The Mysterious Barbara Allen

As part of our project Different Stories, writer and historian Jane Traies has been researching the life of Barbara Allen. Here, she shares what she has uncovered.

In August 2022, the museum collaborated with Brighton LGBTIQ+ History Club to hold a ‘Pride Out-ing,’ celebrating our queer arts and crafts heritage. When I agreed to talk at this event about Hilary Bourne and Barbara Allen, I met a challenge. Hilary Bourne (1909-2004) is a familiar name in Ditchling: she lived in the village for many years and was one of the founders of Ditchling Museum. We know a lot about her life, because she wrote a memoir, Spinning the Thread. However, her partner, Barbara Allen (1903-1972), was a different story. With the exception of her tragic death, no one seemed to know much about her at all. Barbara’s life was a small mystery, which I set out to solve.

Barbara c1920: with kind permission of Nigel Oswald

Barbara c1920 © Nigel Oswald

She turned out to be a fascinating and attractive character. The unconventional daughter of a conventional family, she showed early artistic talent, as well as a love of the theatre, and was already a successful theatre designer in her twenties. She was also a gifted draughtswoman and wood engraver, who would go on to illustrate books and make maps and drawings for the magazine Time and Tide.

Slowly I began to knit together the facts of the two women’s life together. In the mid-1930s, Hilary Bourne was working at the Little Gallery off Sloane Street by day, and had an evening job behind the scenes at the Westminster Theatre, where her sister Rosemary worked as assistant to the theatre’s designer. That designer was Barbara Allen. Hilary and Barbara probably met in 1936 and were soon sharing the flat in South Kensington where Hilary first started working commercially as a hand-weaver.

After the Second World War, Hilary and Barbara set up their looms again in a shared house in Reigate, and started what rapidly became a very successful textiles business. They designed and made tweed for Fortnum and Mason, furnishing fabric for Heals and scarves for Liberty’s. They soon felt the need for a London address, so leased a house near Regent’s Park, where they lived and worked together for the next 15 years. As well as helping in the workshop and continuing with her own art, Barbara took care of the financial side of the business. The magic moment in their joint career came in 1951, when Bourne and Allen won the competition to design and make curtains for the newly-built Festival Hall. From then on, the business flourished.

In 1960, Hilary was in her late forties, Barbara in her early fifties. Some years before, they had bought a holiday cottage up on the moors near Whitby; now they decided to leave London and live there permanently. These semi-retired years in rural Yorkshire were happy ones. They continued to make regular trips to London for business and pleasure and to travel abroad for holidays. It was as they set out for a holiday in Italy in 1972 that their hotel caught fire and Barbara was killed. She was 68.

Hilary spoke very little about this terrible event in later years and destroyed most of her papers after Barbara’s death. There seemed no more I could find out about Barbara. Then, almost by chance, I stumbled across a small collection of surviving correspondence between Barbara, Hilary and a close friend, Madeau Stewart, written between 1970 and 1972. At last, I could ‘hear’ Barbara’s voice – enthusiastic, charming and affectionate – and feel something of the texture of their everyday lives. Then I made contact with a surviving relation of Barbara’s, who sent me a photograph of her as a teenager. From a shadowy blur, Barbara had become a vivid presence and someone I could introduce to my audience. Now, when I look at the Bourne and Allen textiles in the museum, I feel that I know much more about both of the women who made them.

Despite the fact that our collection is from the recent past, we know that there are hundreds of untold tales hidden in the objects and ephemera we care for. With our Arts Council England funded project Different Stories, we set out to conduct research into some prevailing themes in the DMAC collection – stories of LGBTIQ+ lives and creative partnerships, and the experiences of the disabled artists whose work is housed in our collection.