Pageant of Rushden
Place: Rushden Hall Grounds (Rushden) (Rushden, Northamptonshire, England)
Number of performances: 3
12 and 14 July 1951
12 July 1951 at 7pm; 14 July 1951 at 2.30pm and 6.30pm.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Street, George
- Devised and Written by: Leonard V. Elliott
- Sub-Producers: Hylda Bugby; May Knight; Don Bugby.
- Conductor: William Scholes
- Narrator: John Sturgess
- Stage Manager: Leslie Priestley
- Business Manager: W.H. Imison
- Chief Wardrobe Mistress: Nellie Hart
- Scenic and Programme Artist : S.C. Ette
- Band Director: William Scholes
- Music Liaison: Joan Hart
- Riding Master: Ted Chettle
- Property Master: Herbert Ingram
- Assistant Property Master: Clive Daniels
- Ballet Mistress : Jose Marsh
- Effects Pianist: Harold James
- Call Boys: Bryan Bishop; Roy Jarvis; Robert Safford
- Chief Steward: Edward Wadsworth
- Wardrobe Mistress (Scene II): Rosemary Mackness
- Drama Leader (Scene III): Miss E.M. Orchard
- Drama Leaders (Finale): Elsie Gomm; Sheila Greig
- Dancing Mistresses (Finale): Janet Ferguson; Dorothy Furniss
- Choral Numbers Prepared by: John Cooke; Miss H. Foxworthy; Chris Francis; William Hardwick; Oswald Lawrence
- Programme Sellers : Lily Cooke (organiser); Ann Bettles; Joyce Bonham; Beatrice Daniels; Lilian Dickens; Barbara Dudley; May Garley; Ruth Gould; Jean Grayson; Ivy Ingram; Dorothy Johnson; Jenniffer Ladds; Irene Magee; Doreen Perkins; Joan Saddington; Gladys Towers; Audrey Tyler; Enid Warner; Margaret Watson; Stella Wicks; Elizabeth Wilson
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Treasurer: W.D. White
- Hon. Assistant Secretary: Phyllis Bryant
- Hon. Organiser: L.V. Elliott
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Elliott, Leonard V.
Names of composers
- Elliott, L.V.
- Handel, George Frideric
- Byrd, William
- Weelkes, Thomas
- Benet, John
Numbers of performers350
£850 was spent on the pageant (the council having only estimated costs of around £350) and thus making a deficit of around £500, which was met by the council. There is no information of how much of this was offset by admissions, but as there was a far lower attendance than expected, this would not have been very much causing a significant loss.1
Object of any funds raised
Linked occasionHeld as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain.
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: 1650
- Total audience: 2000
The figure of 2000 is an approximation. The programme suggested that there were a total of 15000 advance tickets available.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Forward rows: 5s. if booked before day of performance; 6s. on the day. All other seats: 3s. in advance; 4s. on day Promenade Tickets: Thousands available at 2s. Children: Half price in seating enclosure if accompanied by adults; half price to promenade area.
Associated eventsThere were a number of Festival of Britain concerts (14 and 15 July) which featured choral music from the Methodist Church, Band Club, Adult School and Rushden Girls’ Choir, conducted by John Cooke, Arthur Pack and Eric Hardwick. On Sunday there were choirs from the established and nonconformist churches with the Temperance, Town, and Mission Bands. Both events were attended by around 3000 people.
Episode I. Ancient Britons
Played by Rushden Operatic Society.
‘We can only assume that members of the ancient Coritani tribe would wander this way—perhaps with their primitive non-jet vehicles. If they did, they would probably halt for a snack, and their joint of brontosaurus would certainly be bigger than our modern joint of—whatever it is. And why should they not have been looking for Wobblingbarrow or Wymington (Town of Women)! For our purpose, however, they are not to be taken seriously. They seem, in their curious way, to have got Present and Future all mixed up, and, frankly, we cannot accept their preposterous theory about the origin of leather and boots. The best thing, it appears, is to hurry them off and avoid confusion. If any of them should by some mysterious means return in later centuries, we can only hope they will be as observant and orderly as possible.’3’
Episode II. Early Middle Ages
Played by the YMCA Dramatic Group.
‘This is the point at which we stick our teeth fairly and squarely into local history, for the Domesday Book gave us definite records of the village, its land and certain establishments. The liberty of the subject was not then a matter of great concern, and the people were little more than slaves under the local rule of an autocratic bailiff, who in turn had plenty of overlords, among them the Bishop of Contances, in Normandy, to whom heavy dues were payable. In our scene some yokels reveal something of the toil, disease and ignorance which marked those days, and other characters draw some comparison with the more consequential status of neighbouring Hecham. To relieve what might have been a gloomy picture the day is rated as a holiday—especially for the children—and the bailiff is caught in one of his weaker but perhaps more humane moments.’
Episode III. John of Gaunt at Hisham Park
Played by the Rushden Operatic Society.
‘In the time of John of Gaunt, Hisham Park was, as now, part and parcel of Rushden. Heavily stocked with game, it extended to 600 acres within a continuous hedge and ditch ("The Border") and had a large moated lodge, complete with chapel, bakehouse, brewhouse and smithy. There were two drawbridges. The Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), whose second wife was daughter of the King of Spain, hunted from the lodge when in residence at Hisham Castle. At the time of our scene (dated 1372) the spire had just been added to the parish Church of "Ryssheden." Authentic characters, place-names and local colour come readily into the dialogue. The journey of the hay cart, the granting of bucks and an oak tree to Sir William Croyser, the repair of the mills and the violent poaching affair led by Stephen Bailey, of Rothwell, spring from the records of the period. The Hunt prospered for many years, and the Park was never ploughed until the time of the Civil Wars.’
Episode IV. Rushden Court
Played by the Rejects’ Club.
‘Few people realise that Rushden long held its own court of justice, or that records of cases tried—often in the open air—exist in plenty. The tithingmen—each responsible for keeping his neighbours in order—were busy people, and not so virtuous as to escape occasional appearances in the role of defendant. Jurors were equally fallible, and it was nothing unusual for one to return to the jury bench after facing some accusation against himself. The "Court Leet and Law Day of Ryssheden and the Park" for Michaelmas, 1439, left us some interesting material, for one of the defendants was none other than William Chicheley, of Higham Ferrers, brother of the famous Henry. He had neglected to keep in repair the bridge which then divided Higham and Rushden, and we may imagine this man of culture taking a poor view of the occasion. An assault case with which the scene opens is also an actual one from the Court Rolls, and the official pronouncements and jurors' names are no less interesting. Opportunity has been taken to mention the Leper Hospital of St James, which stood for centuries near the Rushden-Higham boundary, and "Bung Eddy," the ghost of lonely Spital Hill (now Higham Road).’
Episode V. The Pembertons at Rushden Hall
Played by the St Cecilia Singers.
‘Not for the first time in its history, Rushden Hall is in need of restoration, and the town rejoices to know that the necessary work may begin during Festival Year. At the time of our Elizabethan scene Robert Pemberton had lately rebuilt and enlarged the house following a disastrous fire. The Pembertons lived there for 200 years, and we delight to picture the family at the height of its affluence, with Robert—a Gentleman Usher to the Queen—his wife Mary and his brother Sir Goddard, High Sheriff of Hertford, accompanied by relatives, guests, retainers and people of the village. Robert and Mary's children—some of the eight portrayed on the monument in St Mary's Church were yet unborn—walk with the ciders through the park. Dances are called, and the Elizabethans weave their madrigals with a degree of skill that is prophetic of Rushden's present standing in music.’
Episode VI. Rushden Concerts
Played by the Rushden Operatic Society.
‘For this scene we claim special notice and attention because, through it, Rushden for the first time pays tribute to one of its outstanding characters—the small-coal man who gave London its first concerts and was the friend of great musicians (notably Handel) and the aristocracy of l7th Century London. If our town has hitherto neglected its homage to this remarkable man, there is at least one good reason, for only in recent times did a search of the parish registers establish Rushden definitely as Britton's birthplace, another town having usually received the credit. The loft where the concerts were held cannot conveniently be represented in an open-air performance, and our alternative is the dream technique, the scene being a Rushden glade where young Tom, on the eve of his migration to London, falls asleep and into the spell of St Cecilia. In the dream the life and character of our celebrity are sketched by his contemporaries and Thomas himself appears, as if drawn from the Shades by the lure of Handel's music.’
Episode VII. Early Nineteenth Century
Played by Central and St Crispin Townswomen’s Guilds.
‘In the early 19th Century, Rushden had no more than 800 inhabitants and was not yet conscious of the Industrial movement that within sixty or seventy years would make it one of Northamptonshire's chief towns. The still rural atmosphere lent itself to the simplest forms of social pursuit, and much was made of traditional occasions such as May Day. According to the late Mr J. Enos Smith, who was organist at St Mary's and made local history a hobby, the old-time May Day could be rowdy, especially when village youths raided the back yards and carried off loose properties such as mops and buckets, to lodge them on the coping of the Round House. This now-vanished lock-up stood on the Green, with a pound nearby. It was on the Green, too, that the women and children saluted the day more graciously. There would be dancing and singing, the May Queen's procession would appear, and the May Day song associated with Northamptonshire would certainly be heard. If the Rector appeared and made a little speech, we are sure he would say, as public speakers have never ceased to do, that for a small place Rushden had a great amount of talent.’
‘We need no lesson in the modern history of Rushden, but William Smith, the ageless shoemaker, assisted by the Shoe Ballet and other figures, may well pay tribute to the craftsmanship from which has sprung the country's most intensive centre of boot and shoe manufacture. The wars of the last century would have provided much dramatic material, but it seems to us that a conflict of atmosphere is best avoided, and for a general token of the spirit that met each trial of the Rushden (and British) character we greet one of the town's oldest Home Front institutions, the St John Nursing Division, now celebrating its "golden" jubilee. Before the final ensemble there is a beckoning of youth "to take the good we hold, and build upon it with a courage bold." The Pageant closes with a thought expressed in song. Now from the varied scenes that brought us to this hour Courage we gather for a way unknown. What shall we fear from hooded change or circumstance, What hold in doubt against the past we own? Here have we lived; here may we pledge in faith serene That wells from pages we have turned with pride To honour still the best we know of yesteryear. And lift our hearts to new shores on a glorious tide.’
Key historical figures mentioned
- Harold II [Harold Godwineson] (1022/3?–1066) king of England
- William I [known as William the Conqueror] (1027/8–1087) king of England and duke of Normandy
- John [John of Gaunt], duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399) prince and steward of England
- Britton, Thomas (1644–1714) concert promoter, book collector, and coal merchant
- Handel, George Frideric (1685–1759) composer
Musical productionIncidental Music by Rushden Temperance Band, conducted by William Scholes. The music—apart from the overture, the frequent fanfares, one modern dance and a final chorus—was largely by the Elizabethan madrigalists, G.F. Handel, and traditional and local song and dance sources. There were short entr'actes, and the Ancient Britons had their own comedy theme. Music included:
- L.V. Elliott. ‘The Overture’. Composed for the Pageant by L.V. Elliott and arranged for brass band by William Scholes.
- Byrd. ‘All Hail, Thou Merry Month of May’ (Episode V).
- Weelkes. ‘As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending’ (Episode V).
- Benet. ‘All Creatures Now Are Merry Minded’ (Episode V).
- Handel. ‘Where'er You Walk’, sung by Mary Wills (Episode VI).
- Handel. ‘Silent Worship’, sung by Douglas Gilbert (Episode VI).
- Handel. ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’, harpsichord (Episode VI).
- Handel. Largo, sung by Operatic Chorus (Episode VI).
- Northamptonshire Song, May Day (Episode VI).
- Northamptonshire song, ‘The Sweet Rosy Morning’ (Episode VI).
- Dances, ‘Come Lasses and Lads,’ ‘Begone, Dull Care’ (Episode VI).
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Rushden Echo and Argus
Book of words
- Pageant of Rushden, 1951. Rushden, 1951.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- The Rushden Heritage group has made available the book of words, newspaper cuttings and photographs on its website, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951.html and http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951news.html.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- Domesday Book. c.1086.
A number of scenes were based on records and writings collected by Mr Norman A. Groome.
Though based on the Southbank of London, home of the famous ‘Skylon’, the 1951 Festival of Britain sought to have an impact across the regions through local exhibitions, concerts and events.4 The Festival—which embraced technological modernity but also harked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851—sought to foster a spirit of communalism created by the shared experience of war and the development of the welfare state; it was thus ideally represented by historical pageants. These ranged from relatively large affairs such as the Three Towns Pageant at Hampton Court to relatively small village performances, including Northamptonshire Festival pageants at Kettering and Wollaston. Whilst a large number of earlier pageants had tended to focus on the prominent events of a place, which generally featured Kings, Dukes and other prominent or aristocratic people, the pageants held during the Festival of Britain tended to focus on the activities of more ordinary people, their dramatization of the past being presented as a form of social history influenced by G.M. Trevelyan’s phenomenally popular English Social History (1944).
The Rushden Pageant was a typical example, being dedicated to presenting the history of a place through a stress on the continuity of history rather than key events featuring prominent people (see entries for the Pageants of Headley and East Grinstead). As the foreword to the pageant by Cyril Faulkner, the Chairman of Rushden Urban District Council made clear, the pageant was intensely inward-looking: ‘In common with almost every other town and hamlet, Rushden has attempted something worthy of its people and their talents. It has tried to cater for the young and the aged—and for every taste. The author of the Pageant of Rushden has produced a remarkable story of Rushden through the ages. Its simple theme is Rushden and its people.’5 He went on to add that ‘The aim of the Pageant is not purely one of entertainment, but we hope it will bring some enrichment to the community life of this town that will endure for long after the Festival celebrations are over.’6 The quotidian nature of the pageant was further emphasized by its author, Leonard V. Elliott, a local reporter and Vice-President of the Operatic Society, who warned spectators that those who considered that ‘a battle here, an execution there, some famous rite, procession or pilgrimage, or at the least a personage whose celebrated name could be read at some modern street corner had always been the essential material of a script’ would be sorely disappointed.7 The pageant, he maintained, ‘reveals only the life and characters of a quiet village that was for several centuries even obscure’, telling a story which found ‘room for the gentler side of history; to observe how a useful, industrious town can evolve from simple living; to feel that some remote incident or celebrity need not be quoted or canonized as a justification for our survival.’8 Elliott was thus consciously presenting his own pageant in marked distinction to previous ideals of pageantry.
The pageant was as good as its word in eschewing, for the most part, key events and battles in favour of presenting a narrative which stressed continuity and the gradual evolution of Rushden into one of the country’s foremost shoe manufacturing towns. This fact was referenced a number of times, most notably in the ‘Shoe Ballet’ of the finale. Other scenes presented everyday scenes of each age, based largely on local sources. Where the aristocracy is presented, it is often as oppressors of the common people, taxing them, forcing them to work on their lands as serfs, or executing them for poaching. It is only the fifth episode, presenting the Pembertons at Rushden Hall during the Elizabethan period, which presents the ruling classes as a benign part of local society. This is done through portraying them as local patrons of culture (another theme of the Festival of Britain). The following episode, dealing with the early life in Rushden of Thomas Britton, the coal merchant and later concert organiser, again presents the theme that wealth or social status comes with an obligation to society, which can be met through the pursuit or dissemination of culture—such as the music of Handel, who appears in this episode. The Festival of Britain was closely attached to the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which put on concerts and exhibitions across the country with a view to democratizing culture and which became the Arts Council.
If this was the ideal of a New Jerusalem, in which class distinctions could be merged through the performing and witnessing of common history, the reality fell somewhat short. Sadly, only 2000 viewed the three performances, an attendance figure which fell far short of expectations; quite possibly people were put off by the relatively high price of admission. Moreover, given that Rushden’s population at the time was 16370 (a thousand fewer than in 1939), expectations that a pageant so focused on the ordinary life of Rushden would attract visitors from neighbouring towns may well have been overly optimistic.9 The Rushden Echo and Argus suggested that ‘Perhaps those who stayed away were unaware that the best has to carry a price.’10 Nonetheless, it went on: ‘The discriminating ones found that they had been offered only the best—a superb setting that enhanced the natural beauty of the park; a flow of humour and surprise; an acting standard in which the inexperienced vied keenly with the stage-tried companies; music that lived with its setting; scenes that bore the conviction of history re-created.’11 The paper went on to praise the performance, particularly the hunting scene, ‘Tom Britton’s Dream’, and the early nineteenth-century May-Day, which was ‘a pastel picture teeming with life and spirit.’12 Despite the somewhat lacklustre attendance, the pageant was praised by W.E. Capon, chairman of the Festival Committee, and C.G. Faulkner, the Council Chairman. The £500 deficit was met by the council. Surprisingly, this was done graciously with little attempt to blame the pageant organizers for overspending. Councillor Capon ‘expressed appreciation of the work which was done “so magnificently, so generously and with such enthusiasm”’, as did his colleague, Councillor J. Allen, who said that ‘the pageant was “very gloriously done” and a great credit to the town.’13 Only Councillor A.A. Allebone, chairman of the Council Financial Committee, blamed the pageant for overspending.14
Present at the pageant were three local Labour MPs, Mr George Lindgren (Wellingborough), Mr A.C. Allen (Bosworth) and G.R. Mitchinson (Kettering). Though all three held their seats at the General Election in October, the Labour Party was defeated, bringing this remarkable interlude in British history to a close.15 The Conservative Party had been notoriously hostile to the Festival of Britain and proceeded to dismantle much of the Southbank site.16 Though many of the achievements of the 1945–51 Labour government continue in one form or another to the present day, the popular idealism and belief that a shared sense of identity, culture and history could transcend class differences and create a fairer society failed to live up to the reality. The electorate, like the people of Rushden, were underwhelmed at a society where the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy was replaced by the rather bland grey world of the ‘Queutopia’—in which the lionized common person still had to wait in line to buy the necessities of life which were still rationed after six years of peace. It is thus unsurprising that in the next wave of pageants—held to commemorate the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953—royalty and the aristocracy held sumptuous pride of place, with the common people shunted once again into the background.
- The Rushden Echo and Argus, 12 October 1951 and 16 November 1951, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/history/councilmeetingOct+Nov1951.html.
- The Rushden Echo and Argus, 22nd June 1951, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951news.html.
- All quotations from Pageant of Rushden, 1951 (Rushden, 1951), np, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951.html.
- Becky Conekin, The Autobiography of a Nation: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester, 2003), 88–104. See also Mark Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Social History 38 (2013): 423–55.
- Cyril G. Faulkner, ‘Civic Foreword’, in Pageant of Rushden, 1951 (Rushden, 1951), np, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951.html.
- L.V.E., ‘Introduction’, in Pageant of Rushden.
- Population of Rushden, in A Vision of Britain Through Time, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10216400/cube/TOT_POP.
- Rushden Echo and Argus, 20 July 1951, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/leisure/pageant1951news.html.
- Rushden Echo and Argus, 12 October 1951 and 16 November 1951, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/history/councilmeetingOct+Nov1951.html.
- ‘UK General Election Results 1951’, accessed 13 January 2016, http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge51/ge51index.htm.
- Conekin, Autobiography of a Nation, 232–6.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pageant of Rushden’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1180/