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History for the people

06 May 2009

In contemporaries’ words and forgotten photos, Glyn Paflin brings to life 1909’s Church Pageant

Augustine in the presence of King Ethelbert. St Augustine (the Revd Herbert Trundle), King Ethelbert (C. O. Skilbeck), Queen Bertha (Mrs Dearmer), Luithard (the Revd the Hon. J. G. Adderley), Interpreter (W. H. Norman ), Monks etc. (the Revd Brook Deedes, F. B. Kirk Stedman, and others)

Augustine in the presence of King Ethelbert. St Augustine (the Revd Herbert Trundle), King Ethelbert (C. O. Skilbeck), Queen Bertha (Mrs Dearmer), Lui...

RARER even than Edwardian colour photos in general are those of the famous London firm of Elliott & Fry, founded in 1863. In 1942, its studio and archives were destroyed by enemy action. Its early experiments in direct colour photography had included a unique record of a great spectacle — the English Church Pageant of 1909.

Some or all of these images were used to illustrate A Short History of the Church by the Revd J. F. Kendall (A. & C. Black, London, 1910). “The illustrations within the book have a value quite apart from their merit,” Kendall wrote. “. . . It is well known that at [the] Pageant a real effort was made to render the presentation of the Church’s story as accurate as possible in every detail of vestment and ceremonial.

“The illustrations in colour are taken from photographs taken by Messrs. Elliott and Fry directly from life, by colour photography, and it is an interesting fact that this book, therefore, is the first of its kind to be published.”

Here, these images are re­published in colour for the first time, possibly, since 1910.

FULHAM PALACE was the Bishop of London’s residence. The Bishop, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, was sympathetic to the Anglo-Catholic revival, built on the idea of the continuity of the post-Reformation Church of England with the medieval Church, reaching back further still to St Augustine’s mission in 597 and beyond. The participants were clerics and lay people from parishes influenced by the Oxford Movement.

In the Edwardian period, com­munity pageants were a novelty, and almost a mania. “Pageant follows pageant so fast this summer, that we can hardly keep pace with them,” the Church Times observed in July 1907.

“It must inevitably be productive of good to the people of a town to be made familiar, in this delightful way, with the history of the place in which they live and their ancestors played their parts; to see their community as an institution of continuous development, with its beginnings, perhaps, in a remote antiquity; and to see it also taking a place and share in the events which are recorded in the annals of the country. The . . . inhabitants themselves have been employed in providing the spectacle and making the ‘properties’.”

The Sherborne pageant, in 1905, masterminded by Louis N. Parker, was followed by many others, principally Romsey, Oxford, Bury St Edmunds, and St Albans in 1907, and Winchester, Dover, Chelsea, and Pevensey in 1908.

In January that year, J. L. Turpin, Rector of Mamhead, Devon, wrote to the Church Times: “Would not the presentation of an ecclesiastical pageant, a pageant representative of the history of the English Church, be one of the most potent methods of educating the people in the history of the National Church?”

This idea seems to have occurred to several people at once. R. M. Percival, of St John’s Wood, had mapped out a pageant about rela­tions between Church and State from St Alban to Laud. Percival — “Sometime Secretary to F. R. Benson, Esq., for the Dramatic Revival Society” — estimated that some­thing might be done modestly for £40, or on a grander scale for £200, £300, or more.

In fact, neither Turpin nor Perci­val was the instigator, and the cost of the Pageant vastly exceeded Percival’s imaginings. Indeed, so ambitious was it that financial embarrassment en­sued, and in March 1910 Winnington-Ingram announced a bail-out arrangement that involved his hosting the Army Pageant in Fulham.

It was Walter Marshall (cover photo, as St George), Vicar of St Patrick’s, Hove, in Sussex, who, with H. W. Maycock, Vicar of St Barna­bas’s, Hove, and friends initially planned to stage the Church Pageant in Hove in summer 1909. To manage it, they appointed the Master of the Oxford Pageant, Frank Lascelles. He had also staged the Quebec Pageant in 1908, which had been filmed by Gaumont.

They took advice from the Arch­bishop of Canterbury, Randall David­son; the Provost of King’s, Cam­bridge, M. R. James, a medieval­ist; and the antiquary William St John Hope. The ecclesiologically minded Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, Percy Dearmer; C. R. Peers, an­other antiquary; the artist C. O. Skilbeck; and Hope formed the prelim­inary committee. When a move to London was proposed, Winnington-Ingram made his offer of Fulham Palace as the venue.

On 13 November, the Church Times reported that, Marshall pre­siding, the executive committee had met at its office in 116 Victoria Street, London. At this stage, 20 scenes were planned, from Augus­tine’s arrival to a “Scene from the life of John Wesley”.

Hugh Allen, organist of New College, Oxford, and director of the Bach Choir, took on the music, assisted by William Barclay Squire and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had recently edited the music for Dear­mer’s The English Hymnal. The beautifully printed Pageant Book suggests that the quest for musical authenticity was as serious as the efforts taken over the costumes. Francis Shaw conducted.

Skilbeck took charge of the costume design. In January 1909, Marshall announced that at least 6000 costumes would be needed for the 4000 per­form­ers. Large premises were taken at 903 Fulham Road for this work. Ecclesiastical costumes were put under the direction of Miss Homan, of Dear­mer’s St Dunstan Society. Her­aldry was entrusted to E. E. Dorling, FSA, who designed a poster with the motto “Onward Ever”.

IN APRIL, J. H. Westyr-Evans of Penarth wrote to the Church Times that to open the scenes with Aug­ustine would not help the cause of the Established Church in Wales. “The importance and necessity of making it clear to the world that we had a fully organized Church in this country before St Augustine’s arrival is obvious to all earnest Churchmen who are op­posed to Disestablishment and Disen­dowment of four Dioceses, and who wish to maintain the Church intact.”

The Pageant committee seem already to have thought of this. They had introduced a new opening scene, the publication in Britain of the edict of Constantine in 313, added a scene about the Alleluia Victory, and dropped the Wesley scene.

H. F. B. Mackay, Vicar of All Saints’, Margaret Street, in London — a parish responsible for one of the other scenes — criticised this last decision in his parish paper. Was there no place, he asked (in a sly reference to the early Ritualists as much as to the Methodists), for “a movement of the Holy Ghost within the Church of England which the authorities failed to recognize”?

In the end, both John and Charles Wesley were included in the Epilogue, as were other prominent 18th- and 19th-century churchmen — with a picturesque group of Methodist farmers, Cornish miners, artisans, and citizens.

The Roman Catholic press, as was to be expected, poured ridicule on a project that was an affront to its own hierarchy’s claims.

“In the Catholic Times, a Mon­signore, with the fine old English name of Grosch, is making fun of the whole thing,” the Church Times com­mented; “but it all comes round to one point — namely, the question-begging contention that the Ecclesia Anglicana of today is not Catholic because the Pope’s supremacy is not acknowledged within the Provinces of Canterbury and York, for all the world as though the great Church of the East, that ancient part of Christendom, were not also in the same category.”

HISTORICAL LECTURES were held in Westminster, and Dearmer went to speak in St Albans Town Hall. Skilbeck later re­called: “P. D. was a perfect encyclo­pedia on all matters ecclesiastical and of historical accuracy. He threw himself whole-heartedly into the great scheme and his spirit kept us all hopeful, even in the dark hours of depression which always happen in such big undertakings.”

In May, the press had their first look around at Fulham Palace. The roofed spectators’ stand was said to be the largest ever erected for a similar purpose: it seated 6500, and had cost £7000. There was “the skeleton of the ancient British church discovered at Silchester” to see; and a sample of the costumes was paraded before them.

The Church Times, sympathetic to the cause, repeatedly reported that tickets were selling fast. It reassured readers that the stand was safe, and that its rake would enable spectators to see over ladies’ hats.

With three weeks to go, the execu­tive committee and Lascelles parted company. The reason why was not reported. Perhaps he was thought to be devoting too much time to managing the Bath Pageant, held that summer. He went on to greater things: 300,000 took part in the Coronation Durbar he organised in Delhi in 1912.

Hugh Moss, the Romsey Pageant-Master, took over. Rehearsals held “after business hours” continued in the dark under searchlights. A “special artist” for The Illustrated London News showed the Magna Carta barons, in bowler hats and boaters, practising their poses with canes and umbrellas.

The Church Times attended the dress rehearsals, and saw, among other things, the rows of horses who were taking part in the production, as well as the bullocks brought in (for the Miracle Play) from a part of the country where they were still used for ploughing.

In defiance of a telegram from the Protestant agitator J. A. Kensit, Bishop Winnington-Ingram celebrated the inaugural eucharist at the Anglo-Catholic St Etheldreda’s, Fulham; the press were entertained to lunch; and performances began on 10 June — in disappointing weather.

Part I was staged in the afternoons until 16 June between 3 and 6 p.m.; Part II in the evenings, ending before 11 p.m. After the main run, four cheaper evening performances were held for people from the London, St Albans, and Southwark dioceses who could not afford the full price: they had to apply through their incumbent.

The Church Times’s coverage had been lengthy and positive; but the committee nevertheless decided to invite its reviewer back for a second attempt after the weather improved. Not everything had gone smoothly. The paper’s diarist, Canon Benham, another FSA, noted that on the day he saw the Pageant, Becket’s murder had been cut out — “and wisely, for I hear that it was so clumsily managed that the spectators laughed.”

Late in the planning, the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” had been inserted after the Prelude. This hymn, sung by all, became something memorable. It was already in The English Hymnal, but its author, Athelstan Riley, writing in a book published in 1915, dated its church career from the Pageant.

In the Epilogue, representatives of the Anglican Communion walked on from all sides, with the banners of their sees, while T. A. Lacey’s stirring hymn “O faith of England” was sung — another stately tune from the Hymnal, and a summons to defend “the faith received”.

Each scene had been allotted to a parish or deanery, mainly in London. Dearmer’s second wife, Nan, later wrote: “In the Prelude, S. George was played by Walter Marshall, S. David by James Adderley, S. Ninian by Jocelyn Perkins. In the Finale, G. K. Chesterton walked on as Dr Johnson and brought the house down at every performance. Mabel [Dearmer’s first wife] played Queen Bertha to C. O. Skilbeck’s King Ethelbert in the Hampstead Deanery scene [The Arrival of St Augustine]. . .

Punch gave . . . publicity in a cartoon depicting Bernard Shaw, with a copy of Blanco Posnet in his hand, saying to the Bishop of London, ‘I can’t get my religious play past the Censor.’ King Edward VII said to a very obviously bored Lord Beauchamp at Ascot, ‘You know you would much rather be at the Church Pageant than at Ascot!’”

Chesterton (still an Anglo-Catholic at this date) had refused to shave off his moustache before playing the part of Dr Johnson, the New York Times reported. In The Illustrated London News, he was shown in costume in an illustration for his regular column, “Our Notebook”, where he wrote: “My only objection to pageants is that they are made too expensive. The mass of the common people cannot afford to see a pageant, so they are obliged to put up with the inferior function of acting in it. I myself got in with the rabble in this way.”

Another behind-the-scenes paint­ing published by the magazine on 19 June showed the cloth-capped “Search­­light Men” on the grandstand roof late at night, lighting “The Acquittal of the Seven Bishops, 1688”.

While the Pageant was accounted an artistic success, it was not a financial one. In March 1910, letters in the press from Winnington-Ingram appealed for help in removing the Pageant deficit.

“It will be known to many that the English Church Pageant, held by my permission in the grounds of Fulham Palace, though brilliantly successful as a spectacle, was a financial failure,” he wrote.

Although he was “in no way respon­sible for the deficit”, he was anxious to see its debts paid off. He believed that a “very substantial sum” could be raised by an agreement that the com­mittee and its agents would receive a large commission on all tickets they could sell for the 1910 Army Pageant. Suc­cess would depend on the “indi­vid­ual efforts made by Churchmen”.

The Church Pageant had been a costly way of popularising a high-church interpretation of English church history: Louis Parker’s pageants cost between £5000 and £15,000, and this had been at least as ambitious. But historians were not yet in a position to vie to make TV series, and you could not shape popular perceptions for free.

The Pageant presented the National Church as central to England’s history and security, with an immemorial claim to legitimacy as both Catholic and reformed. In the background to this spectacle lay a raging political battle over denominational schools under a Liberal government biased towards the Free Churches and “undenominational” teaching.

Perhaps the Church Pageant is a timely reminder that historiography — least of all when it concerns the history of the Church of England — will not be neutral when it is seen as affecting decision-making about the present and the future.


Prelude — St George, St Alban, St Ninian, St David, St Patrick, St German, St Ia

Part I

Scene I — The Publication in Britain of the Edict of Constantine (The Deanery of Westminster)

Scene II — The Alleluia Victory, 430 (Members of the Welsh Church in London)

Scene III — The Foundation of Iona by St Columba, 563 (The Deanery of Wimbledon)

Scene IV — The Coming of St Augustine, 597 (The Deanery of Hampstead)

Scene V — Aidan and Oswald at Bamborough, c.635 (The Parish of St Mary Abbott, Kensington)

Scene VI — Dunstan and the Monks, 964 (The Parish of Holy Trinity, Chelsea)

Scene VII — The Sacring of King William, 1066 (The Parish of St Peter, Eaton Square)

Scene VIII — The Return and Murder of Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1170 (The Deanery of Willesden)

Scene IX — The Granting of the Great Charter, 1215 (Blackheath)

Scene X — A Miracle Play and Pilgrimage Scene, c.1350 (The Parish of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Finale — All the characters marshalled round St George and the Founder Saints

Part II

Scene I — John Wycliffe at St Paul’s, 1377 (The Deaneries of Hackney, Islington, and Stoke Newington)

Scene II — The Funeral Procession of King Henry V, 1422 (The City of London)

Scene III — The Refounding of King’s College, Cambridge, 1446 (The Parish of St Mary Magdalen, Munster Square)

Scene IV — The Suppression of a Monastery and the Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536 (The Parish of St Stephen, Gloucester Road)

Scene V — The Coronation Procession of King Edward VI, 1547, and a Sermon by Latimer (The Borough of Fulham)

Scene VI — The Consecration of Parker, 1559 (The Deanery of Lewisham)

Scene VII — Presentation of the Authorised Version of the Bible to James I, 1611 (The Deanery of Croydon)

Scene VIII — The Execution of Archbishop Laud, 1645 (The Parish of Clapham)

Scene IX — The Acquittal of the Seven Bishops, 1688 (The Parishes of Putney and Wandsworth)

Epilogue — Founders of SPCK, Dr Bray, Archbishop Tenison, Bishop Compton, Dr Willis, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, John Venn, Charles Simeon, Josiah Pratt, Charles Grant, Bishop Butler, Bishop Berkeley, Bishop Wilson, William Law, Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, William Cowper, William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton

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