Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant
Place: Civic Hall (Wolverhampton) (Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England)
Number of performances: 14
22 May–5 June 1948
[Performances were held in the evening. Plus 8 dress rehearsals of partial cast.]
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Peach, Lawrence Du Garde
- Producer: T. Heath Joyce
- Costumes Designed by: ‘Physhe’
- Scenery Designed and Made by: Messrs Watts and Corry of Manchester
- Lighting: Strand Electrics, Manchester
- Crowd Costumes: Supplied by F.A. Smith and Sons
- Secretary: Marion Beasley
- Business Manager: E. Wisker
- Crowd Controller: D. Stone
- Stage Manager: Denis Mulliner
- Electrician: Gilbert Gladstone
- Property Master: N.R. Rogers
- Wardrobe and Costumes: Councillors Mrs A.A. Braybrook, Mrs R.F. Ilsley, Mrs C.B.V. Taylor, Mrs D. Forster
- Marshall Supervisors: T.W. Hirst, Mrs Hirst
- Make-up Supervisors: Reginal Slater
- Country Dancing Arranged by: Dorothy May
- Ballet Arranged by: Vera Hildreth
- Stop-Caution-Go [Scene XI] Arranged by: Jack Griffiths
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman: Alderman J. Clark, JP
- Aldermen: His Worship the Mayor (Alderman H.E. Lane), A. Gould, W. Lawley
- Councillors: H. Bowdler, C.H. Davies, H.T. Fullwood, A.C. Goodman, Mrs R.F. Ilsley, Mrs A.A. Braybrook, JP, J. Beattie
- Co-opted Members: E. Benton, Esq, E.L. Cotterell, Esq., Basil Thomas Esq., W.T.D. Morgan, Esq.
- Town Clerk: J. Brock Allon, BA
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Peach, Lawrence Du Garde
Names of composers
- Young, Percy M.
Numbers of performers500
Object of any funds raised
Centenary of the granting of the Borough of Wolverhampton in 1848.
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 15000
Audience capacity of 2125 seated. Newspaper reports from early performances suggest many empty seats.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
No precise information, but a number of people complained about the cost.
Associated eventsEvents included Centenary Luncheon at Civic Hall (20 May 1948).
The Heralds bid you honour those who founded your town. The great banners arrive.
Scene I. The Lady Wulfruna, 950AD
King Ethelred gives Lady Wulfruna the land where Wolverhampton stands today. The Deed of Gift is signed.
Scene II. The Norman Age, 1066AD
A gay folk-dance in a Saxon market-place is interrupted by the news that William of Normandy has landed in England. A Saxon Thegn summons his men and they march to war. The body of the Thegn is brought back, placed on a funeral pyre, and the Miserere swells as the flames rise. The Normans come and seize a Saxon who believes he is arrested for sheep stealing; but it is only the forming of the Doomsday Book.
Scene III. The Norman Church, 1100AD
An Archbishop blesses the new church that has risen on the ashes of the old. Amid swinging censers, chanting monks climb towards a glowing stained-glass window.
Scene IV. The Country Fair, 1350AD
Strolling-players are being barracked by a hilarious crowd, when news comes that the right to hold a fair has been granted. Squeakers and drums herald the arrival of the Fair. A maypole dance follows, accompanied by singing.
Scene V. The Wars of the Roses
Nobles of the Houses of York and Lancaster pluck the white and red roses; the opposing banners sweep on in a Ballet.
Scene VI. Wool, 1550AD
Women spinners sing as the wheels turn. Threads of wool from each bring on national groups with wines, silks, scented woods and wrought gold in return for England’s wool.
Scene VII. The Locksmith, 1600AD
A Shepherd bewails the passing of the flocks, but a miner heralds the age of iron. Symbolic locksmiths sing of their craft.
Scene VIII. The Bells, 1640AD
An old sexton introduces tobacco to the bearers of a plague victim and is nearly arrested for witchcraft. A Ballet of the Plague follows.
Scene IX. The Civil War, 1642AD
Cavalier and Puritan songs are drowned in the thunder of guns as Cromwell’s Ironsides seize the town; the defeated King passes through. The bells are dumb until, with the restoration of Charles II and the establishment of people’s rights, they ring triumphantly. The great banners come down.
Interval of 10 minutes
The Heralds proclaim the passing of a hundred years: George III is king. The great banners rise.
Scene X. The Market, 1770AD
Respectable townsmen thrust their way through a riotous market to the Talbot Inn where, with pipes and ale, they form the first Town Commission. Their discussion of the town’s water supply ends with a song, ‘Water Is Not Everybody’s Beverage’.
Scene XI. The Police
An old night-watchman, assaulted by young bloods, is relieved by the ‘Peeler’ of 1837 who sings of his duties; there follow ‘PC 1860’, ‘PC 1900’, and ‘Policewoman 1947’. She is relieved by a Robot. ‘Stop!—Caution!—Go!’ says the Robot. Young ‘spivs’ with their girl-friends, in luminous costumes, dance among the red, amber, and green.
Scene XII. Wars
Under the threat of Napoleon, Staffordshire men march on to ‘Come Lasses and Lads,’ cheered by the girls. Regimental honours bring the Boer War Guards to the stage; 1914 Tommies sing their songs; last come the volunteers of 1939. The massed stage sings ‘A Song of England.’
Scene XIII. The Lamplighter, 1820AD
The first gas lamps gleam on crinolines and top hats, as the people wonder at the new invention. The Lamplighter, bombarded with questions, sings of his profession.
Scene XIV. The Birth of a Borough, 1841AD
Decrepit Town Commissioners are thrown out by disgusted townspeople; a new body is elected to ask the Queen for a Charter of Incorporation.
Scene XV. Charter Ball, 1848AD
The Queen’s Messenger brings the Charter to the first Mayor at a brilliant ball; the revellers swing away in a polka.
Scene XVI. The Bailiff, 1855AD
The bailiffs are in the Town Hall. They commandeer the policemen’s tunics, the firemen’s engine, and the Mayor’s robes, until the townspeople pay for their water scheme, and the bailiffs are run out.
Scene XVII. Queen Victoria, 1861AD
Troops enter, amid cheering crowds; the bands play as Queen Victoria comes with her suite to unveil the statue of Prince Albert; a ballet is danced under fairy-lights.
Scene XVIII. Finale
The Heralds proclaim the great industries of Wolverhampton. One by one splendid symbolic groups enter until, ringed by townspeople past and present, all turn to where Lady Wulfruna is seen. She speaks of her pride in the town and of her humble gratitude before God. The massed stage sings the ‘Song of Wolverhampton.’ The great banners come down.
God Save the King
Key historical figures mentioned
- Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c.966x8–1016) king of England
- Charles I (1600–1649) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Brereton, Sir William, first baronet (1604–1661) parliamentarian army officer
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- Victoria (1819–1901) queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India
- Stanley, Edward George Geoffrey Smith, fourteenth earl of Derby (1799–1869) prime minister
- Percy M. Young composed the bulk of the music for the pageant. A.P. Herbert and Alfred Reynods ‘Sing a Song of England’ was a notable includion.
- Organist: Arnold Richardson.
- 22-piece orchestra and a Brass Band of the late 22nd Battalion (Wolverhampton) Staffordshire Home Guards.
- The production featured some 8000 bars of music specially composed or arranged for the pageant; theatrical choruses, ballet, waltzes, polkas and one ‘hot number’. Final canonical chorus with bells.
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Wolverhampton Express and Star
Book of words
- Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant Souvenir Programme. Wolverhampton, 1948.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
Wolverhampton City Archives: Copy of the Souvenir Programme; Annotated cuttings, photographs and script; Scrapbook of Clement Jones, editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
Press reviews of pageants, especially those in the local press, tend to be exuberant and lavish in their praise and can make one wonder whether the pageant really lived up to the approbation heaped upon it, or whether a conspiracy of organisers, newspaper editors and local worthies conspired to impel townspeople to sit through three or four hours of lukewarm amateur dramatics in the name of civic pride. The Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant of 1948 is an instance of a pageant falling victim to a hostile press and public who criticised the event’s musical production and its somewhat questionable humour. The pageant, masterminded by Lawrence Du Garde Peach, also demonstrates that civic pride could be an enemy of the pageant master who paid insufficient attention to the unique aspects of a town’s history. The Dudley in Scene IV was wrongly ascribed as being a ‘Baron’ when the title was only conferred a century later. More worrying still, the first scene, where King Ethelred gives Lady Wulfruna the land to found an Abbey was wrongly dated to around 950AD whilst it actually took place in 985AD, before the protagonists were born and meaning that Wolverhampton had fallen thirty-seven years short of a millennium of history! Lawrence Du Garde Peach’s habit of playing fast and loose with the historical record of Wolverhampton proved unpopular with a number of locals.
As the Mayor, Alderman H.E. Lane, put it in the souvenir programme’s introduction, a pageant was ‘the ideal medium for depicting Wolverhampton’s colourful history throughout the ages’ and for celebrating a memorable milestone in a town’s history.1 Though Wolverhampton had only been incorporated as a borough in 1848, this was decidedly belated. By 1851, Wolverhampton was a thriving industrial centre in the Midlands with a population of 49,985.2 It was a major ironworking centre, being the foremost producer of locks in the country, as well as a significant regional player in banking and brewing. The pageant also (mistakenly) celebrated the millennium of the town’s settlement by Lady Wulfruna, in the tenth century: an ornately carved stone column from the original Anglo-Saxon church stands beside the Parish Church.
However, rather than an open-air pageant, it was decided that Wulfrunians would prefer a more theatrical performance benefiting from the advantages a stage would provide. As the Chairman, Alderman J. Clark, wrote in the preface to the Souvenir Programme: ‘This is something different—pageantry with “theatre-appeal” and enriched by the aids and artifices of modern stage production. Yet theatrical licence has not altered the authenticity of the episodes or taken any liberties with correct costuming.’3 It was ‘The sincere wish of my Committee…that this pageant, while providing the “Show of the Century”, will also develop and stimulate in all Wulfrunians, and particularly in the younger generation, a sense of Civic Pride.’4 The pageant would not merely demonstrate Wolverhampton’s wealth of history to its inhabitants but would also throw down a challenge to rival towns and cities in the West Midlands, such as Birmingham, Dudley, and Telford. To achieve this, the services of Du Garde Peach were employed. Unfortunately, Peach was heavily engaged with the Sheffield Pageant of Production, which took up a great deal of his time and concentration the preceding months and led to criticisms that he had given insufficient attention and effort to Wolverhampton's Pageant. The large cast undertook numerous rehearsals, leading one correspondent to the local newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, to estimate that some 120000 hours of work had been put into the event (though 50000 of these were in the actual performances).5
The pageant itself told the story of Wolverhampton over a thousand years in eighteen episodes, through the Norman Conquest, the Wars of the Roses, Wolverhampton’s rise and fall as a centre of wool production, and the Civil War. The second half began with a market scene from 1770 (referencing the town’s poor water supply as an explanation of the pre-eminent place of beer and brewing in the song ‘Water Is Not Everybody’s Beverage’). Despite several scenes recounting the town’s history, its founding as a borough, its bankruptcy, and Queen Victoria’s visit, the second half also took a more thematic approach, looking at the police, the army, and also portraying a Victorian street scene, which many commentators believed was too general to represent Wolverhampton. The episode with the depiction of police, in particular, was highly unusual, even strange, ending with the figure of the ‘Policewoman 1947’ being relieved by a robot officer of the future, who then engaged in a dance number entitled ‘Stop!—Caution!—Go!’ The scene also included ‘spivs’ and their girl-friends, in luminous costumes, dancing beneath traffic lights.
The post-war austerity years are often associated with dull greyness and an obsession with utility. Yet the levity and garishness of the performance as a whole seems to have been far from welcome, with the main reviewer of the pageant declaring that ‘‘It was a rather gaudy night throughout, for though colour had been used lavishly, it had been done without discrimination. The effect was kaleidoscopic and haphazard, rather than massed and purposeful. A few hours afterwards, I was unable to recall clearly the grouping of colours of any particular tableau.’6 Even before the reviews came in, it was clear that the pageant was far from the sell-out success intended. One irate member of the Pageant Committee, who tellingly signed himself ‘LUX’, or light, wrote of ‘Long rows and blocks of empty seats’: ‘I am appalled by the lack of interest shown by the citizens of Wolverhampton in their centenary pageant…We ask for no reward but the sight of a full house each night. Let it not be said that such a magnificent show failed because of the mental lassitude of the people who are unable to produce the effort needed to appreciate something out of the ordinary that will not be seen again. Show the rest of the towns and cities of England that you are proud of the achievements of Wolverhampton and in doing so have three hours enjoyment of a lovely show for yourselves.’7 The somewhat odd suggestion that it was the townspeople’s duty to make the pageant a success through attendance was echoed in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, which expressed the hope that ‘all loyal citizens of our borough will make an effort to see it. They may, like me, find fault, but at least they should honour this great birthday by attending and considering their judgment.’8 Another correspondent, ‘Twice Bitten’, suggested that the pageant commenced too late and went on far too long, meaning that residents of outlying towns and villages were unable to catch buses home.
The reviews from larger papers were encouraging, if hardly ecstatic. The Birmingham Post was non-committal and lukewarm, noting that the pageant ‘is amply and handsomely staged and splendidly dressed’, whilst saying little about the performance itself.9 The Observer warmed to the geniality of the production: ‘Mr Peach’s dialogue catches the formal accents of authority and the Black Country dialect. Humour is not wanting in speech or situation’; it also warmed to the town’s ability to laugh at itself during a scene in which bailiffs proceeded to strip the policemen, firemen and mayor of their property (and clothes), until the townspeople belatedly agreed to pay for an already-promised waterworks.10
Such sentiments were not echoed by Clement Jones, the Theatre and Arts editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star. One of the great provincial journalists of the era, Jones objected on a deep level to the shallow, Hollywood-inspired nature of the pageant, expressing ‘grave doubts about its artistic value’. He noted that ‘The performance was pleasant in a vague, muzzy sort of way, but nowhere did it catch the breath. Nowhere did it show any real spirit so that one could say with pride “Look! Here is Wolverhampton and no other town; here is where we challenge the world.”’11 The performance lacked the spirit of the town: ‘Most of the dialogue was banal and trite; the situations were hackneyed. The pageant could apply to any undistinguished old town anywhere. A stranger who, by chance, wandered into the Civic Hall on Saturday would have left at the end of the three hours little the wiser about Wolverhampton’s real history.’12 In particular, Jones objected to the humour of many of the scenes, which he labelled as mere ‘burlesque’. In particular, he felt that the bailiff episode praised by the Observer demeaned the town. It smacked, he wrote, of ‘fifth-rate touring music hall stuff. Neither the actual event, nor the way of recalling it, adds any lustre to Wolverhampton’s centenary celebrations.’13 It was only the performers, whose solid performances added backbone to a terrible script and conception, who rescued the pageant and approached ‘essential, inspiring, individual and true Wolverhampton.’14
Jones’s review prefigured the criticisms that a hostile right-wing press would make of the Festival of Britain a couple of years later. It is worth noting that the Mayor, Herbert Lane, and almost the entirety of the council were Labour, while Jones’s Wolverhampton Express and Star was overtly Conservative-leaning.15 Jones, who became the editor of the Express and Star, would be a close friend of the town's MP, Enoch Powell, memorably breaking with him over the controversial 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. The expense of the pageant, and its lukewarm socialistic communal message, made it an obvious target of a right-wing press.
In the wake of the pageant performances, the Express and Star printed a number of letters by locals, who had either seen or been involved in the pageant itself. Some of these expressed views at variance with those taken by the paper and its journalists. P. Thomas, for example, wrote in to say that ‘I consider Saturday’s performance went without a hitch and I have heard scores of people comment favourably on the gorgeous colours and setting…I realise that critics should give what they consider a correct report, but I hope his [i.e. Clement Jones’s] personal opinion (so opposite to most others) will not prejudice the attendance at future performances.’16 The sense that Jones and other critics were ungrateful and that the pageant was in fact worthy – and worthy merely though its existence – was palpable in much of the newspaper correspondence, though a certain David Leaf suggested that an ‘American-style’ march through the town may have been a better idea. Ashley Milner reflected the wider consensus in a more balanced assessment: ‘If the ballet of the plague did not make him catch his breath, he must be harder-boiled than I. But even here, as elsewhere, the author’s fetish for comic relief was ruinous, and the incident of the smoke-sick clown, who throws himself on the litter of a plague victim, should be cut out.’17
It was for the rival Wolverhampton Chronicle to pass final judgment, saving its review until 28 May. Whilst noting that the pageant was ‘probably the finest spectacle ever seen on a local stage’, the reviewer did little to hide their distaste at the pageant’ shortcomings:
Few will claim, however, that the pageant tells the full story of Wolverhampton’s progress from penury to riches. Many aspects of local development during the last 100 years have been sacrificed for events which occurred long before the town was granted its charter of incorporation and which did little or nothing to sway the course of Wolverhampton’s history…With all respect to the author of the script, it is probable that a deeper insight into the history of the town could have been given if local historians…had been asked to assist.18
In an outpouring of civic pride, the reviewer went on to list a number of historical figures from Wolverhampton’s history who ‘should have been mentioned’, including Admiral Richard Leveson (who repelled the Armada); Charles I, who visited with his sons during the Civil War; Charles II, who hid at Mosely Old Hall after the Battle of Worcester; Jonathan Wild, a bow street runner and native of the tow; Rowland Hill, penny-post pioneer; Dr T.S. Simkiss, radical exponent of Parliamentary reform; Charles Pelham Villiers, an early supporter of Corn Law repeal; Henry Hartley Fowler, the Liberal politician; and Glaisher and Coxwell, the balloonists.19 The reviewer continued:
Several [episodes] could be cut, particularly those of general historical value…Dr L du Garde Peach’s script did not impress me. The writing was not, in my opinion, on the highest level, and many incidents in the history of Wolverhampton were neglected...though du Garde Peach had given us a fairly comprehensive panorama of the vicissitudes through which most English towns have passed, it was all too general. I would like to have known more about the people, the outstanding individuals who helped to build our town. A pageant is essentially a spectacle, but when a stage is the setting and when the history of that town is limited, attention should be paid to its greatest citizens.20
The boot was firmly put in by the Express and Star’s music critic, who called the music ‘patchy’, ‘uninspired’ and ‘dreary and pedestrian’, though at the same time acknowledged that ‘a pageant about an industrial town is hardly likely to produce inspired music.’21
Civic pride was therefore greatly in evidence at this largely unsuccessful pageant. Du Garde Peach was too metropolitan and too left-wing and, most of all, too much of an impresario for local tastes. Whether or not the local press had an ideological axe to grind against the Town Council, the Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant should confirm to historians the pre-eminent power the local press held as a source of information before the modern era. Frankly, as was clear, Du Garde Peach had not put enough effort into understanding Wolverhampton’s unique history, a fact which rankled with a young town, possessed of a keen sense of civic pride and easily offended by disrespect or jokes at the town’s expense, as in the scene with the bailiffs. The general contours of the history of the town that were presented, however brightly packaged, were incompatible with the town’s sense of itself. Similar criticisms were made of Peach's pageant in Nottingham the following year, which provoked protests from local Communists.
- Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant Souvenir Programme (Wolverhampton, 1948), 2.
- Information taken from, accessed 4 January 2016, http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/STS/Wolverhampton/.
- Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant Souvenir Programme, 3.
- Correspondence in the Express and Star, 4 June 1948, in Cuttings, Script, etc. Relating to the 1948 Centenary Pageant, Wolverhampton Archives. DW-31/2.
- CJ, Wolverhampton Express and Star, 24 May 1948, copy in Scrapbook Three, Papers of Clement Jones, Wolverhampton City Archives. D-CJ/1/3.
- Lux, Correspondence, Express and Star, 25 May 1948, in Scrapbook Three.
- Wolverhampton Chronicle and Midland Counties Express, 28 May 1948, 6.
- Birmingham Post, 24 May 1948 in Scrapbook Three, Papers of Clement Jones, Wolverhampton City Archives. D-CJ/1/3.
- Observer, 30 May 1948, 2. See also Bev Parker, ‘A Clean Water Supply’, accessed 5 November 2015, http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/articles/waterworks/water.htm.
- Wolverhampton Express and Star, 24 May 1948 in Scrapbook Three, Papers of Clement Jones, Wolverhampton City Archives. D-CJ/1/3.
- ‘Herbert Edwin Lane’, Black Country History, accessed 5 November 2015, http://blackcountryhistory.org/collections/getrecord/GB149_DX-943/.
- P. Thomas, Correspondence, Wolverhampton Express and Star. 26 May 1948 in Scrapbook Three, Papers of Clement Jones, Wolverhampton City Archives. D-CJ/1/3.
- Ashley Milner, Correspondence, Wolverhampton Express and Star, 27 May 1948 in Scrapbook Three, Papers of Clement Jones, Wolverhampton City Archives. D-CJ/1/3.
- Wolverhampton Chronicle and Midland Counties Express, 28 May 1948, 6.
- Kenneth Bird, Express and Star, 25 May 1948, 3
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1244/