The Grand Empire Pageant 1909

Pageant type


Organised by the Primrose League. Addition information drawn from 'Survey of Historical Pageants by Mick Wallis'; with thanks to Eleanor Nannestad of Lincolnshire Central Library.

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Place: Sudbrooke Holme (Sudbrooke) (Sudbrooke, Lincolnshire, England)

Year: 1909

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 2


21 July 1909 at 2.30pm and 6.30pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Scott, Rev. C.H.
  • Pageant Mistress [Pageant Master]: Hutton, Miss I.
  • Producers: Mr J.H. Nicholl; Mrs. J.H. Nicholl
  • Organising Secretary: Mr G.H. Mill

Names of executive committee or equivalent


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

  • Nicholl, J.H.

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Plus 50 horses.

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

Though there was no explicit object, the pageant would undoubtedly have used any profits to fund Primrose League activities.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


There was ‘a very large audience, the grand stand being full, and there was quite a concourse all around.’1

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Admission: 6d.

Reserved seats: 5s.; 3s.; 2s. Half price if booked before 1 July.

Associated events


Pageant outline

Episode I

No information.

Episode II. The Signing of Magna Carta, 15 June 1215

Entrance of Barons and appearance of King John and his retinue. Fitz-Walter addresses the Barons. The text of Magna Carta is read out. King John signs, and the Barons propose new conditions which John also accepts. However, John refuses to give his word not to attempt invasion by Papal dispensation. After the dismissal of Barons, the episode closes with the rage of John and his resolve to defeat Fitz-Walter and his supporters.

Episode III. King Henry VIII Demanding Taxes for the Building of Great Ships to Defend the English Coasts—Thereby Laying the Foundation of Our Modern Navy, AD 1541

Henry VIII and Catherine Howard are seen at Gainsborough. The High Sheriff of Lincolnshire presents a petition against the excessive taxation, but, on the King declaring that he fears an invasion and must have money for his ships, the High Sheriff gladly admits the justice of taxation for such a purpose, and in the name of the citizens offers to provide a ship, to be called the ‘Great Harry’.

Episode IV. Queen Elizabeth Receiving the News of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada From Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher, AD 1588

The approach of Queen Elizabeth and her train disturbs the joyous celebration of some country folk. The Queen withholds her attendants from dismissing the people and expresses a desire to witness their sports. Drake and Frobisher arrive from the coast. They confirm all reports of the victory. The episode closes with a patriotic address of the Queen, the acclamations of the country folk, and a Morris dance.

Episode V

No information. This episode seems not to have been performed.

Episode VI. The Sailing of the Pilgrim Fathers, AD 1643

The Pilgrims are about to depart. Among them are Cromwell, Pym, Hampden, the Vicar of Boston (the Rev. J. Cotton) and many others, with their wives and children. They sing a hymn before embarking. Suddenly the King’s sheriffs and officers appear and arrest the emigrants. Finally, they are allowed to depart with the exception of Cromwell, Hampden and Pym, who are marched off by the sheriffs.

Episode VII. Britannia Receiving the Homage of the Children of the Empire

This final episode draws attention to the present extent of the Empire, gradually established from small beginnings. The figures represent as nearly as possible the subjects of King Edward VII throughout his world-wide dominions. Each country has a banner with its name and chief product:

  • England: Foot Soldier, Yeoman, Jack Tar, Farmer and Wife, Policeman, Fireman, Scout, etc.
  • Scotland: Laird, Gillie, Scotch girl and Boy.
  • Ireland: Paddy and Colleen.
  • Wales: Minstrel and Welshwoman.
  • Canada: Boatman, Cowboys, Red Indians and Squaws.
  • New Zealand: Maori and Wife.
  • Australia: Gold Miner and Bushranger.
  • India: Rajah, Rannee, Sikh, Goorkha, Pathan, Parsee, Ayah and Native Children.
  • British Columbia: Cowboy.
  • Newfoundland: Fisherman and Wife.
  • Ceylon: Cingalee and Wife.
  • Cyprus: Native and Wife.
  • Malta: Native and Wife.
  • Channel Isles: Flower Girl and Fruit Girl.
  • West Indies: Sugar Planter and Nigger Boys.
  • Africa: Diamond Miner, Kaffir, Hottentot, Sudanese, etc.

Britannia in her Car of State arrives, and her subjects perform homage and give gifts.

‘For God, King and Country’.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • John (1167–1216) king of England, and lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Henry V (1386–1422) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Katherine [Catherine; née Katherine Howard] (1518x24–1542) queen of England and Ireland, fifth consort of Henry VIII
  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
  • Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596) pirate, sea captain, and explorer
  • Frobisher, Sir Martin (1535?–1594) privateer, explorer, and naval commander
  • Cromwell, Oliver (1599–1658) lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland
  • Pym, John (1584–1643) politician
  • Hampden, John (1595–1643) politician
  • Cotton, John (1585–1652) minister in America

Musical production


Newspaper coverage of pageant

Lincolnshire Echo
Lincolnshire Chronicle
Yorkshire Post

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • The Grand Empire Pageant 1909, Organised and Arranged by Members and Friends of the ‘Lindum’, ‘Central’, and ‘Nettleham’. Programme. Lincoln, 1909.

References in secondary literature

  • Fireside Magazine, Oct. 1969, pp. 10-13.

    A short account of the pageant appears in this magazine, which is held in Lincolnshire Central Library.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Lincoln Central Library: Copy of Programme. Unbound Pageants, 3204.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The Grand Empire Pageant of 1909 programme was one of several imperial-themed pageants held before 1914, designed to instil patriotism and military values among participants and spectators (see Batley 1907). The programme included these rather jaunty questions under its ‘Appeal to the Young Men of Lincoln’ which are worth quoting at some length:

Do you believe in Religion as the basis of all good, government, and of all sound education?
Do you desire to see Rule and Legislation constitutionally carried out under King, Lords and Commons?
Do you wish to uphold our world-wide Empire in its integrity? Great Britain for Britons, including our Greater Briton ‘beyond the seas’, and to bind our magnificent Colonies ever closer to the Mother Country?
Do you believe in fair play for all classes—as contrasted with one-sided legislation by a Radical-Socialist party?
Do you wish your country to be adequately protected against any possibility of foreign invasion? Do you think it is better to be what is called ‘scared’ and to take precautions in time—or to wait till the enemy has opened our stable door and stolen our steeds?
Do you realize that you are one of the men who must decide the destinies of the country? Have you any care or thought for the future of this mighty empire—your mother-land, to which you owe as much affection and allegiance as to the human mother who reared you?2

This is classic stuff which one might expect from any self-respecting jingoistic imperialist from the generation of Cecil Rhodes or Lord Kitchener when notions of ‘fair play’ could include the annexation of Xhosa territory, the detention of Boer civilians in Concentration Camps, and pitching native warriors armed with spears against the Browning Machine gun or Enfield Repeating Rifle. The pageant organisers went on to ask:

Are you a cricketer? Can’t you spare some of your time to have an innings in the great national game, and knock up a good score for the Empire, and whether at home or abroad, to take the field and stump the enemies of your country.

Do you play football? Can’t you devote some of your leisure towards making the good of old England the goal of your ambition? Are you a golfer? Can’t you give up a few afternoons…and extend your interest to the ‘Links’ which should bind all English speaking people together? In short, won’t you ‘play the game’ and come out like a man to help us in our campaign for God, King and the County?3

If one agreed with this (and, presumably, if one read Boys’ Own Adventures), they concluded, one would also agree that ‘the time is fully come when an appeal should be made to the young men of Lincoln for their aid in the political work of our country and city.’4

The great game that the (presumably young) men of Lincoln were being enlisted for was membership of the local Primrose League. Though largely forgotten today, the Primrose League was what Andrew Roberts has described as ‘the largest voluntary mass movement in British history’, which acted as a grassroots movement for Disraelian Tory Democracy (the primrose had been Disraeli’s emblem).5 Founded by Lord Randolph Churchill in 1883, the group quickly grew out of all proportion and by 1910 claimed over 2 million members (larger than the trade union movement) at a time when the electorate numbered around 7.7 million. After the collapse of Churchill’s Parliamentary career, the Primrose League went from strength to strength. The staunchly aristocratic Conservative Party, represented by Lord Salisbury, had been hostile to the League at its inception and retained an ambivalent attitude towards mass movements in general. However, aside from its staunch commitment to empire and free trade, the League had little desire to influence Party policy or to decide who stood for election. Instead, it acted as a zealous champion of the spirit of conservatism, providing especially effective support at election times in the shape of an army of (mainly women) volunteers.6

The Primrose League and its local branches around Lincoln sought to recruit young men to the cause at an early age (the voting age was 21) and to make them lifelong Conservatives. The Liberals had won the Lincoln constituency in the landslide election of 1906,7 and the Primrose League hoped to stir up enough sentiment to take it back. Their pageant rode high on a great swell of patriotism, promoting the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty, shown in the first scene, and above all a naval-based empire. Such sentiments were commonplace at the time, and received considerable support in local press coverage. As the Lincolnshire Echo, addressing the lowly beginnings of ‘England’, explained: ‘Let us remember that the English gained England by being masters of the sea, and only by retaining this supremacy shall we be able to continue to uphold the greatness of this Empire, which has been built up from such small beginnings’.8 The allegory of the final scene, in which Britannia received Homage from the Children of Empire, was short through with the racist assumptions of the time—the representation of the entirety of Africa includes a diamond miner, a Kaffir (a racial term for a black African), a Hottentot (or Xhosa) and a Sudanese—who would have been performed by schoolchildren in blackface.

Preparations for the pageant went forward well, with the Lincolnshire Echo advertising excellent ticket sales and giving teasers for each episode, while attesting to its ‘mammoth scale’ and calling for volunteers to help knit chain mail.9 The anticipation of the pageant was somewhat dampened (literally) by the complaint of an anonymous correspondent, ‘Performer’, who wrote to the Echo complaining of one ‘wet and discouraging’ rehearsal where performers ‘had to struggle across dripping fields and muddy roads to take their share, and ensure the success of the performance.’10 To add insult to injury, ‘Performer’ complained: ‘When they reached the ground, however, what was their astonishment and disgust to find themselves shouted at and ordered about, as coolies are generally supposed to be treated? They were roundly scolded in stentorian tones for those little unavoidable mistakes which must happen on the occasion of a first general rehearsal…they found themselves treated like disobedient school children.’11 This was thoroughly repudiated both by the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ and by ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in subsequent issues of the same newspaper, who had evidently made up their longstanding religious differences to condemn the anonymous correspondent in no uncertain terms.12 The furious organisers of the pageant wrote to the paper demanding that the offender bring himself (they assumed it was a ‘he’) forwards immediately: ‘We should like the writer of it to place himself in communication with the pageant leaders, as it is very probable that great injury to what promised to be a most successful pageant will ensue unless a retraction is forthcoming from the writer. If ‘Performer’ has the best interests of the pageant at heart we feel sure that he will take the course suggested.’13 Given that the offending author would be up against over 500 performers (70 of them mounted and most of them armed), it is perhaps unsurprising that the offender did not, in fact, come forward and the matter was quietly dropped.

In the event, the pageant was evidently well received, with the Conservative-supporting Yorkshire Post remarking that ‘the weather, though dull, was fine, and there was a large attendance from all parts of Lincolnshire.’14 The reviewer noted that the pageant, which ‘was on a rather ambitious scale’, had as its object ‘to portray in some degree the growth of the Empire from the earliest times up to the present day, while, where possible, local scenes were introduced, and added greatly to the interest of the performance’. It praised a number of episodes and remarked that: ‘The park was an ideal spot for the pageant, the lake in the background being used with effect on several occasions.’15 The Lincolnshire Chronicle was even more enthusiastic, noting that the event was ‘brought off in really excellent style, the whole performance reflecting the greatest credit upon those responsible for the arrangements, and also upon those who had the training of performers on hand’. It added that there was ‘a very large audience, the grand stand being full, and there was quite a concourse all around.’16

Membership of the Primrose League reached its peak in 1909–1910 and by the eve of the First World War it had fallen back to around 500000 in face of competition from other groups such as the Tariff Reform, Budget Protest Leagues and also from a Conservative Party that was fast realising that it had to widen its membership.17 Many of the young men who performed in or were inspired by the pageant saw their dreams of ‘Fair Play’ and imperial adventures dashed on the battlefields of Northern France. The League’s stress on bellicose imperialism was simply unfit for the muted atmosphere after 1918, and it would never again hold an influential position. One of its key legacies, however, was the stress on women’s active participation within the movement (at a time when the Conservative Party was fiercely hostile to Women’s Suffrage). This helps explain why so many newly enfranchised women voted Conservative in the 1920s and 1930s.18 So, while the imperialist and racial ideals of the Primrose League were short-lived, the act of political participation (of which pageantry was a small but definite part) would prove key to the mass-member party democracy that characterised twentieth-century British politics.

The nearby village of Woodhall Spa held a grand pageant in 1911.


  1. ^ Lincolnshire Chronicle, 24 July 1909, 8.
  2. ^ The Grand Empire Pageant 1909, Organised and Arranged by Members and Friends of the ‘Lindum’, ‘Central’, and ‘Nettleham’ (Lincoln, 1909), np.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London, 1999), 276.
  6. ^ Alistair Cooke, ‘Founders of the Primrose League (act. 1883–c.1918)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 12 April 2016, See also Alistair Cooke, A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League, 1883–2004 (London, 2010); Martin Pugh, The Tories and the People 1880–1935 (Oxford, 1985).
  7. ^ F.W.S. Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results 1885–1918 (Chichester, 1989), 137.
  8. ^ Lincolnshire Echo, 24 June 1909, 4.
  9. ^ Lincolnshire Echo, 7 July 1909, 2 and 8 July 1909, 4.
  10. ^ Lincolnshire Echo, 16 July 1909, 4.
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^ Lincolnshire Echo, 17 July 1909, 3 and 19 July 1903, 3.
  13. ^ Lincolnshire Echo, 17 July 1909, 2.
  14. ^ Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 22 July 1909, 9.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Lincolnshire Chronicle, 24 July 1909, 8.
  17. ^ Pugh, Tories and the People, 178.
  18. ^ David Jarvis, ‘The Conservative Party and the Politics of Gender, 1900–1939’, in The Conservatives and British Society, 1880–1990, ed. M. Francis and I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska (Cardiff, 1996), 172–193; David Jarvis, ‘Mrs Maggs and Betty: The Conservative Appeal to Women Voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History 5, no. 2 (1994): 129–152; David Thackeray, ‘Home and Politics: Women and Conservative Activism in Early Twentieth Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies 49, no. 4 (2010), 826–848.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Grand Empire Pageant 1909’, The Redress of the Past,