The Bradford Pageant of 1931

Pageant Sticker

There could hardly have been a less auspicious time for staging a historical pageant. The world economy was in the jaws of the most vicious depression of the 20th Century. In Bradford, an industrial city heavily dependent on exports, tens of thousands of workers were unemployed and wages were being slashed for those lucky enough to have jobs. Between 1928 and 1932, nearly 400 textile firms in the city were to go bankrupt.

On Monday July 13 1931, disrupted by heavy rain showers, the Historical Pageant of Bradford started its scheduled one-week run in Peel Park. An account of the event in the Yorkshire Post the next day said: “…[The performers] faced the disadvantages of drenching rain and slippery turf with commendable pluck. For their sake, as well as for the pleasure of the spectators, it is hoped that more congenial conditions will obtain for the remainder of the week.” That proved optimistic. Briefly, on the Thursday, the Yorkshire Evening Post witnessed a break in the bad weather and the “ill luck that has followed” the pageant but, by then, there were fears that it would make a significant loss.

The Liberal leader David Lloyd George, in a speech to the pageant crowd the same day, drew a parallel between the grim global situation and the local downpours: “Things are bad, not here merely, but throughout the world. It is a big deluge, as in the days of Noah. It has covered the highest mountains and the waters seem to be rising, not [just] here, but elsewhere as well, […] In Central Europe the clouds are getting denser and darker, and you might have a cloudburst there. Never mind, the waters will subside. It will be all right.” The rain returned on the Friday and, on Saturday July 18, the planned finale, the Lord Mayor of Bradford Alfred Pickles paid “tribute to the spirit and grit displayed by the performers in spite of the terrible weather.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the unusually difficult circumstances of the Bradford Pageant, the objectives of its organisers had been ambitious even by the extravagant standards of the pageant movement. Pageant organisers since the Edwardian era had routinely espoused their events’ ability to educate, nurture democracy and foster patriotism and civic pride. The economic benefits of organising a large tourist event were often downplayed. At Bradford, Mayor Alfred Pickles, a member of the Independent Labour party and one of the prime movers behind the event, aimed at nothing less than economic revival:

"We were eager to see those standing looms running full-time again. Each of us knew somebody who was suffering because machinery had to stand idle. And for the sake of that ‘somebody’ each of us wanted to do his bit."

The opening speech of the pageant, delivered by Prince George (later the Duke of Kent), was clear about this aim, saying the pageant would “increase the prosperity of the city and help to promote the revival of its trade,” and the theme runs through other speeches. Indeed, the original idea for the pageant had been to provide a cultural complement to an industrial fair, the Imperial Wool Industries Fair, held the same month at Bradford’s Olympia Hall.

A commentary in the Telegraph and Argus newspaper on July 11, 1931 gives a sense of the extent of the ambition, describing the pageant as an “attempt to provide the wool industry with the finest advertisement of a world-wide character that it has ever enjoyed. In this respect the Pageant is associated with the Imperial Wool Fair, and it would be nothing short of disastrous were either of these great undertakings to meet with failure in their endeavours to benefit an industry that has sustained so many severe blows in recent years.”

There is an element of desperation to some of this rhetoric and a utilitarian tone that is not familiar to a student of earlier pageants, but for the first two thirds of the Bradford script there is little deviation from the conventions of pageant making. The pageant master was Frank Lascelles, a leading pageant organizer since the Edwardian period, and a significant proportion of the book of words—consisting of a prologue and six episodes written by a team of local writers including the then still emergent novelist Phyllis Bentley—could have been transplanted from Edwardian precursors such as Colchester (1909) or Oxford (1907).

The first episode, “The Coming of the Romans,” describes the invaders subduing the native Britons, a stock opening for pageant writers. This is followed by “Paulinus in Bradford Dale”, describing the Christianization of Bradford. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons is represented by a battle of voices: The heathens’ war song is gradually replaced by Christian monks’ chanting and singing hymns. The third episode, by Phyllis Bentley, “Bradford in Norman Times,” is the most picturesque, introducing Robin Hood and the tale of “the boar of Cliffe Wood above Bradford Church,” in which Roger of Manningham is recognised as the slayer of a rampaging boar (whose head still sits in Bradford’s coat of arms). The “Bradford in Stuart Times” episode focuses on the English Civil War, in which the city had played a significant part. This was often an unavoidable subject for pageant writers and one that was usually handled with diffidence, given the subject’s contemporary political, constitutional and religious ramifications. The Bradford script adopts a familiar approach (seen also at the York Pageant of 1909, for instance) in stressing reconciliation, the courtesy of both factions, and the nobility of the Fairfax family.

Episode 1 Romans

Schoolboy Cross

However, the Bradford event was never going to be a “normal” pageant: Here was a sentimental mass drama inspired by the whimsical and touristic pageantry of Edwardian Britain teetering atop the cultural life of a chimney-studded industrial city in in the grip of a harrowing slump. The organisers were aware of the disconnect. Mayor Pickles, speaking during the pageant week, criticised sceptics who had thought it could never be done: “They felt we were devoid of imagination in this smoky city of ours, and that the word ‘pageantry’ really had not a place in our local vocabulary. They appeared to think that only towns with ancient castles or places of that kind were really suitable for holding pageants.”

Behind the scenes, the approach was aggressively modern. It was not unusual for pageants to appeal successfully to national audiences and the national media, but Bradford, in line with its aim of advertising the city’s industry, was single-minded in doing so. Prince George, Lloyd George and the Lord Mayor of London were among the national figures opening each day of the event and newspapers across the country, as well as widely distributed newsreels, covered proceedings. Some of the speeches were broadcast on the BBC.

Episode 4 Fairing

Bradford was one of the first major pageants to use electricity extensively. Telephone lines were set up to carry messages more quickly to the large number of participants and microphones were used to make the outdoor drama easier to hear. A microphone was also installed for the first time in Bradford Cathedral to broadcast the Archbishop of York’s pageant sermon. In the large city pageants of the Edwardian period, the final scene of a pageant was often timed so that it coincided with the setting of the sun, but at Bradford twenty large electric floodlights extended the finale of the pageant into the evening. The electric lighting illuminated the industrial revolution scenes near the end of evening performances, and added modern drama to the Lord Mayor’s final address and the singing of “Land of Hope and Glory”.

Bradford may not have had an ancient castle but it was extremely well equipped for a critical part of any pageant’s spectacle: the costumes. Throughout the drama, thousands of performers dressed in garments made with local textiles served as a living advertisement for Bradford’s industry and, according to the Yorkshire Observer’s souvenir programme, the production of this spectacle was a quasi-industrial process, involving the transformation of more than 25,000 yards of “multi-coloured materials into the gayest and biggest variety of costumes Bradford has ever seen.”


Lascelles visualised “each scene as an artist visualises the picture he is to paint” and a team of students led by Mr. H. Butler at the Bradford College of Art and Crafts then produced 225 original designs and 7,750 duplicates based on that unified vision. Patterns were made by evening school teachers under Ms. Ida Skemp, duplicated by pattern makers in the city, and then sent out to individual performers to make up. Difficult or particularly important designs were made up by local firms.

The clear view that the pageant had to serve as a commercial advertisement for the city was reflected in the drama itself. In the Prologue, a shepherdess standing in the middle of a flock of sheep, sets up the entire narrative inside a textile metaphor:

"As my cloth is woven from the wool I know so well, so today, in this great city of industry, my aim is to weave for you a story that shall be like a beautiful fabric[…] a tapestry of many colours and many figures that will please the eye and linger in your memory."

The text moves through the production of woolen textiles, from the flock of sheep in the prologue, to a sheep shearing spectacle and song set at Kirstall Abbey in the Norman episode, to a “spinning chorus” (set to music by Wagner, probably the Spinning Chorus from the Flying Dutchman) at the start of the fourth episode (“Bradford in Plantagenet Times” by Phyllis Hambledon), to a discussion of the production of “fine and smooth” cloth in the second scene of the same episode. This scene is not the first assertion of commercialism in the drama—at the end of episode 3 the audience hears resounding cries of “Who’ll buy?” in a depiction of the establishment of Bradford’s market—but it marks the start of the story of the city’s textile industry and its commercial success. The rest of the pageant is full of what we might now call “product placements” by the wool industry, from a scene showing men stuffing the Lord Chancellor’s “woolsack” with Bradford wool to girls enthusing over silk ribbon, a famous Bradford product, in the final episode.

Bolling Hall Ghost

The reign of Edward III, who is introduced in the historical notes as having done “much to help the woollen industry, then at the beginning of its real development,” is represented by a group of townspeople and customers bartering over a sale of wool and discussing techniques from Europe that will transform the efficiency and quality of their work. In a city whose history had already been defined by the 1930s by large waves of German, Jewish and Irish immigration, it is interesting that the beginnings of the modern textile industry were explicitly portrayed as Bradford people learning from Flemish immigrants (the stage directions call for “Flemish weavers and spinners […] teaching their craft to groups of men and women gathered round them”).

Large city pageants in the pre-war era had generally avoided representation of history after the 1700s; indeed Louis Napoleon Parker, the father of modern pageantry, had advocated stopping short of the Civil War because it was too divisive. Attempting to tell the story of Bradford without depicting its transformation in the industrial revolution would, however, have been absurd, so the climax of the Bradford event is an interesting sixth episode written by Elizabeth Southwart, “Bradford of the Industrial Revolution.”

While the tendency of most pageant writing is to stress the resolution of conflict or avoid it altogether when it has any contemporary resonance, Southwart’s second scene vividly depicts the impact of child labour, the fear of the mill’s overlooker, protests against starvation in which marchers carry loaves soaked in blood, and a Luddite attack on a mill in the Bradford suburb of Shipley. (“We’ll burn their cursed mills.)

There is an interlude recreating a procession in Bradford in 1825 to commemorate the patron saint of wool workers, Saint Blaise, which appears to have presented an opportunity to show off sumptuous textiles while also asserting the pageant’s link to earlier civic processions. The next and last scene is a chaotic depiction of an electoral hustings at the time of the 1832 Reform Act. The boisterous proceedings raise major political controversies of the 19th Century--free speech, corn law reform, abolition of the slave trade and regulation of child labour--and subject them to roars of approval or disapproval from “the mob”. The most popular candidate is from the Lister family, who were later to build Listers’ Mill, a huge silk mill in the Bradford area that employed thousands of local workers in 1931. The candidate’s son, who may have been the scion who built the mill, is carried away on a chair by the mob and occasionally given a jolt when they pretend to drop him.

This scene marks the end of the drama and is an unusually anarchic culmination to a major pageant. The eccentricity may be partly explained by the personalities on the writing and organising committees, although there is nothing in the contemporary coverage suggesting it was received as a dissident or partisan event. But another factor may simply have been the extraordinary circumstances in which the pageant was being staged. It may simply not have been credible to present the wool industry as a harmonious idyll in Bradford in July 1931.

Only a few days before the opening day, the Woolcombing Employers’ Federation had posted a notice announcing an 11.8 per cent wage reduction to more than 8,000 workers and, on July 10, the workers had decided to strike. In fifty mills in the Bradford and Shipley districts, work was expected to cease on July 13, the day of the opening of the Pageant.

Mayor Pickles published an urgent appeal in the Yorkshire Post “not to post notices with respect to reduction in wages until after Pageant Week, which will be opened on Monday next, 13th inst., by H.R.H. Prince George, or if such notices have been posted to withdraw the same.” He said: “I am anxious to see both sides make a real effort to reach a settlement, and a short postponement of the notices will not only help the Pageant but will also afford an opportunity of bringing about peace by negotiation.” He said he had ‘no desire to prejudice either party” and that the pageant was “entirely non-political”, reminding them that the event was for the entire city and that the profit was “to be distributed amongst charitable institutions in the city”. The appeal was only partly successful. In Bradford itself the mills kept working, but in the Shipley area the strike went on.

In the event, the second scene of the final episode—the scene that depicted extreme poverty and Luddism at the Shipley mill—was printed in the official book of words but omitted from the actual performance “owing to the exigencies of dramatic production.” The decision to drop it was reported by the special scenes sub-committee on July 9, just as the industrial dispute loomed, and it is tempting to speculate (although there is insufficient documentary evidence to prove it) that the harsh circumstances of the Bradford pageant eventually overwhelmed its attempt to depict the modern textile industry. In the end, at least in the version performed in Peel Park, the absurdity of a Bradford pageant that did not portray industrial revolution in wool making was what the audience were left with.

There is no evidence that the event provided a major boost to Bradford’s textile trade. Despite being a dominant theme in the rhetoric surrounding the event, this aim had always been met with scepticism from the harder heads in the business community. In January 1931, Bradford Chamber of Commerce had warned: “From the past experience the Chamber does not think that exhibitions will be of much service to the Industry, but it notes the proposal to hold the Fair and trusts it may be a success.”  In March, The Bradford Chamber of Commerce Journal carried a more explicit statement: “[W]e have learned—at a cost to our members of a quarter of a million Sterling since 1924—that the value of exhibitions to us is of very small importance.” Recruitment of exhibitors at the Imperial Wool Industries Fair appears to have been poor and charging for space had to be dropped shortly before the event in order to fill it up. The big textile firms were notable by their absence from the advertising in the pageant’s book of words and souvenir programme.

And yet, despite the economic climate and foul weather, we can’t simplistically dismiss the Bradford Pageant as a failure. It captured the imagination of a large part of the city. The Yorkshire Observer Budget estimated about 30,000 people participated, about a tenth of the population. The city’s educational institutions embraced it enthusiastically and all of the main newspapers supported it. The threat of a financial loss was averted by extending the pageant run for four days, a decision that was dramatically presented to the crowd on the Saturday (“‘Do you wish the pageant to continue?’ A great affirmative shout went up,” the Yorkshire Post reported). By the next week, the profit from the pageant was £2,002, which was combined with donations (£4,237) and given to the Bradford Royal Infirmary, Royal Eye and Ear Hospital and Children’s Hospital.

For Bradford’s people, the pageant’s significance and meaning varied from individual to individual. Lily Crossland recalled the great enthusiasm of children at her school. Even those who couldn’t afford to go “read about it every night in the papers and our friends who went brought back the excitement.” Harry Leslie Smith, who was eight and living in extreme poverty at the time, did not record the event at all in his memoir and dismissed nostalgic coverage of it angrily in a letter to the Telegraph and Argus in 2013, saying that it had had no part in the lives of families like his.

But one letter, published on July 21 1931, in the middle of the pageant’s extended run, captures the complex feelings that many people may have felt about the staging of an elaborate mass drama amidst economic distress. The letter, written by a pageant performer, does not reject the pageant or passionately embrace it, but it does assert ownership of the drama by the common people, while betraying pent up anger at the inequalities of pageant making.

“The success of the Pageant has depended, to no small extent, upon the cheerful, voluntary service of the many performers, who for weeks have rehearsed, and also performed, under most inclement weather conditions,” the letter said. “Members of committees and others have been given free tickets to view the performances, or liberal concessions have been granted. Up to the present, no concession has been granted to a performer in order that his or her relatives may view the finished production. Not all the performers are in full employ. I could mention one performer, an ex-service man, who has been out of work for months, but still he carries on cheerfully. The feelings of such men may be imagined when they know that salaried officials are granted free tickets, while the lowest price of a comfortable seat is beyond the limit that a diminished income will permit.”


Ayako Yoshino

*First image owned by Ayako Yoshino. Following images taken from The Historical Pageant of Bradford: The Souvenir Book (Bradford, 1931), out-of-copyright and in possession of Ayako Yoshino*