A Musical Play About Agricultural Union Leader Joseph Arch
The Wellesbourne Tree by Robert Leach
The Wellesbourne Tree was written by Robert Leach in 1975, a musical documentary play about Barford born Joseph Arch who, in 1872, founded the National Agricultural Labourers Union. On Sundays he was a Methodist lay-preacher, eventually becoming a Liberal MP, and (probably most proudly for him) Champion Hedge cutter of England. I knew about Arch of course (he’s still something of a hero in South Warwickshire), and had even heard about Leach’s musical play, but had never read it, or seen it. In fact the work has only ever been produced once I believe.
Then in a small bookshop in North Wales, I came across a copy of the play and realised (after reading it in the pub next door) that it is a very powerful work — with a musical element that, on the page, looks appropriate and effective — but a show that would need Cameron Macintosh’s millions to make it work.
It’s a piece of work that deserves to be seen again, even though Leach does avoid the effectiveness of recitative, and the creation — especially with Arch’s long speech under that chestnut tree — of some wonderful revolutionary anthems of the kind that make Les Miserables so memorable. With some re-writing, and an amalgam of characters the piece might find a new life. But Robert Leach is an expert on theatre who has spent his life as a university lecturer, at the same time writing many excellent books on the subject, and would probably not want to see his brainchild changed in any way.
I grew up not far from that old chestnut tree in the centre of Wellesbourne and heard stories from my grandfather — told him by his father — of that rainy night in February 1872 when over 3,000 farm labourers, their wives, and children gathered around that tree (the lower branches hung with oil lanterns) to hear the barrel-chested Joseph Arch — standing on an old pig killing bench — make his historic speech. The following extract is taken from Leach’s play:
ARCH: Brothers, there is a hue and cry all over the country. Hodge the Unionist is up for a bout with Jack his master and the ring looking on is as big as all England. If you mean to have a living wage instead of a starvation one, you must combine and unite to get it. It is your due; for when a man…