The Wells Pageant

Other names

  • The Wells Historical Pageant

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Stoberry Park (Wells) (Wells, Somerset, England)

Year: 1923

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 2


24–25 July 1923, 2.30pm

A scheduled full dress rehearsal on 23 July was cancelled due to the poor weather.1

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Townsend, Cecil
  • Honorary Secretary: Mr H.E. Balch
  • Assistant Secretary: Mr Foster
  • Honorary Treasurer: R.M. Stewart
  • Conductor: Mr Arthur Trowbridge

Names of executive committee or equivalent

General Committee:

  • Mrs Stallard
  • Mrs Evan Davis
  • Mr McClure Wilson
  • Miss Barnes
  • Miss Denison
  • Mr Barnes
  • Mr Normansell
  • Mr R.M. Stewart
  • Mr E. Foster
  • Mr A.E. Chubb
  • 6 men, 4 women = 10 total

Business Committee:

  • Chairman: Mr P. Williams
  • Treasurer: Mr R.M. Stewart
  • Treasurer: Mr E. Foster
  • 6 men, 3 women = 9 total

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

  • Balch, H.E.
  • Stallard, Mrs Arthur
  • Farrer, Walter
  • Whitham, G.I.


  • Episode I. Written by H.E. Balch, Produced by H.E. Balch and R.M. Stewart.
  • Episode II. Written by Mrs Arthur Stallard, Produced by Miss Hilda Perkins.
  • Episode III. Written by the Very Rev. the Dean of Wells, Produced by Mrs Evan Davies and Mrs McClure Wilson.
  • Episode IV. Devised by Mrs Arthur Stallard, Produced by Captain Cecil Townsend.
  • Episode V. Written by Mrs Arthur Stallard, Produced by Miss Caritt.
  • Episode VI. Written by Miss Whitham, Produced by Mr A.E. Chubb.

Names of composers

  • Davis, Thomas Henry
  • Goudge, J.A.
  • Goudge, Mr F.

Davis was the cathedral organist

Numbers of performers


Men, women, children. Horses.

Financial information

Approximately £100 profit.2

Object of any funds raised

In aid of a fund to purchase a hall of the Well’s Women’s Institute.

Linked occasion


Audience information

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


‘Over 2000’ for the first performance.3 For the second performance the weather was substantially worse and, after expecting a high attendance, the organisers and press were somewhat disappointed.4

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

5s.–1s. 3d.

  • Reserved and Covered seats 5s. and 3s. 6d.
  • Unreserved 2s. 4d. including tax and admission.
  • Admission only 1s. 3d. including tax.

Associated events

  • Old Wells Fair following the Pageant from 5pm to 10pm, featuring coconut shies, rifle range, skittles, stalls etc. Admission to fair, 8d.
  • Grand Concert with morris dancing and the Wells City Prize Band. Dance at 9pm each night.

Pageant outline

Episode I. Wookey Hole Cave, 200 BC

Scouts enter, followed by a party of Celts from Brittany; they settle in the cave as men and women work around them, spinning, making pottery, and sharpening tools. The Chief from Brittany tells a messenger to find his brother in the marshes and tell him of their new cavern home. After the messenger exits, they light a fire, as the occupation of the cave begins. Priests enter, and are greeted by the Chief. Druids then enter carrying sacred fire. A Priest, somewhat rudely, asks the women who they are and why they ‘sit as if at home?’ before ordering them to bring their chief. The Chief and the Priest discuss where the Chief has come from, the Chief explaining that they came from afar, escaping tribal warfare, their holy priest suggesting that they come to the land of Mendip. The Priest welcomes him and his men. The Priest then heals the Chiefs daughter, who has fallen in the cave, as iron and pottery work is shown. Hunters then enter, laden with spoils, and sing a song about their occupation. The Chief then also sings a song of the Lay of the Bard of Wookey, remembering the Brittany home from where he came, and the new land that he has reached. The Priest then declares peace between their respective peoples, before all sing a Chant of Peace. The Priest then prophesises that the new arrivals will change the Mendips, and that, eventually, new tribal warfare will break out, driving their people out of the region to the west and north; yet, in the eventuality, they will all do their best. The Priest bids them farewell, before all the priests exit.

Episode II. Wookey Hole, 200 AD

A Roman enters and asks an old man for directions to the house of Martellus of Diner. After the old man tells him, he is rewarded with a coin; the old man then warns the Roman of the dangers of the Witch of Wookey cave. The Roman is not afraid, and resolves to go and see for himself. After the old man exits, the witch comes out from the cave; somewhat delirious, she babbles about the evil from over-the-sea. After declaring rabidly that her cauldron will be filled, she disappears back into the cave. Nine girls now enter and dance around the Roman, who is overcome, before a beautiful girl approaches and sings a mysterious song about the fruit of Glaston, and her quest to ask the witch who will wed the chieftain’s daughter ‘and rule from sea to sea.’ The witch re-enters, and tells the girl that she sees in the future the chieftain being made into a slave. The Chieftain and his hunters now enter, seeking answers for their ill-luck in finding food; the witch blames the Romans. The witch then makes clear to the girl that she means to eat the Roman, supported eagerly by the hunters. As the girl tries to persuade the Chieftain, her father, to stop the murder, the other hunters approach the Roman menacingly. The girl suddenly decides that, if her father will not help the Roman, she will die with him. Roman soldiers suddenly enter, provoking the exit of the witch, and save the Roman; he exits with the girl, in a chariot, declaring that the cave is a place of evil. The dance of Wyverns is then performed, as the Roman soldiers leave with their new British prisoners.

Episode III. Outside the Palace, Wells, 923 AD

A procession approaches, with Bishop Athelm, the first Bishop of Wells, setting out for Canterbury. From the other direction comes Dunstan, the Bishop’s nephew, who is schooled at the abbey of Glastonbury. Dunstan describes the honour of how their Bishop, and his uncle, has been chosen for Canterbury, and dreams of life as his Uncle’s page, before maybe even becoming a Royal page, or even, eventually, an alderman or army leader. Citizens greet the Bishop, declaring him a good ‘Zummerzet lad’. The Bishop greets them warmly, before announcing that he must replace Archbishop Plegmund, who had done so much for Somerset. After he tells Dunstan that he cannot come with him, the boy is at first upset, but the Bishop then tells him that he will send for him eventually. Dunstan kneels for the Bishop’s blessing, before the Bishop rides on. Dunstan declares that he will go once more and watch the water bubbling in St Andrew’s pools, to meditate on his happiness.

Episode IV. [Untitled]

Children playing ‘Hoodman Blind’ are attacked by a dragon. One is trapped in its lair but is rescued by Bishop Jocelin, who slays the monster. The book of words notes that the scene is symbolical of holiness and courage overcoming evil of immense magnitude.

Episode V. Henry VII’s Visit to Wells, 30 September 1497. The Market Place of Wells

A group of locals, erecting poles, discuss the imposter Perkin Warbeck, before another local warns them to be careful of what they talk. He informs them that it is King Henry himself that is coming to Wells today. After the workmen exit, the Mayor and Mayoress enter, followed by Bishop Olivier King and a crowd. They discuss the impending visit, the Mayor worrying that they did not have enough time to prepare. After realising that it is white roses that have erroneously been laid out, which undoubtedly will offend the King, the Mayor declares their city doomed—the Bishop adding that he will also be hung. With no time to dye the roses, the Mayoress farcically orders them to bring blood from the butchers, into which the crowd then dip the flowers. The King then arrives, accompanied by Lord Daubney. He is met by children scattering red rose petals. A Children’s Song is sung. The King and Bishop discuss, a little awkwardly, where the King is to stay that evening, deciding eventually on the Deanery. The Mayor then enters with the aldermen, and welcomes the sovereign to Wells, declaring the town’s loyalty to the Crown. A song of welcome is then sung by the local men. The Mayoress is then introduced to the King, before a dance is performed. At this point a Herald then reads out a proclamation, fining the city £313. 13s. 4d. for having received the King’s enemies within the city boundaries, as the Mayor cries ‘mercy, mercy!’ After the King exits, Lord Daubney tells the Mayor that the King has had mercy as he had not ‘felt the rope’ around his neck. Sellinger’s Round is then danced.

Episode VI. The Market Place, Wells, 14 November 1539

Scene I

Two boys from Glastonbury Abbey discuss the impending trial of the local Lord Abbot. Gradually more enter—squires, shepherds, and servants, then constables with prisoners, then the King’s Officer and soldiers.5 Finally Abbot Richard Whiting enters with monks, the crowd and officers reacting excitedly, most of the locals expressing dismay at the Abbot’s trial. The Abbot exits. When the King’s Officer orders the people to cheer for the King, they are at first silent; told again, they assent. Most of the officers and the crowd then exit. A woman and squire then express their horror that the Abbot may be hung—but the King’s officer explains that it was because he hid gold and silver when the King dissolved the Abbeys. After most of the squires and crowd leave, the King’s officer then turns his attention to finding William Harper—a blind man wanted for treason for taking letters between the Abbots of Glaston and Reading.

Scene II

The next day Harper talks to the Squire, before a group of boys sing ‘Ave Verum’. Harper excitedly declares that his sight has been restored, before having a vision of King Arthur, then St Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, Longinus and the Spear, and then St Dunstan, conqueror of the devil, and St Gildas, who wrote the history of the world: all men who ‘came out of great tribulation.’ The Squire, somewhat frightened, declares he saw nothing, and that witchcraft is at play. All exit. A shepherd then gives a soliloquy, ruminating on how great things had happened in the past and that great things would also happen in the future. He concludes: ‘An if you’re on the zummit the air be vine and vree, If you set and look about you there’s no bounds what you may zee, you can almost greet a neighbour in the market place tu [sic] Wells, An’ if the winds according, hear the Cathedral bells’.

Grand Finale – [unclear what this involved, other than the singing of the National Anthem]

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Athelm [Æthelhelm] (d. 926) archbishop of Canterbury
  • Dunstan [St Dunstan] (d. 988) archbishop of Canterbury
  • Reginald fitz Jocelin [called Reginald Italus, Reginald Lombardus] (c.1140–1191) bishop of Bath and archbishop-elect of Canterbury
  • Henry VII (1457–1509) king of England and lord of Ireland
  • Daubeney, Giles, first Baron Daubeney (1451/2–1508) administrator, soldier, and diplomat
  • Whiting, Richard (d. 1539) abbot of Glastonbury

Musical production

An orchestra performed the following pieces:

  • ‘Hunters’ Song’. Music by Rev. Canon Davis, Mus.Doc. (Episode I).
  • ‘The Lay of the Bard of Wookey’. Words by H.E. Belch, Music by J.A. Goudge (Episode I).
  • ‘Chant of Peace’. Words by H.E. Balch (Episode I).
  • ‘The Chieftain’s Daughter’ (Episode II).
  • ‘Children’s Song’ (Episode V).
  • ‘Song of Welcome’ (Episode V).
  • ‘Sellinger’s Round’ (Episode V).
  • ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (Episode V).
  • ‘Ave Verum’ (Episode VI).
  • ‘God Save the King’ (Grand Finale).
  • ‘Dream of Somerset’. Mr F. Goudge.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Western Daily Press
Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser

Book of words

Words and Performers of Wells Pageant. Wells, 1923.

Price 2s. Copy at Somerset Heritage Centre, Local Studies Library.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Words and Performers of Wells Pageant. Wells, 1923. Copy at Somerset Heritage Centre, Local Studies Library.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Eton MS, written at Witham Charter House about 1470.


The Wells Historical Pageant of 1923 was a small event, with only two performances, organised with the primary purpose of raising money towards the building of a permanent hall for the Wells Women’s Institute. The pageant master was Captain Cecil Townsend, an outsider experienced in ‘stage craft’ who had also been the master of the Cheltenham Pageant—though, as he noted, his work was more ‘centred on the Elizabethan stage and the early dramatists’.6 Clearly the driving force behind the pageant was Herbert Ernest Balch, a noted cave explorer from the town who had also been a founder member of the Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society in 1888 and the Wells Museum in 1894.7 He acted as the Honorary Secretary, as well as writing and producing the first episode. A minor artistic and financial success, the pageant was produced rapidly, with preparation and rehearsal ‘comparatively short’—despite the pageant having ‘long been in contemplation’.8 It was, above all, a locally orientated event—attracting little attention outside of the immediate region.

At this point a city of about 10100, having lost 400 or so in the previous ten years, Wells had been mostly untouched by the massive growth and prosperity of the nineteenth century.9 It was, however, a place proud of its city status (given in 1205) and known for its love of travelling fairs and civic celebrations—not least its Charter Fair, an 800-year-old tradition in the city.10 A historical pageant, then, fitted in neatly with the city’s tradition and civic outlook. Unsurprisingly then, despite it being an inter-war pageant—where new forms of more popular and modern history became apparent—the Wells Pageant shared more in common with the Edwardian aspects of the movement.11 The last episode of the pageant finished well before the present day, depicting the journey to trial of Richard Whiting—the Abbot of Glastonbury executed for treason by Henry VIII following his refusal to surrender the Abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The third episode, too, was dominated by religious themes—connecting important figures like Bishop Athelm and Dunstan to the city. For a place such as Wells, whose reputation depended heavily on its magnificent Cathedral, episodes of religious importance presumably had a strong purchase. In terms of production the pageant was also simple, at least in comparison to the shadow- and flood-lighting technique of some interwar pageants (such as the Greenwich Pageant of 1933). The only notable features were large replicas of the Cave of Wookey Hole and the Bishop’s Eye, and the transformation of the beautiful maidens into hags in Episode IV, which was ‘made very ingenious and effective for, in addition to a change of raiment, masks at the back of the dancers’ hooded heads gave a weird effect.’12

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the pageant was its use of very recent research. By the time of the pageant, Balch had already published successful books on the caves of the Mendips, and Wookey Hole in particular.13 The first episode, written by Balch, concentrated on Wookey Hole, 200BC, drawing upon and dramatizing his research.14 The second episode, too, while not written by Balch, also drew upon Wookey Hole—portraying an aspect of the local mythology of the Wookey Witch—strengthened by Balch’s discovery of a women’s skeletal remains around ten years earlier.15 In general, these two episodes epitomised the heavy concentration of the pageant’s narrative on themes of a highly local nature. Of course, being perhaps the most common theme of pageantry, a Royal visit was portrayed in Episode V. Intriguingly, however, it concentrated more on the farcical preparations for the visit and the consequent provoked ire of the King than the usual overtures made towards the royal’s love of the locality. The fourth episode, in which the legend of Bishop Jocelin of Wells slaying a dragon is depicted, more neatly fitted into both the categories of local mythology and the importance of religious figures to Wells. Interestingly, the Western Daily Press noted the ‘excellent fidelity to historical records’, surprising perhaps considering the inclusion of mythical characters like witches and dragons!16 As the book of words noted for the reader, however, in case it was unclear from the scene, it was ‘symbolical of holiness and courage overcoming evil of immense magnitude.’17 Yet, in terms of its production, it was somewhat out of place, being much shorter than the other episodes and also being the only episode to lack dialogue. This was the pageant-master’s sole criticism following the conclusion of the event; in the local press he ruminated on ‘the lack of balance, rhythm, and proportion in the written word of the consecutive episodes’. Such discontinuity, he argued, reflected the individual production of the episodes by different people instead of ‘one pen’.18

The Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser was unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the event, describing it as, ‘from artistic and spectacular points of view’, ‘a striking success’, despite a few ‘somewhat extended intervals’ due to the poor weather on the Tuesday.19 In the end, the concerns of the Wells Journal that the pageant would be a financial failure due to the lower attendance on the second day were unfounded, a small profit of around £100 being made for the fund to build a new hall for the local Women’s Institute.20 Following the final performance, H.E. Balch emerged to speak to the audience, thanking both the performers and producers, declaring that ‘Wells was proud of them all.’ The pageant-master, Captain Townsend, then also emerged to ‘ringing cheers’, and he in turn thanked Balch and the actors and producers.21 Following the pageant, Townsend took to the local press to describe further the reasons for the success of the pageant—picking out the ‘spirit of teamwork’, the ‘unfailing energy, determination and self-sacrifice on the part of the producers’, and, finally, ‘the willing and unstinted support given by those many unnamed persons without whose co-operation the pageant could never have taken place.’22

In many respects the Wells Pageant was a classic in the mould of the Louis Napoleon Parker Edwardian pageants. Firstly, the narrative ended in 1539, well before the present day, the scenes instead concentrating on local, rural, ecclesiastical and regal history and eschewing the modern and industrial episodes that often featured in inter-war pageants. Secondly, the production of the pageant was ‘almost entirely the product of local talent and labour’, with most of the episodes being written and produced by Wells residents, costumes being homemade, and the actors being drawn from local associations and schools.23 Finally, the discourse surrounding the pageant concentrated on the ‘corporate life of the city and district’ and the ways in which the pageant was ‘essentially democratic as its performers were drawn from all classes of people, and both clerical and lay.’24 A small financial success after only modest aims (clear from the length of its theatrical run and production values), it reflected a local enthusiasm for ‘ye olde’ forms of civic festivity and the persistence of the original aims of the pageantry movement in the 1920s.


  1. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 27 July 1923, 5.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ ‘Pageantry at Wells’, Western Daily Press, 25 July 1923, 8.
  4. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 27 July 1923, 5.
  5. ^ The King is unspecified, and does not feature – but is presumably Henry VIII.
  6. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 3 August 1923, 5; ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 27 July 1923, 5.
  7. ^ Bridget Salmon, ‘Balch, Herbert Ernest (1869–1958)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, October 2008), accessed 30 May 2014,
  8. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 27 July 1923, 5.
  9. ^ Marion Meek, The Book of Wells (Buckingham, 1980), 71; GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Wells RD through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time, accessed 30 May 2014,
  10. ^ Maria Jepps, Wells: A History and Celebration of the City (Salisbury, 2004), 105.
  11. ^ For Parker’s classic articulation, see Louis N. Parker, ‘Historical Pageants’, Journal of the Society of Arts, 22 December 1905, 142-143.
  12. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 27 July 1923, 5.
  13. ^ H.E. Balch, Wookey Hole: Its Caves and Cave Dwellers (London, 1914); E.A. Baker and H.E. Balch, The Netherworld of Mendip (Clifton, 1907); H.E. Balch, The caves of Mendip (London, 1926); H.E. Balch, The Mendip Caves (Wells, 1929); H.E. Balch, Mendip: The Great Cave of Wookey Hole (Wells, 1929).
  14. ^ ‘Pageantry at Wells’, Western Daily Press, 25 July 1923, 8.
  15. ^ ‘Row breaks out over cave bones’, BBC News, 5 June 2004, accessed 17 November 2013,
  16. ^ ‘Pageantry at Wells’, Western Daily Press, 25 July 1923, 8.
  17. ^ Words and Performers of Wells Pageant (Wells, 1923), 18.
  18. ^ ‘Wells Historical Pageant’, Wells Journal, Somerset and West of England Advertiser, 3 August 1923, 5.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ Ibid.
  21. ^ Ibid.
  22. ^ Ibid.
  23. ^ Ibid.
  24. ^ Ibid.

How to cite this entry

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