Championing arts and rights for all

A pioneering ballerina who fought for human rights in the European court has taken her place in a growing memorial to heroes at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House in Wisbech.

Elaine McDonald OBE, who shared her passion for the arts and human justice with the town’s most famous daughter, was one of Britain’s most distinctive classical dance performers and known as ‘Scotland’s first ballerina’.

The Yorkshire-born dancer joined the Western Theatre Ballet, based in Bristol, early in her career, and when the company moved to Glasgow – later becoming Scottish Ballet – she went with it, helping to bring ballet to all in tours around the country, echoing Octavia Hill’s aim to provide access to the arts and beauty for everyone.

McDonald gave notable performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, as well as partnering Rudolf Nureyev in ‘La Syphide’ in Madrid, and one of the highlights of her life, as a devout Catholic, was performing ‘The dying swan’ for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

After a stroke in 1999 which had left her severely disabled,  she took Kensington and Chelsea council to the European court of human rights in 2011, with the backing of Age UK, claiming the body’s decision to deprive her of night-time assistance breached her right to dignity.   Although she did not win, the case established a precedent in the role dignity has to play in human rights.

Mr Peter Clayton, chairman of the Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum Trust, explained that the life of Elaine McDonald intersected in both place and mission with all of Octavia Hill’s own concerns.

In the arts her role as a key figure in both Glasgow and Edinburgh mirrored the work of one of Octavia Hill’s oldest friends and colleagues, Emma Cons, who re-opened the theatre that would become the Old Vic as the Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall, which became the base of her niece, Lilian Baylis, the creator of the fifth Sadler’s Wells theatre in London.

In Octavia Hill’s housing work the community arts function was an integral feature.   She always incorporated the arts, joining people together in dramatic activities, and this was a notable feature in Scotland’s two principal cities, where people carried out her work.

Mr Clayton said:  “Elaine’s own work originated in Bristol, where even today Bristol Civic Society, the oldest surviving Kyrle Society, is active.”

The plaque at Heroes’ Arcade in the garden of the Birthplace House at 7 South Brink, was unveiled on Thursday by Mr Jim Strang, President of the Chartered Institute of Housing, which traces its organizational roots back to the philanthropic work carried out by pioneers such as Octavia Hill in response to the appalling housing conditions endured by many in the late nineteenth century.

His aim was to strengthen the bonds between the institute and the Birthplace House and he highlighted a link between two women who made a difference – the social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust born in Wisbech and the crusading ballerina whose life was being celebrated.

He said:  “A strong-willed woman can make so much of a difference to ordinary people.   We should celebrate that everywhere we encounter it.”

The Heroes’ Arcade at the Birthplace House is based on a memorial at Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s Cathedral in London, dedicated to ordinary people who have performed acts of extraordinary heroism.   A fund-raising campaign to help secure the future of the park was boosted by a £1000 donation from Octavia Hill.