St. Albans Pageant, 1907: Queen Elizabeth at Gorhambury.

Courtesy of St. Albans Museums.

Pageants and the Weather

Last 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.

It 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.

Whilst 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 collapse.

Barometer

Above: 'The Real Pageant Jester' (a barometer). Cartoon of the 1908 Winchester National Pageant

The 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):

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/old-english-fair/query/rain

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