

Jean Pursglove

This December, Jean turns 88 and she’ll be spending her birthday with her Civic family and friends working a shift for the festive pantomime which has become a tradition in recent years.

A very special stalwart of the small stage, we wanted to put Jean in the spotlight for being one of Rotherham’s diamonds who has dedicated her life to the theatre and helped bring a smile to thousands of visitors’ faces.

Jean was born in Rawmarsh in 1933 to Horace and Annie Mortimer who lived on Claypit Lane. Younger brother Rodger was born 11 years later. Benevolence was perhaps in her blood as Horace was a steelworker who also volunteered as a special constable for 21 years.  

From an early age, Jean was drawn to the magic of music and theatre which helped her escape from the post-war realities.

“I danced my life away at Rawmarsh Baths as a young girl and looked forward to Saturday nights,” Jean says.

But she has the leading man in her life, her husband Maurice, to thank for introducing her to a life at the theatre.

You might say that fate brought Jean and Maurice together. Their two tracks connected down at the old Parkgate and Rawmarsh railway station where Maurice was a signalman and Jean worked in the offices at the adjacent iron and steel company. She’d recently left her job as a secretary at Rawmarsh Modern Boys School when they changed her role to part-time hours because of the school holidays.

On some enchanted evening, the two went on their first date to the pictures in Rotherham where Jean says she was perturbed that her date was 15 minutes late. But the pair hit it off and were married 18 months later in March 1955 when Jean was 21 and Maurice 27 and the couple went on to have a son, Timothy, who is now 60.

A year after their wedding, Jean joined Parkgate Operatic Society to keep her busy while Maurice worked weekend shifts on the railway.

Her first show was Carousel in 1958 at the Assembly Room in what is now the old town hall in Rotherham town centre. The year after she was given the part of Fat Margot the landlady in Vagabond King.

“The best thing is I was only slim back then, so wardrobe padded me out around my bottom.”

In the early days with Parkgate Operatic Society

With Rotherham’s remaining theatre, the Regent Palace of Varieties, having closed, Parkgate Operatic Society performed the operetta at Rotherham Baths on Sheffield Road with the pool area covered over with boards to make a stage.

Thankfully, the Civic opened the following year in 1960 in the former congregational church on Catherine Street. Jean’s very first performance at the Civic was in Rose Marie when Parkgate brought the Canadian Rockies to the Civic.

She remained part of Parkgate Operatics until they folded in 2004. Since 1977, Jean has also been part of Greasborough Operatic Society, and she was involved with Maltby Operatic Society for 40 years.

Collectively, she appeared in over 60 shows as part of the chorus or taking small comedy parts, such as Mrs Hopkins in My Fair Lady, the maid in No No Nannette and Mrs Brown in Me and My Girl, before she retired from performing in the early ‘90s aged 60.

“Maurice joked that I’d better pack in while I still looked good.”

Sadly, Maurice passed away almost twenty years ago from a stroke. Since then, the team of staff and volunteers at the Civic has become even more of a lifeline for Jean, making sure she never walks alone.

Maurice and Jean

“We were like chalk and cheese, but we got on so well. He was very organised and liked a good Wilbur Smith novel, and he’d wave me off to the theatre whenever I was performing. He came to dinner dances with me and was my guest when I was invited to the royal reception St James’ Palace, but I could never get him on stage.

“The only time he came close was about 30 years ago when Little Shop of Horrors was on at the Civic and they needed a motorcycle for the dentist song. I told them they could borrow Maurice’s without even asking him, but he reluctantly took it down to the theatre every night.”

For the last few decades, Jean has given her time to supporting the theatre and many of the town’s amateur dramatics groups, helping hundreds of shows run smoothly. She’s been awarded a commendation medal from Maltby Operatic Society and was made a life member of both Greasborough and Parkgate societies.

Her service badges from National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) range from 25 years to 65 years, and she was once selected to attend NODA’s 75th anniversary at St James’ Palace with a royal reception from Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Jean (checked coat) meeting Elizabeth the Queen Mother

“The best part of the job is all the wonderful people I’ve met. I don’t do as many nights as I once did, but I still help take tickets, give out programs, show people to their seats, or do the raffle.”

One of the perks of the job has to be the number of professional shows and performers she’s been able to watch, from Jerry and the Pacemakers to the Nolan Sisters and Bucks Fizz. She’s laughed at Ken Dodd’s jokes, marvelled at Paul Daniel’s magic tricks, and swooned at Val Doonican’s crooning. Her memories read like a who’s who of showbiz, with Danny La Rue, Des O’Connor, and Sooty and Sweep creator Harry Corbett on the line-up.

“It’s surprising who you come across in this job. I once met Eric Knowles from Antiques Roadshow before his show and ended up sat next to his wife in the audience as there were two spare seats. Another time, Chris Packham from Springwatch was appearing and he gave me some great advice for my grandson Joe who is a photographer living in Vietnam.

“But one of my favourites has to be Bobby Ball. He was such a scream. Cannon and Ball have appeared at the Civic many times and they’d always come to the coffee bar before their shows when the theatre was empty. Bobby had us laughing from start to finish. This year is the first time that Tommy Cannon is back performing in Rotherham without Bobby.”

In six decades, Jean has witnessed various renovations and updates to the theatre building, including the extension which was added in the ‘90s, the new seating installed in 2013, and the most recent modernisation.

“It’s funny because the new coffee shop is now in the place of the original tea bar from the 1960s and Julie, one of the staff at the Civic, I remember her mum Doris working behind it all those years ago.

“Before the renovation that’s just finished, the biggest and most important change for me was the extension which added what is now the bar area. Imagine 300-odd people squashing into the foyer on show nights? And to get to the backstage door you had to go outside!”

Last year was the first time in 60 years that Jean has taken a break from show nights – but it wasn’t her choice, with the pandemic keeping the stage curtains firmly shut for 18 long months. Thankfully, the Civic has now reopened and Jean is back to devoting her time to the theatre. When we met, she’d just come off the back of working with the junior society, RTSA for their performance of Little Shop of Horrors.

Outside of theatreland, Jean has led a very busy and fulfilled life. She worked as the secretary at Rosehill Junior School and Ryecroft Infants in Rawmarsh for over thirty years while raising their son Timothy.

When Maurice retired from the railway, the pair then found a love of cruising and travelled the world together, visiting the likes of New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Malaysia and Venice. Inspired by her favourite classic productions, Jean has sailed to the settings of many musicals, such as Thailand, Russia and Jerusalem. After Maurice’s death, Jean continued for many years to cruise with friends.

She’s also been kept busy by her three grandchildren, Ellie, Joe and Will and earlier this year was made a great-grandmother with the arrival of little Ivy.

Four generations: Ellie, baby Ivy, Jean and Timothy

And she says you could build a wall with all the cakes she’s made over the years.

Before we met she said she was nervous, not knowing what to expect. But it didn’t take long for it to feel like old friends sharing memories. Jean is such as warm and welcoming person and we could have sat for hours listening to her stories – and eating her homemade Bakewell tart! It takes a special kind of person to dedicate so many years of her life to one organisation, but you can see through the glint in her eye as she talks so fondly about her time at the Civic that she wouldn’t be the person she is without that experience.

“I’ve enjoyed my life and I’m lucky to have such brilliant people around me. You’ve got to have a laugh and I’ve had plenty of those. The Civic has played a huge part of my life but I’m just so happy there and I have such lovely memories with a great crowd.”