Festival of Britain Dartford Historical Pageant 1951
Place: Central Park (Dartford) (Dartford, Kent, England)
Number of performances: 8
25 August–1 September 1951, at 8pm
At least one of these performances was cancelled due to rain.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Devised and Directed by [Pageant Master]: Paine, Norman
- Associate Director: Miller Meason
- Musical Director: S.T. Ryder
- Episode I Producer: Arthur Simpson
- Episode II Producer: P.A. Smith
- Episode III Producer: Colin Dyer
- Episode IV and VII Producer: J. Cooper Harding
- Episode V and VI Producer: Alan Tiptaft
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman: Councillor F.H. Ager
- Deputy Chairman: Councillor Martin Mason
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Baines, Alfred
- Chalmers, W.P.C.
- Hyde, Stacey
- Lofts, George
- Mann, A. Montgomery
- Simpson, Arthur
- Smith, J. Patrick
- Tiptaft, Ala
Names of composers
Numbers of performers800
- Rent of school for rehearsal £7 6s
- Insurance £10
- Lighting £157 11s 4d
- Printing Programme £51 15s 0d
- Printing Tickets £10 9s
- P.A. Equipment £75 0 0
- Music £6 3s 5d
- Box Office and General Administration £49 6s 5d
- Publicity £64 6s 8d
- Stage and seating £223 7s 11d
- Fire Watching £3 15s 0d
- Scenery for Wat Tyler Episode £126 11d 0d
- Costumes and Insurance £711 18s 10d
- Wigs £58 8s 0d
- Make-up £30 0s 0d
- Timber £5 13s 3d
Total Expenditure: £1575 2s 0d
- Sale of Tickets and Programmes £355 8s 9d
- Donations £65 0s 0d
- Total Income £420 8s 9d
- Refund from Sponsors of Episodes £674 2s 4d
Total Deficit: £480 10s 11d
Object of any funds raised
Linked occasion1951 Festival of Britain
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: n/a
On Saturday and Wednesday the pageant had over-full attendance. Other performances were significantly less well-attended.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
The Prologue introduces us to the Smith Family: Mr and Mrs Smith and their two children, Judy and Geoffrey. Throughout the Pageant they, with their two American visitors, act as the Chorus; and their conversation as they picnic by the river will serve both as a connecting link between the Episodes and commentary on the action. The two children find a Roman coin in the river bed and ask their father about it. As he tells them of the times in which the coin was first used the stage is filled with strange figures—the Ancient Britons.
Episode I. The Roman Conquest – AD 43
The settlement of Casii on the banks of the Darent. Villagers are anxiously awaiting news from their men who have left to attempt to repel the invaders. Soon the wounded son of the chief appears with the news that the Britons have been defeated and he warns them to flee to the woods. Before they can do so the defeated tribesmen appear, pursued by the Romans. The village is surrounded and the Britons disarmed.
Five years later and the Romans and Britons are living peacefully together.
Episode II. May Day in the Middle Ages
The episode gives us a glimpse of the life of the townspeople at this time. We see them at work and at play, and witness a witch hunt which is denounced by the hermit. Pilgrims arrive and are invited by the Lord of the Manor to remain for the May Day celebrations. We see the crowning of the May Queen and join in the songs and dances which bring the ceremony to a close.
Episode III. Wat Tyler’s Rebellion – 1381
The killing of the tax collector and the arrival of men from other towns led by John Ball and rebels from Essex led by Jack Straw. Tyler is chosen as leader and the rebels, after a brush with the Hermit, march on to London.
The meeting between Richard II and his advisers with the rebels which leads to Tyler’s death.
The Foundation of the Priory in 1349
Its dissolution in 1539
Episodes V. The Burning of the Martyrs – 1555.
The episode shows the market place on the arrival of Christopher Waid after his condemnation, with Margery Polley, condemned to be burnt in Tonbridge. He is abjured by a priest to recant, but refuses and is dragged out to his death. His wife appeals to Anne of Cleves, resident at the Priory, but Anne can do nothing save comfort her. Waid’s wife is taken into the Priory as the light of the fire is seen in the background.
Episode VI. The Granting of the Industrial Charters by Elizabeth – 1588
The Queen, having spent the night at the Priory, holds an audience and receives petitions from Sir John Spielman, the Court jeweller, for a licence for paper making and from Sir Martin Frobisher for the building of a furnace for smelting. These she grants and is then entertained by songs and dances before she departs amid the acclamations of the townspeople.
Episode VII. John Hall and the Industrial Revolution – 1804
Mrs Hall and her sons John and Edward arrive to meet their father and encounter Richard Trevithic, a brilliant but improvident young engineer. They are joined by other guests who bring news about the paper making machine on which Hall has been working for some time, at last with success. Hall is jubilant and gives the workmen a half holiday to celebrate. Despite initial festivities, fears spread that the new machine will make them all unemployed. An agitator incites them to attack the machines. They break open the gates but are confronted by John Hall who quietens them and convinces them of their folly.
The Smiths and their American friends re-appear and Mr Smith speaks of being able to face the future. The company sings ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Tyler, Walter [Wat] (d. 1381) leader of the peasants' revolt
- Ball, John (d. 1381) chaplain and leader of the peasants' revolt
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
- Trevithick, Richard (1771–1833) engineer
- Land of Hope and Glory. Elgar.
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Book of words
Other primary published materials
Festival of Britain Dartford Historical Pageant 1951 [Programme]. Dartford, 1951.
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Kent History Centre, Maidstone, Literature, correspondence, council minutes programmes and accounts, Reference DA/Ac/74-5
Sources used in preparation of pageant
The 1951 Festival of Britain saw something of a revival of historical pageantry. Though based on the Southbank of London, home of the famous ‘Skylon’, the Festival also supported many local exhibitions, concerts and events, which were staged across the regions.1 The Festival, which embraced technological modernity, also harked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sought to foster a spirit of communalism created by the shared experience of war and Britain’s welfare state; as such, it was ideally represented by historical pageants. These ranged from relatively large affairs such as the Three Towns Pageant at Hampton Court to relatively small village pageants as in Rushden and East Grinstead. Whilst a large number of earlier pageants had tended to focus on the landmark events of a place, which generally featured royalty, religious leaders, local civic notables, legendary heroes and other prominent people, the pageants held during the Festival of Britain tended to focus on the activities of the common sort of people, presenting pageants as a form of social history influenced by G.M. Trevelyan’s phenomenally popular English Social History (1944).
The Dartford Pageant demonstrated this wider interest in social history. The pageant itself went beyond Trevelyan’s somewhat nostalgic evocation of a bucolic rural past of aristocratic paternalism, disrupted by the Industrial Revolution and the coming of the motor car. Indeed, the pageant displayed several scenes of violent popular resistance to authority including the Peasants’ Revolt, a popular scene in Kentish pageants. Unlike other pageants, it showed the rebels’ killing of that great symbol of medieval authority and oppression, a tax collector. Another key theme was the importance of industry in Dartford, demonstrated in the sixth and seventh episodes, which show the importance of the local paper industry and its connections to Richard Trevithick, a pioneer of the steam engine (though the pageant fails to mention that Trevithick died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in the town).2 Whilst the final scene suggests the problems of industrialization, whereby workers in paper mills feared that machines would deprive them of their jobs, it also shows how John Hall is able to convince them of the benefits of machinery and industrial development to the population.
The relationship between local industries and the town, which the Pageant stressed, was key to the Dartford Pageant. Indeed, a great deal of the funding was provided by sponsorship from local industry, which sponsored individual episodes. The Dartford Industrial Co-operative Society, Messrs Burroughs Wellcome and Co., J.E. Hall, and London and Dartford Paper Mills, along with a number of smaller organisations all provided help with the costs of the pageant and encouraged their workers to volunteer for individual scenes (albeit with mixed results). This partnership between employers, the workforce, and the government was a central part of the post-war Keynesian settlement espoused by the Labour Party (which held Dartford), and which was also adopted, albeit in limited form, by subsequent Conservative governments.3
The programme for the Dartford Pageant declared:
A pageant is, or should be, primarily an entertainment and in the attempt to make ours one we have used our imagination to body forth the recorded facts of history and also, we must confess, our invention to fill up an occasional gap in those records. But the main events of the episodes are true and the boys and girls in our audiences who describe what they see on our stage in their history papers, will not fail in their examinations.4
Pageants had often combined the purpose of entertainment with a more or less significant educational purpose. Before 1946 a number of pageants had fallen foul of the 30% Entertainments Tax on takings.5 Although in practice no postwar pageants were taxed, pageants were keen to stress their educational value whilst attesting to their historical accuracy. Indeed, the Council archives relating to the Pageant include a number of letters from groups of children offering their services to the pageant, including one from fifteen year old Grace Blakes.6
Despite the large numbers of pageants planned across the country in 1951, some—as at Bath, Kettering and Severnoaks—had been cancelled due to a lack of interest. Very few of these pageants, in fact, made any money. Despite the Festival’s organisers attempt to diffuse the Festival across the country, having twenty-three centres and a touring exhibition,7 the Festival was in the end largely associated with its home on the Southbank. Festival celebrations within short travelling distance to the capital often paled by comparison.
The Dartford Historical Pageant suffered from a lack of performers, young children excepted. Though various companies, institutions and organisations had pledged both financial and organisational support at an early stage, offering to organize particular episodes, their members or employees proved extremely reluctant to volunteer. L. Lack, secretary of the Inner Wheel Club of Dartford (a Women’s Voluntary Club), wrote on 4 July that their members would not now be performing: ‘in view of holidays and other commitments, they are not able to offer their services in this connection.’8 The Red Cross and the Dartford Congregational Church Recreation Club likewise pulled out. Most significantly, F. Brumby of the Dartford Industrial Co-operative Society, which was staging the first episode, warned on 6 July that insufficient men had been recruited for the scene, which had initially required several hundred Roman Legionaries. On 25 July, barely a month before the grand opening, Brumby wrote to T. Armstrong, the Town Clerk:
[T]here is now very little possibility of our being able to complete the arrangements for Episode I of the Pageant. Since my last letter to you we have had no further response to our many public and private appeals for assistance and recently the producer, Mr. R. Dorey has asked to be relieved of his responsibility. The matter is being referred to our Society’s Management Committee this week, but is almost certain that they will recommend withdrawal due to force of circumstances. The only further suggestion that the Committee can make is that a meeting of all the organisations concerned be convened in order that we can discuss the possibility of their groups assisting us with performers. We have not even been able to recruit sufficient men for the speaking parts.9
Brumby listed three major reasons for this: ‘i. Very few of our members or employees are prepared to give seven evenings, including two Saturdays. If the Pageant had been for two or three days only, I feel sure we should have had no difficulty. ii. We find it extremely difficult to obtain men to take part. iii. The week selected coincides with the Society’s stock-taking period’.10 Whilst pageants had suffered from a lack of male volunteers for decades—the Bradford Centenary Pageant (1947) had ultimately been forced to draft in troops from a local regiment for several scenes—the Dartford Historical Pageant provides a clear example of the waning interest in pageantry in the 1950s.
Following the withdrawal of the Dartford Industrial Co-operative Society, the organizers were faced with the unenviable position of finding sufficient members for the scene. Local schools proved supremely unwilling to interrupt their school holidays. In the end, however, support came from an unlikely source: the Dartford Young Conservatives Club, with A.E. Allison, the secretary and electoral agent of the town’s Conservative Association writing to offer the Young Conservatives’ enthusiastic support.11 The Festival of Britain had been widely criticized by the Conservative Party and the right-wing press as, at best, an unaffordable expense at a time of continuing rationing and austerity and, at worst, a form of socialist anti-capitalist propaganda.12 So the support of the Dartford Young Conservatives was somewhat surprising.
Nonetheless, the Conservatives’ help proved vital to staging the Pageant. The council archives contain nightly bulletins from the Director Norman Paine, commenting on the performances, for example asking the cast of the ‘Much improved’ first episode if it might be possible to ‘have one or two hand-to-hand struggles between Britons and Romans and not quite so much “jab” and “poke”?’13 The comments in the Director’s bulletins showed marked improvement throughout, the following written about the performance on 30 August: ‘Good show last night. Certainly our best yet.’14 As with so many pageants, the weather proved problematic, however: heavy rain on Tuesday 28 August led to that day’s performance being abandoned.15 Yet notwithstanding such meteorological vicissitudes, attendance figures were relatively disappointing, with only two nights drawing capacity crowds.16 The accounts show a large deficit of £480 (despite £674 provided by sponsors), with only £355 taken in revenue from tickets and programmes.17
It is unlikely that the Conservative Association would have offered to help if they had known that Clement Atlee would shortly call a general election, which was announced on 19 September and held on 25 October 1951.18 In the Dartford constituency, Labour managed to increase its majority to 12334 votes. Its defeated candidate, Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher), who had contested the seat in both 1950 and 1951, would later find success as the candidate for Finchley in 1955.19 In her Dartford electoral address, Roberts celebrated the position of workers and trade unions in industry, which had been a key part of the Pageant, declaring that ‘Management and wage earners alike have a common interest in the future of their industry. The Conservative way is to have a fair deal for all. Extra skill deserves extra reward. Free and independent Trade Unions are an essential part of industry. On being returned to power Conservatives will confer with the leaders of the Trade Union movement on economic and labour problems.’ Roberts had spoken against the Festival of Britain on several occasions.20
Despite managing to increase its share of the vote, the Labour Party narrowly lost the 1951 general election. The now ruling Conservative party had previously been very hostile to the Festival of Britain and proceeded to dismantle much of the Southbank site.21 As for the Dartford pageant, the difficulties experienced in attracting sufficient numbers of volunteers was suggestive of a general reluctance on the part of workers to participate in community or civic life. This was a sign of what many saw as the growing apathy of the working classes, more willing to enjoy the rising wages and consumer goods afforded by an affluent society than to agitate for further social change. It was this apathy, critics on the Left argued, which allowed the Conservative Party to remain in power for a further thirteen years and for much of the idealism of 1945–51 to become tarnished.22
- Becky Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester, 2003), 88–104. See also Mark Freeman, ‘‘Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle’: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Social History 38 (2013): 423–55.
- Philip Payton, ‘Trevithick, Richard (1771–1833)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 28 July 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27723?docPos=1
- See Chris Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial Relations, 1939-1979 (Cheltenham, 1996).
- Festival of Britain Dartford Historical Pageant 1951 [Programme], (Dartford, 1951), unpaginated.
- Hansard, 6 July 1949, vol 466 cc2180-204, accessed 28 July 2016, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1949/jul/06/new-clause-exemption-from-enter#S5CV0466P0_19490706_HOC_377
- See, for example Letter from Grace Blakes to Town Clerk, 24 June 1951 in Kent History Centre, Maidstone, Literature, correspondence, council minutes programmes and accounts, DA/Ac/74.
- Conekin, ‘The Autobiography’, 89.
- L. Lack to T. Armstrong [Town Clerk], 4 July 1951 in DA/Ac/74.
- F. Brumby to T. Armstrong, 25 July 1951, in DA/Ac/74.
- A.E. Allison to Town Clerk, 1 August 1951, in DA/Ac/74.
- Barry Turner, Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Helped to Shape a New Age (London, 2011), 106–9.
- Directors’ Notes 28 August, in DA/Ac/74.
- Directors’ Notes 31 August, in DA/Ac/74.
- Town Clerk to F.H. Ager, 30 August 1951, in DA/Ac/74.
- Memo from the Borough Treasurer, 13 November 1951 and 15 January 1952.
- Alastair Smith, Election Timing (Cambridge, 2004), 29.
- John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, Volume One: The Grocer’s Daughter (London, 2007), 89.
- Margaret Thatcher, ‘1951 General Election Address’, 8 October 1951, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, accessed 28 July 2016, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/100912 and 'Speech to Belvedere Conservatives', 6 July 1951, accessed 28 July 2016, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/100907.
- Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’, 232–236.
- Lawrence Black, The political culture of the left in affluent Britain, 1951-64 : old Labour, new Britain? (Basingstoke, 2003); An affluent society?: Britain's post-war "Golden Age" revisited, Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton, eds. (Aldershot, 2004).
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Festival of Britain Dartford Historical Pageant 1951’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1274/