A Note on Key Themes
What might you learn from looking at historical pageants?
Thank you for visiting the home of historical pageants. We feel sure that whatever your historical interests are you will find something worth exploring on our website.
Pageants are about so much more than just dressing up as characters from yesteryear! Through examining the phenomenon of historical pageantry, we are provided with a window through which we can view many of the ways that history has informed people's lives, their sense of themselves and their relationship with their own communities.
Below is a short summary of just some of the key themes and topics that we have identified through our research as being prominent within the study of pageants, and which can be explored further by consulting our Pageant Database.
Class structures in British society
One of the important underlying principles of modern historical pageantry (as set out by the founder of pageants, Louis Napoleon Parker) was the idea that when people engaged in making a pageant, all classes of society would work together in this common endeavour. In practice, of course, things were not quite so straightforward. In the early days of pageants, for example, members of the upper classes were often very prominent on organisational committees and as performers in the plum roles, reflecting their continuing high status in local communities. Even so, it is worth remembering that hundreds of thousands of British people became involved with at least one pageant during their lifetime and most pageants involved people from all kinds of social backgrounds. By examining how pageants changed and evolved over the course of the twentieth century, we can see how class relations also shifted. Pageants that provide a very clear example of such change are those that took place in Carlisle in 1928, 1951 and 1977, but there are a great many others. Historical pageantry can also help us to understand the ways in which class relations could operate very differently across different parts of Britain at different points in time during the century.
Gender relations in British society
When the first historical pageant took place in 1905, women still did not have the parliamentary vote, and indeed, many women were actively campaigning to change this state of affairs. Campaigners quickly realised that they could make a strong argument about their right to the franchise and deliver this message to thousands of people through holding pageants in public places. These proved to be a popular means of publicising the cause without resorting to protests that might attract bad publicity. Famous women from the past—revered for their intelligence and achievements—were depicted in such performances as examples of women's inherent capabilities: in the Pageant of Great Women, first staged in London in 1909, female historical figures from St Hild to Marie Curie were depicted. This pageant was staged in many other towns and cities across England including Bristol in 1910.
Women were closely involved with pageants from the early years as performers and organisers but it is also true to say that as women's place in British society changed during the century, their importance to the pageant movement grew. Women's organisations were at the forefront of pageants by the interwar years; the Women's Institute (and in Scotland, the Women's Rural Institute) presented their own pageants, and these events were a common means of encouraging thousands of women to be interested in amateur dramatics and so become engaged with a non-domestic leisure activity. A great many examples of WI pageants are included on the database but key examples include the Pageant of Angus History and the Lancashire Women's Institutes' Pageant, Pedlar's Ware.
Civic pageants across Britain also depended on the help given by women's organisations such as the Townswomen's' Guilds in order ensure pageants ran smoothly. And members of young women's associations like the Girl Guides, Girls' Clubs and Girls' Friendly Societies could commonly be found in cast lists as well as in the credits given for practical help—they also led their own pageants. On the database you can see examples, such as that staged by the Girls' Friendly Society in Blackburn in 1930, by a Girls' Club in the Scottish Borders at Ercildoune, and by the Girl Guide Association in Edinburgh, 1952. Women also moved centre stage to take charge of large-scale civic pageants and the career of the pageant master Gwen Lally provides a good example of this. One of the pageants overseen by Lally took place in the important urban centre of Birmingham. Similarly, women had major organisational roles in pageants such as that held in Newcastle in 1931.
It is worth reflecting too, on the fact that some of the most popular historical figures to appear in pageants were women—from Elizabeth I to Florence Nightingale.
The important role played by Christianity in the past, and the centrality of organised religion to the lives of ordinary people when pageants were at the height of their popularity, are both issues widely explored in our pageant database. Special church services were regular accompaniments to pageants, and were often held on the Sunday of pageant week, for in deference to the Sabbath, during most of the twentieth century, pageants never took place on a Sunday.
Religious figures appear in almost all pageants and indeed some are central to the pageant's narrative, such as in the Pageant of St Hild which took place in multiple places in England, and in Aidan the Christlike, which was staged in Newcastle in 1951. The arrival of Christianity in Britain is very regularly dramatised, with saints such as Columba and Cuthbert representing this enormous change in the life of the nation.
Great upheavals in religious life such as the Dissolution of the Monasteries are dramatised in pageants and many of the most frequently appearing historical figures have religious associations. The pageant team were surprised to see just how often John Wesley made an appearance in historical pageants!
Most civic pageants involved representatives from religious institutions, and the Churches themselves often took up the reigns of pageant organisation, with everything from tiny Methodist chapels to Church of English parishes in prominent towns all involved with staging their own pageants. There are many such examples in the database, involving small and large religious institutions: indeed, one of the first large, national-based pageants was the English Church Pageant held in 1909.
The social organisation of churches, which involved bible study classes, Sunday schools and women's guilds—even, in some cases, church-based dramatic groups—meant that in some ways it could be easier for churches to undertake the kind of labour-intensive organisation required to stage a pageant. Moreover, this sort of collective endeavour was thought to be a good way of bringing disparate members of congregations together, and was a means of reinforcing the continuing vitality of organised religion in the face of fears that Britain was becoming more secular.
Leisure activities and associational life
Pageants can reveal the extent to which people were involved in the associational life of their communities. Getting a pageant off the ground could be formidable task; and planners of civic pageants often looked to organisations as well as individuals to supply the means of putting on a pageant, as well as contributing to the performance. People who took part in pageants often gave up weeks of their free time in order to attend meetings and rehearsals as well as the actual performances themselves. Much of this activity had to take place at the end of a busy working day—but over the course of the century leisure time increased for many ordinary working people, leading to greater engagement with clubs and societies. Indeed, many large pageants were arranged with the input of different groups in mind; particular episodes might be given over to specific organisations so that the members provided all the organisers and performers for discrete parts of the pageant. You can see this in operation at pageants such as Streatham in 1951 and The Spirit of Dorset.
Involvement with a historical pageant was an activity that touched hundreds of thousands of people's lives over the course of the century and this often happened because individuals were already active within their community as part of special interest groups and associations. Many civic societies fundraised on behalf of pageants and supplied additional attractions in order to make these events even more attractive to spectators. The pageants that took place in the post war period in Arbroath between 1947 and 1952 provide good examples of this type of rallying round by different civic groups.
Over the course of the twentieth century youth associations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides flourished. All of these organisations were closely involved with local pageants throughout the country. The presence of large numbers of children and young people within pageants became another way of ensuring that the whole community was represented.
One recreational activity in particular was of huge importance to the pageant movement: this was amateur drama. Local pageants provided another outlet for the talents of countless theatre groups. On our database are some notable examples such as the Pageant of Inverness held in 1951 and Lancaster, 1953.
The British Empire
Some pageants, especially in the earlier part of the twentieth century, were very explicitly a celebration of Britain's relationship with its overseas dominions. The most obvious example of this is the Pageant of Empire staged in 1924 at Wembley Stadium. However, other pageants also included some form of dramatization of the empire and its peoples. One way of doing this was to close the pageant with a grand empire parade in which performers dressed up in the national costumes associated with many colonial peoples, and carried emblems of countries previously colonised by Britain. There are a number of examples of this on the database: have a look at the 1934 Pageant of Ayrshire, in which representatives of many countries come to pay homage to the Ayrshire-born poet Robert Burns; or the Preston Historical Pageant of 1922 in which hundreds of children moved in formation to depict the flags of many nations. For an even more spectacular engagement with empire themes, look no further than the 1907 Liverpool 700th Anniversary Pageant. The ways in which empire was depicted in these tells us a great deal about the ways that the people and places from all across the empire were presented to ordinary British people and in turn, how such faraway places were popularly understood.
Pageants were all about patriotism. This could easily be seen in the Union Jack bunting that commonly decked the streets whenever and wherever a pageant took place, and which underlined the strength of British national identity for most of the twentieth century. However, examination of pageants in different parts of the UK also shows the ways in which people were able to own and celebrate more than one sense of identity.
Undeniably, the past is very important for instilling feelings of belonging and many historical figures can and do instil a sense of national pride. Real historical figures like Robert the Bruce, for example, turned up regularly in pageants held in Scotland. This national icon still inspires patriotic pride for many Scots and for people of Scottish descent right across the globe (a fact of which the actor Mel Gibson was evidently aware when he made the film Braveheart!) In the north of England, on the other hand, the long-time foe of the Scots—Edward I—is presented in pageants that took place in this region as a much-revered national figure, for it was he who protected the people from invading Scots! In pageants held in Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Cheshire, Edward is often shown as a great soldier, but also as a wise and hard-working king. As you might imagine, Edward does not receive such adoration north of the border!
All of this goes to show that pageants were very adaptable to local historical loyalties as well as being patriotic about the nation's history. A defining characteristic of pageants is that they almost always blended local and national strands of patriotism in ways that made people feel that however small their village was or however large and important their town—or, whether a place was ancient or modern—all such communities had made an important contribution to success of the United Kingdom. While nationally famous figures—most especially monarchs like King Alfred or Elizabeth I—did often make appearances in pageants, local heroes also took centre stage. Indeed, locally famous figures from the past were often depicted in the company of visiting monarchs— take a look at the Rookery Garden Pageant that took place in Nantwich in 1908. In this way, the local roots of national identity were put on display; and whether you hailed from Aberdeenshire, Yorkshire, Hampshire or Kent, this sense of common nationhood was brought to the fore in a very powerful way.
Pageants vividly demonstrate that there is no single version of the past! As you may have read in the section on National Identity, in all of the places where a pageant was held people told their own local stories about their community. In these, characters from local legends appeared alongside nationally recognisable and famous figures. Examples include Warwick (1906), which featured the tale of Guy of Warwick and the monstrous Dun Cow and Salisbury (1919) where a giant St Christopher and a dragon called Hob-Nob chased the local youth in a riotous scene.
If you visit our Pageant Database and type in the name of a county, city, town or village, a variety of examples of pageants will appear on the map. By typing in 'Lancashire' for example, you will see that we have documented information about 38 pageants that took place in different parts of the county (though we are sure many more did take place there). Even if you cannot find a pageant for your own town, there is sure to have been one nearby. Should you know that a pageant took place where you live, but cannot find it on our database, we apologise, but you can rectify this by contacting us—just click on GET INVOLVED and send us what information you know. Through the study of pageants, we know that there is no substitute for local knowledge and want to hear from you.
For the people who took part in pageants they were a means of bringing individuals together in a common cause. For those who went along to see them they aimed to entertain. For everyone involved, whether performer or spectator, pageants also operated as a type of informal learning—telling people about history in a way that was accessible and enjoyable. It was said many times that pageants brought 'the past to life' and so provided an event that was both entertaining and educational.
From the 1920s onwards, many pageants were also filmed or audio recorded. This meant that people could go along to their local cinema and see the enactment of a pageant, or they could hear its narration on the radio. On the radio especially, pageant scriptwriters, organisers and performers would also provide insights about the pageant and the characters portrayed in it within short documentary programmes that in some ways were the forerunners of the kinds of history programmes we are now used to hearing or seeing on radio and television.
Pageant dress rehearsals were sometimes opened to special sections of the public; very often, these groups included students of local schools who would be allowed to see the pageant free of charge or at a much reduced rate. This trend was encouraged because pageants were properly seen as an effective means of education about local history and the national past.
In the interwar years, the government levied what was commonly called an 'entertainment tax' on public theatre; this pushed the prices of theatre tickets up. Although pageants were included under this law, in many places pageant organisers were able to claim that their show was wholly educational, and, provided that enough people came along, they were successfully able to claim exemption from the tax because of the educational value attached to such performances.
For many people, seeing a pageant was the first time that history was made interesting and easily understandable; by taking history out of stuffy old school text books the past came alive, and this experience could stir the interest of many spectators and encourage them to learn more. Sometimes towns and cities helped such interest along by putting on special historical exhibitions in local museums and libraries at the same time as the pageant run.
When the first modern historical pageant was staged in 1905 in the open air at Sherborne in Dorset, it is very unlikely that most of the people in the large audiences that attended would have been able to hear all that much of the dialogue included in the performance. Instead, they had to rely on the spectacle involved—the colourful costumes, the gestures made by the performers, and the comings and goings of recognisable figures from the past as each episode unfolded. Those who could afford it might buy the pageant book of words: this provided the script of the pageant and sometimes illustrations. However, if a spectator spent all their time reading along to the actions of performers they would have missed some of the spectacle on show, so this was by no means a perfect way of making sure that spectators got the most out of a pageant.
As time went on, pageants began to make use of new technology in amplification that broadcast sound within open-air arenas, and so got round the problem of inaudibility. At first, this was quite rudimentary (microphones were sometimes hung from trees!), but it soon became much more sophisticated and increasingly became a standard part of pageants.
Special effects with electric lighting were also used in some places, so much so that some performances could be shown at night. Lighting was also employed to stage extra attractions in order to entice people to visit the pageant. In Chester in 1910, for example, the banks of the river Dee were illuminated for one evening during pageant week—with thousands of coloured lights gleaming on both banks for a two-mile long stretch. During this spectacle, some of the performers restaged a scene from the pageant that re-enacted the arrival by barge of King Eadgar and Queen Aelfthryth to the city in the tenth century.
In the northeast coastal town of Arbroath, 18 pageants were held between 1947 and 2005; after the first few years when these took place, organisers decided to illuminate the pageant site, which was within the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, and to hold a special late night procession. This was such a success that all of Arbroath's pageants afterwards were staged at dusk in awesome son et lumiere shows that helped to create a stage in which the ghosts of the past seemed to come to life in a way that audiences found very moving.
Pageants and cinema developed alongside one another as popular mediums for entertainment in the 20th century, and undoubtedly each borrowed techniques from one another. The great spectacles put on by pageant masters such as Frank Lascelles have a lot in common with many Hollywood blockbusters.
Pageants and Music
Music was very important within pageants. It was often played live and, depending on the size of the production, this could involve 100-piece orchestras that included professional musicians, or just a few keen locals on piano and strings. Military bands were also commonly part of a pageant and this all helped create more colour and variety in the musical programme.
Larger pageants always had a musical director. Quite often, this might be a local composer, and so the music played could very well be original and especially composed for the pageant. This type of musical accompaniment was the forerunner in some ways of the original film scores we are now familiar with in cinema—for the music was designed to heighten the drama on display. The Jacobites never appeared in a pageant without the skirl of the pipes being heard in advance! This was true not just in Scotland but in the north of England too. Music that promoted and reflected local life was obviously desirable. In places where there was a workplace brass band, these musicians would usually find a place in the pageant.
Music could also go a long way towards intensifying patriotic feelings. Choral music was extremely common and performed by choirs that could contain thousands of singers at some of the large-scale pageants. However, there were some musical numbers where the audience were expected to join in with well-known songs. It is no accident that some of the anthems we now associate with British patriotism such as Hubert Parry's Jerusalem were popularised by being sung at pageants in this way. Land of Hope and Glory is yet another example—this song was sung at countless pageants. Yet in examining the history of such songs, the important role of pageants in promoting their popularity is generally overlooked. Choirs also sang hymns and psalms, but at the end of the majority of pageants, it became traditional for the audience to join in with the hymn Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.
With better technology and the coming of amplification, some pageants began to employ recorded music, though sometimes this was specially done for the pageant using a mixture of existing compositions and specially commissioned pieces. Occasionally, alongside the book of words (the script of the pageant) a separate book of music would be produced. These were sometimes published in limited numbers and in many cases are now quite rare.
In the absence of a surviving book of music, it is sometimes difficult to recover a lot of information about the music of pageants, but there are many examples where the Redress of the Past team have managed to do this. If you have an interest in this area, take a look at the Preston Gild pageant of 1922; at this event a 5000-strong children's choir performed! And alongside traditional music and hymns, there were specially commissioned pieces composed by talented local teachers.
Tourism and Heritage
Pageants may have been first and foremost local celebrations, but as the crowds who turned up at Sherborne in 1905 proved, they could also turn into major visitor attractions. It did not take long for pageants to become incentives for tourism. The massive pageant held in York in 1909, for example, encouraged visitors from the south to come and visit what was billed as England's second most important city (after London) in terms of British history. Seaside towns such as Scarborough and Ayr also used the excuse of a pageant to try to increase visitor numbers to their parts of the coast.
When a pageant took place, local transport companies would often lay on special trains, trams and buses to carry the crowds of expected visitors, and discount-price tickets were regularly offered to those who intended visiting the pageant. Local businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, welcomed this opportunity to increase their commercial activities, and they often met the cost of decorating the town to enhance the holiday spirit.
Many pageants were held in historic places and staged at historic sites: there can be no doubt pageants played a major part in popularizing many of the heritage-based leisure activities that are now common and familiar. Alnwick Castle in Northumberland may be most famous nowadays for doubling as Hogwart's School in the Harry Potter films, but once upon a time thousands of people visited because of the pageants held there (1925, 1927, 1928 and 1951).
Pageants and memory
The Redress of the Past team have interviewed people who were pageant organisers and performers. What comes across very strongly in the personal testimony kindly shared with our project is that the experience of being a part of a pageant is very memorable. Many people who performed in pageants have retained collections of memorabilia associated with their own pageants. One of our respondents, who as a young woman had a major role in a pageant held in Scotland in the 1970s, was able to show our interviewer her costume—still beautifully preserved down the years. Some of our interviewees were very young when they became involved (as we know child performers featured regularly in pageants), and memories of the pageant have become bound up with recollections of childhood.
Adolescents too played a role. For example, teenage boys and young men took on some of the big parts in the 1951 Carlisle pageant; they enrolled as part of their local Scout troop. We interviewed two such individuals who have remained friends down the years, even though they played arch-enemies in the pageant! Such testimony reveals the myriad of motivations people had for getting involved with such a community endeavour in the context of their personal circumstances at the time. Some of the folk who were adults when they got involved as organisers, and who shared their memories with us, are able to contribute unique insights about pageanteering. These interviewees really lift the lid on the huge amount of labour involved and the level of commitment required. Many have also remained engaged with the history of their communities.
Some short clips from some of our interviews can be listened to via our website by visiting our EXHIBITIONS page. Researchers interested in consulting the oral history collection should contact us via the WEBSITE.
As well as the themes discussed above, there are other topics which you might want to look closer at. Here are a few suggestions:
Famous Historical Figures
If you visit our database, you will see a menu option called Historical Figure. Click on this and there will be no doubt which famous person from the past turned up most regularly in pageants! Elizabeth I takes the prize! You might wonder why: there is one likely explanation. In the early days of pageants, their inventor—Louis Napoleon Parker—preferred that the story of individual communities ended before the 17th century. Furthermore, in his view, a good place to end was with a momentous occasion from a time well before the contemporary age. The visit of a monarch brought the historical tale to a crescendo of spectacle. Queen Elizabeth is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most famous monarchs and she is easy to recognise, even if you know little or nothing about British history. In the early part of the 20th century, this queen was also often associated with a so-called 'Golden Age' in the English past when—so it was widely thought—creativity flourished and the country was relatively peaceful and prosperous.
Elizabeth became such a regular visitor within pageants that some towns and villages exercised a little too much dramatic licence and the queen turned up to places where it is certain she never actually spent any time! Eventually, many organisers of pageants became embarrassed by this deviation from authentic history, and Elizabeth I became less fashionable in pageants, being rivalled—if not perhaps overtaken—by other kings and queen in the popularity stakes. King John is another recognisable monarch. His association with Magna Carta means that most people learned something about him in school. Furthermore, though he does not have a great reputation as a monarch, he actually was a well-travelled king who visited many parts of England during his troubled reign.
Some places chose to take their story a little further on, often to the Civil War, and the unhappy monarch Charles I was also a popular pageant character. By depicting this period of conflict, pageants were able to dramatise how different parts of the country took sides—whether favouring the Roundheads or the Cavaliers. This meant that Charles could be friend or foe, depending on where the pageant took place; it also meant that his story was told somewhat differently within different pageants. In some, he was seen as a distant, haughty figure; in others, he was depicted as a tragic and easily misled king—more to be pitied than despised. In others still, he is portrayed in an unambiguously favourable light.
You might notice the relatively infrequent appearance by another famous queen. Today, Victoria is second only to Elizabeth where recognisability is concerned. Yet she makes far fewer appearances in pageants; the reason for this is that until the 1930s it was illegal to portray her in theatrical performances. The expansion of the entertainment industry meant that this law was eventually challenged and thereafter the queen was found to be amused—or not—in many pageants! She turned up for the first time at Chester in 1937.
Pageants were not all about nationally famous figures. Even more important were countless local heroes. If you scroll down the menu labelled Historical Figure you will see that many included have only one outing in a pageant. This demonstrates that although pageants across the country had much in common in terms of their format, they were also all individual and grounded in what was felt to be important about the local past. Many of the single-mention figures are largely forgotten now, but had high status—even fame—long ago; just click on a few names to find out why.
Legends and Myths
Pageants recalled the important parts of history in relation to individual places. If Mary Queen of Scots had spent time in a castle, this was sure to be enacted in pageants held nearby. Unfortunately, this particular queen often had occasion to hide out in well-defended fortresses. But famous people from the pages of history were not the only highlights of pageants—local stories, myths and legends also popped up. Their presence helped keep such tales alive and meaningful at a point in time when they might have fallen into obscurity. Even when a scholarly person—a local antiquarian or schoolmaster, say—acted as scriptwriter for a pageant (and many did), they often preferred to include local legends alongside evidence-based versions of the past, thus acknowledging that myths also have an important part to play in our understandings of times gone by; and are possibly even more important for the maintenance of distinct local identities.
To give one example, in Helmsley in North Yorkshire a pageant was held in 1951 within the ruins of the nearby castle. A then very famous scholar called Herbert Read wrote the script, and he made sure that the story dramatised followed the historical record very carefully by using medieval manuscripts and serious works of history in order to learn about this place. However, a legend existed there which had been passed down over many centuries. This part of North Yorkshire was once home to important religious communities: the pageant attempted to reveal the reason why this had come about by focussing on the life of the 11th-century owner of Helmsley Castle—a man called Sir Walter Espec. Sir Walter founded two of these religious centres and legend had it that he did so because of the tragic death of his only son, also called Walter. In the first episode, Sir Walter's wife recalls a dream in which their son is killed falling from his horse. Young Walter had planned to go out hunting that day, and of course, his mother begged him not to go. But the carefree boy ignored his mother's pleas and the inevitable happened. Read knew this story was probably a myth, but it very effectively dramatised the more complicated reasons why a medieval baron might want to establish a priory and abbey. Moreover, it was a tale that had lasted a very long time and was famous in the district: Read could not afford to ignore it or its dramatic potential, so this legend became a central part of the pageant.
You may think it wrong to confuse history with legend but this would be to ignore the possibility that such stories can convey powerful messages. Well-known legendary characters with a national profile including King Arthur and Robin Hood also regularly rode to the rescue in pageants, reflecting their wider popularity in books, films and radio programmes. Arthur, for example, was often associated with ideas of British courage in the face of adversity—something that became a very important sentiment during a century when Britain had twice been involved in world wars. Similarly, Robin Hood was often slotted into pageant storylines alongside real historical figures as being emblematic of British ideals of social justice. The appearance of such instantly recognisable figures from legend helped encourage feelings of patriotism and local pride.
Even Louis Napoleon Parker—who made a great fuss about maintaining authenticity in pageants— was partial to the occasional legend. At the large pageant held in York in 1909, which Parker script-edited and directed, he included the legend that Trojans founded York. This is not so surprising, since the belief that the people of Britain could trace their origins back to these ancient warriors was a deep-rooted one, and many early historians promoted the idea. Parker was only one in a long line of writers who had good reason for perpetuating this myth: this heritage includes the likes of Shakespeare.
The invention of the modern historical pageant coincided with a growth in interest in traditional folklore and folk-practices. The majority of pageants included aspects of this, whether through the singing of folk songs, dancing round the maypole at a country fair, or even just the regular appearance of an old market cross or a village green as part of the background scenery in many pageants.
However, some parts of folk culture do form an important part of the historical record. The idea that a wise woman could predict the future, that witches could cast spells and that fairies might be found at the bottom of the garden, were all notions that people believed in not so long ago. One example of this is included in many of the pageants enacted in Lancashire. In this county, the story of the Pendle Witches is still retold; these women were real historical figures who suffered greatly in a time when belief in witchcraft was still common.
The market cross which appears in so many pageants was an effective dramatic device that allowed people to congregate within an open space that was a typical and familiar part of the pre-industrial landscape. Thus, it provided an effective shorthand method of showing what life might have been like in days gone by when most people could not read and could not travel far very quickly. Waiting at the cross for a messenger to arrive begins to make sense in this context!
As time went by, one of the aspects of pageants that attracted some derision was its fondness for what we might today see as slightly cheesy elements of folklore. Not surprisingly dancing milkmaids and frivolous notions of 'Merrie England' did attract some scorn, even at the time. Many pageants adapted and tried to reconnect with aspects of local folklore that were more meaningful in that locality. In the Scottish Borders, for example, the pageant held at Selkirk in 1935 took place during an annual festival to celebrate the tradition of Riding the Marches often called the 'Common Ridings'. From the 19th century onwards this commemoration of a custom that once had an important function in many parts of the UK, began to take on elaborate ceremonial aspects—in other words, an ancient tradition itself acquired new customs. By 1935, the ceremonial features were quite detailed in Selkirk and performed every year; but the fact that this much- embellished ceremony was all based on a pastime that did have a very long history was celebrated in the pageant within an episode that recalled an infamous murder that took place at the Marches in 1540. In this way, the pageant presented an exciting scene from the past, and reinforced the idea that the Common Ridings were truly an age-old part of local life.
The inclusion of folk culture in pageants was not so much about recreating the past, as presenting some of the ways in which we like to imagine days gone by. Folk songs and dance not only brought colour and charm to a performance, they also provided a means of connecting spectators in the modern world to faraway times that might otherwise have been difficult to imagine in the very immediate way that seeing a pageant demanded.
These were a feature of British life that began during the interwar depression. They were aimed at displaying the industrial and cultural life of towns and cities; many places held one and essentially they aimed to show off products made in the town and attract new business. Civic Weeks often had an historical angle as well; in combination with the industrial exhibitions on display, historical and art exhibitions were also put on as part of the weeklong package of attractions. Moreover, a historical pageant increasingly became a central feature of the week as it was thought this would also increase interest in the locality. The pageant was an opportunity to sing the praises of a town or city's special identity. At Salford in 1930, for example, times were very hard and members of the local council wanted to try to boost interest in the city's industries. Accordingly, they staged an industrial and trades exhibition. Accompanying this was a historical exhibition, several popular entertainments such as children's concerts and—a pageant! This was held in Buile Hill Park. It is very doubtful if the week did improve matters for Salford's economy, which was in long-term decline, but it perhaps made people feel better, at least temporarily, and was in any case very successful at attracting visitors. Fifty thousand people saw the Salford pageant; many of this number were visitors to a town not ordinarily thought of as a place to enjoy a day out.
Pageants and Cities
By the outbreak of war in 1939, scarcely a city in the UK had not staged a pageant—from the cathedral 'city' of Kirkwall in Orkney to Plymouth on the south coast—pageant fever spread like wildfire. Large civic pageants staged by industrial cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, were sometimes matched in pageant size and grandeur by more compact, historic cities such as Edinburgh, Chester, Lancaster, and Gloucester. Pageants were a means for UK cities to proclaim civic pride and show the rest of the nation, and indeed the world, what was unique about these individual places. News of a pageant was often publicised in the press overseas and people who had migrated, or were the descendants of British immigrants to North America, Australasia and South Africa, were encouraged to take a trip home and discover (or rediscover) their past. Incredibly many thousands did make this journey, taking books of words back home as souvenirs of the old country.
Pageants and Towns
In many ways, the small or medium-sized town is the natural home for historical pageantry, being big enough to supply a sizeable cast and the required amount of expertise, but still having relatively settled populations and a strong set of local institutions such as churches, schools, drama clubs, and literary societies. The pageant movement began in such a place—Sherborne in Dorset—and it is no accident that many, if not most of the examples on our database, are of pageants set in towns. Often such places had important historical tales to tell. The pageants held in Bury St Edmunds, for example, or those set at Arbroath Abbey both celebrated very important documents in the nation's history, and a strong tradition of pageantry developed in these towns. Too often the importance of the town in our national life is eclipsed by the history of our major cities; studying pageants can be a corrective to this.
Pageants and Villages
Village communities organised a surprising number of pageants. Sometimes the reason for this would be that at some point in the past these settlements had been of greater importance and so had interesting histories to tell. Often they might be close by a historic site, or have been dominated by a great estate owned by a famous magnate from medieval times. However, the close-knit nature of village societies also often meant that these were ideal places to stage a pageant, for everyone could play a part if they wished.
In Devon in 1919, the Village Drama Society was formed by a local women called Mary Kelly; this organisation aimed to promote drama as an activity in small communities. The movement quickly spread across England and helped fuel interest in pageant-making. Other rapidly growing organisations in the period, such as the Women's Institute (WI), also aided the growing popularity of the village pageant, for it was in just such settings that the WI flourished: indeed, Kelly often worked with the WI to put on plays and pageants. There are numerous examples of village pageants on the database—Rillington in Yorkshire, for instance, or Bradstone in Devon. The involvement of Kelly in such productions could really put a sleepy village on the map! And as a legacy of her pioneering activity, Kelly wrote a well-known book called How to Make a Pageant (first published in 1936).
Even the fictional village of Ambridge (familiar to all fans of the BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers) has put on pageants, most recently in 2016 when they staged quite a famous piece called England's Pleasant Land written by the author E.M. Forster. It seems likely that Lynda Snell consulted Kelly's book when she decided to direct this particular production!
Historical sites of interest
The first historical pageant held at Sherborne in 1905 was staged in front of the ruins of Sherborne Castle, and this set a precedent. In the early days of pageants, the ideal was always to hold the performance in a historic place, preferably one connected in some way with the content of the pageant itself. This helped to underline the notion that history was really on view all around, and such tangible connections to the past were worth celebrating and preserving as an important influence on British identity and national pride. Great country houses, ancient abbeys and famous castles were all favourite sites.
After a while, however, this principle could become something of a burden to pageant organisers. As car ownership rose, remote country roads suffered from traffic delays and extra work for local police forces when pageants were staged in rural places; and even well behaved crowds could cause quite a lot of damage to historic ruins if there was insufficient supervision in place. Moreover, the size of the crowd turning up for a pageant could not always be predicted.
In 1951, the little village of Ravenglass in a remote part of the Cumbrian coast staged a pageant at nearby Muncaster Castle. Two thousand visitors were expected, but on the day the weather was exceptionally good and over 11,000 spectators arrived at the castle—the health and safety implications can only be imagined! With such crowds and the need for better transport facilities, increasingly public parks and even sports stadiums became the favoured venues for outdoor pageants, although where a historic place was near to (or in) a town, these sites were still used and could often help to promote the idea that the pageant dramatised authentic history. Nowadays visiting this type of built heritage is a common pastime and it was pageants—among other activities—that helped promote this trend during the twentieth century.
Material Culture and Pageants
If you are interested in history and are an eBay enthusiast, you may have come across examples of pageant memorabilia for sale online. It is testament to the widespread nature of pageants that so many examples of books of words, programmes, advertising posters and commemorative postcards have survived decades after they were manufactured.
People who visited a pageant liked to take away souvenirs and accordingly, many manufacturers sought to meet this demand—with everything from china cups, biscuit tins and decorative spoons to head squares, tea towels and paper napkins. Some places even struck special commemorative medals, and others published limited edition souvenir books that contained colour drawings of scenes from the pageant. Before you head off to eBay, click on Browse Images from our homepage to see some examples of pageant memorabilia.
Perhaps the most common items that have survived as evidence of pageants are photographs. Thousands of these survive in local studies centres and in private collections. If you have pageant photographs to share, please do let us know. Click on GET INVOLVED to find out how you can help us with the history of pageants.
The World Wars
The state of emergency that descended during each of the world wars meant that large-scale historical pageantry stopped temporarily. Both in 1914 when the First World War broke out, and again in 1939 with the Second World War, some pageants that had been planned were called off. During both of these lengthy conflicts, however, there were some—usually quite small—resurrections of pageantry, in many cases organised by churches and youth groups. Such events helped to raise money for different aspects of the war effort. A common recipient of pageant profits was the British Red Cross, to take just one example. The project is still gathering evidence of these pageants, for often they left very little trace. Wartime restrictions on paper meant that often only very flimsy programmes were produced that have not stood the test of time, and coverage in newspapers could be brief. However, what we do know is that pageants never really went away, though their scale and incidence certainly decreased temporarily.
Some anniversaries that fell during wartime were just too important to ignore, however. For example, the Co-operative Society, which managed shops and businesses all across the UK, had its centenary in 1944: in this year up to one hundred Co-operative pageants took place all over Britain to celebrate this anniversary, and we have information about some of these on our website. The Co-op and the famous 'divvy' it paid to customers were very significant institutions in everyday British life and the stores became even more important with wartime rationing. The Co-op pageants were all held indoors and provided a bit of fun when people were exhausted by war; they also raised a lot of money for good causes.
After both wars it did not take very long before pageants were up and running again all over the country. Some places even started organising them before the official end of hostilities, such as Dundee in 1945. Later pageants also incorporated aspects of the wars into the stories told. In 1919 there were even special performances held to commemorate the First World War; these were called 'Peace Pageants'. Amongst other things, these dramatised what it was like to be in a battlefield in Belgium with chaos all around. You can read about some of these on the database in examples that took place at Sheffield, Nottingham, Salisbury and many other places.
Pageants and Politics
Although most pageants were touted as being for everyone, whatever their beliefs, these patriotic displays were sometimes bound up with local and national party politics. Indeed, some smaller pageants were organised by local branches of national parties in order to raise funds for political campaigns. There are several examples on the database such as the pageants held at Alnwick Castle in 1927 and 1928, which were fundraisers for the Conservative Party. However, do not be misled by this. Pageants reflected all shades of politics; it may come as some surprise that the Communist Party of Great Britain also jumped on the pageant bandwagon during the interwar years!
If you would like to read more about pageants, it may be helpful for you to know that as well as the information on this website, articles and essays have been written by members of the Redress team (either collectively or individually) for publication in scholarly journals and books. Some of these are now free to view online. There will be more of these to come in time!