Playwright is inspired to tell Sevenoaks woman’s tragic love story as part of wartime Arts Festival at Stag Theatre
by Frank Baldwin
DEEP in the heart of the cemetery at St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks is the Caplen family grave. Although weathered with age, the names on the headstone tell you that Rosina Caplen is buried there with her mother, father and brother.
But there is another inscription on the headstone, part of which says:
No one knows how I miss him
No one knows how he died
No one knows how he suffered
No one knows where he lies
These few words hold the key to a tragic story from the first world war involving a Sevenoaks woman who would not give up the search for her husband after he went missing during the conflict.
This story has been written as a radio play called ‘The Dimming of the Day’ which will be part of a special month-long arts festival, beginning on 1 November, featuring poetry, drama, film and art. It has been organised by The Stag theatre in Sevenoaks to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War.
Lisa Whitbread, The Stag’s Business Development Manager, who has been overseeing the organisation of the Sevenoaks Remembers Art Festival, has a particular interest in the play – because she wrote it.
Lisa said: “I was asked to write a play for the festival and I wanted to do a story related to Sevenoaks that would have a broader appeal to everybody. I happened to come across the research local historian Matt Ball had uncovered on Rosina Caplen and the search for her husband Emile de Coster.”
Emile, a sergeant with the 22nd Infantry Belgium Army, was one of several Belgian refugees who was brought to England to recuperate after being wounded fighting in the war. He met Rosina while he was recovering in St John’s Hospital in Sevenoaks. They fell in love, married in 1917 and settled down in the town. But when Emile was fit enough to fight again he decided he wanted to return to Belgium to help his country. However, Emile was ‘lost’ and the authorities were unable tell Rosina what had happened to him.
Lisa said: “Rosina tried to find him for about three years. She even put adverts in newspapers in an attempt to find out what had happened. She eventually decided to go to Belgium herself which for anyone, especially a woman, to travel on their own at that time was quite incredible.
But she did eventually get the answers she was looking for. Rosina discovered Emile had drowned while in Germany while bathing in a pond with other soldiers. He was buried with full military honours in a churchyard at Rheinberg. She tracked down his grave and asked to take his body back to Sevenoaks. Her request was denied by the Belgian War Office but she was allowed to have his body exhumed and reburied in the Belgian town he was from.”
Rosina returned to Sevenoaks and lived in The Drive until her death in 1948. She took part in many local productions as a singer and performer.
Lisa started acting and writing from an early age and this eventually led to her working in the theatre world. As well as her work at The Stag, she also runs her own Theatre Company. She decided to write the story as a radio play as she believes the words and the characters are the most important aspect of the story. She added: “It is not meant to be a historical play, it is written more as a drama. My inspiration for the title, The Dimming of the Day came from a song by Richard Thompson. Many references in the play are about remembering people – and when the day is over the memories of what happened to them do not go away.”
Lisa hopes people will learn a bit more about the history of Sevenoaks during the first world war and about the refugees who came here. She believes although Rosina’s story is unique, she is representative of what many women went through during the 1914-18 war years.
The Arts Festival is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. It will now become an annual event held around Autumn and Sevenoaks Remembers is being used as a launch pad (see full list of events below).
Lisa said: “The idea of the festival has been in the pipeline for quite a while but being a charity and a not-for-profit organisation we had to find a way to fund it. Getting a community grant from Sevenoaks Town Council meant that we could go ahead and do it.
Nov 1-2 The Dimming of the Day
A staged radio play looking at women in Sevenoaks during the war and the arrival of hundreds of Belgian refugees looking for safety. There will be a pre-show talk by a local historian before each performance.
Stag Plaza- 6:30pm
Nov 4 – Film screening of 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front
Stag cinema- 3.30pm
Nov 11 – The Poetry is in the Pity
Poet and sculptor Ev Meynell takes a fascinating look at how soldiers were inspired to become poets in the First World War.
Stag Plaza – 6pm
Nov 17 – Great Power
This short play is performed by, and partly devised by, ten talented members of the Stag Youth Theatre.
Stag Theatre – 7pm
Nov 27- Dec 1 – Trees of Remembrance
A unique art exhibition to remember those soldiers from Sevenoaks who lost their lives in the war.
Sevenoaks Kaleidoscope Gallery, Sevenoaks Library, Buckhurst Lane
Open 9am-6pm Mon, Tues, Wed and Fri, 9am-8pm Thurs, 9am-5pm Sat
Full details about Sevenoaks Remembers and all festival events including booking details can be found at stagsevenoaks.co.uk/sevenoaks-remembers or by calling the Stag Box Office on 01732 450175.
Local historian Matt Ball has written a blog about Emile and Rosina that contains more details about this story. You can see it by clicking here