Ashdown Forest Pageant
The pageant brought together a number of villages around the forest and became a major pageant.
Place: Kidbrooke Park (Forest Row) (Forest Row, Sussex, England)
Number of performances: 8
16–20 July 1929
Performances on 16, 17, 18, and 20 July 1929, at 3pm and 7pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Lally, Gwen
- Author and Chairman: Lord Edward Gleichen
- Vice Chairman: Mrs. Olaf Hambro
- Director of Orchestra: Mr Guy Warrack
- Property Master: Mr. A.G. Ross
- Organising Secretary and Chief Wardrobe Mistress: Mrs Shaw Mackenzie
- Treasurer: Mr H. Joyce of Barclays Bank
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Mr and Mrs Olaf Mambro
- Lord and Lady Edward Gleichen
- Miss Needham
- Miss Parsons
- Representatives from Forest Row, East Grinstead, Coleman’s Hatch, Handcross Turner’s Hill, Nutley, Danehill, Crowborough, Hadlow Down, Buxted, Horsted Keynes, Tunbridge Wells
- Mrs A. Kennard
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
Gleichen, Lord Edward
Names of composers
Numbers of performers
The Pageant made a £3000 profit1
Object of any funds raised
In aid of General Hospital, Tunbridge Wells, the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, the Queen Hospital, East Grinstead, Haywards Heath Hospital, Uckfield Hospital, and the Village Hall, Forest Row.
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: 4000
- Total audience: 20000
Total audience was at least 20000.2
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
The grounds of Kidbrooke Park were open to visitors, and there was a military tattoo at the end of the final performance.
Spoken by Anderida, Spirit of the Forest on a white charger. As she moves forward a number of characters connected to the forest come forwards with banners.
a) Ironworks I, AD 92
Early Britons at work smelting iron which they have dug with bone shovels and wooden picks. A hunting party arrives, carrying a deer. A young Roman patrician and his fiancée stroll up and alert a Roman patrol to come and see the furnace. The Romans ask the Britons if they can make spears and swords and a deal is struck.
b) Ironworks II, AD 1263
Lady Isobel de Audeham of Brembletye disputes the possession of a forge with a plebeian woman. Lawyers are produced and the squabble is interrupted by merchants, anxious to buy weapons and other materials.
c) Ironworks III, AD 1545
A furnace producing materials for Henry VIII’s navy. There is a quarrel about the ownership. A small canon is produced and dragged off to war.
Episode Two. A Norman Wedding c. AD 1155
A wedding of one of the earliest Sackvilles to the Lady Ela de Dene, by which the Manor of Buckhurst came into the possession of the family. Clergy arrive at the scene followed by the Sackvilles. Lady Ela and her party enter and a ceremony takes place, with the bride presenting her husband with various manors. Among the wedding presents are a battle horse, rolls of cloth, mead, meat and so on. The wedding party then disperses.
Episode Three. Henry VIII’s First Meeting with Anne Boleyn, AD 1525
The King is coming to visit his Royal Forest, and his tenants assemble to greet him. As the foresters come forward to put up the pavilion, the tenants mob them. Thomas Boleyn, master of the forest, rides up with the hunt, his wife and daughters. Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon arrives with a retinue and Sir Thomas presents his wife and daughters. The King takes his place in the pavilion. A gypsy girl is dragged forward and performs a dance. Henry pays attention to Anne, to Katherine’s annoyance. There is a display of hawking and the party disappears, some of the people touching his Majesty for the King’s evil.
Episode Four. Sackville College, AD 1631
The presentation of the Charter by the Fourth Earl of Dorset. Workmen erect a dais. The Town Crier assembles the townspeople. The procession of the Mayor and Lord and Lady Dorset enter. A lawyer hands the charter to Dorset, and a warden is appointed to whom the Charter is committed. School children sing a Sussex Mummer’s carol. The Earl of Dorset distributes largesse. A health to the Lord and Lady is drunk, and there is a singing of ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ (probably written by a Warden of the College)
Episode Five. Charles II and the Earl of Dorset, AD 1660
A gathering of foresters and tenants. They argue with one another, awaiting the King. Folk-dancers perform. The foresters accuse John Plawe of poaching (he has a deer strung over his shoulders) and arrest him. Lord and Lady Dorset arrive with Lord Buckhurst. The Earl of Pembroke arrives. Charles II enters with courtiers including Nell Gwynn, and Lords Rochester and Lovelace. Charles II appoints Lord Dorset Ranger of Ashdown Forest; Dorset toasts the King. There is a dance with Nell Gwynn making the King dance as well. John Plawe is brought before the King but Gwynn intercedes and he is pardoned. The procession is cheered as it departs.
Episode Six. Brambletye, AD 1692.
Sir James Richards is conspiring with other Jacobites and a priest about storing arms and ammunition in Brambletye Manor. Whilst the hunt gathers and refreshes itself, two cartloads of arms arrive and a witch curses Sir James and prophesies the fall of the house. The hunt is about to leave when news comes that troops are coming. Sir James gives his wife instructions before rushing off. Troopers arrive and are misdirected by the butler. The witch tells them they are being deceived and is promptly drowned in a stream. Troopers pillage and burn Brambletye. The butler is killed and the priest seized. The troopers ride off in triumph.
Episode Seven. Smugglers at Kidbrooke, AD 1751
The local parson enters with his pony and is invited to join Lord and Lady Abergavenny with their group. Abergavenny amuses his guests with stories and a dance by a charming pair of twins. A lost party of smugglers surprises the party. Heated words ensue, but this is smoothed over when the party is bribed into silence. Even the parson accepts an illicit keg. Dismay is again caused by the entry of smuggler scouts who warn of approaching excise men who appear firing at the smugglers. One smuggler is injured, but eventually the excise men are beaten back, leaving two captives who are told they must die. However, further scouts then warn that more excise men are coming and the smugglers scatter in all directions.
Episode Eight. Camp Scene, AD 1918 and Finale
We see some soldiers off duty, some with womenfolk. The Camp commandant arrives and orders the men to fall in for inspection as the bugle calls. The colonel inspects them and casts some men to one side, whilst the detachment marches back to the camp. The men left behind sit down and smoke, ‘and the genuine “Christopher Robin” (a real inhabitant of the forest) suddenly appears with Winnie the Pooh and his toys, which come to life, and dance off with him.’3 The men lie down, go to sleep, and dream of the Forest, which materialises in the shape of elves who examine the sleepers and beckon in the other characters of the Pageant. They advance into the arena: Anderida re-appears on her horse and all burst into an old Sussex folk song of praise before receding into the forest.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Katherine [Catalina, Catherine, Katherine of Aragon] (1485–1536) queen of England, first consort of Henry VIII
- Boleyn [née Parker], Jane, Viscountess Rochford (d. 1542) courtier
- Henry VIII (1491–1547) king of England and Ireland
- Stafford [née Boleyn; other married name Carey], Mary (c.1499–1543) royal mistress
- Boleyn, Thomas, earl of Wiltshire and earl of Ormond (1476/7–1539) courtier and nobleman
- Anne [Anne Boleyn] (c.1500–1536) queen of England, second consort of Henry VIII
- Charles II (1630–1685) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Sackville, Edward, fourth earl of Dorset (1590–1652) politician
- Gwyn, Eleanor [Nell] (1651?–1687) actress and royal mistress
- Sackville, Charles, sixth earl of Dorset and first earl of Middlesex (1643–1706) poet and politician
- Wilmot, John, second earl of Rochester (1647–1680) poet and courtier
- Lovelace, John, third Baron Lovelace (c.1640–1693) politician
- Milne, Christopher Robin (1920–1996) writer and bookseller
- Milne, Alan Alexander (1882–1956) writer
50-piece orchestra conducted by Guy Warrack, provided by the band of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Mid Sussex Times
Sussex Agricultural Express
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer
East Grinstead Courier
Sussex County Magazine
Western Morning News
Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser
East Grinstead Courier
Kent and Sussex Courier
Book of words
Other primary published materials
The Pageant of Ashdown Forest. London, 1929.
References in secondary literature
- Milne, Chrisopher. The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir. Harmondsworth, 1976.
- Gleichen, Major-General Lord Edward, ‘The Making of a Pageant’, Sussex County Magazine (March 1933), 167-75.
- Ryan, Deborah Sugg, ‘Lally, Gwen [real name Gwendolin Rosalie Lally Tollandal Speck] (1882–1963)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Entry, accessed 7 July 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/59378
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- There is a short clip of the pageant, entitled ‘A Pageant of Merrie England (1929)’, by British Pathe, accessed 7 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDc70oORkHQ
- There is a home-film of the pageant, details available, ‘1927-29’, Southern Screen Archive Southeast, accessed 7 July 2016, http://sasesearch.brighton.ac.uk/view/?film=2260
- Copy of Programme and Newscuttings at the East Sussex Record Office, Reference ACC8310/5
Sources used in preparation of pageant
It was in September, 1928, that Mrs Olaf Hambro of Kidbrooke Park…broke to me the news that the Village Hall was badly in need of £1,500 for building its new wing, and that she and Miss Needham thought that the only way of raising money would be to have a pageant—a pageant of Ashdown Forest. Wouldn’t it be fun…This was a trifle startling, and I said so, and I did my best to be cautious about the whole project. But that was quite useless. Mrs Olaf was full of enthusiasm—pageants were the only things which always made money… we’d get thousands of people to come and see it and make a whole heap of money and charge enormous prices, for we’d do it awfully well. Oh yes, it might rain, of course, but we’d have to chance that, and anyway we could insure against it.4
Edward Gleichen’s recollection of the pageant provides a key insight into how pageants got off the ground. It also reveals the startling unawareness of the harsh realities of pageant-making often displayed by people who sought to put them on. Gleichen was an old soldier, geographer and diplomat who had been in the unsuccessful expedition to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885.5 He had always been interested in the history of Ashdown Forest (where he lived), and duly set to work writing the pageant, attempting to distil interesting vignettes and episodes from ‘the everlasting squabbles that went on between the foresters, the ironmasters, the tenants, the Crown and the local property owners’.6 With some useful insights from friend and nearby neighbour Rudyard Kipling (who had written parts of the 1924 Pageant of Empire), and the addition of a prologue by another nearby resident, Vita Sackville West (whose family featured prominently in many of the episodes), the script began to take shape. Whilst Gleichen was himself a prolific author and Times columnist, his decision to write a pageant from scratch (and quite a lively and effective one at that) testifies to the indomitable, can-do attitude of many people of his particular generation and social class.
Gwen Lally, whose pageantry-star was rising, was hired fresh from her success at Westcroft Park, Surrey (1928). Ashdown Forest was to be Lally’s first significant pageant, marking a move away from the Women’s Institute village pageant form.7 Yet in fact, the scale of the pageant, first announced in February 1929,8 was accidental rather than intentional. As the Kent and Sussex Courier remarked: ‘From an almost local entertainment the Pageant has grown imperceptibly but steadily into a national event, and gained the support of many of the most notable people of the land.’9 Clearly, Gleichen’s connections with literary figures helped, as well as his links with a number of major aristocrats. Most importantly, however, the pageant was opened by the Duchess of Richmond and closed by the Duchess of York, guaranteeing the event both a large attendance and extensive press coverage. Gleichen also used his army connections to secure soldiers for the final episode, which portrayed the First World War artillery camp in the forest. As it turned out, however, Gleichen found it more difficult than might be expected in procuring men for this scene, the volunteers he managed to find knowing only infantry rather than artillery drill! Fortunately, with the help from ex-Sergeant-Major Waters, an old gunner, sufficient numbers of suitably-qualified soldiers turned up in the end.10
Like many successful interwar pageants, Ashdown Forest channeled a sense of old or 'deep' England, largely unchanged over many centuries and unspoiled by modernity, with ease of access by rail or motor car from London. Southern Rail offered return tickets at single fares to nearby East Grinstead station throughout the week, with the Observer noting that ‘Visitors from overseas should be particularly interested in seeing one of the beauty spots of Sussex represented in a pageant.’11 Ashdown Forest was a well-known tourist spot. As the East Grinstead Courier remarked: ‘Londoner who had often visited ‘had never before realised how sacred and full of historical romance was the ground they had so often traversed on foot or in their motor cars’.12 Thus, Ashdown Forest, whose edges were being heavily colonised by housing estates for London commuters, represented a tangible link with the past and with nature which was accessible for a day-trip from London.
The Pageant was lavishly praised by the Times. The paper even sent a reporter to a dress rehearsal, who commented on the ‘efficient preparations for a performance on a magnificent scale, and it also indicated the enthusiasm of the people in towns and villages in and bordering on the Forest’.13 With these happy auguries, the pageant was a success from the start, attracting 5000 spectators at its first performance.14 The East Grinstead Courier noted that ‘The Pageant of Ashdown Forest will live long in the memories of all who took part in it or witnessed its glittering spectacle… The Pageant was a triumph from beginning to end.’ It went on: ‘There was no fear of anybody passing through Forest Row on Tuesday without knowing that the Pageant of Ashdown Forest was in existence and that the village was out to honour Royalty. Banners fluttered across the road bearing the words ‘Welcome to the Duchess’…Bunting was hung from every available window.’15
This is not to say the pageant went off without any mishaps. The early performances benefitted from fine weather, but unfortunately, the ‘great heat affected both performers and audience, and a number of minor fainting fits were treated by the ambulance men on duty.’16 At the evening performance of the second day, a car exploded when it started up.17 To cap it all, at the beginning of the final performance the weather played more tricks, this time at the inclement end of the spectrum. A ‘sudden gust of wind blew’, described by Gleichen as ‘a young tornado’, ‘tore down part of the canvas roof of the grand stand. Many spectators were buried beneath the canvas and its supporting poles. Six persons received cuts and contusions, and after receiving first-aid they were taken to their homes.’18 A number of the audience, helped by ‘King Aella of Sussex, a Norman priest, some Henry VIII foresters, and a couple of Cavaliers’ sprung to the rescue and ‘in less than twenty minutes the performance was proceeding as if nothing had happened.’19
Aside from the vicissitudes of English summer weather, the pageant was also notable for its connection with celebrities. It benefited from royal patronage and attendance, but also hosted another celebrity, one only nine years old. This was Christopher Robin Milne, who had been made famous by his father’s book The House at Pooh Corner, which had been published the previous year. Christopher featured briefly in the final scene accompanied by Pooh, Piglet and the other toys. The juxtaposition of this with the First World War soldiers’ camp is, perhaps, particularly poignant. The Milnes had moved to Cotchford Farm on the edge of Ashdown Forest in 1925, and the forest itself provided the backdrop for the books (as the Hundred Acre Wood).20 Christopher Milne recalled the pageant in his autobiography The Enchanted Places (1976):
The setting was a circular, saucer-like field lying within a crescent of trees. In the middle of the crescent was a gap where a track, coming from behind the trees on the right, swung out into the open, crossed a broad, flat wooden bridge, and so entered the stage. And down the track and over the bridge came Boadicea and the ancient Britons, came Henry VIII and his courtiers…Down the track galloped the Excise Men, the hooves of their horses echoing on the planks of the bridge… I could watch them from the front, or I could wander around the back. And sometimes, wandering round the back, I would come upon groups of Courtiers waiting their turn to go on. And once I came upon the witch. She was sitting under the tree, glasses on her nose, reading a newspaper; and she was smoking a pipe. It gave me quite a little shock. Then, as the centuries rolled towards the present, I collected my toys together and Nanny and I made our way to the place where I was to come on. Got everything?21
Footage of Christopher Milne in the pageant, from an amateur film, made news headlines when it was discovered in the South East Screen Archive in 2001.22
Nothing, it seemed, could stop the pageant from being a success. More than twenty thousand people attended, with the car park alone taking around £120 a day.23 The pageant made far more money than the target sum for the local village hall, and the remainder of the £3000 profit was distributed among local hospitals around Sussex. From the success of the Pageant, Lally went on to be Pageant Master for the Battle Abbey Pageant (1932), which was far less successful. The Pageant of Ashdown Forest combined evocative simplicity, good humour, and humorous and poignant scenes with technical mastery and deft handling of the business-side. The nearby village of East Grinstead held a pageant in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.
- Kent and Sussex Courier, 2 Aug. 1929, 8.
- The Pageant of Ashdown Forest (London, 1929), 30
- Major-General Lord Edward Gleichen, ‘The Making of a Pageant’, Sussex County Magazine (March 1933), 167.
- Times, 16 Dec. 1937, 19.
- Gleichen, ‘Making of a Pageant’, 167.
- Deborah Sugg Ryan, ‘Lally, Gwen [real name Gwendolin Rosalie Lally Tollandal Speck] (1882–1963)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 7 July 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/59378
- Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, 9 Feb. 1929, 7.
- Kent and Sussex Courier, 19 July 1929, 6.
- Gleichen, ‘The Making of a Pageant’, 173.
- Observer, 7 July 1929, 23.
- East Grinstead Courier, 19 July 1929, 1.
- Times, 16 July 1929, 18.
- Times, 17 July 1929, 13.
- East Grinstead Courier, 19 July 1929, 1.
- Times, 17 July 1929, 13.
- Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 19 July 1929, 20.
- Manchester Guardian, 22 July 1929, 14.
- Gleichen, ‘Making of a Pageant’, 174.
- Anne Thwaite, ‘Milne, Alan Alexander (1882–1956)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 7 July 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35031?docPos=1
- Christopher Milne, The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir (Harmondsworth, 1976).
- ‘Christopher Robin Revealed’, BBC News, 27 November 2001, accessed 7 July 2016, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1677843.stm. The clip is available to download at Southern Screen Archive Southeast, ‘1927-29’, Southern Screen Archive Southeast, http://sasesearch.brighton.ac.uk/view/?film=2260, accessed 7 July 2016.
- Kent and Sussex Courier, 2 August 1929, 8.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Ashdown Forest Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1259/