Goodnight Irene

Irene Rickman

Irene Rickman, life member of Birmingham Clarion Singers, lifelong member of the Communist Party (Birmingham CPB Branch) and loyal Morning Star supporter, has died at the age of 84.

Just weeks after the birth of Irene Hickie in May 1931, South Birmingham was hit by a tornado, causing severe damage to properties in its path.  This force of nature could have seemed a portentous sign to Irene’s parents, given the indomitable spirit of their daughter in the years to come.

Although in poor health, Irene’s mother was supportive, and made sure her large family had opportunities to develop their talents. In the aftermath of World War 2, and following her evacuation to the Welsh countryside, Irene was enrolled for singing lessons. At the age of 15, she joined the fledgling socialist choir Birmingham Clarion Singers; and as a headstrong, forthright teenager, was drawn to the fight against fascism and the belief in a better world. This political firestorm led her to join the Young Communist League.

Irene very quickly became a leading light in the soprano section of the choir, taking on challenging roles under the tutelage of fellow comrades Elsie Marshall and Katharine Thomson.

This brought her into a world of cultural and political activism, rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as Paul Robeson, Alan Bush, Charles Parker and Pete Seeger, as well as left-wing academic George Thomson. This was a world away from her life as a young typing clerk, performing “Ballad for Americans” at Birmingham Town Hall for Paul Robeson in 1949, and playing Anne Page in “Sir John in Love”, (and meeting composer Ralph Vaughan Williams during rehearsals).

Irene met her life partner Alan Rickman at a Communist Party event, and they married in 1952, the day after her 21st birthday. Alan regularly took Irene to her singing lessons at Elsie Marshall’s on his motorbike. It wasn’t long before Elsie had persuaded Alan to take singing lessons himself, and to join the tenor section of Birmingham Clarion Singers,

In 1952 the choir took its message of peace and socialism to audiences in Romania and in 1957 to Czechoslovakia, funding these cultural exchanges by taking their progressive music to local venues and public houses. The people of Birmingham were treated to the works of Mozart and Vaughan Williams, sung by ordinary working people from the factories and offices in the city.

Irene continued to play a pivotal role in Birmingham Clarion Singers, taking on many roles over several decades of performances, and ensuring her clerical training was fully employed in the role of choir secretary. As she matured, her voice became deeper and richer, and as an adult she ended up with a beautiful alto voice. In the 1970s, she retrained as a nursery nurse, finding a welcome setting for her warmth and generosity of spirit. She took great pleasure in her extensive circle of family and friends, and could always be found at the heart of social events, enjoying a sing-along or a quiet joke and observation.

Irene and Alan had two children, Ruth and Mark, and their family life was full of shared interests, including camping, protection of wildlife, a love of the British countryside and, of course, politics and singing. In 1984 Mark died suddenly and tragically at the age of 19, and Irene demonstrated her unconquerable spirit as the family courageously came to terms with the loss. Together, the Rickmans spent their remaining years supporting working people and the socialist struggle. They weathered the storms of the Party in the 1980s, and continued to give their time and energies to the movement until they could no longer live independently.

 Alan died in April 2015, and, with the recent loss of her elder sister, Audrey, Irene became uncharacteristically melancholy and world weary. In her usual decisive manner, she decided it was time to bow out, from a life lived to the full, leaving a legacy of music and political activism to inspire the next generation.


Annie Banham


Birmingham Clarion Singers



(With special thanks to Ruth Rickman-Williams and Jane Scott, for their valued contributions)


A Tribute to Alan Rickman 1925-2015

Alan Rickman, life member of Birmingham Clarion Singers, stalwart Communist Party member and Morning Star supporter, has died at the age of 90.


Alan was born and bred in Birmingham, and joined the Communist Party in 1946 on his return from wartime service. He was a keen cyclist, winning many awards for his speed as a member of Solihull Cycling Club, and a skilled toolmaker and engineer.

He met his life partner and wife Irene through the Party, and was persuaded to try singing when he turned up in his motorbike and sidecar to pick her up from a lesson at the house of Elsie and Martin Marshall. Although protesting he could not sing, with Elsie and Irene’s encouragement, he eventually discovered a rich tenor voice.

It was not long before Alan was persuaded to join the Birmingham Clarion Singers workers choir by Irene, and he was extremely grateful to Elsie for convincing him he had a voice, and for helping him to find it.

He took on several notable roles; Monostatos in Magic Flute, Hugh in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover, Matt of the Mint in the Beggar’s Opera and various others. He was also a popular member of the Old Time Music Hall group and Barbers’ Shop Quartet.

He became an excellent stage manager for many of the operatic and dramatic performances of the ’50s and also supplied technical help in the Centre 42 workshops.

Alan could regularly be seen on street corners and political events in Birmingham, selling the Morning Star and supporting the West Midlands Pensioners Convention. That was when he wasn’t singing.


As a valued member of the AEU, Alan was given awards of merit by Kings Heath Brandwood Branch, for over 40 years’ service as District Committee delegate, Branch President and Trustee. In later life he treasured these mementoes of his many years as an active and influential trade unionist.


With Irene, he continued to attend Birmingham Clarion Singers rehearsals until ill health made it impossible, but they both continued to support Clarion, and were awarded lifetime honorary memberships in 2014. A similar accolade was conferred by the Workers Music Association, in recognition of their contribution to music and the labour movement. Alan celebrated the 75th anniversary of Clarion in the week of his 90th birthday, and quietly sang along to many of his favourite songs during the evening. Music was with him right to the end, still managing to join in, even when his speech had gone. His voice and his quiet, easy manner will live in our memories, and we are thankful for a life lived to the full, and dedicated to an ambition of peace, hope and socialism.


Alan Rickman 1925 – 2015

This tribute has also been published in the Workers Music Association Bulletin, and The Morning Star.

When Clarion met Vaughan Williams

84adf861-5f6c-47eb-8ae2-8dd122aad5f1 Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1945 Katharine Thomson wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a Cambridge friend of her father, and asked him if Clarion could perform excerpts from his opera ‘Sir John in Love’. She mentioned in particular one member of Clarion, a baritone called Martin Marshall. Vaughan Williams replied, saying “I would like to meet your baritone”.

In August, Katharine, Martin and his wife Elsie went to Vaughan Williams’ house in Dorking where he gave them a warm welcome. In the composer’s study, accompanied by him on the piano, Martin sang Vaughan Williams’ beautiful song ‘Silent Noon’.

‘Sir John in Love’ was first performed by Clarion in its entirety in March 1949 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The director was Tom Harrison, Regional Director of the Midlands Arts Council. The opera was conducted by Professor Anthony Lewis from the University of Birmingham.

from The Birmingham Post 19th March 1949:

Composer Goes To Rehearsal: Vaughan Williams in Birmingham

With no fanfares of trumpets such as might fittingly have heralded the arrival in the city of our greatest composer to hear his own music rehearsed by Birmingham’s Clarion singers, Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams was welcomed here yesterday by his friend Tom Harrison, Midland Director of the Arts Council.
Undeterred by the most wintery of days the 77-year-old composer had left his Dorking home in the early morning and when he emerged from the 1.40p.m. train at Birmingham his natural bear-like proportions were made more massive still; for his grizzled head was alone visible above a mass of overcoats and rugs.
Refusing any rest Dr Williams went straight to the University annexe for the first orchestral rehearsal of his rarely heard opera “Sir John in Love” which is to have its first Midland hearing from the Clarion Singers in the Midland Institute on March 18 and 19.
He listened to this until 5.30 and after a quick cup of tea returned for the cast’s rehearsal which he followed until 9 o’clock.
“He could hardly be dragged away” said Mr Harrison today.
Asked his opinion on the reading of the work, which he followed on the score, Dr. Williams said: “It is such a long time since I heard it myself that your reading is probably better than mine. I enjoyed the experience enormously.”
This was the first visit to Birmingham by the composer since he came to hear Elgar’s work: “The Kingdom” in 1898, but his has been a familiar figure at Worcester meetings of the Three Choirs.

see also: Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958
edited by Hugh Cobbe