Staffordshire Women’s Institute Pageant
- Episodes in the History of Staffordshire
Organized by the Staffordshire County Branches of the Women’s Institute
Place: Alton Towers (Alton) (Alton, Hampshire, England)
Number of performances: 1
23 June 1928, 2.30pm
Plus a dress rehearsal.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Davies, Howell
- Written by: Miss H.L.E. Garbett and Sir Reginald Hardy
- Musical Direction Reginald Hardy
- Costumes and Colour Scheme: Mrs Nesfield Cookson
Mr Howell Davies was associated with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- President: Sir Reginald Hardy
- Vice-Presidents: The Countess of Lichfield and Dorothy Meynell
- Chairman: Miss R.M. Harrison
- Vice-Chairman: Mrs B.L. Shaw
- Secretary: Miss M.B. Strachan
As well as a number of high-ranking clergy, there are a number of naval officers among the executive committee.
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Garbett, Miss H.L.E.
- Hardy, Sir Reginald
Names of composers
Numbers of performers1500
Object of any funds raised
In aid of the county’s Women’s Institutes.
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 6000
There were various different reports. The Lichfield Mercury, 29 June, 9, gave a figure of 3–4000; the Tamworth Herald, 30 June 1928, 7, reported 6000, and Home and Country, September 1928, 433, gave 8000. A figure of 6-7000 is most likely.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
10s. 6d.–1s. 6d.
Reserved Seats: 10s. 6d. and 5s. Unreserved seats: 2s. 6d. Standing: 2s.
Special standing room tickets booked through WI secretaries: 1s. 6d.
Children in standing room: half price.2
Episode I. Roman Legions Withdrawn From the Wall, c. AD 410
‘Cleverly presented by a group of Institutes including Great Barr, Great Wyrley, Little Aston, Shenstone, Wall, and Stonnall’.3
Episode II. St Chad and the Mercians, c.750
By Ashton-by-Stone, Caverswall, Norton Green, Oulton and Swynnerton WIs. The ‘period when St Chad was engaged in converting the Mercians’.
Episode III. The Farewell to the Staffs Crusaders, AD 1190
[250 performers.] Berswick, Colwich, Great Haywood, Gnosall, Church Eaton, Eccleshall, Ellenhall, Haughton, Moreton, and High Offley WIs. ‘This scene showed how the Norman nobles and their followers set out on their great venture across the seas to rescue the Holy City of Jerusalem’.
Episode IV. A Tournament Held by Edward II, c. 1300
Alton Cauldon, Lowe, Denstone, Ellastone, Ipstones, Kingsley, Mayfield, Oakamoor, Stanton, Werrington, and Meerbrook WIs.
Episode V. John of Gaunt at Tutbury, 1373
‘One of the most animated and popular scenes’—the founding of the Minstrels’ court at Tutbury, 1373, ‘when John of Gaunt took his bride, Constance of Castile, to Tutbury Castle. The group responsible for its presentation comprised Uttoxeter, Stramshall, Leigh, Tean, Stowe-by-Chartley, Croxden-with-Hollington, Woodlands, Rocester, and Kingstone WIs. The masque was a delightful feature of the episode.
Episode VI. Dissilution of Blackladies Nunnery, 1538
‘A well-ordered scene, depicting the dissolution of Blackladies Nunnery’ by Brewood, Coven, Bishops Wood, Weston-under-Lizard, Penkridge, and Wheaton Asthon WIs.
Episode VII. Queen Elizabeth’s Visit to Stafford, 1575
‘A spectacular scene which followed history very closely’. Elizabeth’s visit to Stafford in 1575. ‘Attired in magnificent costumes, the Queen and her attendants made a dignified entrance into the arena, where they were received by the two bailiffs and members of the Corporation. The Queen notes the poverty of the town, and promises to assist it to regain prosperity.’ Stafford Town assisted by Hamstall Ridware, Dunstone, Acton, and Bednall WIs.
Episode VIII. Mary Queen of Scots at Burton Bridge, 1586
On her Way to Fotheringay. Barton and Dunstall, Yoxall, Hoar Cross and Alrewas WIs.
Episode IX. Royal Oak at Boscobel, 1651
Codsall, Burnhill Green, Wombourne and Pattingham WIs.
Episode X. Dr Johnson at Lichfield, 1776
Longdon, Lichfield, Whittington, Fazeley, Hints, Drayton, Bassett and Burntwood WIs.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Edward II [Edward of Caernarfon] (1284–1327) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
- John [John of Gaunt] duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399) prince and steward of England
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
- Mary [Mary Stewart] (1542–1587) queen of Scots
- Charles II (1630–1685) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784) author and lexicographer
Newspaper coverage of pageantStaffordshire Advertiser
Home and County
Derby Daily Telegraph
Book of words
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
- Scott, Peter. A History of the Alton Towers Railway. NP: 1998. At 12.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Staffordshire Federation of Women's Institutes, 20th cent: Records of former WI branches in Staffs. Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service. Refs D4655, D5255, D5792.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
Women’s Institute pageants were highly popular during the 1920s and early 1930s, and county pageants were also greatly successful: The following pageants were held:
- Norfolk (1926)
- Oxfordshire (1926)
- Berkshire (1928)
- Staffordshire (1928)
- Dorstet (1928)
- Warwickshire (1930),
- Northamptonshire (1930)
- Hampshire (1930)
- Northamptonshire (1948)
- Oxfordshire (1951)
- Monmouthshire (1951)
The WI already possessed many of the organisational skills which made for successful pageantry, on top of proficiency in costume-making and catering. The pageant took a great amount of time to orchestrate and was the main WI pageant of the summer. It involved almost all Staffordshire Women’s Institute branches, though a small number, such as the village of Wall, declined to participate due to the cost and number of players requested.4 The pageant was written by Sir Reginald Hardy of Dunstall Park, former Sheriff of Staffordshire, and Miss H.L.E. Garbett, a librarian at the William Salt Library, Stafford, who was a local historian and contributor to Victoria County History.5
The Tamworth Herald saw the pageant not as something specifically new but as a revival of a much earlier Victorian tradition, combined with a new spirit of cooperation among women which animated the Women’s Institute: ‘Fifty years ago such a scheme would have been unthinkable. Not only did the spirit of pageantry seem dead, but the organisation of women gathered from all sides of the country would have been out of the question’.6 The newspaper went on to compare it to the Pageant of Tamworth Castle (1913), and previous pageants at Stafford for the millennium in 1913 and at Eccleshall the previous year, though it suggested this pageant was likely to eclipse the others: ‘We congratulate the Women’s Institute on the vision which has made such an undertaking possible’.7 The Herald went on to suggest its own vision of what made an effective pageant consisted: ‘Music, dancing, colour; the swift movement of crowds intent on one thing; the memory of a thousand years of Staffordshire history; all these should unite to make this pageant a thing of real and living beauty and a very fine demonstration of what can be done by the organised effort of the women of the country.’8
The pageant was, by all measures, a success, with Home and County calling it ‘the great event in the County’ of the summer. The journal suggested that on top of the pageantry and spectacle, and the obviously excellent day out in the grounds of Alton Towers, the pageant possessed immense historical merit, and that ‘the Past lived again in movement, in speech and in lovely colour’ arousing interest in local history. It added: ‘Nearly everything in the pageant was the work of local artists under the direction of local designers and historians. The accuracy of the costumes and heraldic devices was a lesson in thoroughness. Nobody can have seen the pageant without learning something and most have learnt a great deal.’9
Alton Towers had formerly been the Seat of the Earl of Shrewsbury, but had been sold in 1924 to a group of local businessmen, who opened it as a pleasure garden (the grounds did not take off as a theme park until the 1970s). The Staffordshire Women’s Institute Pageant was thus one of the largest events to be held there in the resort’s early days.
One of the key logistical problems faced by the pageant concerned transport to and from the event. Although Alton Towers is close to a number of large urban areas in Lancashire, Staffordshire, and the West Midlands, it is actually in a fairly remote, rural area, just south of the Peak District, mid-way between Stoke-on-Trent and Derby and at least 15–20 miles from either. Consequently, a number of train companies, particularly the London Midland and Scottish Railways, put on a reduced-fare train service, available to those customers who booked in advance. A service from Derby left at the comparatively late time of 2.20pm, presumably not reaching the Pageant until after the performance had begun, and returning at 4.37pm, 7.23pm or 9.40pm for the considerable sum of 3s. 5d.10 In fact, this was a continuation of the regular weekend service from Derby that ran through the summer months.11 The Lichfield Mercury offered a service leaving at 8.57am for 4s. 3d., alongside its more regular seaside excursion fares to Rhyl, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, and Blackpool.12 Reduced fares were offered from Birmingham, Tamworth, Burton-on-Trent, Wolverhampton, Stafford, and a number of other towns and cities. As many of the performers also had to travel to the pageant, either by rail or hired coach, there was a significant operation in getting people to Alton Towers. A local Mothers’ Meeting from Mavesyn Ridware went to the pageant, and, despite the extremely early start, it ‘was such a glorious day that no one could help but enjoy themselves after looking forward to it for such a long time.’ Unfortunately for them, they had booked an evening tea before leaving to take the train home and as a consequence had to leave before the end of the pageant.13
The structure of the pageant was similar to other WI County Pageants, which foregrounded important scenes from the history of the county, as well as female contributions to that history. One newspaper noted: ‘The object of the pageant was to show how in successive ages England was built up by different races and civilisations, and the effect of various influences.’14 As the Derby Daily Telegraph commented: ‘The main object is to show how in successive ages England was built up by different races, civilisations and influences, and running through the fabric of the story like a golden thread will be a delineation of the part women have played in moulding the character and manliness of the nation.’ The article criticized Derbyshire’s Women’s Institutes for having ‘never risen to such a height.’15
The pageant consisted of ten scenes covering 1300 years of Staffordshire history. The story told involved numerous visits of Kings and Queens to Staffordshire, including the portrayal of a Tournament held by Edward II at which he chose a local townsperson, Alice, as the Queen of Beauty, and an incident when John of Gaunt visited Tutbury Castle, founding an annual feast. Further scenes involved Queen Elizabeth I and her court visiting the then-impoverished town of Stafford and promising to restore its prosperity; Mary Queen of Scots lamenting her fate at Burton Bridge, on the way to her doom; the famous scene where, following the Battle of Worcester in 1651, a defeated Charles II fled and hid from Parliamentary soldiers at Boscobel House; and a final scene depicting Samuel Johnson. Dr Johnson was a famous son of Lichfield, where he spent a number of unhappy years teaching local schoolchildren. Though the scene was set in 1776, Johnson had left the town a number of years previously and was only an intermittent visitor. James Boswell, who reported on Johnson’s visit in that year, mentioned how Johnson had a prologue performed for him by a Mr Stanton, who had known the famous actor David Garrick (also a son of Lichfield).16 Surprisingly, the pageant made no reference to the subsequent history of Staffordshire, including the exploits of Josiah Wedgwood and how the area became famous for pottery, who featured prominently in the Stoke Pageant of 1930, to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth.
- ‘Episodes from Staffordshire History, Tamworth Herald, 9 June 1928, 1.
- Tamworth Herald, 9 June 1928, 1.
- Scenes taken from Staffordshire Herald, 30 June 1928, 7.
- Home and Country, June 1928, 279; ‘Drama in the Counties,’ August 1928, 371.
- ‘Wall Women’s Institute’, Lichfield Mercury, 10 February 1928, 6.
- ‘Grand Pageant at Alton Towers’, Tamworth Herald, 16 June 1928, 5.
- ‘Staffordshire Federation’, Home and Country, September 1928, 433.
- Derby Daily Telegraph, 20 June 1928, 4.
- Derby Daily Telegraph, 2 June 1928, 4.
- Lichfield Mercury, 22 June 1928, 4.
- ‘Mothers’ Meeting Outing’, Lichfield Mercury, 29 June 1928, 9.
- ‘Pageant at Alton Towers’, 30 June 1928, 7. As the same copy appeared in the Lichfield Mercury, 29 June 1928, 9, it is reasonable to suggest that the pageant organizers may have written it.
- ‘Gossip of the Day’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 25 June 1928, 4.
- James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, Volume 6, (London, 1835), 97–99.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Staffordshire Women’s Institute Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1204/