Reyahn King, of York Museum's Trust, delves into the city's treasures for her Object of the Week

Edith Craig’s theatrical slippers

These black ‘slippers’ at first appear to be a typical pair of flat black shoes dating to the mid 19th century. We have several rather like them in York Castle Museum. However, the fabric of these shoes is a ribbon fabric with a pattern, whereas usually at that date they were plain, matt black satin.

They are machine stitched rather than hand stitched as well. To our eagle-eyed expert curators, this raised an eyebrow.

Closer inspection revealed the wearer’s name written in the shoes: Edith Craig. Edith Craig, known as Edy, was the daughter of famous actress Ellen Terry and architect Edward Godwin. Ellen Terry was married to painter George Frederick Watts so Edith was named Craig after the rocky island off the west coast of Scotland – Ailsa Craig – which also became her stage name.

With her acting mother, theatre was in Craig’s blood. She trained to be a theatrical costume designer before becoming an actress and acclaimed theatre director. Craig was a founding member of the Actresses' Franchise League and later a director of the feminist Pioneer Players who promoted new drama, campaigned against stage censorship and for women’s suffrage, developed political theatre and engaged with new art theatre internationally during the First World War.

Craig’s best known productions included the suffragette plays A Pageant of Great Women and the popular comedy How the Vote was Won co-written by Christopher St John and Cicely Hamilton.

Edy Craig had met writer and reviewer Christabel Marshall, known as Christopher St John, in 1899 backstage at the Grant Theatre in Fulham, London. Christopher St John and Edith Craig went on to live together at Ellen Terry’s former home, The Farm, Tenterden, Kent. From 1916 they were joined at The Farm by the artist Claire ‘Tony’ Atwood until Craig’s death in 1947. Whilst relations with another woman was never illegal, in 1921 an attempt was made and passed by the House of Commons to make sexual “acts of gross indecency” between women illegal. The change was defeated in the House of Lords and never became law but the attempt reveals attitudes of the time.

When not directing theatrical productions, Craig sold suffrage newspapers on the street, attended political meetings and organised street processions. She was a member of the Women's Liberal Federation and WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union).

In fact, her passion for suffrage and theatre were closely linked. As she put it: “Plays have done such a lot for the suffrage. They get hold of nice, frivolous people who would die sooner than go in cold blood to meetings. But they watch the plays, and get interested, and then we can rope them in for meetings.” Craig also advocated for theatre as an art form and her work informed the government’s report on the role of the arts in education in 1921.

Throughout her career, Craig remained deeply interested in the history of costume and was particularly keen to have historically accurate details in costumes at a time when costume history had not really been established. So much so that she wrote to friend Eleanor Adlard saying: “I always make it a rule to make people [actors] wearing costumes wear the right underclothes as far as I can, anyhow stays and petticoats.” As York Castle Museum curators are well aware from their experience dressing our displays, without the right undergarments, historic clothes or costume replicas won’t hang correctly.

The shoes in the Castle Museum collection appear to be historical replicas made especially for Edith Craig, with more modern materials and machine stitching. In other respects they are very similar in style to the original inspiration of 19th-century slippers. We don’t know if these shoes were designed for a production which Craig was directing, or if these were shoes which she wore on stage.

The sole of Craig’s shoes bears the makers name ‘H.M. Rayne’. H.M. Rayne started out as a theatrical costumer in 1899 close to the Old Vic Theatre in Lambeth, London. Rayne later expanded into high end fashion shoes in the 1920s and went on to provide wedding shoes for Her Majesty the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, for her wedding in 1947. They are still in business.

The Farm in Tenterden is today called Smallhythe Place and is a National Trust property.