A Pageant of Basingstoke History

Pageant type

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Place: War Memorial Gardens (Basingstoke) (Basingstoke, Hampshire, England)

Year: 1951

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 4


14–16 June 1951 

[Performances at 15 June at 7.30pm and 16th at 2.30 and 7.30pm June 1951. There were also two full rehearsals on the afternoons of 9 June (non-dress) and 10 June (dress).]

Name of pageant master and other named staff


  • Author and Producer [Pageant Master]: Usherwood, Stephen

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Executive Committee

  • Hon. Secretary: Miss Peggy Kingdon
  • Hon. Treasurer: Mr. Guy Burroughs
  • Mrs. Atherton Harrison                     
  • Mrs. J.S. Shields
  • Alderman W.W. Willis

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

  • Usherwood, Stephen


The text frequently quotes from passages of poetry, classics, and history.

Names of composers

  • Parry, Hugh
  • Elgar, Edward

Numbers of performers

500 - 600

Financial information


Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

Festival of Britain

Audience information

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events


Pageant outline

Scene I Ballet: The Loddon Valley

God Save the King opens the pageant; there follows a ballet.

Scene II: The Roman Road at Worting

The Narrator sets the scene: we are at the site of the oldest road in Britain: ‘Basingstoke does not yet exist’. He quotes William Blake: ‘Now is the time / When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy / And the dimpling stream runs laughing by / When the air does laugh with our merry wit’. Enter Spirits of Earth, Air and Water. There is dancing and music. The Narrator quotes from Tennyson ‘I steal by lawns and grassy plots / I slide by hazel covers / I move the sweet forget-me-nots / That grow for happy lovers.’ Enter two Roman officers who survey the scene and leave, scaring the dancers. Two Roman soldiers enter with slaves carrying baskets and brushwood. Women give officers food; the officers then sit and have a picnic. A bugle sounds, and all exit except one soldier and woman who kiss and part. The Narrator quotes Virgil (‘Tu regere imperio populos’) and Kipling (‘When I left Rome for Lalage’s sake / By the legions’ road to Rimini / She vowed her heart was mine to take / With me and my shield to Rimini’). The Narrator tells of how, after the Romans left, there was raiding by Saxons, Jutes, and Danes. Basing is founded. Then came the last great invasion of 1066, where William Conquered England and made his capital at Winchester. ‘Basingstoke became a Royal possession and eventually a prosperous place.’

Scene III: Henry III Grants Basingstoke a Charter [A.D. 1256]

Enter Provost of Basingstoke with bailiffs, attendants and children. Narrator describes Walter de Merton, founder of Merton College, but also untrustworthy men who collect rent for Eleanor of Provence. Enter King Henry III, Queen Eleanor and lords and ladies to grant Basingstoke its charter. They are entertained by two horses ‘or men dressed as such’ who perform a mock tournament. A dragon emerges and frightens all except the King. St Michael comes out of the wood and slays the dragon. All exit except Jack and Joan, devout citizens. Narrator quotes Thomas Campion: ‘Now you courtly dames and knights / That study only strange delights / Though you scorn the homespun gray / And revel in your rich array’.

Scene IV: The Story of James Lancaster [19 July 1588]

A man charges a brazier with straw; another man lights the beacon and bells ring out to warn of the armada in the Channel. Narrator quotes T.B. Macaulay: ‘The Armada is in the Channel! The beacon blazed upon the roof of Edgecumbe’s lofty hall’. The story is told of James Lancaster, a captain who fought the Spanish. Enter Queen Elizabeth I. Lancaster also enters, and addresses the queen [quoting Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages]:

Which of the kings of this land before Your Majesty had ever flown their banners in the Caspian Sea? Which of them hath ever dealt with the Emperor of Persia, as Your Majesty hath done? What English ships had ever before anchored in the river Plate or passed and re-passed the formidable Straits of Magellan? Traversed with mighty South Sea and entered into alliance with the princes of the Moluccas and the Isle of Jave?

The Queen replies, praising Lancaster, and presents him with gifts and a Royal Commission.

The narrator tells of how Lancaster went on to receive a knighthood from James I and sent out Baffin to explore the North West Passage. He was also a noted local benefactor: ‘In his will he left large sums to his native town of Basingstoke to be spent on the care of the poor and the education of the children.’ Lancaster exits and Sir Henry Wallop enters to pay his respects to the queen. He has brought a choir to sing to her: ‘Close thine eyes—and sleep secure / They soul is safe, thy body sure’ (attributed to King Charles I).


An interval of ten minutes

Scene V: John Hooke in America

Queen Elizabeth’s place on the throne of England was taken by King James VI of Scotland, the wisest fool in Christendom. In a few brief years our country plunged from its greatest happiness to its greatest misery, the misery of the English Civil war, and the blood of Englishmen killed by Englishmen stained our north Hampshire soil—nearby at Basing and over the hills at Cheriton. To avoid these terrible quarrels, many Englishmen left their native land and with their wives and children emigrated to North America… among the colonies they founded was New Hampshire, the only State in all the 48 United States of America to bear an English county’s name.

Enter Puritans with wives and children who set out tables for thanksgiving. ‘Red Indians’ observe them unnoticed. John Hooke, a Harvard student and relative of Oliver Cromwell, is among them. They sing a thanksgiving hymn. Then: ‘the Red Indians rush from hiding and surround the singers with yells and cries. The whites remain calm. The Indian chief explains that it is all a jest’. Red Indian children dance on Lower Stage while elders feast on Upper Stage. Enter messenger who brings a greeting from Cromwell, who sends for Hooke and his father. John returns at once: ‘On his return he became a minister in Hampshire, the first Congregational Minister in Basingstoke and Chaplain of the Chapel Royal of the Savoy.’

Scene VI: Polly Peachum and the Duke of Bolton [c.1730]

Enter flower girls and workmen. Lavinia, who plays Polly Peachum (the star of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, has ‘conquered the heart of the Duke of Bolton, the master of Hackwood Park.’ Enter Bolton. A scene from the Beggar’s Opera is sung; at the end of the scene Polly is greeted by the Duke. They walk off to cheers and ‘lived happily ever after’.

Scene VII: Edward Gibbon and John Wesley [c. 1760]

Enter Gibbon and a platoon of the South Hampshire regiment who perform a musket drill. Narrator tells us that both lived in Basingstoke: ‘These men were not friends and their lives were spent very differently.’ Narrator describes them both. Gibbon rests his men and sits reading a book. Narrator describes how the Hampshire Regiment spent the [Seven Years] War ‘marching and counter marching throughout Hampshire’. Wesley greets Gibbon and asks him to let his soldiers listen to the service. ‘Gibbon warns him that his men may be noisy and unruly. Wesley says that he is used to that.’ Soldiers jeer at Wesley: ‘What will God Do when the Frenchies come?’ Gibbon continues to read. The soldiers quieten down and Wesley reads from Romans VIII 35-9: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’

Scene VIII: Jane Austen and the News of Trafalgar [November 1805]

Narrator discusses the ‘monstrous tyranny of Napoleon Buonaparte’ and the widespread fear across Britain. However, the people continue to hunt: horn sound, and the Vine Hunt crosses the stage. Narrator quotes Charles Kingsley. A market scene with farmers and their wives: ‘The war against the French has prevented food from being imported from abroad, and so Hampshire farmers are getting a good price for their corn, and the eight hundred year-old free market of Basingstoke is flourishing.’

Jane Austen enters in a Pony Trap, having written (but not published) Northanger Abbey. The Vine Hunt re-enters with a coach hung with laurels for victory and crepe in memory of Nelson. Jane Austen searches the paper for news of her brother, Frank, of which there is none—though she hears later he is safe. Narrator quotes Thucydides: ‘To famous men and women all the earth is a sepulchre, and their virtues shall be testified not only by inscriptions on stone at home, but by the unwritten record of men’s minds, which, far beyond any monument, remains with all men everlastingly.’ All leave, with Austen last to depart.

Scene IX: The Railway Comes to Basingstoke.

Narrator discusses the frenzied expansion of the railway network, and the papers who decried it. Spectators gather then scatter as train approaches. After halting, the train departs right.

Scene X: 1851: Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington

The Great Exhibition. Enter Victoria, Lords and Ladies. Carrier pigeons are released and the court party do a comic routine over their droppings. The Queen orders that the birds be shot until someone points out that doing so would smash the glass. Wellington enters and suggests that the birds be driven away by ‘Sparrer’awks!’ Narrator quotes Tennyson’s ‘Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition’.

Scene XI: The First Motor Car Arrives in Basingstoke

An Edwardian group assembles to watch the car arrive; the machine promptly explodes. Its driver and his wife get out to mend it, before departing to the cheering of the onlookers.  Narrator: ‘suddenly without anyone quite understanding how, the internal combustion engine arrived and the roads were alive again!... England had won a new freedom—the freedom of the road! Nowhere in the whole world is there such a wonderful network of roads as in England. The motor car now can take us quickly to our most distant friends.’

Scene XII: Finale: Present and Past

Enter modern citizens of Basingstoke, who then leave. An old man and a girl remain behind, talking in the War Memorial Park. Narrator says the park is ‘ours to enjoy because men and women in the past cared for this place. In everything the old overlaps the new. There never is any clear break with the past. There is no single moment when all Englishmen take on new ways of life and thought.’ The old man tells the girl about the loss of the First World War and the Council building the park to commemorate it. The girl asks further about the history of the town, to which the man responds: ‘I can’t, my dear, but look here come some of the people who can. Here come the spirits of the place’.  Enter the whole of the Pageant company. The girl curtsies to Henry III. Moderns pair up with the old from the Pageant.

Narrator quotes G.M. Trevelyan [English Social History, 1942/4]:

To know our forefathers as they really were, and bit by bit to piece together the many colours of bygone days—that has been our task. To know how to weigh the stars, or to make ships sail in the air or below the sea, is not more difficult nor more inspiring than to know the course of events long forgotten by the multitude and to understand the true nature of the men and women who were here before us.

This is followed by an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Henry V [Act 5, Scene 2]. The pageant then concludes with a rendition of Land of Hope and Glory, sung by all.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Henry III (1207–1272) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Eleanor [Eleanor of Provence] (c.1223–1291) queen of England, consort of Henry III
  • Lancaster, Sir James (1554/5–1618) merchant
  • Wallop, Sir Henry (c.1531–1599) administrator and member of parliament
  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
  • John Hooke (bap. 1634, d. 1710) Independent minister
  • Powlett [Paulet], Charles, third duke of Bolton (1685–1754) politician
  • Wesley [Westley], John (1703–1791) Church of England clergyman and a founder of Methodism
  • Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794) historian
  • Austen, Jane (1775–1817) novelist
  • Victoria (1819–1901) queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India
  • Wellesley [formerly Wesley], Arthur, first duke of Wellington (1769–1852) army officer and prime minister

Musical production


Newspaper coverage of pageant


Book of words

Festival of Britain 1951 A Pageant of Basingstoke History, Typescript (typed and duplicated by Hankin’s Duplicating Service, Basingstoke).

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Hampshire Record Office, Winchester: typescript.
  • The Archives also hold several copies of a colour, silent film (18m 44s) shot by Stephen and Hazel Usherwood, accessed 5 May 2016, http://www3.hants.gov.uk/wfsa/archive-dvd/basingstoke-life-film.htm

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Trevelyan, G.M. English Social History. London, 1944. Tennyson, Alfred Lord. ‘The Brook’ and ‘Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition’. Blake, William. ‘Laughing Song’ Thomas Campion, ‘Fortunati Nimium’ Virgil. Aedneid Kipling, Rudyard. ‘Rimini’ T.B. Macaulay, ‘The Armada’. Richard Hakluyt. Voyages. John Gay. The Beggar’s Opera. Gibbon, Edward. Autobiography. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Shakespeare. Henry V.


The 1951 Festival of Britain—which above all sought to revive the mood of a Britain dogged by seemingly never-ending austerity and rationing—was a late hurrah for the spirit of pageantry in a world in which pageantry was soon enough to appear increasingly outmoded now that it was competing with cinema, theatre and (most of all) television. Although based on the Southbank of London, home of the famous ‘Skylon’, the Festival—which attempted to celebrate modernity at the same time as honouring the past—sought to kindle the spirit of a new, communal Britain across the regions through local exhibitions, concerts and events.1 The Festival, which embraced technological modernity, also harked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851—a point of reference brought to life in this pageant in a comic episode relating the Iron Duke’s famous remedy for the pigeon problem at the Crystal Palace. Seeking to foster a spirit of communalism created by the shared experience of war and Britain’s welfare state, the Festival was ideally represented by historical pageants. These ranged from relatively large affairs such as the Pageant of Three Towns at Hampton Court to relatively small village pageants such as those at East Grinstead in West Sussex, Rushden in Northampton, and Todmorden in West Yorkshire.

With somewhere between five hundred and six hundred performers, the Basingstoke Pageant (which had previously held a pageant in 1931) was one of the larger pageants held in association with the Festival. Performed four times over three days, it told the story of Basingstoke and its locality from Roman times to the present. It seems to have been a notably erudite production, drawing heavily on quotations from famous English poets, historians, and other writers, as well as various classical sources. But it was also lightened by moments of comedy, even farce.

In contrast to many earlier pageants, the focus of the pageant was largely on modern rather than medieval history, with six of its twelve scenes dealing with the eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century past. Modernity, indeed, was generally given a favourable treatment, with the coming of the motor car strikingly lauded as conferring ‘the freedom of the road’ on English people. Another interesting feature of the pageant was its emphasis on ordinary people. While attention was certainly paid to the visits of royalty and other nationally notable figures (John Wesley, hugely popular in pageants, was one example), this was balanced by consideration of the contributions made by less exalted personages, from the loyal citizens who lit beacons to warn of the Armada’s approach, to the modern citizens of Basingstoke enjoying the benefits of the town’s Memorial Park. Indeed, this stress on the social experience of the common people found its strongest expression in the culminating episode. Here, the Narrator quoted from G.M. Trevelyan’s phenomenally popular English Social History (1944)—also a great inspiration to other Festival of Britain pageants—to ram home the message that knowing ‘the true nature of the men and women who were here before us’ was of inspirational value.


1. ^ Becky Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester, 2003), 88–104; Harriet Atkinson, The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People (London, 2012), 63. See also Mark Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Social History, 38 (2013), 423–55.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A Pageant of Basingstoke History’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1508/