A Vision of Empire

Other names

  • Empire Day Pageant 1932
  • Hyde Park Pageant

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Hyde Park (Kensington) (Kensington, Middlesex, England)

Year: 1932

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: n/a


Scheduled for 24 May 1932, 9.30pm. Cancelled due to crowd trouble (see summary).

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Bryant, Arthur
  • Costumes and Settings: Miss Maisie Marshall
  • Lighting: Miss Hewins
  • Director of Music: Dr. Malcolm Sargent
  • Community Singing Conductor: Mr Gibson Young

Names of executive committee or equivalent


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

  • Bryant, Arthur

Names of composers

  • Mackenzie-Rogan, John
  • German, Edward
  • Stanford, Charles Villiers
  • Handel, George Frideric
  • Mendelssohn, Felix
  • Holst, Gustav
  • Elgar, Edward
  • Strauss II, Johann
  • Pepusch, Johann Christoph

Numbers of performers

Financial information

Bryant was paid £40 (Letter from the Daily Express to Bryant, 28 May 1931, in BRYANT J5, Liddell Hart Archive, King’s College London).

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 150000


Up to 150000 people attended—causing the pageant to be cancelled (‘The ravishing blue Danube’, Cornishman, 2 June 1932, 4).

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events

The pageant was to be prefaced with community singing.

Pageant outline

Introductory Act. The Dancers of Old England

A Scene in the Life of our Island Ancestors. Enter running from either wing, back of the arena, with drum and tabor, two parties of English dancers in 17th century dresses of red and yellow: they join at back centre stage for first dance and then advance up stage with set dances of a quick and gay kind. Conclude in front centre stage with a slower sarabande. Exit right and left in two diverging lines of light.

Tableau 1. Drake on Plymouth Hoe, 1588

The scene is Plymouth Hoe, the time is 19 July, 1588. The coloured lights pick up a group of sea officers in Elizabethan dress playing bowls. A breathless runner breaks into the group and delivers a letter to the central figure Sir Francis Drake. He reads while his officers crowd around him. He gives order and three or four of companions pass quickly out into the darkness. He returns to his bowls. The light fades. The light then falls on the high stage at the back of the cockpit onto figures frantically running about readying the English Fleet. Darkness, before the sound of drums broken by occasional flashes of lightning. A searchlight catches men in country costume piling high a beacon, which then bursts into flames.

Tableau 2.The Storming of Quebec, 1759

A line of red-coated English infantry pass along in silence. As they pass off the stage, the light rises and reveals on the platform white-coated French soldiers and Red Indian sharpshooters, firing to the right of stage. Darkness. When it brightens again the English infantry are facing the French sharp-shooters. They fire, and the stage darkens. Then the British line is seen by flashes, moving rigidly across the fallen bodies of the French. Darkness. The light rises to reveal General Wolfe, in the middle of his men, before he is shot by a French sharp-shooter. He falls into the arms of his officers before dying, as the light rises to reveal above the screen the flag of British Canada.

Tableau 3. Australian Scene, 1851

The setting of the first days of the Gold Rush. A group of rough looking men sit around a camp fire, drinking and singing of home.

Tableau 4. The Funeral of Cecil Rhodes, 1902

A funeral procession crosses the stage as Rhodes’ cortege makes its way to his grave in the Matoppo Hills, the drums and trumpets dying away until in the silence a voice is heard intoning the lines of Kipling’s epitaph: “The immense and brooding spirit still shall quicken and control: living he was the land, and dead his soul shall be her soul.”

Epilogue of War and Peace

Prelude. Hampstead Heath: August Bank Holiday, 1914:

All the fun of the fair, the last bank holiday before the war. Girls with ticklers, raucous vendors, ice cream charts, jugglers, Punch and Judy etc. As night falls, men and women are left drinking and dancing. The shadowy forms of lovers can be seen.

Part I. The Coming of War:

Across the dying lilt of the carnival music, there strikes the deep sound of a tolling bell, as the stage is bathed in an ominous red glow. As the revellers leave, there is the sound of distant thunder and, nearer, the clanging of anvils, the blare of trumpets and weird voices calling. The noise falls away before a company of stern and armed men, passing from left to right ‘and casting onto the screen behind them monstrous and robot-like shadows.’ Fighting lights illuminate the stage. A spot-light picks up a single bugler, dressed in khaki, with his head bandaged. Three ‘witch-like’ figures dance around him while at his feet lies the body of a dead peasant. As he blows, a point of light picks out from the darkness at the back of the stage a group of Australian miners at work, who stop and listen, peering into the darkness. The light then catches a solitary north Canadian fur-trapper, who also listens; then, in another part of the area, a New Zealand fruit farmer and his family. As they listen, the bugle sound grows shriller and the figure of the bugler becomes brighter.

Part II. The Response:

As the bugler continues to blow, a file of men in civilian dress of every part of the Empire move through a door beside which a recruiting sergeant stands. The platform above slowly fills with marching figures, moving from right to left, in the uniforms of the Dominion armies of 1914. The whole stage darkens.

Part III. The Assault:

After an interval of ten seconds a voice is heard reciting the opening verse of Cecil Spring-Rice’s poem of dedication ‘I vow to thee, my Country… the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.’ As the last word is uttered the whole air is filled with the thunder of heavy artillery and the sky lit as though by shell bursts. In the darkness, under the platform stage at the back of the arena, men in steel helmets and gas-masks are seen moving dimly. Then, as the barrage lifts, the rat-tat of machine-guns raps the air, and successive lines of British infantry in full war equipment, with fixed bayonets, are seen by the light of flashes running towards the audience. Many topple over and fall: and, some thirty feet away, from the front row of the audience, the survivors of the leading lines throw themselves down on the ground. Then, when the third line reaches them, they rise and join their companions. As they rush forward toward the audience, the flashes of light suddenly cease and the stage is left in darkness. The shadows of the charging men are seen running rapidly to left and right and so out of the arena. Then, in a final burst of gun thunder, the sky above the back of the stage is flooded with light revealing the Union Jack, still floating above the centre of the screen, and on either side the flags of the four great Dominions.

Part IV. The Coming of Peace:

Gradually the sound of guns dies away and out of the audience speaks a voice of the final verse of Spring-Rice’s poem. The twilight gradually brightens to reveal, standing in the centre of the platform stage, the motionless white figure of peace. The words of ‘Abide by me’ are taken by unseen singers off the stage and finally by the audience itself until the whole air is full of it. Then the Pageant closes and the lights turn toward the audience.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596) pirate, sea captain, and explorer
  • Wolfe, James (1727–1759) army officer
  • Rhodes, Cecil John (1853–1902) imperialist, colonial politician, and mining entrepreneur

Musical production

Live music. Trumpets and drums, and seemingly an orchestra. Pieces included:

  • Mackenzie-Rogan. ‘A Festival of Empire’.
  • Edward German. Selection from ‘Merry England.
  • Elgar. 1st part of March ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.
  • Charles V. Stanford. ‘Old Superb’. Songs of the Sea.
  • ‘Drake’s Drums’.
  • Handel. ‘Water Music’. 
  • ‘The Maple Leaf For Ever’.
  • Johann Strauss II, ‘Women and Wine’.
  • Johann Christoph Pepusch, Beggars Opera.
  • Mendelssohn. ‘Lieder Ohne Worte.’ 
  • ‘Tipperary.’
  • Holst. Marching Song.
  • Elgar . ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’ 
  • ‘Abide with me.’
  • ‘God Save the King.’
  • ‘Greensleaves.’
  • ‘Sellinger’s Round.’

Newspaper coverage of pageant

The Times
Manchester Guardian
Nottingham Evening Post
Tamworth Herald
Daily Express

Book of words


Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature

  • Richards, Jeffrey. Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876-1953. Manchester, 2001. At 168.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • BRYANT J5 at Liddell Hart Military Archives, King’s College London.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



‘A Vision of Empire’ was commissioned by the Daily Express in 1932 as part of the annual Empire Day celebrations. It was written to be a short pageant of only 30 minutes, conducted at ‘lightning speed’ after dark, to be shown only once. As with his other pageants, Bryant eschewed dialogue apart from brief announcements prior to each scene, aiming for simplicity to minimise expense and also to ‘meet the necessary limitations imposed as to cast and opportunities for rehearsal.’1 As it happened, the Pageant was terminally brief, being cancelled at the very last moment with startling effect.

As a pageant based on Empire rather than locality, the actors were drawn from a variety of amateur dramatic societies across London—such as the Selfridge’s Amateur dramatic society, Harrod’s Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, Whiteley’s Amateur Dramatic Society—as well as the 13th London regiment of the territorial army and Old Contemptibles Association.2 In terms of production Bryant used many of the techniques he later honed for the Greenwich Night Pageant in 1933, such as coloured lights; interchanging light and darkness; continuous musical accompaniment; searchlights; and a large back screen for projections.3 Both the stage and the setting of the pageant were predictably imbued with imperial and patriotic symbolism, like Union Jack flags, the music of Empire from Elgar and Holst, and the singing of the National Anthem.

The narrative of the pageant was particularly notable for the relative time given to episodes depicting war, and the First World War in particular. For the later scenes especially Bryant attempted to draw a picture that showed the response to the needs of the Empire from all its constituent countries, and particularly the everyday ordinary man that he favoured, with little attention given to other more notable historical figures. The martyrdom of Wolfe, and the figure of the lone bugler, were again used in the Greenwich Night Pageant, illustrating the consistent theme of sacrifice that Bryant favoured. While war and duty thus featured heavily, the horrific effects of mass warfare were still portrayed negatively and, to an extent, realistically. This sombre incorporation of war, in a commemorative rather than jingoistic fashion, was one way that rituals of popular imperialism evolved in the interwar period—though it should be acknowledged that there was still significant opposition from some quarters.4

In the event however the pageant did not actually take place. Such was its popularity that, just a few minutes before the community singing which prefaced the actual episodes began, thousands of spectators surged into the arena and towards the stage, breaking through roped barriers. One report stated that ‘about 150000’ had crammed in hoping to see the pageant.5 The horse-mounted police tried to maintain control, but the situation got out of hand, with several women fainting in the crush, eventually carried away by ambulance men. Many climbed trees to gain a better vantage point as the crowds swelled, the Times describing the scene as resembling the first cup final at Wembley. While the community singing eventually took place, the arena was too chaotic for the actual pageant to continue, and it was cancelled at around 10.20.6

Particularly interesting however was the way that the crowds reacted to the stalling and eventual cancellation of the pageant. In all the newspaper reports that covered the night’s event the point was repeatedly made that the crowds were well behaved and particularly ‘English.’ In the midst of the confusion Bryant used the loudspeaker to ask people ‘not to panic and to behave like an English crowd.’ As the Times reported, ‘This they did, for when the band played the National Anthem all stood still and men bared their heads’, further reporting that ‘The crowd remained good-humoured and accepted the situation philosophically’, leaving the arena in an orderly fashion when the pageant was cancelled.7 The Cornishman newspaper too described the spectators as ‘well-behaved folk’, the whole event being ‘a colossal but good-humoured failure.’8 The Tamworth Herald too made the point that ‘There was no disorder.’9 While there was no trouble, perhaps the experience dissuaded the sponsors; while there had been other Empire Day pageants in Hyde Park in this period, Bryant’s failed pageant was the last.10

In summary, despite the failure of the A Vision of Empire pageant to actually take place, it can still show us three things. Firstly, many of the themes and motifs of Bryant’s large Greenwich Night Pageant the following year were first tested out in his Empire pageant. Secondly, the massive turn-out illustrates the popular draw that celebrations of Empire could have, supporting Matthew Hendley’s contention that popular patriotism based on a nuanced imperial identity was still prominent in the interwar years—though challenging somewhat his contention that militarism in popular imperialism had been rendered ‘unacceptable.’11 Thirdly, that even in unmitigated failure, a pageant had the capability to encourage cooperation, cohesion and patriotism. Even the briefest glimpse of empire, it seemed, was enough to inspire.


  1. ^ A. Bryant, ‘A Vision of Empire. A Pageant. To be enacted by night in the Cock Pit, Hyde Park. Empire Day 1932’. Original typesheet, 1932. BRYANT J5.
  2. ^ ‘Empire Day Rehearsal in Hyde Park’, Daily Express, 21 May 1932, 1-2.
  3. ^ A. Bryant, ‘A Vision of Empire. A Pageant. To be enacted by night in the Cock Pit, Hyde Park. Empire Day 1932’. Original typesheet, 1932. BRYANT J5.
  4. ^ Jim English, ‘Empire Day in Britain, 1904-1958’, Historical Journal, 49, no. 1 (2006): 247-48.
  5. ^ ‘The Ravishing Blue Danube’, Cornishman, 2 June 1932, 4.
  6. ^ This description is based on the detailed report of ‘Hyde Park Pageant Abandoned’, The Times, 25 May 1932, 11.
  7. ^ Ibid., 11.
  8. ^ ‘The Ravishing Blue Danube’, Cornishman, 2 June 1932, 4.
  9. ^ [untitled], Tamworth Herald, 28 May 1932, 8.
  10. ^ Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876-1953 (Manchester, 2001), 168.
  11. ^ Matthew C. Hendley, Organized Patriotism and the Crucible of War: Popular Imperialism in Britain, 1914-1932 (Montreal, 2012), 288.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A Vision of Empire’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/972/