A Pageant of East Grinstead

Pageant type

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Place: East Court (East Grinstead) (East Grinstead, Sussex, England)

Year: 1951

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 6


2–7 July 1951 

[Nightly at 8.30pm]

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Smith, Peter
  • Musical Adviser: C.H. Valentine, MusDoc
  • Set Designed by: Lionel Hannah; Peter King
  • Director Episode I: Monica Savory
  • Director Episode II: E. Leslie Steer
  • Director Episode III: Coralie Bardwell
  • Director Episode IV: Anthony Evans; Ursula King Ridley
  • Director Episode V: Ursula King Ridley
  • Director Episode VI: E. Florence Charlesworth

Names of executive committee or equivalent


  • HH Maharaja Sahib of Jaipur
  • Hon. Marquis of Abergaveny
  • Earl de La Warr
  • The Bishop of Chichester [George Bell]
  • Lord Glendyne
  • Edward Sackville West
  • Harold Macmillan

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

  • Ridley, Ursula King

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Financial information

The pageant cost around £1600 and made a loss of £400.1

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 7000

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events

  • 9 June. Recital of Early English Music by the Carl Dolmetsch Ensemble at the Whitehall.
  • 2 July. Sussex Scene Exhibition at Parish Halls.
  • 4 July. Festival Concert by the Hirsch String Quartet at Sackville College and open day at Queen Victoria Hospital.
  • 6 July. Exhibition of Famous Vestments, Church Needlework, etc., at St Margaret’s Convent.
  • 11 July. Swimming Gala at Brooklands Park Swimming Pool.
  • 28 July to 6 August. Carnival Week.
  • 31 July. Country Dance Festival at East Court.
  • 4 August. Fifth Annual Horse and Cattle Show, Lewes Road.
  • 4 to 13 August. East Grinstead Cricket Club’s Festival of Britain Cricket Week.
  • 26 September. Annual Show of the East Grinstead Urban Horticultural Society at the Parish Halls.

Pageant outline

Episode I. The Normans Come to East Grinstead

Presented by Forest Row.

The terrified Saxon peasants of Brambletye have heard of the coming of their Norman conquerors. They fly in panic as the dreaded Robert de Aquila, Earl of Mortain, Lord of the Honour of the Eagle, rides out of the dense forest into the clearing. Robert de Aquila has come from his castle at Pevensey. With him ride Chesne, Lord of Horsted Keynes, Braose, Lewknor, Dalingridge and many other daring knights. To each, as they come on Saxon villages, Mortain gives land, to hold if they can. He gives the Manor of Brambletye to young Sir Ralph, warning him to be just or he will lose his life. The Saxons, led by their parish priest, return to swear fealty to Sir Ralph before Mortain rides away. Aware of the difficulties that beset him in the task ahead, Sir Ralph takes over the Manor House so recently left empty by Cola the Saxon.

Episode II. Edward I Visits the Town, 1299

Presented by East Grinstead.

East Grinstead is now a thriving market town with a Mayor and well-to-do burghers. They are very busy and rather flustered because King Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, has announced his intention of spending a night at East Grinstead Manor on his way to Canterbury to marry the French King’s daughter. The crowd gathers expectantly and impatiently. At last the King arrives. The Mayor and the Steward of the Royal Manor vie with one another to honour him. The gentry of the district are presented to him. The officials of the Royal Chase of Ashdown are greeted by him. Adam atte Milne, a commoner from the forest, tells the King of the grievances of the commoners. But his Majesty is bored. After telling the Mayor that in future East Grinstead will be expected to send two members to his Parliament, the King rides off too dine at the Manor House.

Episode III. Queen Elizabeth Woodville Escapes From the Turmoil of the Court, 1468

Presented by the Felbridge Women’s Institute.

That beautiful and tragic Queen, Elizabeth Wydvill, wife of Edward IV, has come from her Manor of East Grinstead to visit her lady-in-waiting, Katherine Lewknor, wife of the Lord of Brambletye. The Queen speaks sadly of the bloodshed and enmity caused by the Wars of the Roses and longs for peace.

Episode IV. Sussex Martyrs, 1556

Presented by West Hoathly.

The growth of Protestantism among her subjects in Sussex, the heart of the iron industry, is alarming Queen Mary and her Catholic advisers. Master William Shelley speaks with the officer sent by the Queen to arrest the ringleaders among the heretics in the East Grinstead district. He leads the Queen’s men to the spot where a secret Protestant service is conducted every Sunday by the preacher Thomas at Hoath. Two children betray the names of the leading heretics. Shelley insists that only four shall be taken; this will be a sufficient warning to the rest. The Queen’s men hide and Shelley rides away. The crowd assembles awaiting the preacher. During the singing of a hymn the Queen’s men reappear. They arrest the preacher, as well as Thomas Dungate (the modern-minded iron master from Duckylls), John Foreman of East Grinstead, Richard Hiller and old Mother Tree of West Hoathly. Resolute and unrepentant they are led away to be burnt on 18 July in the High Street. A few years later Master Shelley is dragged by a hostile crowd to East Grinstead for trial on a charge of plotting to restore a Catholic monarch to England. He too is steadfast in his faith and is carried off to a long and harsh imprisonment. The ‘Quite Ordinary Man’ marvels at the intolerance of that age.

Thirty Minute Interval

Episode V. A Parliamentary Election, 1640

Presented by West Hoathly.

The herald tells the ‘Quite Ordinary Man’ of the political as well as religious intolerance of the past. An election is in progress for the two members to represent the ancient borough of East Grinstead in the Parliament summoned by King Charles I. It is the first time that anyone can remember a contest because, hitherto, no-one had dared to challenge the two nominees of Lord Dorset, head of the Sackville family, the patrons of the town. But discontent is rife. Sackville College, the almshouse founded and endowed by his forebears, has been robbed of its funds by Lord Dorset. His cousin, Sir Henry Compton of Brambletye, neglects his duties as Warden of the College and lets the old pensioners die of want. Master Goodwin stands as a candidate in defiance of the Earl of Dorset and Mr Blundell, the Bailiff of East Grinstead, who threatens all those who shall vote against Lord Dorset’s nominees, Sir Henry Compton and Master White. The people of East Grinstead discuss the notice announcing the hustings for the election. A band of strolling players dances while the town awaits the hour of the election.

The hustings are declared open by the Bailiff. Each burgher goes up to vote in full view of the public. Sir Henry Compton will clearly be elected, but Master White and Master Goodwin are running neck and neck. Master Kidder, supporting Master Goodwin, fetches men to vote who are not burghers. As householders they claim the right to vote, although it has always been believed till now that only the burgage may vote. The election ends with Master Blundell declaring that, although Master Goodwin has more votes, some are illegal, and so Master White is elected. Goodwin announces that he will petition Parliament, a course which eventually proved successful.

The ‘Quite Ordinary Man’ thinks a secret ballot is better than all that.

Episode VI. Highwaymen on East Grinstead Common, 1770

Presented by the Lake View Drama Club, Felbridge.

A small band of highwaymen lurk on East Grinstead Common on the road between the town and Felbridge. A party of smugglers, led by Seth of the infamous Hawkhurst Gang, come up the road on their way from the coast to London. They pay their blackmail to the highwaymen in the form of a brandy keg. A highwayman, posted as a lookout on the London Road, gives a warning that a stranger is approaching. By pretending to be drunk the highwayman gets the stranger to come near to help him. Then, with a quick movement, he captures the amazed stranger. The other highwaymen close in and demand the traveller’s money.

The stranger is Parson Cecil of Lewes, returning to his parish with £30 of Queen Anne’s bounty in his pocket. When questioned, he tells them the whole truth and asks God to protect him. Seth, the smuggler, comes out of hiding and intervenes on behalf of Parson Cecil who is known as a kind man and a true Christian, who cares for the widows and orphans of criminals and honest men alike. The Highwaymen are impressed and let the parson go without robbing him. The Highwaymen ride off.

Another lone figure is seen on the road. It is Hawkins, the hated informer, who betrayed some of the Hawkhurst Gang to the Riding Officers. They were all hanged. With revenge in their hearts the smugglers and some revellers set on the informer and beat him to death. A cry of warning goes up as the Riding Officers approach on patrol. The Officers come upon the informer’s body; they search for the murderers. They discover the smugglers, arrest them and carry them off to their deaths.


The ‘Quite Ordinary Man’ enquires of the Herald about the town’s history in the nineteenth century. He glimpses James Stephen, Member of Parliament for East Grinstead, who resigned his seat during the Napoleonic wars as a protest against the Government’s lack of interest in the plight of the slaves in the colonies. Next he sees Major Cranston, of East Court, addressing the Sussex Volunteers at the time when Sussex was in constant terror of Napoleon’s invading armies.

The Volunteers are seen watching at nights ready to light their beacon as a warning of invasion. When Trafalgar brought relief from this danger they were unceremoniously dismissed. There was bitter resentment. The women are panic-stricken at the thought of French soldiers in East Grinstead; they are panic-stricken, too, at the unruly crowds of agricultural workers in 1830—mobs who burned corn stacks in protest against the use of agricultural machinery and crowds of starving men demanding higher wages. As the history of East Grinstead reaches the present day, figures from the past join the ‘Quite Ordinary Man’ in saluting St George, the symbol of England. They give thanks for their present-day freedom from tyranny and intolerance.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Robert, count of Mortain (d. 1095) magnate
  • Edward I (1239–1307) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Elizabeth [née Elizabeth Woodville] (c.1437–1492) queen of England, consort of Edward IV
  • Shelley, Sir William (1478/9–1549) lawyer
  • Sackville, Edward, fourth earl of Dorset (1590–1652) politician
  • Compton, Henry (1631/2–1713) bishop of London
  • Stephen, James (1758–1832) lawyer and slavery abolitionist

Musical production


Newspaper coverage of pageant

Sussex Courier
West Sussex Gazette
Crawley News
Suggex Agricultural Express

Book of words

A Pageant of East Grinstead. East Grinstead, 1951.

Price: 6d.

Other primary published materials

  • Programme, East Grinstead Through the Ages. East Grinstead, 1951.

References in secondary literature

  • Leppard, M.J. A History of East Grinstead. Chichester, 2001.
  • Bulletin of the East Grinstead Society, 73. Spring 2001, [Recollections of the Pageant by performers] 11-5.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Copy of a promotional handbill, accessed 25 February 2016, http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/546439.html.
  • West Sussex History Centre, Chichester: Programme and Book of Words available at Reference Lib 5341–2.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The 1951 Festival of Britain saw something of a revival of historical pageantry in a world in which it appeared increasingly outmoded when competing with cinema, theatre and—most of all—television. Though based on the Southbank of London, home of the famous ‘Skylon’, the Festival also supported many local exhibitions, concerts and events, which were staged across the regions.2 The Festival, which embraced technological modernity, also harked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sought to foster a spirit of communalism created by the shared experience of war and Britain’s welfare state; as such, it was ideally represented by historical pageants. These ranged from relatively large affairs such as the Three Towns Pageant at Hampton Court to relatively small village pageants. Whilst a large number of earlier pageants had tended to focus on the landmark 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 the common sort of people, presenting pageants as a form of social history influenced by G.M. Trevelyan’s phenomenally popular English Social History (1944). Other pageants were held in Headley, Rochester, Boston, and Brighton. 

True to form, the Pageant of East Grinstead sought to emphasize the experiences of common people, interwoven with prominent historical events. As Eric Skinner wrote in the Book of Words:

We welcome you to this ancient town of ours, where for more than a thousand years we have watched the history of our county unfold … And so we hope these episodes—some grave some gay: as Time weaves the lives of all—will make you feel our town would well repay closer knowledge, and that you will come again and again, till your heart beats with the same affection for her as do those of all her sons and daughters.3

Nonetheless, the Festival of Britain was widely criticized—both by the Conservative Party and the press (particularly those newspapers owned by Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, the London Evening Standard and a number of provincial papers)—as, at best, an unaffordable expense at a time of continuing rationing and austerity and, at worst, a form of socialist anti-capitalist propaganda.4 The Festival of Britain—and its local pageants—can be seen as representing a wider conflict, one which pitted the values of collectivism against those of individualism, the free market against socialism, conservative against labour, and the history of the common man against aristocratic history.

The pageant was devised and written by Ursula Ridley, a local historian and folklorist who also directed an episode and took a leading part in another despite being nearly blind.5 Her son, Jasper Godwin Ridley, was a biographer and Labour Councillor who won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1971.6 Mrs Ridley, a member of local dramatic clubs, declared that ‘It would be a great pity… if we do not keep this Festival up. It is an awfully nice way of getting to know your neighbours, for one thing. We always regret that there is not more music and drama locally.’7 Members of the local Feldbridge District Womens’ Institute took park in the pageant.8

Yet the pageant met with some resistance. East Grinstead had elected a Conservative MP since the mid-nineteenth century, with the exception of a Liberal MP returned in the general election of 1906.9 Patrons included the Marquis of Abergavenny, Earl de La Warr, Lord Glendyne, and—most notably of all—the MP Harold Macmillan (soon to become Housing Minister and only six years away from becoming Prime Minister), who lived nearby at Birch Grove.10 The Pageant of East Grinstead thus encountered the paradox, faced in many heavily Conservative areas, of staging a somewhat left-leaning pageant in a place whose general population and local establishment were generally hostile to the aims of the Festival.

During the period when the pageant was being planned, there was discontent from people who believed the pageant, funded largely by the local council, to be a waste of money at a time of austerity. In April, the chamber of commerce organised a vote and announced that many people were ‘against the festival in principle’. The pageant was saved when 271 people pledged to act as guarantors at £1 a head.11

As was increasingly the case in the pageants of the post-war era, that at East Grinstead began later in the evening, continuing through the darkness with flood-lighting. This was, in part, due to the constraints placed on workers by the terms of their employment. Consequently, in a time when car-ownership was low, special transportation was put on, with a midnight train scheduled that called at all stations from East Grinstead to Croydon on 7 July and several special buses leaving after the performance each night.

The figure of the ‘Quite Ordinary Man’, a modern-day gardener with wheelbarrow, narrated the pageant in dialogue with a medieval herald. This was a significant innovation, his running commentary on the action as it unfolded providing a lay perspective on history, which was used in other pageants of the time: for instance, the Dudley Pageant (1951) was narrated by a blacksmith. The pageant, like many other Festival pageants, presented a view of history that was sceptical of Kings and aristocrats, siding instead with the common people and even the outlaws. This was underlined by each performance beginning with a recording of lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V, read by Lawrence Olivier: ‘For there is not one of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in his eyes.’12 The aristocracy and monarchy are presented from the first episode onwards largely as oppressors of the people, with the Normans occupying the land, Edward I ignoring the grievances of locals, and the local aristocrats rigging elections. By contrast, the locals of East Grinstead are portrayed as far from obedient to authority, with the pageant depicting Protestant martyrs, romantic and daring highwaymen with their own moral code, and agricultural labourers during the ‘Captain Swing Riots’ of 1830; the latter, the pageant suggests, was a direct consequence of the aristocratic policies that caused rural unemployment and depression after the Napoleonic Wars.

The local newspapers were warmly appreciative of the pageant. The Sussex Courier wrote: ‘Such are we English. Steeped in history and tradition, we take it very much for granted—except in certain moods. And such a mood was forced on us in East Grinstead’s lovely East Court when the history of this little Sussex town came to life … The pageant lost nothing of its colourful splendour in the perfect setting. Even before it opened we were ready to be taken back through the centuries.’13 The paper also noted that ‘The Election Speeches were delivered with all the fire and venom of a real election campaign’, an anticipation of the 1951 General Election that October.14 The West Sussex Gazette praised the event, performed ‘with outstanding effect. It is colourful, well acted and skilfully produced. It has been a successful culmination of town and village efforts.’15 The pageant was widely praised by many, including Sir Michael Balcon, the film producer responsible for many Ealing comedies such as The Ladykillers (1955), along with J.B. Boothroyd and Ronald Searle, who covered the pageant appreciatively for Punch. Boothroyd wrote that:

It was eleven o’clock when the towered trumpeter reappeared, framed in a white, moth-flecked beam, to sound a long-drawn, lonely note; as it faded, the spotlight faded in sympathy, until there was nothing left of either, and the audience, long lost in the local repercussions of foreign invasion, religious intolerance, political corruption and industrial revolution, realized with a shock that they had been sitting in a Sussex meadow in the dark, with the dew stealthily creeping up their shins.16 

The producer Peter Smith praised the production as ‘the best-written pageant with the most dramatic possibilities of four I was asked to produce this year’.17

However, warm reviews, ringing endorsements and all-night buses could not guarantee the financial success of the pageant. Though 7000 people saw it (at a time when East Grinstead’s population was 10942),18 the pageant made a loss of £400. A number of the guarantors refused to pay up, and the council was ultimately forced to make up most of the rest of the difference.19 Despite the pageant’s leftist exhortations for the oppressed locals to shake off the shackles of oppression, the local Conservative MP Ralph Stevenson Clarke was returned in the October General Election with an increased majority of 18532 (5.2% higher than in the election of the previous year).20 The now ruling Conservative party had previously been very hostile to the Festival of Britain and proceeded to dismantle much of the Southbank site.21 Tragically, the producer, Peter Smith, was killed shortly after the pageant in a motorcycle accident. The end results of the Festival of Britain in local communities such as East Grinstead were neatly encapsulated by the Manchester Guardian:

In the rest of the country the Festival will leave small things behind it—a concert hall here, a paddling pool there, a grove of trees on that hill-side, a stoutly made (or ‘fashioned’ as they say in Festival English) bench by this footpath overlooking the meadow where they held the pageant—‘a hundred years of Muddlethrough Barn’ produced by a gentleman from London (failed RADA).22


  1. ^ ‘Pageant Celebrates the Festival of Britain’, Crawley News, 15 July 2010, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.crawleynews.co.uk/Pageant-celebrates-Festival-Britain/story-12599586-detail/story.html.
  2. ^ 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, no. 4 (2013): 423–455.
  3. ^ Eric Skinner, Foreword, in A Pageant of East Grinstead, (East Grinstead, 1951), 17.
  4. ^ Barry Turner, Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Helped to Shape a New Age (London, 2011), 106–109.
  5. ^ ‘Pageant Celebrates the Festival of Britain’, Crawley News, 15 July 2010, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.crawleynews.co.uk/Pageant-celebrates-Festival-Britain/story-12599586-detail/story.html.
  6. ^ Daily Telegraph, 8 July 2004, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1466429/Jasper-Ridley.html.
  7. ^ East Grinstead Through the Ages (East Grinstead, 1951), np.
  8. ^ Accessed 25 February 2016, Felbridge and District History Group, ‘Felbridge Women’s Institute Celebrates 90 Years’, http://www.felbridge.org.uk/index.php/publications/felbridge-womens-institute-celebrates-90-years/ and Felbridge and District History Group, ‘Clubs and Societies of Felbridge’ http://www.felbridge.org.uk/index.php/exhibitions/clubs-societies-felbridge/.
  9. ^ Accessed 25 February 2016, Wikipedia entry, East Grinstead (UK Parliamentary Constitutency), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Grinstead_(UK_Parliament_constituency).
  10. ^ ‘H.G.C. Matthew, Macmillan, (Maurice) Harold, First Earl of Stockton (1894–1986)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40185?docPos=1 .
  11. ^ ‘Pageant Celebrates the Festival of Britain’, Crawley News, 15 July 2010, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.crawleynews.co.uk/Pageant-celebrates-Festival-Britain/story-12599586-detail/story.html.
  12. ^ East Grinstead Through the Ages (New Grinstead, 1951), np.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ West Sussex Gazette, 5 July 1951, 3.
  16. ^ Punch, 18 July 1951, 62-3.
  17. ^ ‘Pageant Celebrates the Festival of Britain’, Crawley News, 15 July 2010, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.crawleynews.co.uk/Pageant-celebrates-Festival-Britain/story-12599586-detail/story.html.
  18. ^ M.J. Leppard, A History of East Grinstead (Chichester, 2001), 165.
  19. ^ ‘Pageant Celebrates the Festival of Britain’, Crawley News, 15 July 2010, accessed 25 February 2016, http://www.crawleynews.co.uk/Pageant-celebrates-Festival-Britain/story-12599586-detail/story.html.
  20. ^ Accessed 25 February 2016, UK General Election Results, October 1951, E-F, http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/ge51/i08.htm.
  21. ^ Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’, 232–236.
  22. ^ ‘Fun and Games in a Cold Climate’, Manchester Guardian, 29 September 1951, 4, accessed 25 April, http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1951/sep/29/fromthearchive

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘A Pageant of East Grinstead’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1056/