A Pageant of Border Ballads

Pageant type

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Place: Warkworth Castle (Amble) (Amble, Northumberland, England)

Year: 1939

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 2


29 June 1939

The pageant, which was organised and performed by members of the Northumberland Women's Institutes, was staged at 2.30pm and 5pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Stage Manager [Pageant Master]: Cresswell, Mrs I.
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Mrs Henry
  • In charge of handicrafts Exhibition: Mrs Collingwood Thorp
  • Seating Steward: Major T. G. Boss
  • Cashiers: Mr J. Darling and Mr C. Cowell
  • Programme Selling Organiser: Mrs Arkless

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Music, Drama and Dancing Sub-Committee of the Northumberland Federation of Women's Institutes

  • Chairman: Mrs I. Cresswell
  • Hon. Secretary: Miss Waller
  • Hon. Treasurer: Mrs H. F. Pitt


It was usual in Women’s Institute pageants for episodes to be organised at a local level, but no details of local organisers and their individual sub-committees have been recovered; it is likely that a representative from each of the local branches sat on the above county sub-committee. For all details of organisers, see 'Border Pageant at Warkworth', Alnwick Mercury, 30 June 1939, 7. 

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

Names of composers


Numbers of performers

700 - 700

Around 200 women acted in the pageant and 500 sang in the choir (Alnwick Mercury, 30 June 1939, 7). A few of the professional musicians were male and a troupe of male sword dancers performed.

Financial information


Object of any funds raised

Northumberland Federation of Women's Institutes

Linked occasion


Audience information

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


Seating was provided although the specific arrangement of this is not known. Around 3000 were said to have attended (Alnwick Mercury, 30 June 1939, 7).

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


[Tickets for reserved seats included admission to the castle and cost 2s or 1s. Car parking cost 1s (Alnwick Mercury, 23 June 1939, 6).]

Associated events

A display of handicrafts made by members of the Women's Institute in Northumberland was held on the same day in Warkworth Memorial Hall.

Pageant outline

The Laidley Worm

Members of Alnwick Women's Institute performed the narrative of this Northumbrian ballad, which featured a '15-foot worm'.

[These details of the synopses have been recovered from newspaper articles; the list of episodes stated may not be complete and aside from singing of the national anthem at the close of the performance, the order of presentation is not known. See 'Warkworth Pageant: Border Ballads Come to Life', Alnwick Mercury, 23 June 1939, 7 and 'Border Pageant at Warkworth', Alnwick Mercury, 30 June 1939, 7.]

Chevy Chase

Members of the Warkworth branch of the Women's Institute performed this enactment of the ballad, which features the Battle of Otterburn (1388); this was a border skirmish between Sir Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) and his Scottish rival, James, Earl of Douglas.

Whittingham Fair

Performed by members of Broomhill Women's Institute, this recalled the ancient fair.

Billy Boy

Members of Amble Women's Institute performed the narrative of the ballad. 

Bobby Shaftoe

Performed by members of Kirkwhelpington Women's Institute, this enacted this famous ballad and featured a marriage in which the bride wore a 300-year old dress.

Lavender Blue

Members of Hepscot Women's Institute performed the narrative of this ballad.

The Miller and his Sons

Members of Matfen Women's Institute performed the narrative of this ballad.

Blow the Wind Southerly

Members of Bylaw Women's Institute performed the narrative of this ballad.

Ca' Hawkie

Members of Woodhorn and Newbiggin Women's Institute performed the narrative of this ballad. 

The Fair Flower of Northumberland

Members of Stannington Women's Institute performed the narrative of this ballad.

The National Anthem

This was sung at the close of the pageant.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Percy, Sir Henry [called Henry Hotspur] (1364–1403) soldier
  • Douglas, Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas, and duke of Touraine in the French nobility (c.1369–1424) magnate and soldier

Musical production

Music was played live and those providing this included musicians from the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra and noted players of 'small pipes'. There was a choir of 500 voices conducted by T.H. Mearis; it is presumed the choir sang the traditional ballads being enacted in the pageant (Alnwick Mercury, 23 June 1939, 6). Amplification was used and the arrangement of incidental music was by Mrs Osbaldeston-Mitford (Alnwick Mercury, 30 June 1939, 7). 

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Alnwick Mercury

Book of words

None known.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant


Sources used in preparation of pageant


It is clear that the text of traditional Northumbrian ballads or local variants of such well-known songs were used; but as no pageant literature has been recovered, it is not possible to know which particular written sources may have been employed.


Warkworth Castle was something of an historical pageant hotspot in the 1930s: during this decade, at least four pageants were held there at the behest different local organisations (see Warkworth 1931 and 1935). The castle is a seat of the powerful Percy family and redolent with history that speaks of centuries of cross-border warfare. This particular performance was organised by the Northumberland branches of the Women's Institute; its drama unashamedly depended on locally-loved legend rather than on established historical narratives. Like all such events presented by the Institute it had a dual function; firstly it brought women from small mostly rural communities together in a common enterprise, so showcasing their creative and organisational talents. Secondly, it raised money to fund such enterprises. The choice of ballads as the basis for the drama underlines the interest that continued to exist in folk culture, and it undoubtedly provided the women with an appropriate vehicle for a popular show. The pageant was a success and attracted three thousand spectators.

The programme for the event has so far not been recovered but it is clear from newspaper reports that it was a lively occasion with music, dance and acting in equal measure. All costumes were made by women members of the Institute and it was said that 'all their ingenuity had been used' in order to make the scenes colourful. Though it was a fundraiser, some expense had featured in order to provide an engaging and polished performance; for example, amplification was used. This must have been thought necessary in such an open site, despite the choir being 500-strong. Professional musicians were also hired in order to accompany the women's singing and a troupe of male sword dancers was brought in to augment the spectacle.

Even so, most of the endeavour was the responsibility of women volunteers, though some men were evidently persuaded to assist them. Some of the organisation of the grounds and the management of the crowds, for example, were tasks given over to men, emphasizing the fact that traditional gender divisions of labour still flourished within this aspect of pageant management—even when women were in charge.1 Nonetheless, the local press stated that 'when women set out to do anything they make a good job of it' and it was the hundreds of Institute members who rightly received praise for the overall achievements of the event.2 Pageantry proved to be a very helpful way of advertising the skills and talents of community organisations, and the Women's Institute grew to be one of the most prolific and proficient proponents of the genre. Successful displays such as this pageant helped fuel the reputation of the organisation as a force for good in many women's lives and within the wider context of cultural activity in rural communities across England.


1. ^ 'Border Pageant at Warkworth', Alnwick Mercury 30 June 1939, 7.
2. ^ Ibid.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A Pageant of Border Ballads’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1435/