Guildford Pageant Play

Other names

  • ‘The Town of the Ford’

Pageant type

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Place: Guildford Theatre Royal (Guildford) (Guildford, Surrey, England)

Year: 1925

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 17


18–30 May 1925

18 May at 7.30pm, 19 May at 7.30pm, 20 May at 2.30pm and 7.30pm, 21 May at 7.30pm, 22 May at 7.30pm, 23 May at 2.30pm and 7.30pm, 24 May at 7.30pm, 25 May at 7.30pm, 26 May at 7.30pm, 27 May at 2.30pm and 7.30pm, 28 May at 7.30pm, 29 May at 7.30pm, 30 May at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Robertson, W. Graham
  • Producer: Mrs Kendall
  • Dance Arranger: Betty Kendall
  • Music: Thomas F. Dunhill
  • Musical Director: Claud Powell
  • Designs, &c.: Hugh Owen

Names of executive committee or equivalent


  • Lieuenant of Surrey
  • High Sheriff of Surrey

Executive Committee:

  • Chairman: Lawrence Powell
  • W. Graham Robertson
  • Thomas F. Dunhill
  • Captain Claud Powell
  • Mrs Hopewell
  • Alderman H.E. Smith
  • F.J. Hooke

Finance Committee:

  • Chairman: Alderman W.T. Patrick

Wardrobe Committee:

  • Chairman: Walter Harrison

Publicity Committee:

  • Chairman: L.C. Biddle

Gala Ball:

  • Mrs C.W. Alsh
  • Mrs Hoskins Master

Popular Dance:

  • G. Russell Cox

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

  • Robertson, W. Graham

Names of composers

  • Dunhill, Thomas E.

Numbers of performers


Financial information

The pageant made £500 profit.

Object of any funds raised

To raise money for a Public Hall in Guildford.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 11000

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

£1. 1s.–2s. 4d.

Associated events

  • 20 May: Popular Pageant Dance (Fancy Dress or Evening Dress), 9pm–3am.
  • 21 May: Pageant Ball, 10pm.
  • A cabaret Show (presumably all week).

Pageant outline

Episode I. The Building of the Towers

An invocation is chanted by the twin guardians of Guildford, Saint Martha and Saint Catherine, who descend before raising the golden watchtowers on the stage.

Episode II. The Wares of Phoenecia [Phoenicia] and the Legions of Rome

Tribesmen and hunters gaze at strangers from beyond the sea, including Phoenician merchants who offer strange wares. British maidens barter hides, pearls and even kisses with them. A song is heard from the Legions of Rome who emerge on stage and talk to the local herdsmen. They name the place Vadum Aureum—the Golden Ford—before advancing offstage.

Episode III. The Fair Maid of Astolat

A town rises by the ford, and we see an episode from Arthurian romance. A strange knight approaches and is greeted by his two sons. The knight is Lancelot.

Episode IV. The Guild of the Ford and the Aetheling’s Curse

There is traffic on the ford, and the town has grown markedly. The King is expected with his nephew Aethelwald, to whom he has bequeathed the manor. They enter in disguise, before revealing themselves. The action then moves to a later date, where we see Alfred, son of Aethelred and Emma, enter on his way to Winchester. He is detained by Earl Godwin and King Harold Harefoot. Alfred realises he has fallen among enemies and that the summons to Winchester was a forgery. He is dragged away to a grisly death, cursing them.

Episode V. The Canterbury Pilgrims

We see pilgrims from Chaucer’s tale who present their stories briefly, with Geoffrey Chaucer mediating to stop the discussions becoming too heated.

Episode VI. The Masque of Gloriana

The queen is passing through on her way to Losely, and the Mayor of Guildford has put on a masque. The queen is borne under a canopy to her host, Sir William More of Losely, and the masque proceeds. The nervous youth playing the leading lady forgets his words, but a young boy, George Abbot, steps in and saves the performance. Elizabeth summons him, and he says he means to become Archbishop of Canterbury and will build a church in the town. The queen gives him her blessing.

Episode VII. A Vision of Vanity Fair

John Bunyan sits by his door mending a kettle. Presently, he falls asleep. The music becomes feverish and ominous, and phantoms of his disordered brain perform a dance. Participants in this dance include characters from the debauched city of Vanity Fair, which features in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

Episode VIII. The Message of the Mist

A mist descends over the town. Grote has been drawn to service and is seeking to buy a substitute, which George Austen agrees for £26, despite the tears of Lucy his lover. Austen tears up the paper, declaring that all men are needed to fight; he goes to sign up anyway, with an inspired Grote, taking a coach with drunken passengers to Portsmouth. The news of Wellington’s victory is proclaimed and there is merrymaking.


Key historical figures mentioned

  • Alfred Ætheling (d. 1036/7) prince
  • Godwine [Godwin], earl of Wessex (d. 1053) magnate
  • Harold I [called Harold Harefoot] (d. 1040) king of England
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400) poet and administrator
  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
  • More, Sir Christopher (b. in or before 1483, d. 1549) landowner and administrator
  • Abbot, George (1562–1633) archbishop of Canterbury [also known as Abbott, George]
  • Bunyan, John (bap. 1628, d. 1688) author

Musical production

The music, composed by Thomas Dunhill and performed by Claud Powell and the Guildford Symphony Orchestra, was later adapted to the ‘Guildford Suite’ as a BBC commission.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Surrey Times
Daily News
Daily Telegraph
Morning Post
Guildford Outlook
Musical News and Herald
The Times
Daily Mail
Surrey Mirror
Portsmouth Evening News

Book of words

An Illustrated Synopsis of The Guildford Pageant Play ‘The Town of the Ford’. London, 1925.

Price: 2s. 6d.

Other primary published materials

  • The Town of the Ford. Programme. Guildford, 1925.

Price: 3d.

References in secondary literature

  • Simpson, Roger. Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922–2005. Woodbridge, 2008. At 9.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Surrey History Centre, Woking:
  • Copy of book of words, newspaper cuttings and correspondence. 791.6p.
  • Programme. 6798/File31.
  • Correspondence, typescript and thank you book. 9353/2–4.
  • Programme and further correspondence. 1756/8/3.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. London, 1678.


Historical pageants sought to be remembered long after they had ended and to have a lingering impact in the towns and communities where they were held. The Warwick Pageant (1906) opened a Pageant House in the town (now used by the council as a registry office), and the Bury St Edmunds Pageant (1907) opened a sanatorium with the funds raised . The Guildford Pageant, The Town of the Ford, sought to do something similar, with the programme boldly stating: ‘The Proceeds of the Pageant Play, and of the other attractions during the fortnight, will go to form the nucleus of a fund, which will be put into the hands of trustees to be appointed at a public meeting, and will be used, as and when opportunity occurs, to provide, or to help to provide, a new and larger Public Hall in Guildford.’2

It was perhaps an irony, then, that the pageant should have been held in the Theatre Royal, a perfectly good venue, rather than in the open air. The Daily Mail wrote that ‘the undertaking to set out in pageant form a series of episodes ranging from the Roman invasion down to the last century was an ambitious one’, going on to note that ‘this class of entertainment’ is ‘associated more with open spaces than with the necessary limitations of a small stage’. Fortunately, ‘the whole production, however, has been carried with a sense of artistry which prevents any appearance of crudeness’.3 In the event, the decision to stage proceedings indoors proved to be a wise one. After the opening night, the Times newspaper, which had already given its opinion that the pageant ‘promises to be long remembered in the social annals of West Surrey’,4 was happy to report how:

The organisers of the pageant certainly proved their wisdom in making it an indoor affair, for last night a thunderstorm began almost as the first scene started. As the thunder pealed and the lightning flashed over St Martha’s Chapel at Chilworth…St. Martha and St. Catherine…stepped on to the stage, and at the bidding of these two guardians of Guildford the pageant began.5

Despite this, the Daily Telegraph could not help suggesting, after a string of warm sunny days that followed the impromptu storm, that ‘if the present spell of summer weather could have been foreseen, the confines of a theatre would have been dispensed with’.6

The pageant certainly used the theatre to great effect, integrating lavish scenery and decoration that represented the town through the two towers of Guildford, Saint Martha and Saint Catherine, which provided a striking frame for each scene. In the second scene, the town rises as it is built by the Romans (albeit in miniature scale). Many newspapers praised the scenery in of Episode VII, which featured John Bunyan’s fictional city of Vanity Fair from his Pilgrim’s Progress, a vivid representation of everything bad about seventeenth-century England.7 An appreciative audience member went so far as to write to W. Graham Robertson, praising the scenery above all:

The whole thing was wonderful and the staging of the Vanity Fair scene miraculous and overpowering in its effect. The plain scenery in which the episodes were set appeared to me to be, in its simplicity and dignity, perfect. [I] was impressed with the care and attention that has been given to producing in excellent form your amazing conception. As a resident in the old town, and as one who has always loved it and its history, I must thank and congratulate you.8

The pageant benefitted from theatrical props and proper incidental music that was not lost outdoors; in fact, the music, composed by Thomas Dunhill and performed by Claud Powell and the Guildford Symphony Orchestra, was later adapted to the ‘Guildford Suite’ as a BBC commission.9

A further benefit came from sound amplification; this allowed the presentation of scenes which the audience could follow with ease, without recourse to the book of words. The Surrey Mirror praised its dramatic style: ‘It is couched in poetical language, and, next to the descriptive, drama is the dominant note, though here and there it is lightened by touches of comedy.’10 In fact, the Surrey Times highlighted the effectiveness of the performance to an audience who attended ‘with mixed feelings’, uncertain whether ‘amateurs’ could hold a stage as effectively as professional actors:

Those who went in such a mood received a pleasant surprise, even as the curtain rose for the unfolding of the story. Their surprise and wonder increased as episode followed episode without a hitch or a fault, until at last they were wondering whether it was ‘mere amateurs’ they were watching. During the past week many have expressed their ungrudging admiration of the production with a certain sense of apology—clear evidence of the impression the pageant has made.11

Initial reports suggested a lack of enthusiasm from the town, with a number of free seats, despite the large number of complimentary tickets which had been given to the press beforehand.12 Nonetheless, as the Surrey Times wrote, word quickly spread:

The rather poor attendances at the first two performances last week was, happily, no criterion of the ‘houses’ to come. On Wednesday the demand for seats increased steadily, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday there were few seats left in any part of the theatre. The wisdom of the producers in carrying the production over a fortnight was only too well borne out this week, when, instead of the audiences falling off, as was predicted in many quarters, the players performed to almost capacity houses each evening and also at the matinees.13

Though the pageant clearly lost something in terms of the scale and visceral effect of an outdoor pageant, The Town of the Ford, seen by around 11000 spectators, showed that indoor pageant-plays could be both effective and popular.14 A wonderful handmade book of a number of the pageant verses and the signatures of all the cast and production team was given to Graham Roberton in thanks.15

The pageant was successful, though not hugely so, and renting a theatre and producing lavish props reduced the overall profit to £500. This was clearly not enough to build a hall from scratch. As a result, no steps were taken towards effecting the ostensible object of the event until the Surrey Times asked, more than a quarter of a century later, ‘How many Guildfordians remember the highly successful pageant which was held in the town back in 1925?’, and suggested that the council might now wish to spend the money raised all those years ago.16 C.H. Coe of the council wrote to the surviving trustees of the Guildford pageant, pointing out that ‘the original object of the fund has become sufficiently impracticable as to justify some alteration in the application’, and estimating that in current money the hall would cost around £200000. Thus the pageant fund, which had risen to £680 with compound interest, ‘would be a mere drop in the ocean’. Coe suggested that ‘the money be handed to the Trustees of St. Nicholas Hall for its renovation’.17 A council memo of the same time ran: ‘Art is long and Life is Short and we wish to get the Hall ready for Coronation year.’18

This hope was to prove vain. While St Nicholas Hall was used by the Guildford Symphony Orchestra and was home of the Surrey School of Music, the buildings were in fact owned by the church which was unwilling to pay for the renovation itself. Although a number of the surviving trustees agreed with the plan, including Claud Powell who directed the orchestra at the pageant, others were far less favourable: one even wrote to his fellows that ‘I would not feel able to be associated with an organisation which made an application of the kind you are contemplating’, and resigned his membership of the board.19 The altercation became increasingly acrimonious and public, with the council threatening to dissolve the board and to appoint more pliable members; members of the board in turn wrote to local papers, protesting that the fund was held in the public interest and that the council was violating its constitutional responsibilities.20

Guildford held a large, successful pageant in 1957 (this time held outdoors). However, this had nothing to do with the 1925 pageant, which was a source of continuing bad blood. The Town of the Ford lingered in the city’s memory, though sadly for the wrong reasons.


  1. ^ Roger Simpson, Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922–2005 (Woodbridge, 2008), 9.
  2. ^ The Town of the Ford (Guildford, 1925), 5.
  3. ^ Daily Mail, 19 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.
  4. ^ The Times, 18 April 1925, 15.
  5. ^ The Times, 20 May 1925, 10.
  6. ^ Daily Telegraph, 21 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.
  7. ^ Surrey Times, 30 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 9353/2.
  8. ^ Letter by unknown author to W. Graham Robertson, 30 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 6798/File31.
  9. ^ Roger Simpson, Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922–2005 (Woodbridge, 2008), 9.
  10. ^ Surrey Mirror, 22 May 1925, 10.
  11. ^ Surrey Times, 30 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 9353/2.
  12. ^ Surrey Mirror, 22 May 1925, 10.
  13. ^ Surrey Times, 30 May 1925, unpaginated cutting, Surrey History Centre. 9353/2.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Copy in Surrey History Centre. 9353/4.
  16. ^ Surrey Times, 21 June 1952, cutting, Surrey History Centre.
  17. ^ C.H. Coe to Trustees of the Guildford Pageant 1925, July 1952, Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.
  18. ^ Memo [nd, mid-1952?], Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.
  19. ^ [?] Harper to D. Owen and Claud Powell, 14 and 22 July 1952, Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.
  20. ^ Surrey Advertiser, 5 December 1953, cutting, Surrey History Centre. 791.6p.

How to cite this entry

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