week I blogged about the do’s and don’t of pageantry. One thing
which all pageant organisers feared and could do very little about was poor weather spoiling a pageant.
might sound obvious, but British summers can be unpredictable. The ideal
weather for pageants, almost invariably held between late May and
mid-September, was warm (though not too hot), and without wind. Countless
pageants were disrupted by rain, with premieres capriciously ruined by
torrential downpours which turned displays of fine costumes into a quagmire of
mud. Rain and high winds made dialogue wholly imperceptible.
rain could be pretty much expected, the legendary British summer could throw
further surprises at pageanteers. A cartoon of the Winchester Pageant (1908)
featured a barometer in medieval costume (?!) captioned ‘the real jester of the
pageant’ Before the Leeds Tercentenary Pageant (1926), performed entirely by
local schoolchildren, the Yorkshire Post
commented ‘This week will be a week of barometer tapping in Leeds…The outlook
to-day is not as good as it has been, but this week Leeds must think fine
weather…Put your flag out and risk it.’ Unfortunately, an hour before the start
of the pageant on 9 July, as the children gathered to begin, ‘One of the most
severe thunderstorms experienced in Leeds in recent years broke over the city’.
A half hour of ferocious rain and hail fell and lighting struck a number of trams
and houses, flooded part of the Town Hall, killing several people and
destroying much of the scenery. The pageant went ahead the following Friday
during a heatwave which caused a number of participants and audience members to
Above: 'The Real Pageant Jester' (a barometer). Cartoon of the 1908 Winchester National Pageant
South Wales Miners’ Pageant was held on May Day 1939 simultaneously in three
Welsh valleys. As locals know, there May is a winter month and the day was
marred by heavy rain, icy winds and even sleet and snow, which caused the
pageant to be cancelled at Pontypool. The performances at Abertillery and
Ystradgnlais were put on bravely despite the elements. Depending on the
political outlook of particular reporters, the weather took on heightened or
lessened significance, with the Daily
Express writing that ‘only a few hundred people came to see the free
spectacle and they stood huddled on the mountainside beneath umbrellas,
despondently watching the actors in the valley below.’ Whilst the Daily Worker refused to even mention the
weather, the Daily Herald struck a
more balanced note, declaring that ‘‘Driving rain and a raw cutting wind did
not deter’ the audience and ‘Although rain streamed steadily from a grey sky
and a cold wind swept down the valley, thousands of people turned up on the
water-soaked Rugby ground’.
Perhaps the strangest weather conditions were at the Ashdown Forest Pageant in Sussex (1929). Once again, extreme heat plagued the early performances, causing a number of fainting fits and provoking a parked car to explode on starting. At the beginning of the final performance ‘a sudden gust of wind blew’, described by the organiser Edward Gleichen as ‘a young tornado’, tore down part of the canvas roof of the grand stand. Gleichen went on to describe the scene: ‘Many spectators were buried beneath the canvas and its supporting poles. Six persons received cuts and contusions, and after receiving first-aid they were taken to their homes.’ A number of the audience, helped by ‘King Aella of Sussex, a Norman priest, some Henry VIII foresters, and a couple of Cavaliers’ sprung to the rescue and ‘in less than twenty minutes the performance was proceeding as if nothing had happened.’
Indeed, many large-scale pageants took out insurance against bad weather, with premiums running to many hundreds of pounds, to offset the potential loss in revenue at pageants. However, some pageant organisers chose to hold their pageants safely indoors often drew criticisms that such an event was limited to a small cast and lacked the open-air spectacle of proper pageants. The Guildford Pageant of 1925 was one of the first large pageants to be held indoors, drawing major criticism from newspapers. Despite heavy lightning storms on the first night of the pageant, the weather subsequently cleared up and, string of warm sunny days that followed the impromptu storm, the Daily Telegraph complained that ‘if the present spell of summer weather could have been foreseen, the confines of a theatre would have been dispensed with’. Whilst pageants on fine days could be enjoyable events, pity the poor townspeople who stood sat huddling on wooden benches throughout three-hour-long performances against all that the British summer could throw at them!
The following clip is a film of a distinctly rainy Historical Pageant and Fair in Sandwich (1930):