Murder, she wrote…

Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only.  Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Vanessa Oakes writes about one of them…

I’ve been writing about a murder.

A murder involving two real life Peaky Blinders, a spinster and a pair of false teeth.

On 25th October, 1898, at the age of 23, James Twitty broke into Miss Aliban’s house with his accomplice Mumby:

we only meant to gag her… not frighten her to death… i even sang to her to help calm her down.

They had planned to rob her – Mary Ann Aliban (age 60) had a number of rental properties in Birmingham and was well known in the neighbourhood for carrying a large amount of money around in her carpet bag:

all the neighbours heard her… clink… clink… as she walked… clink… clink… clink… as she sat counting her coins of a night… she’d even ask people to feel the weight of her bag… she was asking for it.

Twitty and Mumby gained entry through the cellar (it was reported that Twitty had previously worked for a coal merchant) and waited for her return. They then took their boots off and crept upstairs to search the house – she was asleep by the time they reached her bedroom but on waking began to scream.

They quickly tied her to the bed and gagged her with a silk handkerchief. They then grabbed a small amount of money nearby and left. The robbery was a failure – the police later found £108 hidden in the house.

Tragically Mary died having swallowed her false teeth:

how was we to know she’d swallow her false teeth… who wears their snaggs to bed?!

Having read all the sensational newspaper reports from the period I felt strongly that I wanted my short play to remember what happened to Mary and to provide some small sort of retribution. She must have been terrified as she choked to death. Too often we remember the names of the criminals and forget their victims.

Originally charged with murder Twitty and Mumby’s sentences were eventually commuted to penal servitude for life. In 1915 Twitty was declared insane and moved to Broadmoor, where he died mute, aged 73.

You can meet Twitty as well as a host of other characters from the Lock-Up’s past in Behind Bars – Ghosts of the Lock-Up.

Follow this link to book your ticket/s now:


“The World’s Greatest Actress”

Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only.  Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Nicola Jones writes about one of them…


“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” Mark Twain

It came as quite a surprise to discover that the renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt – at the time considered the most famous actress in the world – had been amongst the residents of the Lock-Up.

Appearing at The Grand Theatre in Corporation Street in 1916, Sarah, as a foreigner, was required by law to attend Steelhouse Lane to sign the ‘Aliens Register’ where the record describes her as being: “5ft 4in, of medium build, minus her right leg.”

She’d had her leg amputated in 1915 after suffering ten years of acute pain resulting from an injury sustained on a tour of South Africa. When gangrene set in, she demanded that the leg be removed – something her surgeons were reluctant to do as they didn’t want to be the doctor who killed the great Sarah Bernhardt! She eventually got her way, and refused to let her disability stop her performing, stating that she’d ‘strap herself to the scenery if need be.’ She continued touring Europe and the USA (crossing the Atlantic despite the ever-present threat of U-boat attack), as well as performing to French troops at the Western Front.


Sarah Bernhardt was a true eccentric who, like P.T. Barnum, understood the value of a good story. She travelled with a satin lined coffin (which she claimed to sleep in), dressed in exotic clothes & furs (she had a hat made from a stuffed bat), and owned a menagerie containing tigers, lions, cheetahs, as well as a puma which roamed freely around her home. She also owned a pet alligator which she said shared her bed (until it reportedly died from an overindulgence of champagne). She was also well-known for her string of lovers which included all her leading men, many well-known writers and artists, plus European royalty including – allegedly – our very own Prince of Wales (who went on to become Edward VII.)

Sarah was also unusual in that she decided to manage her own career. With the help of the British impresario Edward Jarrett, she toured the world several times – with her 1891 tour of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa reportedly earning her 3.5 million francs.

She went through several fortunes during her lifetime, investing in two theatres, supporting her large entourage, repeatedly paying off the gambling debts of her illegitimate son Maurice, as well as being incredibly generous to those she loved by showering them with lavish gifts and property. When she ran out of money, she simply went back on tour!

When she died in 1923, aged 79, half a million people lined the Paris streets to watch her funeral. Her death was front page news around the world and, as ‘The Birmingham Gazette’ reported: “Few foreigners have succeeded in capturing the imagination, and in earning the enthusiastic devotion of the British people, as it fell to her lot to do.”

You can meet Sarah and lots of other characters from the Lock-Up’s past at our next show ‘Behind Bar’, 19th – 21st October 2018. Book at:

Getting site-specific

Getting site-specific

Our new show ‘Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up’ runs from the 19th-21st October for nine performances only.  Taking a theatrical journey through Birmingham’s Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up, it will raise spirits from the prison’s past. Liz John writes about one of them…

There’s nothing like a ghostly Victorian building, echoing with strange tales and past voices, combined with the rampant enthusiasm of other BOLDtext writers, to give you Writer’s Block.  Where to start?  The Lock Up practically oozes Brummie history – countless possibilities of character, story, theme, era (it only closed two years ago!) – plus there’s the added question of setting.  Which corner of this fascinating Victorian building should I focus on? Whose experience in this place can I depict?  We really want to feel the Lock Up burst into life.

Lucky for me this wasn’t my first time in the Lock Up on Steelhouse Lane.  Before you ask, no I wasn’t there as an inmate!  In fact I attended a wonderful presentation by the Ikon Gallery relaying research conducted by the late Pete James, Birmingham’s foremost photographic historian.  The talk was about the history and role of photography in our region’s policing – from mugshots to surveillance. Turns out we practically invented mugshots in Birmingham. Who knew?  So when I stood again in this eerie building, tasked with creating a very short but meaningful piece of theatre that could mesh with other writers’ stories, my mind flew back to that lecture.  A police photographer could be my focus, someone who was a vital part of the fabric, actively participating in an offender’s journey through the Lock Up.  And that’s when Detective Charles Muscroft, ARPS, stepped into the light.

Man on a Mission

Down-to-earth Yorkshireman Charles Muscroft (above) was a CID officer turned police photographer, based at the Lock Up from the 1920s.  He embraced his role with dedication and delight, producing hundreds of perfectly crafted ‘mugshots’ over his career.  He regularly gave lectures to local photographic societies and even offered his ‘portrait services’ to the general public!  When he was awarded Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society in the 1930s, he was overjoyed – despite his exemplary record as a Birmingham City Police Officer, he viewed RPS recognition of his professional photographic talents as the ultimate accolade.  As a playwright, I was fascinated by the quiet intensity with which Muscroft undertook his work, and his unshakeable love of his ‘art’ even when he was having to photograph dangerous offenders and gruesome crime scenes.

Behind Bars, Ghosts of the Lock Up from BOLDtext Playwrights runs 19-21 October at the Lock Up on Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham.

Book your tickets at:

Supported by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.

If you’re interested in Mugshots and their history, take a look at Under Arrest by Giacomo Papi – a collection of mugshots of celebs like Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, Ozzy Osbourne and Janis Joplin; prominent figures like Martin Luther King, Bill Gates and Fidel Castro; as well as notorious names like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ronnie Biggs and Lee Harvey Oswald.


Bringing the ghosts of Birmingham’s criminal past back to life

By BOLDtext writer Tim Stimpson

If you’ve ever walked down Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham you more than likely  have no idea what lies behind the front door of the unprepossessing redbrick building on the corner of Coleridge Passage. Unless you’re a police officer or have been arrested, it’s even less probable you’ve seen inside. But the old Central Lock-Up has been the first stop for many of the city’s criminals for 125 years. As such it’s an important and fascinating part of Birmingham’s heritage.


The Lock-Up closed its doors in 2016 and West Midlands Police are now in the process of transforming the grade II listed building into a new home for the force’s museum. All being well it will start welcoming the general public in the next few years. In the meantime BOLDtext have been busy writing short plays about some of the people who would have passed through the Lock-Up during it’s first few decades. Some of them are well-documented, such as Chief Constable Charles Rafter who (as well as inspiring Sam Neil’s character in the TV hit Peaky Blinders) championed the introduction of women to the Birmingham City Police. The first of these was Evelyn Miles who, having been a lock-up matron, became a constable at the age for 50 and didn’t retire until she was 72. Or there’s Tommy Tank, a notorious drunkard who potential inspired Ozzy Osbourne by biting the heads of live rats, or Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress who had to register at the Lock-Up as an enemy alien when she performed at The Grand.

However, there are also characters who are little more than a name. One of these is Frederick Ratcliff. As you enter the Lock-Up you’ll see a large wooden Roll of Honour on the wall, commemorating the Birmingham police officers who served in the First World War. Fred’s name appears with a ‘W’ next to it, indicating that he was wounded. Many more have a ‘K’ next to their names, indicating that they were killed, or ‘M’ for missing, or ‘DW’ for died of wounds. We know nothing else about Fred, but in writing my play about him I’ve assumed he returned to the force and may well have been involved in the strikes of 1918 – 1919, which precipitated the banning of the police’s right to strike. It’s remarkable how much can come from a name on a wall, but it’s also a responsibility. My Fred is probably nothing like the real one, but I hope I have a least done justice to the battles he and his fellow officers fought.

IMG_0745 (1)

You can meet these characters and many more at Behind Bars: Ghosts of Past, which is being performed in the Lock-Up from October 19th – 21st. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to take a theatrical journey through Birmingham criminal past.

Book your tickets at:

BOLDtext break free with Lock-Up show

Behind Bars Ghosts of The Lock Up Leaflet FRONT

This autumn we’re taking a brief hiatus from doing shows at the brilliant Birmingham Rep to tell the story of the city’s old Victorian Lock-Up. Since 1892, tens of thousands of people have passed through the jail on their way to court, prison or even the noose. What brought them to this desperate point in their lives? And what memories have they left behind?

BOLDtext’s writers will resurrect the ghosts of The Lock-Up’s past, summoning them back to the cells, stairways and corridors where they once walked. As you move around the building you’ll meet robbers and drunkards, prostitutes and murderers, as well as the policemen and pioneering policewomen who held the keys.

Beware! The past still has lessons to teach us. Those who dare to enter The Lock-Up get taught those lessons well.

You can buy tickets at

Duration approximately 1 hour. Not suitable for children under the age of 12.

Please be advised the Lock-Up is an old building and is not equipped with modern disabled facilities. Flat shoes are advised.

Presented in association with the West Midlands Police Museum.

Supported by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.

Bringing it back to Brum!


BOLDtext member Tim Stimpson writes about the Writers’ Guild AGM in Birmingham and his election as Chair of the West Midlands Branch.

During my time as Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain I was keen that we should reach out to the whole of Britain more. It’s bad enough that the industry is so London-centric without my union doing the same. Having completed the maximum three years allowed, I stepped down as an officer but obviously my message had been heard. For the first time in Guild history our AGM was held outside London. Even better it came to my home city of Birmingham. How did that happen?! I have to admit that I was little nervous as I walked towards the magnificent Library of Birmingham where the AGM was being held. Would people actually turn up now we weren’t in the capital? It’s was therefore a relief to walk into a packed room and even more gratifying to learn that it was one of the best turnouts ever.

During the AGM I was elected as Chair of the West Midlands branch, a position I held before becoming Deputy Chair of the Guild. I’m really pleased to be able to focus back on my region again, especially now that we’ve proven you can succeed outside London!

You can read a full report of the AGM here.

The Bingo Caller

The Bingo Caller

BOLDtext’s very own STEPHEN JACKSON (aka Ted Pigeon) has a fab new show previewing at Hall Green Little Theatre this Saturday and Sunday 2-3 June 7.30pm.  It’s called The Bingo Caller – and the box office opens at 7pm.  All tickets £10 pay on the night….

….before the show moves to Soho Theatre next week  on Thursday 7 till Saturday 9 June at 7pm.

Welcome to the Binley-on-Sea Caravan Park and Social Club, where Buster Bingham is calling his last game of bingo.  After 23 years, he has been sacked – and the audience play bingo as Buster crumbles on stage. 

The Bingo Caller is back by popular demand, having premiered at HGLT in 2013 starring Marcus Hendry.  Writer Stephen Jackson is the Winner of The West End Wilma Award for Best Comedy 2017 and The Verity Bargate Award 2015.