England’s Pleasant Land

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Milton Court (Dorking) (Dorking, Surrey, England)

Year: 1938

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 4


9–16 July 1938

9 July at 7pm, 14 July at 7pm and 16 July at 3pm and 7pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Producer [Pageant Master]: Harrison, Tom
  • Chairman: R. Nicholson
  • Hon. Secretary and Publicity: Mrs Cecil Sprigge
  • Finance: J.F. Jeal; Humphrey Baker; W.D. Arnell
  • Music: Miss Cullen
  • Catering: Mrs Humphrey Baker
  • Mistress of the Robes: Mrs Rundle
  • Grounds: Lady Allen of Hurtwood
  • Property Master: R.F. Bargman
  • Master of the Beasts: Capt. H. Cotton Minchin
  • Master of the Horse: Mrs Salaman
  • Country Dancing: T. O’Kelly
  • Publicity: Stuart Rose
  • Author: E.M. Forster
  • Musical Director: R. Vaughan Williams

Names of executive committee or equivalent

  • Patrons included: Rt. Hon. Lord Ashcombe (Lord Lieutenant of the County); Duke of Northumberland; Viscountess Rhondda; Lord Lugard; R.C. Trevelyan

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Forster, E.M.

Names of composers

  • Cole, William
  • Couper, Mary
  • Moule-Evans, David
  • Gardiner, Julian
  • Ticehurst, John
  • Williams, Ralph Vaughan

Numbers of performers


Financial information

Object of any funds raised

Funds towards the Dorking and Leith Hill District Preservation Society.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

10s. 6d.–2s. 6d.

Car parking: 6d.

Associated events


Pageant outline

Prologue. AD 1066

The Recorder enters and addresses the audience:

Our play is about the countryside, how it was made, how it changed as the centuries passed, how today it is in peril, and may be lost for ever…Today, man fears the wilderness no longer. He has nothing to fear but his own soul and his own strength. Will he use his strength to destroy what he has made, and to cover the face of England with rubbish? Or will he use it to save England and to preserve her beauty for generations still unborn?1

A flight of arrows heralds the arrival of the Saxons who chase away the Normans. The Norman knight and a girl head towards the house.

Act I. The Enclosures

Scene I. Squire George’s Difficulty, AD 1760

A pastoral idyll. Villagers work at their leisure, or amuse themselves with dancing and drinking. Two London ladies with Squire Jeremiah and Mr Bumble (the lawyer) enter and complain about how much they hate the countryside and all who dwell there. The ladies look down on Squire Jeremiah, who relates that he has managed to enclose the villagers’ land. When the rest of the party ask how he accomplished this, he tells them it was with the use of Mr Bumble, who explains the process of enclosure. Miss George, Squire George’s daughter, declares that ‘these Acts are wrong. Enclosure is bad, Parliament’s wicked’. Jeremiah chastises George that the country is ‘at war with France. She needs more food, more corn—and you and your peasants do not supply enough, because of your wrong method of agriculture.’ George defends the pastoral harmony between him and his peasants. They argue over the merits of enclosure, and Mrs George tries to make her husband enclose their lands.

Scene II. Enclosure, AD 1760

In a pantomime, Mr Bumble enters to a pompous march, holding the Act of Parliament that effected the Enclosure. Fragments of legal gabble are heard, mixed with the laughter and protests of the villagers. They spend the money compensating them for the loss of their common rights on beer. Hurdles are put up, penning them off from the now-lost common land. The Recorder laments the death of the old order, and quotes a section of Goldsmith’s Deserted Village.

Scene III. The Labourers’ Revolt, AD 1830

Villagers, wretchedly dressed, lean listlessly against the fence and look at the deserted park. A gunshot is heard, and a keeper struggling with a poacher appears. The villagers are reinforced by their leaders, Jack and Jill, who defend the poacher, while the keeper is backed up by Mr Bumble. Jack pleads for mercy in hard times, but Bumble refuses clemency to the prisoner. The poor villagers complain about the lack of parish relief. There is an argument with Bumble. They appeal to Squire George, whose daughter wishes him to be let off. George sends the poacher to trial. The Squire warns the villagers not to make more trouble: ‘Ever since the French wars ended, you village labourers are making trouble all over England from Kent in the east right down to Somerset in the west, burning the ricks, breaking the machinery, and disobeying the laws that were made for your good.’ Jack resists these warnings and calls on the men to rise up: ‘Men of England, wherefore plough/For the Lords who lay ye low?’ At this, Bumble flees but is captured. The villagers rush up to attack the Manor House but are stopped by soldiers, and one of them is killed. Jill maintains that the agricultural labourers’ day will come.

Act II. The Death Duties

Scene I. The Domesday Garden Party, AD 1899

There is a party as Squire George and guests come down from the house. He is an old man in a bath chair with his wife, son and daughter and the vicar, ladies from London and Mr Bumble. Ironically, the London ladies claim to detest London and prefer the country now, having fully sanitised it. They complain about the Georges still. Squire George greets them all, remarking that his family has lived here for a millennium. The villagers come, tugging their forelocks. Jack, who admits that George has always been a decent landlord, asks if the villagers can take part in the Domesday celebrations, ‘seeing as we were at Domesday, too’. The Squire bats him away. The villagers present him with a hideous clock. The Squire complains that the villagers never really obey him. A procession of the Squire’s dead ancestors from the Saxon, Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan, Cavalier and Roundhead and eighteenth-century eras emerge as George makes his speech. As the guests leave, the young George, the squire’s son and heir, asks Jack to help him build ‘a new England when the time comes. This England isn’t good enough yet. We don’t want the past—it was cruel. We don’t want the present—it’s snobbish. We want a better future. I don’t know whether you’ll lead in the future or whether I shall, but I want you to help.’ Jack heartily agrees. News comes that the Squire has died. The ghosts of the past come forward to dominate the scene.

Scene II. The End of the Old Order

Young George, Miss George, and Jack and Jill are returning from the funeral. Mr Bumble arrives and declares the new act of Parliament that introduces Death Duties. Sadly, Young George has land but little money, and they cannot pay the bill. Jack threatens to punch Bumble, who claims that the Death Duties and the break-up of the great estates will help the poor, but they disbelieve him. Young George cannot pay the bill and has to leave. Miss George laments: ‘Remember it’s not just we and you who are being torn apart. It’s the end of the generation, it’s the end of the countryside.’ She warns him not to trust Bumble, and, true to form, a board proclaiming ‘Sold’ appears. Jerry the Builder, the new owner, appears with his wife, and Bumble tells the people they are trespassing on his property. Jerry is going to develop the property into a housing estate. He sings a song:

Ripe for development. Ripe for development,

Ripe, ripe, ripe for development,

Ripe, ripe for development

Is England’s Pleasant Land.

So cut the trees down and clear the site,

Bungle the bungalows left and right,

Pile the pylons as high as you can,

I’m a practical business man!

It doesn’t matter what they look like,

It doesn’t matter where they stand.

A procession of bungalows, motor cars, motor bikes, motor buses enter, accompanied by paper, empty tins, and advertising. Some pedestrians are knocked down in the chaos of the scene.


The recorder addresses the audience:

Man made the country as he made the town. He took many years to make it, but he can if he chooses destroy it in a few days. He can do this because in the course of centuries he has become strong. How will he use this strength? To spoil the beauty of his native land or to preserve it?

The Recorder advises the audience to advocate laws protecting the countryside as the only way of preserving England’s Green and Pleasant Land.

Key historical figures mentioned


Musical production

Band of the 2nd Batallion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, conducted by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Music included pieces by Vaughan Williams along with the following:

  • Holst. ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’.
  • William Cole. ‘Opening Fanfare’.
  • John Ticehurst. ‘Normans and Saxons’.
  • Handel. ‘Minuet’.
  • Traditional. ‘Joan to the Maypole’ and ‘Drinking Song’.
  • William Cole. ‘The Dancing Master’ and ‘Finale’.
  • Sousa. ‘Washington Post March’.
  • Kerker. ‘The Belle of New York’.
  • Traditional. ‘God Bless the Master’.
  • Mary Couper. ‘The Procession of the Past’.
  • R. Vaughan Williams. ‘Exit Ghosts of the Past’ and ‘Funeral March for the Old Order’.
  • Parry. Jerusalem.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Manchester Guardian

Surrey Mirror

Derby Daily Telegraph


The Times

London Mercury

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser

Book of words

The Dorking and Leith Hill District Preservation Society Present England’s Pleasant Land, A Pageant Play. London, 1938.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature

  • Crews, Frederick Campbell. E.M. Forster: The Perils of Humanism. Princeton, 1962. At 38.
  • Esty, Jed. A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England. Princeton, 2004. At 70–78.
  • Gardner, Philip. ‘E.M. Forster, Surrey, and the Golden Fleece. Review of English Studies 65, 204. At 904–921.
  • Joseph, David. The Art of Rearrangement: E.M. Forster’s ‘Abinger Harvest’. New Haven, 1964.
  • Moffat, Wendy. E.M. Forster: A New Life. London, 2010. At 406.
  • Saylor, Eric. ‘Music for Stage and Screen’. In The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ed Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thomson. Cambridge, 2013. 157–178. At 165–166.
  • Spiro, Mia. Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. Evanston, IL, 2013. At 43.
  • Stewart, Renee. ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Two Surrey Pageants: The Abinger Pageant (1934) and England's Pleasant Land (1938)’. Transactions of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, 2012.
  • Stewart, Renee. The Two Pageants. Dorking, 2008.
  • Wiener, Martin J. English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850–1980. Cambridge, 1981. At 76.

This list is necessarily incomplete given the amount of literature on Forster and Vaughan Williams.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • King’s College Cambridge Archive, Papers of E.M. Forster: Scrapbook with photographs and cuttings. King’s/PP/EMF/9/5/1–2.
  • Surrey History Centre, Woking: Copy of book of words. 8062/3/2.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Goldsmith, Oliver. The Deserted Village.
  • Hammond, J.L. and Hammond, Barbara, Village Labourer, 1760–1832. London, 1911.


It is easy to list the pageant as part of the rural nostalgia of the inter-war period, which was felt as a pervasive anxiety that something important was being irretrievably lost.2 This anxiety stemmed largely from Clough Williams-Ellis, the famous architect-owner of Portmerion in Wales, who published England and the Octopus (1928), an impassioned denunciation of the expansion of suburban England and the commuter railways, roads and tourism that were destroying the last vestiges of organic folk culture. This was a cry that had some affinities with those raised by William Cobbett in the 1820s and George Sturt in the early twentieth century; it was one that would be taken up by a host of writers and artists from F.R. Leavis to W.H. Massingham and John Betjeman. Pageantry, it is fair to say, has been an ideal bedfellow for expressions of rural nostalgia and projections of a bucolic ‘deep’ England, unspoiled by the motorcar.

However, Forster’s aims deserve to be seen in the pageant’s immediate context, rather than as part of a wide and often inchoate literary protest against industrial modernity. The pageant was organised in aid of the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society and the Footpaths Organisation ‘which seek to preserve the beauty of our countryside…to give publicity to its aims and to seek a wider support for its ideals within the community’.3 Speaking at a preliminary meeting of the pageant, Lord Allen of Hurtwood, a prominent pacifist and member of the Independent Labour Party, declared that the aim of the Society was ‘‘to collaborate with all those responsible for the development of a beautiful district, so that beauty may not be destroyed unnecessarily’.4 Surrey had seen one of the greatest rates of urbanisation in inter-war Britain, as motor cars and commuter railways allowed people who worked in London to live in the more salubrious countryside. As John Betjeman, the poet of the commuter belt, remarked: ‘Surrey is all one suburb, so is most of Bucks: the town of London stretches out to Maidenhead, St Albans, Hertford, Southend, Tonbridge, Brighton and Halesmere.’5 The proliferation of housing developments on the fringes of villages and towns (or ribbon development) was encroaching on significant parts of the Surrey countryside.6 Dorking’s population had more than doubled between 1931 and 1939, from 10111 to 21322.7 More than being merely a romantic protest of malcontent intellectuals against the rising standards of living enjoyed by the population (vide John Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses [1992]), England’s Pleasant Land was intended as a concrete riposte to the developers, railway companies, and banks which made large amounts of money from speculative developments that threw up cheap, ugly houses without heed to the effect of the development on the countryside.

The pageant also possessed a secondary impulse which lay closer to the heart of the spiritual conceptions of the ‘Deep England’ movement. This saw that the the countryside and its organic culture as providing the English national character with its reasonableness and moderation against the increasingly threatening European and global situation. At the meeting, Lord Allan declared: ‘Speaking as a student of international affairs...if we in Britain are to retain, in a sadly troubled world, those qualities of judgment and leadership which we have displayed in the past, it is as well to remember that it is from our countryside that our strength has been drawn’.8 Forster added that ‘certainly no one wished to revert to the feudal conditions which existed before the passing of the Inclosure Acts; but the structure of English country life must not be allowed to fall; we must still speak, in the spirit of Blake’s poem, to “build Jerusalem in England’s Green and Pleasant Land.”’9 The pageant, which presented a battle between two competing Englands, thus combined abstract ideals of quiet rural dignity versus brash capitalist modernity (suggesting that only the former would be able to withstand the onslaught of Nazi Germany) with a particular attempt to raise the profile of a group campaigning against development in the local area.

The narrative of the pageant corresponds to the classic account of rural declinism, which had been prominent in literary accounts since the late eighteenth century, including Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village (1770) and William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830), which told how agricultural enclosure of common lands and a shift in landholding patterns forced the rural labourer into ever-greater degrees of poverty. In the twentieth century, this account had been revived by literary figures such George Bourne [George Sturt] in his Change in the Village (1912) and The Wheelwright’s Shop (1923), as well as in the works of the radical historians J.L. and Barbara Hammond, notably their Village Labourer (1911), a book which remained deeply popular throughout the twentieth century despite many attempts by historians to debunk their claims.10 The speech given by Jack and Jill at the beginning of Act I Scene III of the pageant was derived from a passage in the book. Their passionate declarations in the same scene take lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’.

The pageant tells the story, in three successive generations, of Squire George (a figure representing the decline of the old order), his morally righteous (albeit powerless) daughter, Mr Bumble (a conniving lawyer who cons George out of his land), and Jack and Jill (who represent the rural working classes). The first act tells of rural enclosure, which ultimately provokes the agricultural riots of the 1830s and the passing of old England. The second act begins with a pageant-within-a-pageant of the elderly Squire’s illustrious ancestors. Unfortunately, the young Squire George, who combines aristocratic patronage with forward-thinking and kindness to the poor, is robbed of his land through death duties. At the end of the pageant, Bumble takes possession of the land, which he promptly sells to Jerry the Builder who proceeds to develop the estate into housing and roads. It is left to the recorder to stress that the audience must act now or risk the development of the rest of England’s Green and Pleasant Land.

The problem the pageant faces in losing reference to a particular place is that it becomes an abstract and slightly bloodless depiction of the issues. Because the pageant is not based on any particular events, it might be claimed that it amounts to a supreme misreading of history. Development and progress are, as we are repeatedly told, inevitable. There was no rural golden age in the eighteenth century. The rural labourer lived in dire poverty in picturesque hovels, struggling to feed his family, a majority of whom died in childhood. Life was nasty, brutish and short, and aristocratic landowners did little to alleviate the lot of the people, instead controlling rotten boroughs and demolishing entire villages to construct elaborate landscaped gardens.11

Nonetheless, the pageant was, in Forster’s own recollection, ‘a wonderful show’, despite his complaints of constant rain: ‘And of course aeroplanes messed about overhead and anticipated the final desolation.’12 The Manchester Guardian praised it as ‘a play in defence of any part of England’s pleasant land which could be acted anywhere, given the setting and the talent’.13 This call for the pageant to be repeated was echoed by the Spectator which hoped that it might ‘be performed in every English county’.14 The journal praised Forster’s conception and execution, which went beyond the limits of conventional pageantry (which reviewers from highbrow newspapers and journals were increasingly bored of):

As one would expect, Mr. Forster has done more than write a masque, he has written a morality. He wastes no time on personages historically larger than life, his characters are given anonymity by the very simplicity of the nomenclature: Squire George and Jack are examples. He chooses from the records of the past happenings that affected the daily life of the community, incidents that altered the face of the land.15

The Times saw its message as straightforward and particularly potent, viewing England’s Pleasant Land as ‘a morality pageant, although the lesson it had to teach us was a worldly one: “Do not spoil the countryside.”’16 Though the pageant was not staged again in Forster’s lifetime, the book of the pageant (published in 1940) sold well. The following year the scenery from the pageant was used to simulate an air raid on a town to train emergency workers in expectation of German bombings. The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser declared: ‘That, by the way, is a sad commentary on world politics—that stage property used in telling the story of the beauty of the English countryside should now be used in training men to defend this pleasant land.’17

Along with Forster's previous Abinger Pageant, T.S. Eliot’s The Rock (1934), and the pageant in Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts (1940) (which owed something in its conception to England’s Pleasant Land),18 the pageant has had a significant afterlife in literary scholarship. In 2011 Ruth Beale presented England’s Pleasant Land: A Remake at the Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire, which included an exhibition and a restaging of the pageant.19 In February and March 2016, England’s Pleasant Land was staged at Ambridge in the long-running radio programme The Archers.20 It was the tireless campaigning of organisations such as the National Trust, the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England and hundreds of local organisations (including the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society) that persuaded the government to enact the Town and Country Planning Act (1947), creating the modern system of requiring planning permission before one could build and mandating a number of city greenbelts.


  1. ^ Unless other indicated, all quotations in synopses taken from E.M. Forster, Collected Works of E.M. Forster, Volume 10, ed. Elizabeth Heine (London, 1996).
  2. ^ Jeremy Burckhardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (London, 2002), esp. chapters 1, 8–9 and 11–12; Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, 2010); Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester, 1993); Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The Past in Contemporary Britain (London, 1985) and The Village that Died for England: The Strange Story of Tyneham (London, 1995); Peter Mandler has criticized this rural nostalgia in ‘Against Englishness: English Culture and the Limits to Rural Nostalgia’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7 (1997): 155–175.
  3. ^ Surrey Mirror, 17 June 1938, 11.
  4. ^ Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 8 April 1938, np, newspaper cutting in scrapbook, Papers of E.M. Forster, King’s College Cambridge Archives. EMF 9/5/1.
  5. ^ Quoted in Val Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford, 1988), 258.
  6. ^ Ian Gordon Cherry and A.W. Rogers, Rural Change and Planning: England and Wales in the Twentieth Century (London, 1996), 48–49.
  7. ^ GB Historical GIS University of Portsmouth, Dorking UD through time, Population Statistics, Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time, accessed 13 June 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10102406/cube/TOT_POP.
  8. ^ Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 8 April 1938, np.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ See Stefan Collini, ‘The Literary Critic and the Village Labourer: “Culture” in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 14, no. 14 (2004): 93–116.
  11. ^ The locus classicus for this is Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (Cambridge, 1965).
  12. ^ E.M. Forster, ‘Preface to England’s Pleasant Land’, in E.M. Forster, Collected Works of E.M. Forster, Volume 10, ed. Elizabeth Heine (London, 1996), 33.
  13. ^ Manchester Guardian, 11 July 1938, 8.
  14. ^ Spectator, 21 July 1938, 15.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ The Times, 11 July 1938, 12.
  17. ^ Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 23 June 1939, 9.
  18. ^ Julia Briggs, ‘“Almost Ashamed of England Being So English”: Woolf and Ideas of Englishness’, in At Home and Abroad in the Empire: British Women Write the 1930s, ed. Robin Hackett, Freda Hauser and Gay Wachman (Newark, 2009), 115.
  19. ^ England’s Pleasant Land: A Remake, Ruth Beale, accessed 13 June 2016, http://ruthbeale.net/exhibition/englands-pleasant-land/.
  20. ^ Alexander Hutton, ‘The Pageant of Ambridge’, accessed 13 June 2016, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/blog/pageant-ambridge/.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘England’s Pleasant Land’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1061/