St. Albans Pageant, 1907: Queen Elizabeth at Gorhambury.

Courtesy of St. Albans Museums.

St Albans Study Day

Despite glorious summer sunshine, there was an excellent turn-out for the St Albans Pageant Study Day on 6 June. It seems pageant enthusiasm runs high here, just as we have found it does in Bury St Edmunds! Many people had brought along pageant-related memorabilia and memories. Peter Swinson – son of pageant-master Cyril Swinson – had brought a wonderful silk scarf from the 1953 pageant. Featuring lively drawings of some of the main characters – including Boudica, of course – Peter told us that this had been presented to all the leading female performers in the pageant. Others brought postcards, souvenirs, and much else besides. I knew we were in for a good day.

Silk scarf

Painting of the St Albans Pageant
Painting of the 1948 pageant

St Albans Study Day
Photos brought by Peter Swinson

The programme proper began with Mark introducing the project, and giving a talk on the St Albans pageants. Mark was really engaging: indeed, such were the levels of interest he even had to field questions and comments during his presentation (I am glad he was up there, and not me). In the course of the discussion that ensued, we learned that there was a pageant at Hatfield House in 1936. Someone even suggested that the particular Morris dancing that featured in St Albans pageants was not native to the area, originating not in Hertfordshire but in north-west England. I wondered if this is right.  I was sitting near Ellie Reid (a great friend of the project), who said to me: “I can talk to you about this”. This made me wonder yet more. I feel so inexpert sometimes.

Mark Freeman at the St Albans Study Day
Mark Freeman opens the day

People were champing at the bit: In the discussion that followed Mark’s talk, we reflected on the connection between empire and pageantry: the interesting thing was that page ants – at least those in St Albans – had little to say about empire. Here as elsewhere, the focus was on local identity and community, and its relationship with a wider sense of nationality. 

Mark was followed by Catherine Newley, who told us about the Colchester Pageant of 1909. Cat is the Curator of post-medieval collections at the St Alban Museum, but before that used to work at Colchester as assistant curator, where she caught the pageant bug. Her presentation really brought the Colchester pageant to life for me. In particular, I was struck by her discussion of the Colchester “Pageant House”. This was a large house owned by the Round family: it is now the Holly Trees Museum. Cat told us about how the place became a real centre for social interaction in the town in the run up to the pageant. The house was even redecorated for the occasion, with new wallpaper being put up to create the right ambience for the “at home” events organised by the pageanteers, many of whom would have been sequestered in Pageant House making costumes, planning logistics, and otherwise organising the event. A telephone was even installed, at the princely cost of £8: for all that the pageant sought to celebrate the past, this was an event that made use of the latest technology. Pageants, in Colchester as elsewhere, were modern.

Cat Newley at the St Albans Study Day
Cat Newley on the 1907 pageant

Cat also gave us more insights into Louis Napoleon Parker’s way of working. In Colchester, a garrison town, it really was like a military operation. Parker issued strict (printed) instructions to his cast of 3000, telling them not to be put off by the rain (some hadn’t turned up on wet days), not to wave to friends during the march past at the end, and while doing so not to shout “Hooray”, but “Hail”. But they loved him for it: after the final performance, he was drawn through the town in triumph on Boudica’s chariot.

Louis Napoleon Parker
The first pageant-master, Louis Napoleon Parker

In a splendid talk, Philip Sheail then told us about the Hertford Pageant of 1914, which was put on to celebrate Hertford’s Millenary.  Staged over a week in June 1914, it was watched by 6000 people. In a drily witty talk, Philip made it clear that one of the problems for the Hertford pageanteers was a relative lack of historical material. While Queen Elizabeth had at least visited the place (in 1561), which allowed for an appropriately glorious finale, Hertford’s history was otherwise a little short on incident. This led to scenes including one, as Philip told us, in which “two royal prisoners sat around talking about nothing in particular”. But unintentional comedy made up for some of this. In a scene depicting the siege of Hertford Castle, specially-made trebuchets were the stars of the show. Or they were supposed to be. In the event, they proved unable to throw their projectiles very far, and so – to the accompaniment of roars of laughter – stones the size of loaves of bread plopped down on the grass in siege scene. That said, the re-enactment of the hand-to-hand fighting during the siege did savour rather more of danger. Some of the participants took it a little too seriously, and it was just as well some ambulance-men were on standby at the pageant, as a number were wounded in the melee.

Philip Sheail during the St Albans Study Day
Philip Sheail

After this, we had lunch, where pageant memories and pageant-related thoughts were enthusiastically exchanged over sandwiches and cups of tea. This was followed by two parallel sessions. In one, Ellie Reid gave us an insight into the almost unbelievable range of pageant souvenirs and ephemera. I had written about workmen fashioning items from the wood taken from the old roof of Romsey Abbey (for sale at the pageant of 1907), but I had never expected that these items still survived until Ellie showed a picture of a wooden cross that had been made for the event. Ellie also told us about advertisements, souvenir brochures, silver-plated spoons (she had brought some of these along), souvenir stamps, commemorate paper napkins, programmes, books of words, special newspaper supplements, scrapbooks, pin badges, medals, ceramics (of bewildering variety) and more besides. All this was utterly fascinating, and I’m delighted that Ellie will be coming to the King’s Arts & Humanities Festival next October to tell us more.

St Albans Study Day Lunch

Ellie Reid - St Albans Study Day
Ellie Reid

While this was happening in one room, in the other Cat Newley was showing us a sample of the excellent collection of pageant-related material held by the Museum. The collection included a costume from the 1907 pageant (a few of us posed with the mannequin), a wonderfully evocative collection of photographs, and a fabulous scrapbook, only recently presented to the archive, which included some impromptu poems inspired by the pageant.

Cat Newley St Albans Study Day
Cat Newley

Costume at the St Alban's Study Day
Costume from 1907

After more tea and coffee the final session of the day featured a film showing of the 1948 and 1953 pageants. This was preceded by a talk by Peter Swinson, who spoke movingly of his father Cyril and his commitment to the pageant movement, but also more broadly the cultural life of St Albans – for which he did so much over the course of a relatively short life. Peter also told us a good deal about the pageants themselves. We learned, for example, that old wartime parachute fabric was used extensively for the costumes in 1948.

Peter Swinson St Albans Study Day
Peter Swinson

The day ended with a short discussion about the planned pageant exhibition in St Albans, which we hope will be put on in 2017. On the strength of the success of the Study Day, I feel sure that sure an exhibition will attract a great deal of interest!

Paul Readman

(All photos by Mark Freeman)


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