A Pageant of Chartism: Heirs to the Charter
Organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Place: Empress Hall (Earl's Court, London) (Earl's Court, London, Middlesex, England)
Number of performances: 1
22 July 1939 at 7pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Staged by [Pageant Master]: Van Gyseghem, Andre
- Musical Director: Alan Bush
- Produced by: The London Arts Committee
- Hats: Dorothy Rogers of the Dance Drama Group
- Costumes: Leila Jaffe; Eileen Block
- Historical Research: Charter Centenary Committee at Marx House
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Slater, Montagu
Outside of his pageant work, Slater was the librettist for Peter Grimes.
Names of composers
- Bush, Alan
- Roberts, Alfred
- Berry, John
Numbers of performers800
The performers seem to have been youth members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
£2163. 3s. was raised for International Brigade wounded and dependents.1
Object of any funds raised
To raise £2000 for the National Memorial Fund of the British Battalion of the International Brigade Wounded and Dependants Aid Committee.
The centenary of the Chartist movement
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 10000
Audience figures are taken from the Daily Worker (24 July 1939, 2), and is likely an overestimation (audiences were commonly exaggerated attendances for Party events).
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Associated eventsThis was part of a wider rally to commemorate the Centenary of Chartism and to promote the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The Chartist song ‘Sons of Poverty’ is heard.
A man and a woman apply for admittance to a workhouse because outdoor relief has been abolished. The workhouse is the most hated of the new institutions. It is burnt down.
A man brought on a stretcher before a magistrate is charged with being a ringleader in the attack on the workhouse. He will not betray his associates. As the magistrate threatens him, he falls back dead. Another prisoner is charged with selling an illegal newspaper, The Poor Man’s Guardian.
The house of the wealthy Lord Marney, who is discussing with Lady Marney and Egremont, a young radical MP, the ‘advantages’ of the workhouse system. [This is a scene adapted from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil.]
A poor man’s house. The man sits rocking a cradle. He tells Egremont that the young Queen Victoria rules over two nations—the rich and the poor. Egremont declares that the poor man must have the vote. He will put this demand before Parliament as an amendment to the Queen’s speech.
Egremont moves his amendment before Parliament, calling for the government to bring in a bill to establish universal suffrage, triennial parliaments and voting by ballot. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, refuses.
Scene VII. 1839
A meeting of the Working Men’s Association. Egremont stands watching. A Member of Parliament introduces the draft text of ‘The People’s Charter’. Another man speaks, calling for ‘Bread—not votes.’ Julian Harney winds up the discussion: ‘The Charter is a knife and fork question. That is why I am supporting the Charter.’
Five men—from Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds and Cardiff—tell of the tremendous campaign, led by the Chartist missionaries, rousing the whole country in support of the Charter.
Lord John Russell orders Sir Charles Napier, general officer of the Northern Command, to ‘keep the peace’ against the Chartists: ‘We are going to give you a free hand. You have the men. You have the armaments.’
Lord Marney tells Egremont that use of the Town Hall has been refused for a Chartist meeting. The Chartists say, ‘the land it is the landlords’’.
The Chartists hold their meeting in a street. Song: ‘Sons Whom Toil and Care Oppresses’. The speaker is O’Connor of the Northern Star newspaper. He announces that the Chartists have decided to call a People’s Parliament—the People’s Convention of Delegates. The people elect their representatives: Dr Fletcher, the Rev. J.R. Stephens, Mr Taylor and Bronterre O’Brien.
The Chartist Convention is in session. As the day for the presentation of the petition draws near, it becomes certain that the Government will make no concessions. Bronterre O’Brien proposes that other measures be taken, including a boycott of ‘excisable goods’ (notably including beer!) and a month’s general strike if the Charter is rejected.
A public house. Two Chartists resist the temptation to drink a mug of beer.
The poor man’s house. The man sits rocking the cradle and talking to Egremont, who thinks no more will be heard of the General Strike. The cradle rocker replies: ‘Are you quite sure? We have made a start. The end is in the future.
The Chartist Convention again. O’Brien moves a resolution declaring the General Strike to be necessary but impracticable. Soldiers break in and arrest O’Brien, Harney, Lovett, O’Connor, Taylor, and M’Douall.
The poor man’s house. The Cradle-rocker reminds Egremont: ‘Leaders will come and go. There are still the people. You may have to wait three years. But wait.’
Trial of the Chartist leaders who are sent to prison, with John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones sentenced to death.
Song ‘People of England’. The rich man’s house. Lord Marney talks with Lady Marney about the end of the Chartist movement.
Scene XIX. 1840
A skeleton Chartist Convention meets. The delegates resolve to rebuild their organisation.
Scene XX. 1842
The rich man’s house. Lord and Lady Marney talk anxiously about a political strike in Ashton, Lancashire.
Four men tell how the strikes have been spreading all over the North.
The Chartist Convention is meeting at a time when the working class is moving against its oppressors, and the soldiers are in action against the strikers.
Scene XXIII. 1844
A meeting of workers to celebrate the rising in Poland, similar to the Chartist rising in Britain. A fraternal delegate from Belgium addresses the meeting. It is Karl Marx.
The poor man’s house. Egremont has heard that the Chartists have become Communists. He asks what this means. The Cradle-rocker tells him that some of them have discovered that their battle goes on in all parts of the world and have made contact with their brothers in Europe.
Scene XXV. 1848
A meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist League, in London.
Part II. ‘The Jolly George’
Seventy years have passed. They have been years of fighting—the battles of the workers against their rulers and of the rulers amongst themselves. The struggle of the employers for new markets to expand in, and new people to exploit, has culminated in the Great War of 1914–1918.
Scene XXVI. Darkness
A song ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. However, there are also warning sirens, explosions and fire bells. A woman and a soldier, both fed up with the War. The ‘Partisan Song’ is heard. A Russian worker calls to them that the Russian people have overthrown their rulers and set up a new democratic government. An officer tries to prevent the soldier from listening.
Scene XXVII. A Year Later
The Armistice is signed, but the soldier is not allowed to come home. He is joined by other soldiers who sing ‘Tipperary’. They decide to go home but are prevented by an officer.
A Cabinet Minister announces that soldiers are still being sent to ‘fight Bolshevism’. The messengers tell him about mutinies and clashes with soldiers demanding to be demobilised.
The Russian people are heard. The Russian army is victorious. A Cabinet Minister declares that British military intervention in Russia has ceased.
Two women gossiping.
The ‘Red Cavalry’ song is heard. The Russian tells the working people of Europe that their governments are still intervening in Russia, on the counter-revolutionary side.
The soldier, in mufti, is talking to another worker. They decide to get work on the ‘Neptune’, which is to carry arms to Poland.
The Cabinet Minister is informing the House of Commons once again that no arms are being sent to Poland.
A Dock Gate meeting. The speaker is informing the dockers that arms are in fact being sent to Poland and asks whether the ‘Jolly George’ will sail or not.
The Cabinet Minister is speaking in the Commons about Polish victories against the Bolsheviks.
A Poplar Street. The dockers who had been working on the ‘Jolly George’ have gone on strike. Two women watch and cheer as munitions are unloaded off the ‘Jolly George’. The Russian announces that the Red Cavalry has the Poles on the run.
Two meetings are in progress. At the House of Commons, the Cabinet Minister announces that the Foreign Secretary has demanded that the Soviet Government withdraw its troops from Warsaw. At the dock gates, a speaker from the newly formed British Communist Party begins to speak. It is Harry Pollitt.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Russell, John [formerly Lord John Russell], first Earl Russell (1792–1878) prime minister and author
- Harney, (George) Julian (1817–1897) Chartist and journalist
- Napier, Sir Charles James (1782–1853) army officer
- Feargus O'Connor (1794-1855) Irish chartist leader
- Stephens, Joseph Rayner (1805–1879) social reformer
- O'Brien, James [pseud. Bronterre O'Brien] (1804–1864) Chartist
- Harney, (George) Julian (1817–1897) Chartist and journalist
- Lovett, William (1800–1877) Chartist and radical
- Frost, John (1784–1877) Chartist
- Williams, Zephaniah (c.1795–1874) Chartist and geologist
- Jones, William [pseud. Gwilym Cadfan] (bap. 1726, d. 1795) poet and radical
- Marx, Karl Heinrich (1818–1883) revolutionary and thinker
- Pollitt, Harry (1890–1960) political organizer
Musical productionMassed Labour and Co-operative Singers, Unity Male Voice Choir, Director John Goss
North London Workers' Band.Music included the following:
- ‘Sons of Poverty’.
- ‘Sons Whom Toil and Care Oppresses’.
- ‘People of England’.
- ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.
- ‘The Partisan Song’.
- ‘Red Cavalry’.
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Book of words
Other primary published materials
- A Pageant of Chartism, Heirs to the Charter. London, 1939.
References in secondary literature
- Barker, Clive and Maggie B. Gale (eds.). British Theatre Between the Wars, 1918–1939. At 204.
- Mahon, John. Harry Pollitt: A Biography. London, 1976. At 245–246.
- Nicholson, Steve. ‘Montagu Slater and the Theater of the Thirties’. In Recharting the Thirties, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, 201–220. London, 1996.
- Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London, 1994. At 223.
- Wallis, Mick. ‘Heirs to the Pageant: Mass Spectacle and the Popular Front’. In A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, edited by Andy Croft, 48–67. London, 1998.
- Wallis, Mick. ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the “Thirties”’. New Theatre Quarterly 10, no. 38 (1994): 132–156.
- Wallis, Mick. ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’. New Theatre Quarterly 11, no. 41 (1995): 17–32. This gives a full description of the pageant.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Warwick Modern Records Centre, Warwick University: Copy of programme [copy owned by Tom Mann]. MSS.334/5/CP/4.
- Imperial War Museum Archives, London: Copy of programme. K 85/960.
- Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People’s History Museum, Manchester: Harry Pollitt’s draft articles, speech notes and transcripts. CP/IND/POLL/6/1.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil, or the Two Nations. London, 1845.
- Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. London, 1848.
The front cover of the pageant programme made unequivocally clear the historical lineage underpinning the event, with the words ‘Chartism—1839’ and ‘Communism—1939’ at the top of the page. Further ambitious aims were listed in the Daily Worker newspaper, intimating what the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPBG) hoped to achieve the following from the Pageant:
To unite the ranks of Labour and the people of Britain for the signing of the pact with Russia and the defeat of [Conservative Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain. For the defence of democracy against Fascism and for the advance to Socialism. To raise £2000 for the National Memorial Fund of the British Battalion of the International Brigade Wounded and Dependants' Aid Committee. To welcome 1000 new members into the Communist Party. And to pledge to the Labour movement and to the people of London the determination of the Communist Party to advance the struggle of the working-class and of democracy by building up 100 per cent, trade unionism, co-operation and tenants’ defence, by preparing to ensure Labour's victory in future elections, and by greatly increasing the membership of the Communist Party and the circulation of the DAILY WORKER.2
The pageant was ‘the story of 100 years of heroism and self-sacrifice’, which was ‘linked with the urgent needs of the British people today—the building of collective security to save them from the horrors of war, the strengthening of the movement against the modern tyranny of Fascism, and the honouring of the Debt of Honour to the finest sons of our people who fought, suffered and died in our cause on the battlefields of Spain.’3
As Mick Wallis has suggested, pageants were an important political tool for left-wing movements during the 1930s. While the Pageant of Labour, held in London in 1934, had been a failure, this did not dissuade other groups from staging their own pageants (albeit on a smaller scale).4 The Pageant of Chartism was the third Communist Party-led pageant, after the March of History, held in Liverpool in 1937 and a number of other pageants in industrial cities.5 Towards Tomorrow, performed at Wembley Stadium in July 1938, involved many CPGB members and fellow travellers.6 Heirs to the Charter was one of three significant Popular Front Pageants that year, featuring many of the same organisational staff, along with the South Wales Miners' Pageant and Music For the People.
Despite the trumpeting of the veterans of the International Brigade, recently returned from the Spanish Civil War, the Communist Party was having to deal with the revelations that had emerged over the summer of 1939 regarding the Non-Aggression Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which meant that the USSR would not go to war on the side of Britain and France. The whole of the second part of the pageant, ‘The Jolly George’, is an indictment of British imperial warmongering, with a particular focus on how British soldiers were forced to continue fighting against their fellows in Russia after the end of the First World War. The action revolves around the ‘Jolly George’, a ship loaded with arms that is supposedly being sent to Poland to fight against Communism. The dockers’ strike, supported by the young dockworker Harry Pollitt (played by his older self), prevents Britain intervening in Poland against the Soviet Union. The message here is that the current crisis over Poland is none of Britain’s business either and that the subsequent annexation of eastern Poland by the Soviet Union was a justifiable extension of this earlier attempt to spread revolution. At least according to press reports, it seems that the audience was particularly enthused by the insubordination of Tommies against their officers in the later scenes of the pageant, which the Daily Worker favourably compared to recent performances of Clifford Odett’s play Waiting for Lefty.7
The Pageant of Chartism celebrated the centenary of the Chartist Movement, or rather its most violent and potentially revolutionary phase which was characterised by the Newport Rising. This event had already been celebrated in the Pageant of South Wales (performed simultaneously in three Welsh towns on 1 May 1939), which was also written by Peter Grimes librettist Montagu Slater and directed by van Gyseghem.8 The Communists were adamant that the Chartist movement had been a revolutionary force before being betrayed by the bourgeoisie in the 1840s, and that the CPGB was its natural successor—a view that had been influentially propounded in A.L. Morton’s 1938 A People’s History of England (published by the Left Book Club), as well as Edgell Rickword and Jack Lindsay’s 1939 collection, A Handbook of Freedom.9 As such the pageant presents a view, partially derived from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, that presents Chartism as a natural response to economic slavery. Although Disraeli—a future Conservative Prime Minister—rejected violent revolution in favour of paternalistic authoritarian government, the pageant continues by listing the violent actions of the crown against the Chartists until the crisis point of 1839. The suppression of the movement and the imprisonment of its leaders, it is intimated, encouraged the Chartists to reorganize and reject democratic solutions in favour of the teachings of Karl Marx. Scene XXIV makes it inescapably clear that the Chartists became Communists and that members of the current Communist Party of Great Britain were this ‘heirs to the charter’.
In 1939 CPGB membership stood at just under 20000, decidedly small compared either to its French counterpart or to its wider influence on intellectuals and the young.10 Recruitment to the cause was thus an imperative priority. It seems that the pageant was already sold-out before the night, with the Daily Worker requesting that any unsold tickets allotted to local Party branches be returned for redistribution. As it told its readers, ‘if you fail to do this you are depriving other comrades of seats’, adding that those without tickets should make sure to queue up a few hours before.11 As such reports might suggest, the pageant was a success, drawing 916 new members to the Party.12 The London District Committee of the Party wrote to the Daily Worker to congratulate all who took part, asking for ‘voluntary workers to help address envelopes so that it can get in touch with all new members and draw them into activity at once’.13 It seems that, as with a number of other CPGB pageants, there was little rehearsal—apparently only three hours of what one reporter described as ‘complete pandemonium’.14 Nonetheless, behind this seeming chaos, van Gyseghem managed to artfully choreograph the action, using microphones and quickly changing scenes (most with only a couple of lines of dialogue) and creating ‘a miracle of production when it came to the evening’.15 The reviewer speculated that although only two of those who played the Chartist heroes were professional actors, the rest (members of the Dockers’ Group of the Communist Party) had the rudiments of performance from their work, which had naturally given them ‘a good flow of language’.16
Steve Nicholson and Mick Wallis have praised the dramatic effect of the pageant, with the former writing of the ‘successful integration of aesthetics and politics, through the combining of dense, verbal narrative with highly charged visual imagery’.17 Indeed, Nicholson writes that the pageant’s ‘almost cinematic cutting with large groups occupying and moving between several spaces was far removed from the contemporary performance language of British theatre’.18 Indeed, the juxtaposition of historical scenes and well-known quotes from Marx, and the culminating scene with Pollitt’s rousing 45 minute speech against capitalist war (frequently drowned out by rapturous applause) were clearly effective in dramatic terms.19 The action was highly popular with the audience, as the Daily Worker noted: ‘When hundreds of Chartists marched up the aisle, men, women, and children, with all the effect of a huge demonstration the ten thousand spectators, including me, roared and cheered their approval. Banners with historic slogans on them got special cheers as they caught the spotlight, especially “More Pigs, Fewer Parsons.”’20 The reviewer stressed the ‘family atmosphere’ of the performance, which ‘signifies the working class’.21 The reviewer stressed that ‘every member felt part of the show’ and noted the range of people in the audience, including a row of ‘three generations together’ and ‘young fellows [who] had brought their girly or perhaps the girls had brought their young fellows’.22
While the CPGB did much to court the Popular Front and the goodwill that came from its involvement in Spain and the wider struggle against Fascism (disregarding the awkward years from 1939–1941 when the Party turned its ire against what the warmongering British Empire), it could not sustain its levels of support in the changed context of the post-war era, in which it came to favour ideological orthodoxy over the passionate performances of the Popular Front years. Material for the pageant was researched by the Marxist Historians Group, comprising Christopher Hill, Dona Torr, A.L. Morton and several other historians who would go on to form the prominent post-war Communist Party Historians’ Group in 1946.23 Nonetheless, the CPGB remained sceptical of the use of historians and writers, who often failed to tow the Party line. Members of the Community Party Historians’ Group believed that the Communist Party was the contemporary embodiment of the radical popular tradition that had animated all previous revolutionary movements, from the Peasants’ Revolt through to the Levellers and Chartists. Their interpretations of this heritage, however, were often at odds with those of the Party, especially in their emphasis on the Englishness of communism and their marginalising of Marx’s role. Thus it was that a number of communist writers and intellectuals got into trouble in 1948 for giving greater weight in the Party-affiliated journal Our Time to the 1848 Chartist Demonstrations than the Communist Manifesto, the centenary of which had just been marked by a large-scale CPGB-organized pageant at the Albert Hall.24 Many of the Party’s prominent writers, such as Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword and Montagu Slater were effectively forced into silence, with the Communist Party Writers’ Group lapsing by the early 1950s.25 History was intensely important to the Party, and the actions of committed writers and historians were invaluable in publicizing the cause. However, the Party took pains to ensure that the correct interpretation of history was presented.
- John Mahon, Harry Pollitt: A Biography (London, 1976), 246; Mick Wallis, ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’, New Theatre Quarterly 11, no. 41 (1995): 29.
- Daily Worker, 22 July 1939, 4.
- Mick Wallis, ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’, New Theatre Quarterly 11, no. 41 (1995).
- Charles Hobday, Edgell Rickword: Poet at War (Manchester, 1989), 209–210.
- Wallis, ‘Popular Front Pageant’, 23–25.
- Daily Worker, 24 July 1939, 2.
- Wallis, ‘Popular Front Pageant’, 26.
- Ben Harker, ‘“Communism is English”: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front’, Literature and History 20, no. 2 (2011): 16–34.
- Andrew Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow, 1920–43 (Manchester, 2000), 1.
- Daily Worker, 22 July 1939, 4.
- Wallis, ‘Popular Front Pageant’, 29.
- Daily Worker, 25 July 1939, 1.
- Daily Worker, 24 July 1939, 2.
- Steve Nicholson, ‘Montagu Slater and the Theater of the Thirties’, in Recharting the Thirties, ed. Patrick J. Quinn (London, 1996), 206.
- Ibid, 207.
- John Mahon, Harry Pollitt: A Biography (London, 1976), 246.
- Daily Worker, 24 July 1939, 2.
- ‘Dona Torr’, Graham Stevenson, accessed 18 April 2016, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=586:dona-torr&catid=20:t&Itemid=128 ; David Parker, ‘Introduction: Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians 1940–1956’, in Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians 1940–1956, ed. David Parker (London, 2008), 8–25.
- Malcolm Chase, ‘The Chartist Movement and 1848’, in John Saville: Commitment and History: Themes from the Life and Work of a Socialist Historian, ed. David Howell, Dianne Kirby and Kevin Morgan (London, 2011), 156.
- Andy Croft, ‘Writers, The Communist Party and the Battle of Ideas, 1945–1950’, Socialist History 5, (1995), 2-25.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A Pageant of Chartism: Heirs to the Charter’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1149/