Helmingham Hall Pageant

Other names

  • Three Queens in Suffolk, A Georgian Fantasy

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Helmingham Hall (Helmingham) (Helmingham, Suffolk, England)

Year: 1933

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 6


28 June–1 July 1933

28 June at 2.30pm and 7pm, 29 June at 7pm, 30 June at 7pm and 1 July at 2.30pm and 7pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Organising Secretary and Pageant Master: Hudson, Mrs Herbert
  • Producer and Director of Music: Mr John Lee Hunt
  • Author and Stage Manager: Mrs Herbert Hudson
  • Tournament Episode Devised and Arranged and Poster Designed by: Lieut-Col B. Granville Baker
  • Dances Arranged By: Miss Edith Rainer; Miss Doughty
  • Pompadour Dances Arranged by: Miss E. Hockey
  • Assistant Stage Managers: Mrs Gilead Smith; Mrs S. Thompson; Mrs Scott; Mrs Percival; Mrs Jenkins; Mrs Blake; Mr S. Thompson; Mr H. Youngman; The Rev. D. Castleden; Mr F. Needham
  • Box Office Organiser: Mrs C. Keith
  • Organising Secretary for Riders: Miss C. Bird
  • Mistress of the Robes: Mrs Burdekin; Mrs Pole Carew; Miss Moyse
  • Property Mistress: Mrs Wansbrough Jones
  • Chief Steward: Mr F. Ablitt

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Reception Committee:

  • Hon. Mrs Douglas Tollemache

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

  • Hudson, Mrs Herbert

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Financial information

Takings: £607. 8s. 6d.

Expenses: £454. 8s. 6d.

Profit: £147. 15s. 

This was subject to entertainment tax which may have reduced this figure considerably.

Object of any funds raised

In aid of the Suffolk unemployed.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: 1200
  • Total audience: n/a

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events


Pageant outline

Part I


The Gipsy Queen, Rhona Boswell, and her husband are pushing their knife-grinder up the Avenue to the Hall. She sits down to rest, and he boldly asks whether their caravan may be drawn beneath the oak trees. Four spirits confront the sleeping Rhona, representing the seasons. She sleeps through all the action.


An outrider announces the arrival of the Queen of Denmark, who arrives with Lionel and Lady Tollemache and greets those of the house. News is announced that one of the queen’s maids of honour, Lady Jane, has disgraced herself by getting married to a local lad. Lady Jane is arrested for such a crime, though the queen wishes the rules of the court did not demand it. A Gallant sings an ode to the queen, and all dance.

AD 870

Aethelmarch, founder of the Tollemache family, rouses the Saxons to repel the Danes.


Country folk assemble for the wedding of Lady Edith Joce, with jesters and archers. A deaf old man asks his daughter what is going on. A jester mocks marriage. A knight in armour arrives, Lionel Tollemache, with his followers clad in armour. Lionel jousts against Richard Rous and, winning, reclaims his bride.


A Cromwellian Cornet comes to rouse the Suffolk farmers.


Farewell of Lionel Robert Tollemache, who rides off to fight for his king and country. The Spirit of the Past vanishes, and the queen go to the banqueting table. Voices in the distance are heard, and haymakers arrive.

Part II

Part II deals with another dream of Rhona’s and is a depiction of Fairyland.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Caroline Matilda, Princess (1751–1775) queen of Denmark and Norway

Musical production


Newspaper coverage of pageant

Framlingham Weekly News

Book of words

Hudson, Mrs Herbert. Helmingham Hall Pageant: Three Queens in Suffolk, A Georgian Fantasy Written and Devised by Mrs Herbert Hudson. Ipswich, 1933.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Bodleian Library, Oxford, John Johnson Collection: Copy of Programme.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



Unemployment in West Suffolk peaked in January 1933 with 10692 men and women claiming unemployment benefit (up from around 2000–3000 in 1929); this amounted to 23.4% of the total population.1 The Great Depression had dramatically reduced food prices across the world, throwing millions of farmers and labourers out of work. Agriculture had been in decline across Britain from the 1890s onwards, with competition from Europe and the Empire, and the temporary boost of the First World War was short lived.2 Suffolk, like much of the rest of rural England, was experiencing a short-term spike in immediate unemployment against a long-term trend of agricultural decline, involving a mass shedding of workers from the land. Rural poverty, which remained stubbornly high even in times of fair employment, naturally increased massively during this period of genuine crisis.

The Helmingham Hall Pageant was a continuation of a cycle of Suffolk Pageants in the early 1930s, which included the Wolsey Pageant in Ipswich in 1930 and the Framlingham Castle Pageant in 1931. Mr and Mrs Herbert Hudson had been producers and assistant producers for the latter, and several members of the production team remained the same throughout. The organisers had hoped to hold a pageant at Helmingham Hall in 1932, but its owner, Earl Soham, had to inform the Framlingham Weekly News that the pageant had been cancelled ‘owing to financial reasons’ (which were unspecified). One might conjecture that at the height of the depression, with rents either missed or withdrawn and spending down, the upper middle class and aristocratic patrons who usually helped fund a pageant were likely to be hesitant about any extraordinary expenditure. However, by 1933 the pageant was once more a going concern. Writing to the newspaper, Mrs Hudson remarked that the full cast of 200 had already signed up, and insurance of £200 had been pledged of which £30 was already in hand. Nonetheless, she called for further assistance, requesting actors, rehearsal arrangers and those wishing to sell tickets, arrange transportation or lend dresses and horses to come forward.3 By May the full cast had been recruited.4

Hudson declared that ‘our most energetic supporters’ came ‘from the Ipswich Local Unemployed Workers’ Association’,5 and pledged that all profits would go towards Suffolk’s unemployed. The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM) was a major force in British inter-war society, organising protests and hunger marches (such as the famous Jarrow Crusade of 1936).6 Although much of the literature has focused on political struggles, the NUWM was also committed to the day-to-day welfare of its members. They also distributed funds and help to the long-term unemployed (who quickly exhausted National Insurance, which was designed for short-term unemployment), organised lectures (often with the Workers’ Educational Association) and generally attempted to prevent demoralisation among members. Naturally, unemployed workers had a great deal of time to devote to pageants, which they appeared to do here with great zeal.

Unlike 1930s pageants which involved working-class movements from the Trade Unions Congress to the Co-operative Movement and Communist Party, the Helmingham Hall Pageant remained distinctly aristocratic in tone, telling (albeit elliptically) the story of the Tollemache family which occupied the house. A further novelty to the pageant, the first written solely by Mrs Herbert Hudson, was the supernatural element, involving various fairies, sprites and spirits, and an utterly bizarre second half representing Fairyland. This was not, apparently, an artistic conceit. According to Hudson:

Part II came to the writer of this Synopsis years ago, as an adventure that had materialised not once but many times in days of old when Titania reigned in England as well as Fairyland. Why it should linger here and not in other places will probably never be explained; but perhaps the love that the old Hall has inspired in so many people of all sorts and kinds for so many generations has nurtured the sense of History and Romance and Faery that lies at the very heart of life in our beloved Old Suffolk.7

Quite what one should make of this is beyond the grasp of the historian, save to make the point that a belief in spiritualism and fairies was widely shared among the Victorians, and such beliefs endured through much of the twentieth century. Following Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of 1922, the Cottingley Fairies hoax of 1917 was widely believed for over 50 years.8 The Helminghal Hall Pageant is certainly one of the more eccentric pageants that were performed.

In any case, the pageant was a success, with the Framlingham Weekly News ranking it ‘in the same category as the more recent pictorial displays of this nature in Suffolk’, such as Wolsey in Ipswich and Framlingham: ‘The colour scheme is certainly as good as anything seen in this district of Suffolk. In stately dignity, too, the scenes are quite in keeping with the associations of Helmingham Hall.’9 The reporter praised the horsemanship and tournaments, as well as the dancing but suggested that ‘some of the banqueting scenes might have been a little more festive, several of the pauses could have been shortened, and more advantage might have been taken to people the hall itself with living figures as a background, but the pageant as a whole leaves little to cavil at.’10 The transposition of Fairyland to Suffolk was passed over in absolute silence.

The pageant was a creditable success, taking £607 and making a profit of £147 before entertainment tax. Mrs Hudson was true to her word, noting that ‘profits will be divided among the villages that worked for the pageant to be given to their unemployed’.11 Indeed, 1933 proved to be the worst year for unemployment in East Suffolk, with those claiming unemployment relief falling to 6610 in April 1934 and 3530 in July 1936.12 Nonetheless, the rate of people out of work continued to be unacceptably high, rising again to between 4000 and 8000 in 1938–1939. It was only with the coming of the Second World War, when food production became vital to the war effort, that high levels of structural unemployment could be eliminated through government intervention in agriculture. Despite the good intentions of pageants such as Helmingham Hall, which made a change from raising money for a church roof or a new village hall, this was only a drop in the ocean of unemployment that beset Britain, and particularly rural Britain, throughout the 1930s.


  1. ^ GB Historical GIS/University of Portsmouth, East Suffolk AdmC through time|Work & Poverty Statistics|Claimant Count Unemployment, A Vision of Britain Through Time, accessed 23 May 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10001160/cube/INSURED_UNEM.
  2. ^ Alun Howkins, The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900 (London, 2003).
  3. ^ Framlingham Weekly News, 18 March 1933, 4.
  4. ^ Framlingham Weekly News, 13 May 1933, 4.
  5. ^ Framlingham Weekly News, 18 March 1933, 4.
  6. ^ Julia Greene, ‘Review Essay: The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and Popular Protest in Britain, 1920–39’, International Labor and Working-Class History 30 (Fall, 1986): 94–102; Richard Croucher, We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, 1920–46 (London, 1987); Matt Perry, Bread and Work: Social Policy and the Experience of Unemployment, 1918–39 (London, 2000).
  7. ^ Mrs Herbert Hudson, Helmingham Hall Pageant: Three Queens in Suffolk, A Georgian Fantasy Written and Devised by Mrs Herbert Hudson (Ipswich, 1933), 15.
  8. ^ Alex Owen, ‘“Borderland Forms”: Arthur Conan Doyle, Albion's Daughters, and the Politics of the Cottingley Fairies’, History Workshop 38, no. 1 (1994): 48–85.
  9. ^ Framlingham Weekly News, 1 July 1933, 4.
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ Framlingham Weekly News, 30 September 1933, 4.
  12. ^ GB Historical GIS/University of Portsmouth, East Suffolk AdmC through time|Work & Poverty Statistics|Claimant Count Unemployment, A Vision of Britain Through Time, accessed 23 May 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10001160/cube/INSURED_UNEM.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Helmingham Hall Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1092/