Pedlar's Ware

Other names

  • Pedlar's Ware or the Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages

Pageant type


The pageant was organised and performed by members of the Lancashire Federation of Women's Institutes.

Jump to Summary


Place: The Public Hall (Preston) (Preston, Lancashire, England)

Year: 1935

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 2


20 and 21 September 1935

The pageant was held at 7.30pm on the evening of Friday 20 September and again at 6.30pm on Saturday 21 September.2 There was a dress rehearsal on the evening of 19 September 1935.

The pageant was incorporated within a Women's Institute event held to showcase the work of the Lancashire WI. It took place over a weekend in Preston Public Hall and was entitled 'A Village Market and Exhibition of Handicrafts'.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Director and Producer [Pageant Master]: Wallis, J.E.W.
  • Drama Coach: Miss Ida Shaw


The author and director of the pageant was the Vicar of Preston, Canon John E.W. Wallis.3 Assisting him was a local drama and elocution teacher, Ida Shaw. Miss Shaw was based in Blackburn.4

Names of executive committee or equivalent

  • Hon. Secretary: Julia M. Cowper
  • Secretary and Assistant Treasurer: Miss Lillian Cartmell


The federation of Women's' Institutes in Lancashire had a committee on which sat representatives from all the county branches of the organisation. It is clear from correspondence in respect to the pageant that a pageant sub-committee was formed.5

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

  • Wallis, J.E.W.


The Vicar of Preston, Canon John Wallis, wrote the pageant script.

Names of composers

  • Pearsall, Robert Lucas
  • Parry, Hubert

Numbers of performers


The majority of performers were women, with children of both sexes appearing in some scenes. No men were in performing roles.

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

Although information about fundraising has not come to light, it may be assumed that any profit made from the exhibition and pageant aided the work of the WI in Lancashire.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


The pageant was held in Preston Public Hall, which at the time was used as a concert and exhibition venue; it had a theatre area with fixed seating. While the size of the audience that could be housed in the auditorium is unknown, the building as a whole could accommodate 3300 people.7

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Reserved seats cost 5s. and 3s.; unreserved seats were 1s.8 Entrance to the exhibition was 1s.9

Associated events

The pageant took place as part of a WI exhibition held over a weekend in Preston.

Pageant outline

Prologue. The Pedlar's Masque

According to a newspaper report, the pageant opened with the singing of 'Jerusalem'.10 In the drama that followed, the central character is 'the Pedlar of All Time'. Also taking part are eight pages, the choir and four groups of performers. The first of these is the 'Group of Spring'; this includes a shepherd, shepherdess and four attendants. The 'Group of Summer' has a farmer, farmer's wife and four attendants. The 'Group of Autumn features a knight, a 'Lady' and four attendants. Lastly, is the 'Group of Winter' which includes 'Darby and Joan' with four attendants. The performance begins with a choreographed entrance by all these performers, accompanied by brisk music. When all the performers are in position and with soft music in the background, the Pedlar declaims a speech. The four groups then 'perform a short stately dance round the Pedlar'. The Pedlar takes a seat on a dais to the left of the stage, and all the groups go off, 'bowing to the Pedlar as they pass'; the choir goes off in couples, also bowing to the Pedlar. The scene ends with the Pedlar giving 'a sign to the Pages' who then set the stage for the first episode.11

Episode I. Samian Cups, AD 360

Twenty-five performers took part in this episode set in Roman times. The scene is 'the courtyard of a Romano-British villa in Watling Street'. Some villagers enter and seat themselves at the back of the stage where they are seen to work at basket-weaving and spinning with distaffs. The Roman 'mistress of the house' (Sosia) and her two daughters enter, followed by three house slaves; Sosia encourages the work of the villagers and tells her slaves to ensure they have all they need. The children of the house are playing a game in which the boys try to exclude a girl who protests the unfairness of this. Some village children defuse the row by singing a song. The mistress of the house is engaged in some sewing; she and her friend, Livia, discuss the merits of various types of pottery.

A slave announces the arrival of a pedlar, and he is invited into the courtyard; his own slave and a donkey accompany him. The donkey enchants the children. The pedlar is wily; he implies that he once held a higher social position and takes note of a 'college crest' on the wall. He claims to have come from Rome and tells a seemingly preposterous story about having studied alongside the master of the house. He elaborates on this story with reminiscences about some high jinks they engaged in when they were students, ending with the tale of how one of the two friends had kissed a beautiful barmaid on meeting her and declared that he would marry this woman. The pedlar remarks in a flattering way on Sosia's resemblance to the 'pretty barmaid'. At this, Sosia blushes deeply and offers to buy all the pedlar's stock of Samian ware. The scene continues with Sosia learning that her son has fallen off the donkey's back; she rushes to attend to him. All except the pedlar, Livia and the villagers hastily exit; Livia asks if it was the pedlar or the master who had kissed the pretty barmaid. He almost admits that it was the master until from the corner of his eye he sees the daughter of the house (Drusilla) eavesdropping. At this, he changes his story. The pedlar rejoices in his own ingenuity in spotting the college crest and so making such a good sale. He then tells the villagers that he has a stock of cheaper ware nearby, and they all follow him eagerly to view the wares. The scene ends with them exiting while the pedlar sings a song.12

Episode II. Needles and Thread, AD 880

Set in a monastery in AD 880, this episode had a small cast of 14 players and featured Editha, the Abbess, nuns, novices and their mistress (Mildreda), the 'janitress' (Bebba) and the pedlar. After the choir sings the 'Magnificat', all the religious seat themselves and take up sewing; the abbess and nuns sew a single length of tapestry while the others engage in plainer work. The pedlar enters and takes up position on the apron-stage where he greets Bebba. He introduces himself as 'a poor pedlar, Boniface by name, a man of few words'. Bebba responds that this is particularly suitable as the nuns have taken a vow of silence. He opens his pack and declares that he brings goods all the way from Milan; a brilliant display of threads and coloured stones is unfurled. Bebba points out the nuns, and, in particular, a novice called Bertha who is described as incompetent at sewing; at this Bertha becomes aware she has been singled out for attention. Bebba approaches the abbess, who at first dismisses her, but the nuns are eager to see the wares; the abbess gives way and is clearly impressed by the goods. Bargaining then takes place with the abbess using hand signals and Bebba communicating these; after some hard bartering, a price is agreed. The pedlar makes a gift of red wool to Bebba for her assistance and ties up his pack with Bertha looking on at him. The scene ends with the choir singing the hymn 'Dimittis' as the nuns leave the stage and Boniface bows to them.13

Episode III. Eastern Silks, c1360

Around 30 players took part in this episode set in a castle hall during the reign of Edward III (1327–1377). Some village women are accompanied by their children who skip and jump while the adults chatter. The lady of the house—Lady Clara—then enters, accompanied by her attendants, three of her nieces and household servants (including a housekeeper called Betty). The attendants sit while Clara stands and 'fidgets with a book' in her hands. A village woman (Ethel) offers to hold the book for Lady Clara for 'when I have something in my hand I always feel as though I was doing a good bout of work, even though I do nothing.' Ethel then proceeds to tell an amusing story about a conversation she had with her husband on household management; the other villagers pretend to be outraged, but Lady Clara encourages the villagers to tell their own stories; in all the amusing tales told by each, it is clear that the women rule their homes. Looking at the book she still holds, Lady Clara remarks, 'oh! what a weary waste of time all these black letters are'. One of her nieces (Philippa) responds to this, and it is made clear that Clara cannot read but depends on chaplains to read to her. Clara regrets that they often read their own boring sermons and listlessly remarks on the dullness of life since the men are all away at war. She calls for a song to lighten the mood and the company sing.

Following this, many of the attendant women say they cannot continue with their sewing as there is no cloth or thread left in the household. At this, there is a loud knock at the door and a village child is despatched to answer the caller. The pedlar (Simon of Alsatia) and his assistant (Ned) then suddenly appear; they proceed to sing a song entitled 'A Song of Cash'. At the conclusion of this, Lady Clara asks what they are selling, and Simon replies that they bring silk. While Ned struggles to open the pack of cloth, Simon tells stories of his life: how he fell in love with a housekeeper who died, since which time he has wandered far. The pedlar claims to have met Prester John and been in the household of Kublai Khan. Colourful silks are unrolled and all the ladies fall upon them; two of the nieces quarrel over one piece of cloth and a struggle ensues in which the piece is torn in half. Lady Clara rebukes them and then buys all the silk. On asking the price, she is told 'four pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven-pence three farthings'; Clara remarks that this is excellent for had the cost been five pounds she 'couldn't possibly have afforded to buy it'. The housekeeper asks how long the cloth will wear and is told 'about twelve month', so she invites the pedlar to return in a year. The pedlar makes Betty a gift of half a yard of cloth before exiting singing a song. Music leads into the next episode.14

Episode IV. Ribbons and Laces, 1660

The central character of this episode is Lady Barbara Danvers (wife of Sir Charles). There are also 22 village women, divided into Royalist supporters and 'Roundhead' supporters; a constable, Tom Hogsflesh; the beadle, Harry Chatterbody; and the pedlar. The scene is set in the summer of 1660 on a village green where a crowd is assembled. Lady Barbara and three Royalist women enter the scene; Barbara Danvers and one of the Royalists are discussing a decision made by Sir Charles to punish a woman. One of the Roundhead supporters interrupts them, and some ill-tempered conversation takes place. The beadle appears, leading a woman (Jemima Tideswell—another Roundhead supporter) who is wearing a scold's bridle. The beadle announces that Jemima has been sentenced to be led through the town wearing the bridle on three successive market days for the crime of making slanderous accusations against a Royalist woman called Anne Tideswell. As Jemima passes Lady Barbara, she makes an attitude implying that she seeks mercy, but she is rebuffed and Lady Clara says she will not watch. There is noise of quarrelling, and the constable arrives dragging Dabbadesh Tubb (another Roundhead); he puts her in the stocks on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. A pedlar then appears; ongoing conversation exposes that the Parliamentarians had previously restricted the trade of peddling, but this has now resumed. The pedlar greets everyone joyfully and shows his wares; while doing so, he recites a poem entitled 'The Pedlar Shows His Pack'. The villagers begin bargaining for purchases. Folk dancers appear and perform. The scene ends with all on stage dancing off except the pedlar and Dabbadesh. The pedlar says they are both prisoners, she 'bound to stay still—I bound ever to move on'; he gives her a red handkerchief. The constable appears again saying that Sir Charles allows Dabbadesh's release; they both go off. The pedlar leaves saying 'nothing can set me free but Death'.15

Episode V. Watches and Clocks

This scene is set in the parlour of a manor house at 'Ashton Grove' in 1760. The cast includes Mrs Maria Ashby, her daughters Sophia and Dorothea, her niece Peg, the housekeeper (Susan Kyte), three maids (Kitty Fisher, Lucy Locket and Nancy Holt), Mrs Abigail Sawkins (wife of the rector), three 'country lasses' and the pedlar (Dick Fishergate). The housekeeper and the three maids enter stage right. The housekeeper rebukes Nancy for using the wrong form of address when speaking with the mistress and with herself. Nancy fails to be able to correct this when asked to do say and runs away crying. The housekeeper is exasperated, especially when Lucy laughs. Lucy is asked to explain herself and states that the previous evening she had lost her pocket but Kitty (Fisher) had found it! They all exit as Mrs Ashby, her daughters and her nieces enter together and sit. The conversation exposes that the country is at war, and Mrs Ashby expresses anxiety for the sailors at sea and the soldiers on land.

Bells are heard, and all assume they announce a victory. At this, the rector's wife, accompanied by the country girls, arrives. Mrs Sawkins is in a state of excitement and barely able to speak; the company assume that she brings news of the war. It turns out, however, that the bells are ringing because the rector's prize bull has won first prize at the county fair and, in celebration, he has given the ringers a gallon of ale apiece. At this, Lucy announces the arrival of a 'gentleman' called Mr Richard Fishergate who says he has come because of a matter of 'time and consequence'. The women are exited and intrigued at this interruption to the 'dullness of country life' where time hangs heavy. A humorous conversation takes place on the subject of this tedium in which it is revealed that Mrs Ashby prefers London society and Sophia manages to insult the rector's wife. As a distraction, Mrs Ashby asks the three country girls to sing: they sing in a trio and then sit down quietly. Fishergate is announced and declaims to them all that he is a clock-mender who leaves 'Greenwich Mean Time waggling behind me, like the tail of a comet, over half the shires of England'. Mrs Ashby seems unimpressed, but the pedlar proceeds to admire the London-made clocks that adorn the parlour:

That's a beautiful bracket clock you have there...and a long case clock over in the corner...But one of them is wrong, ma'am—for like husband and wife, they're not of the same opinion. And indeed, ma'am (consults his watch), by this, my great corrector of enormous times, as the immortal bard hath it, they're both in the wrong of it!

Mrs Ashby continues to be unmoved but invites Fishergate to mend the clocks and set all the watches owned by the family to the correct time. The garrulous Fishergate flatters the housekeeper and entertains the young women who ask him questions. It transpires he spends the winter in Clerkenwell 'where all good clock-makers go', but being a country boy born and bred, he takes to the roads in the summer. He rhapsodizes on his boyhood in the countryside and all the time speaks in ever more ludicrous metaphors and adages. The women are evidently impressed. Eventually, when he has finished the work and been paid handsomely, he rapidly makes to leave, and while jingling his money says: 'it is more than I expected. I see you are not one to shave an egg. To make the clock go you must oil the wheels. Cabbage for cabbage, as the farmer says...' Having succeeded in enlivening the company, Mrs Ashby suggests a walk in the garden and the women exit.16

Episode VI. Jewels and Jet, 1860

This episode is set in a breakfast room furnished in a 'solid, well-to-do' Victorian style. The characters taking part include a group of singers, an elderly widow (Mrs Smith) and her sister (Mrs Brown), Carrie and Georgie Robinson who are Mrs Smith's nieces, the girls' German governess (Miss Stuwwelpeter), the doctor's wife (Mrs Pumplechook) and her daughters (Deborah and Molly), Jane the parlour-maid, Susan the cook and Mrs Cholmondeley-Blackpool (who is described as a 'pioneer'). The nieces enter accompanied by their governess who indicates in a heavily accented voice that the lesson will begin with recitation; the girls protest. Carrie does not make an impression with her attempt, but Georgie, who opts to mimic the governess's accent and diction, is heaped with praise. The doctor's daughters arrive and slam their books on the table; the governess protests. Without further ado, Deborah suggests that instead of lessons, they all try out a polka. The orchestra strikes up and the four girls perform a lively dance to the exasperation of the governess. The door opens and the Misses Brown and Smith together with Mrs Pumplechook enter; the governess pleads forgiveness saying 'the young ladi'ss took the piece between their tooths and vould not to me 'earken'. At last, the dancing stops and the girls are roundly condemned as unladylike. Molly reminds the older women that the queen and Prince Albert had danced the polka at Balmoral and this had been reported in the Times. The older women are doubtful but eventually convinced and are persuaded to try out the dance.

They are all dancing energetically with the older women keen to learn the steps when the arrival of Mrs Cholmondeley-Blackpool is announced. She enters 'dressed like the villainess of a melodrama and stands staring at the activity'. The girls ignore her and carry on dancing enthusiastically, and the older women are so preoccupied with their steps that they do not see her. Eventually, the maid Jane puts herself in the path of the frolicking Miss Smith and yells the announcement 'Mrs Cholmondeley-Blackpool'! All stop and fan themselves; once seated, Mrs Cholmondeley-Blackpool introduces herself and tells a sob story about how her husband was killed in the Crimea, the husband described as one of the 'gallant six hundred', and her son then died at the Siege of Lucknow. She brings out a bag of jewels, saying this is all she has left and must sell them to support herself. The ladies are sympathetic and offer to buy an article made of jet; however, they are interrupted by the arrival of the maid again who in a flustered voice tells the company that the singers have arrived and asks if they wish to hear them. The singers then enter led by the cook who introduces them as her friends. They sing, and at the end of this, one of the choir recognises Mrs Cholmondeley-Blackpool and greets her as 'Belle 'Opkins', last seen by her identifier answering to charges 'of hobtainin' money by false pertences'. The imposter tries to talk her way out of this while stuffing jewellery back into her bag, but as it is clear she has been rumbled, she makes a hasty exit. The scene ends with Miss Stuwwelpeter exclaiming 'Vell, I vunder!'17

Episode VII: Here Is My Card!

This episode is set in the future in the year 2060 and features the following fantasy characters:

Pa-Rus—manager of a synthetic vegetable factory
Ma-sa—his wife
Dus—their son aged 14
Ba—their daughter aged 12
Mus—their baby aged 6 months
Eyedoo Cellalotte—a saleswoman from Saturn
B.—a Blue Autobetty
G.—a Green Autobetty
R.—a Red Autobetty
Y.—a Yellow Autobetty

The scene opens in a room in Pa-Rus's home, furnished entirely with pantaprammes—a standardised unit of household furniture, which can be by turns a table, chair, couch, oven, refrigerator, pram and dustbin. Eyedoo and Ma-sa enter talking; the conversation ends with Eyedoo handing over her business card: 'here is my card'. Ma-sa examines it, and Eyedoo adds that as well as being able to use these details to find her she can be contacted by 'telepath'. At this, an 'electric bell rings & a red light shines on her right wrist'; Eyedoo excuses herself and speaks to the caller in New Zealand who wishes to order three Autobetties. However, Eyedoo explains they work much better 'as a set' of four, and the order is placed. The saleswoman further explains to the caller that she is presently in 'Preston, England' but she can be with the purchaser in 'ten minutes, thirty seconds, allowing for the belt of fog... reported over the Indian Ocean', adding that she needs to be back home in Saturn 'for luncheon'. She ends the call and explains to Ma-sa that:

Since the migrations to colonise the other planets of the solar system there are so few humans left on earth that I am able to give my customers individual attention. Mass production and multiple stores may have been all right for our great-great-grandparents—after all, they were very simple, unsophisticated and easily led. But today the cry is all for individual attention for every customer.

Eyedoo proceeds to explain how to operate the Autobetties using a 'peg-board' to 'spell out the order' of work. They say goodbye. Eyedoo leaves, and an aeroplane is heard taking off.

Ma-sa then examines the peg-board and turns a blue dial, whereupon a bell rings on the board and within the blue Autobetty, who swiftly arrives on the scene. B sports a blue light on her head. Ma-sa begins explaining the housework required, but to no effect; B remains motionless. Ma-sa recalls that she must spell out the task on the keyboard, and a comic drama ensues in which B performs the task of shaking the dust out of a rug inside the house instead of outdoors. Ma-sa becomes flustered and unable to communicate the work required via the keyboard. Eventually, she manages to get B to the backdoor. Reassured, Ma-sa calls up the three remaining Autobetties who arrive. She considers that Y has 'a kind face' and spells out her task—to give the baby his vitamins and then 'sing him to sleep'. A similar scenario of confusion again occurs until Y sets to the task and holding the baby sings:

Cease to be conscious, biological specimen, cease to be conscious,
As the pantapramme sways across relative space
In relative time—let regular bronchus
Inhalations at intervals take place...

When the baby is asleep Y places him in his pantapramme and pushes this to and fro. Further tasks are ordered from R and G. Feeling pleased with herself, Ma-sa delights in having time for 'a jaunt' and calls a friend on her telepath, explaining that the Autobetties she has ordered and will have paid for by instalment in 150 years time have arrived and are all working nicely. She arranges to meet her freind 'just outside Mars' and orders R to fetch her coat and hat; this task is performed without difficulty and Ma-sa leaves.

The Autobetties continue with their alloted tasks when the two older children arrive home; they are in boistrous spirits and intrigued by the Autobetties. Dus suggests trying out the keyboard and after a few efforts correctly assesses how it works; he suggests some mischief for the machines 'are quite harmless. Loonies I should say'. In order to show his sister how the keyboard works, he turns the red dial and spells out 'pinch me', intending this to be aimed at his sister. R proceeds to pinch Dus instead, to his great indignation. Dus’s next attempt instructs R to mimic a schoolteacher, 'old Thwackum', when he is taking a 'class in recitation'. R responds with the line, 'the boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled...' Ba is annoyed with Dus and says this must stop. He concedes, and they turn all the Autobetties' lights off on the board. This does not last long, however, and Ba suggests a prank where they give an order to pick up the baby, feed him and put him back to sleep. Dus spells this out and Ba switches on all of the dials. All four Autobetties then perform the task in sequence: G picks up the baby, handing him to B who feeds him and then gives him to Y, who sings 'cease to be conscious...'; R then pushes the pram as before. Ba then turns the switches on the keyboard backwards, and the Autobetties begin performing this task in reverse until they are switched off. Dus is impressed with this lark and suggests they do it again, but Ba replies, 'No, Dus, It's not fair on Mus—poor kid—he'll develop a fear complex in his sub-conscious as sure as fate and be inhibited for the first two hundred years of his life'.

The children get up from the table they have been sitting at, leaving behind the keyboard, and move to the other side of the stage. At this, with a 'grunting noise', the blue Autobetty comes to life and moves towards the table where she switches on all the lights on the keyboard and spells out 'K I L L K I D S'. As the Autobetties advance menacingly on the children, Ma-sa returns. She puts herself between the Autobetties and the children. Pa-rus appears, and Ma-sa calls for him to type in the order 'G O'; at this, the Autobetties begin striking Ma-sa, and Pa-rus comes to the rescue, knocking down Y who lies on the floor waving her arms. Eventually the chaos is diffused, and the Autobetties exit. The scene ends with Pa-rus asking what is for dinner as he has a golf match to go to on Neptune.18


There is no script included for this. A news report describes it as involving all the performers who resume the stage 'for the singing of Parry's England'.19

Key historical figures mentioned


Musical production

Music was an important part of this pageant; there was an orchestra comprised of local, professional musicians and piano, but most details of what was played have not been recovered. There was folk music (Episode IV) and a 'Polka' (Episode VI). There was also choral singing within many episodes. Performed pieces included:
  • 'Magnificat', sung to a Gregorian chant (Episode II).
  • 'Nunc Dimitis' (Episode II).
  • Unknown composer. 'Song of Cash', lyrics adapted from a translation of an untitled medieval poem (Episode II).
  • Robert Lucas Pearsall. 'Oh Will O'r the Downs So Free' (Episode VII).
  • Hubert Parry. 'Jerusalem' (Prologue).
  • Hubert Parry. 'England' (Epilogue).

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Lancashire Evening Post

Book of words


A book of words was not produced.

Other primary published materials


A large handbook for the exhibition was published; it is also clear from correspondence in respect to the pageant that there was a published programme.22 This may have been incorporated into the handbook. Despite searches, these documents have not been recovered.

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Lancashire Archives and Record Office: a copy of the typed script of the pageant by John Wallis. The cover page of this gives the title: Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis. This script is enclosed together in one file with items of correspondence relating to the pageant. DDX 1119/11/10.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Lindsay, Jack. Medieval Latin Poets. London, 1934.
  • Macaulay, Rose. The Minor Pleasures of Life. London, 1934.

In Episode III, 'A Song of Cash' uses the words of poem XII from an anthology compiled by Jack Lindsay published in 1934. The untitled song sung at the conclusion of the episode is also taken from this anthology. The author, in pencil, had annotated the typescript, and this reference is one such annotation.23

The anonymously written poem, 'The Pedlar Shows His Pack', was recited in Episode IV; an annotation indicates that this came from an anthology of writing compiled and edited by Rose Macauley.24


Although Lancashire is generally thought of as an intensely industrialised part of England, across much of the county many small rural communities persisted throughout the entire industrial era. These were exactly the sorts of places ('from Bolton-Le-Sands in the north, to Parbold in the south') where women responded well to the call of the Women's Institute (WI) and readily joined one of the numerous branches set up from 1918 onwards. A federation representing all of the county branches was formed in 1920, and the first WI county handicraft show was held in Preston in 1921.25 By 1935, this had become an established event held every three years.26 The 'Village Market and Exhibition of Handicrafts' provided a sale of work to the public, and a competitive exhibition showed finished examples of different handicrafts, with women demonstrating live activities such as rug making and quilting. Members of 22 WI branches contributed all the goods and activities. One can imagine competition was fierce in the exhibition! Yet cooperation was important too. Many of the branches were established in small, relatively remote communities, and historical pageantry was one means whereby women from across the Lancashire federation could come together for sociability and to engage in a common enterprise.

By the 1930s, the WI in Lancashire was a thriving operation with a growing membership; the idea of getting women together to perform in a pageant reflected the interest of the organisation in encouraging women to engage in cultural pursuits that provided education and a social life outside of jam-making types of domestic activities. The event held in Preston's prestigious Public Hall in 1935 included a pageant. An invitation to write and direct the pageant was made to the vicar of Preston, Canon John Wallis. From evidence contained in surviving correspondence in relation to the event's organisation, it is clear that Canon Wallis had some experience in the field of pageants.27 The market and exhibition, together with the pageant, was held over a weekend in September: the doors opened at 2pm in the afternoon, and there were two evening showings of the pageant that closed each day's proceedings. There was an opening ceremony on both days. In the first of these, on Friday, Lady Ashton opened the occasion. In her speech, she stressed that the WI movement was all about support and cooperation and was 'something more than a society, for it had brought power and energy into many lives and brightness and comfort into hundreds and thousands of village homes'.28 Among the cake, jam and homemade toffee for sale at the Village Market, and the skilled sewing on display in the exhibition, the pageant was designed to be 'a big feature', and a huge amount of effort went into it during six months of preparation; for example, WI members made all the 'historically accurate' costumes.29

In imagining the pageant, Canon Wallis stated that he had 'sought to get away from the glorification of "Queen Elizabeth" and other stock figures, and the very trifling incidents of local history, magnified out of all proportion for the sake of entertaining people in an easy way'.30 He certainly achieved this, while still managing to make his pageant amusing and engaging. Though there was little reference made to actual historical events or real historical characters, the pageant did seek to create the atmosphere of past times; it also had definite social messages to deliver in respect to women's lives down the ages. Moreover, in many ways, this particular pageant presages much that would become common in pageants two decades later; the stagecraft applied owed much to contemporary theatre, and the concentration on anonymous people of the past at the expense of well-known historical figures reflected a very modern approach to the genre of pageantry. A unifying theme was applied to the narrative; this was the figure of the pedlar, a person popularly thought of as important within the lives of women in remote communities. The prologue introduced the 'Pedlar of All Time' who remained on a dais near the stage throughout the pageant; after each episode, the pedlar who had just featured joined him, while a group of Pages cleared the stage for the next episode.

In chronological format, the seven episodes, all set in a countryside location, followed the fortunes of a salesperson, mostly arriving at the door of a historically appropriate domestic setting where men were largely absent. The transition between episodes was said to have been seamless, with the orchestra playing while the stage props were changed to reflect different historical settings.31 The first episode featured a Roman household on 'Watling Street'—the ancient British pathway paved by the Romans. In this, a lofty Roman matron is forced to blush when the pedlar almost exposes her humble origins as a barmaid back in Rome. The supposed socially inclusive aspect of the WI, which was meant to encompass women from all social strata and value them as sisters whatever their background, may have been on the mind of the writer in this episode. For while the Roman housewife ministered dutifully to her children and dealt benignly with the ordinary British village women who also featured in the episode, she was all the time concealing a less elevated start in life. The story evidently left the audience to decide whether she was a good mistress because of her lowly background or in spite of this; but it definitely aimed to make her more of a sympathetic character who should not have needed to hide her past in the cause of social niceties. Episode II moved on to Anglo-Saxon times. In this, even the abbess of a silent order, which has withdrawn from the world, is shown to require housewifely skills of negotiation: when it comes to driving a hard bargain with a pedlar, the abbess does not shrink. Even in this cloistered, secluded environment, the women are also shown taking an interest in fine things and welcome the pedlar who brings exotic goods.

Episode III had a clear message in its story of medieval times. The scene is set during war when men are away. The listless and bored Lady Clara is depicted as lacking the necessary skills of a domestic manager because, as becomes clear, she has no education and no apparent interest in obtaining one. Her lowlier born housekeeper is the woman who is really in charge. The message of this drama was unequivocally that women require education in order to live fulfilling lives. Episode VI is the only scene not to have a domestic setting; instead, it takes place on the 'village green' and incorporates the traditional fair scene so characteristic of pageantry, complete with folk dances and traditional music. Set in the wake of the civil war, the scene is somewhat problematic in that it features cruelty towards women, particularly those who speak their minds. Yet the moral of this story may be that it is conflict that encourages such brutality and that women can and should rise above this, which the character of Lady Barbara Danvers fails to do when a female supporter of the Roundheads is given no clemency and forced to wear a scold's bridle. It is left to the men to show mercy in this episode; Sir Charles Danvers releases another woman from the stocks, and the male pedlar then treats her with kindness. The scene also highlights the difficult job of the pedlar in his lonely mission to make a living.

Episodes V and VI return the narrative to its domestic roots, and both poke fun at drawing room manners. In Episode V, an eighteenth-century drama that uses a tone reminiscent of Jane Austen at her best, menfolk are once again away at war. A sophisticated London lady and her daughters are bored with rural life and the slow passage of time until the family is visited, appropriately, by a clock-mender. His life operates in reverse to theirs, for he is quite at home in the country but forced by his trade to work during the winters in London. The family is energised by eccentric tales of his poor but nonetheless idyllic country boyhood. The sixth episode moves forward to the nineteenth century, and the butts of the joke in this drama are a hapless German governess and a female pantomime villain selling second-hand jewellery. The charlatan peddler of stolen goods is exposed, of course, before she can pull off her duplicitous sale. This episode is full of contemporary jokes; the pompous German governess has no idea of English diction and her pupils are certainly aware of this. In gently poking fun at the upstart German woman and her notions of educational superiority, this scene doubtless played to anti-German sentiment during the inter-war years. The dastardly woman con merchant is given the surname of Blackpool. This association with the seaside town cheekily links the vulgar charlatan with a town that was often thought of as similarly crude. For Preston and its environs were essentially conservative parts of the north, both culturally and politically.

The final episode is the most novel. Indeed, it is not historical but rather set in the future. In this episode, robot chars fail to live up to expectations. The notion of a future in which women are released from domestic labour played with ideas current in the inter-war years about the increased mechanisation of the modern, servant-less home.32 The author of the pageant evidently wanted to point out that this notion had its limitations; in this, he was undoubtedly correct! For as is well known, domestic gadgets merely increase expectations of domestic perfection. The overworked 'Autobetty' robot is shown to lack the necessary maternal instincts and attempts murder on the children. And while the man of the house demands his dinner before rushing off to the golf course, the housewife is still left with the children and the cooking. The entire scenario, including the very mischievous son of the house—Dus—owes a great deal to the Just William stories penned by the novelist Richmal Crompton. Interestingly, though, the pedlar in this episode is a brisk businesswoman. She is, indeed, a woman of the future who juggles her working and domestic life: she must be back from a faraway sales pitch to her home in Saturn in good time for luncheon! The episode also makes some playful swipes at the loss of individual service in the face of corporate commerce. Overall, the clear idea being communicated is that wives and mothers are not automatons, forever required to be at the beck and call of the family, and that good housekeeping and mothering require creativity and some measures of freedom. Even the Autobetty rebels against enslavement in the end, with near disastrous consequences. This episode used theatrical farce to present an amusing picture of the future, but like all the other episodes, it was also a morality tale.

Figures for attendance and the sum made by the pageant, unfortunately, have proved elusive, but it certainly deserved success. Local press reports praised its cleverness and energy. Canon Wallis had some paid assistance from a local drama teacher; from surviving correspondence between the two, it is clear that she had a significant input into the resulting success of the drama; at one point, she protested about the number of visits she was expected to make to outlying parts of Lancashire. After the pageant, alongside the cheque for her services, she received a very fulsome letter of thanks for her hard work from the WI secretary which stated that the federation would recommend her expertise.33 In terms of professionalism, local musicians were also hired to form the orchestra, but beyond this it was an entirely voluntary effort. Yet the performance was praised for its 'unison and cohesion' throughout.34 Pedlar's Ware was not a run-of-the-mill pageant; it was designed not to be. Instead, all of its storylines provided an entrée into women's lives in the past, while at the same time signposting many issues that were of contemporary relevance to the Women's Institute. Like the exhibition it was part of, the pageant was a showcase and a brilliant piece of propaganda for this women's organisation.


  1. ^ 'Pedlars of All Ages in Preston Pageant', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 5.
  2. ^ Advertisement, Lancashire Evening Post, 18 September 1935, 1.
  3. ^ 'From Roman Days—and on to 2060', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 9.
  4. ^ See various items of correspondence between Shaw and Wallis, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  5. ^ See letter from Julia Cowper, secretary of the pageant sub-committee, to Mrs Mortimer, 6 June 1935, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  6. ^ 'From Roman Days—and on to 2060', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 9.
  7. ^ See ‘The Former Public Hall, Preston’, British Listed Buildings, accessed 24 May 2016,
  8. ^ Advertisement, Lancashire Evening Post, 18 September 1935, 1.
  9. ^ See, for example, advertisement, Lancashire Evening Post, 17 September 1935, 1.
  10. ^ 'Country Life Down the Ages', Lancashire Evening Post, 21 September 1935, 6.
  11. ^ Information about the pageant is mostly derived from a typed and annotated copy of the script; each episode has its own page-numbering run. See 'Prologue: The Pedlar's Masque', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 1 and 2, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  12. ^ 'Episode I', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 7 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  13. ^ 'Episode II', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 5 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  14. ^ 'Episode III', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 7 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  15. ^ 'Episode IV', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 5 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  16. ^ 'Episode V', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 5 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  17. ^ 'Episode VI', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 5 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  18. ^ 'Episode V', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 6 pages of typescript, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  19. ^ 'From Roman Days—and on to 2060', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 9.
  20. ^ 'Country Life Down the Ages', Lancashire Evening Post, 21 September 1935, 6.
  21. ^ References to music are contained in the original script, either in the typescript or in annotations made in pencil on this by the author; see Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, 1 and 2, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  22. ^ See note sent from John Wallis to Ida Shaw, 29 August 1935, in which he asks how her name should appear in the published programme, correspondence, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  23. ^ 'Episode II', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, annotations on pages 1 & 4 in typescript of this episode, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  24. ^ 'Episode IV', Pedlar's Ware or The Countrywoman's Life Through the Ages Displayed in a Prologue, Seven Episodes, and in an Epilogue by John Wallis, annotations on pages 2 & 4 in typescript of this episode, copy of original script, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  25. ^ See timeline of the Lancashire WI, 'Lancashire Federation of Women’s Institutes: A Short History—1918 to 2015', accessed 26 May 2016,
  26. ^ 'Exhibitions', Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1935, 6.
  27. ^ A letter from Wallis to a drama teacher asking for her help with the pageant indicates that they had previously worked together in Blackburn in 1926. See letter sent from John Wallis to Ida Shaw, 1 April 1935, correspondence, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  28. ^ 'Women's Institute Influence', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 7.
  29. ^ 'From Roman Days—and on to 2060', Lancashire Evening Post, 20 September 1935, 9.
  30. ^ Ibid.
  31. ^ 'Country Life Down the Ages', Lancashire Evening Post, 21 September 1935, 6.
  32. ^ See Lucy Delap, Knowing their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2011).
  33. ^ See correspondence between John Wallis and Ida Shaw and a letter from the Lancashire WI Federation, 5 October 1935, Lancashire Record Office. DDX 1119/11/10.
  34. ^ 'Country Life Down the Ages', Lancashire Evening Post, 21 September 1935, 6.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pedlar's Ware’, The Redress of the Past,