NINETY years ago, 1500 people joined in a pageant that told the story of one of the last monastic houses founded before the Reformation. This month, the tale was retold by a cast of four, with some audience participation.
The show, in 1927, at Mount Grace Priory, near Northallerton, Yorkshire, was the talk of its time. It was created by the playwright and author Florence, Lady Bell, as a golden-wedding present for her husband, the industrial magnate Sir Hugh Bell Bt.
It took two years to put on; cost the equivalent at today’s prices of almost £170,000; listed an MP, a vice-admiral, and members of the aristocracy in the cast; and attracted national press reviews. The costs overran its £2000 budget, and Lady Bell had to sell her collection of books and letters which had once belonged to Charles Dickens.
Sir Hugh’s father had bought the 14th-century Carthusian priory as a ruin, and restored its manor house as an Arts and Crafts gem. “Lady Bell wanted to tell the priory’s story in the form of a pageant,” said Simon Kirk, whose theatre company, Time Will Tell, staged the tribute An Affair of No Little Art — named after the review in the Manchester Guardian. “It crossed all sorts of classes. The Bells just wanted to being people together,” Mr Kirk said.
The opening scene of his tribute showed the Bell family drawing up plans for the pageant with a leading theatre director of the time, Edith Craig. The scene then moved forward to rehearsals, before finishing with a recreation of some of the pageant’s tableaux.
Among the original cast were Sir Hugh and Lady Bell’s two sons-in-law: Vice-Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, who played Chaucer; and the Labour Cabinet Minister Charles Trevelyan, the MP for Newcastle Central, who played Richard II. The Archdeacon of Cleveland, the Ven. Thomas Lindsay, also had a role, and there were parts for three of Lady Bell’s grandchildren: Nora, Hugh, and John.
Kathy Hipperson, who played Lady Bell in the tribute, said: “The story of the pageant spread through the area, and lots of people asked to be involved, increasing the original cast from 500 to 1500. It was a huge undertaking, with lots of local involvement from groups like the WI and schools. It ran for three days, and hundreds came to see it.”
A silent film of the pageant can be viewed here
Plowden (Lady Bridget) Archive, Newcastle University LibraryYoung thespians: Lady Bell’s grandchildren, Nora, Hugh, and John, being presented to Richard II, played by Charles Trevelyan MP, husband of Lady Bell’s younger daughter, Katherine