The Finsbury Story

Pageant type

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Place: Sadler’s Wells Theatre (Finsbury) (Finsbury, Middlesex, England)

Year: 1960

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 15


20 June–2 July 1960

  • 20–24 June at 7.30pm
  • 25 June at 2.30 and 7.30pm
  • 26 June–1 July at 7.30pm
  • 2 July at 2.30 and 7.30pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Organiser [Pageant Master]: Pearce, Stella Mary
  • Director of Wardrobe: Mrs Nellie Willbourne
  • Assistant Director of Wardrobe: Miss Margaret Burton
  • Script: David Lytton
  • Music: John Gardner
  • Settings: Frederick Crooke
  • Choreography: Geraldine Stephenson
  • Directed by: David William
  • Orchestra Under Direction of: Leonard Hancock

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Pageant Committee

  • Chairman: Worshipful Mayor, Councillor J. Trotter, JP
  • Vice-Chairman: Councillor Mrs C. Griffiths, Deputy Mayor
  • Organiser: Miss Stella Mary Pearce
  • Hon. Secretary: Henry A. Davey, Town Clerk and Michael Casey, Deputy Town Clerk
  • Hon. Treasurer: A.E. Ball, Borough Treasurer
  • Publicity: Reginald Rouse, Borough Librarian
  • Committee Clerk: Mrs G. Jamieson
  • Mrs Helen Bentwich
  • Alderman E.F. Johnson
  • Ald. Michael Cliffe MP
  • C.J.D. Lowe
  • Councillor Mrs S. Cliffe
  • Professor Eric Newton
  • Frederick Crooke
  • M.S. Skinner
  • W.S. Wilby

Committee of Honour

  • Marquess of Northampton
  • Bishop of London
  • Lord Luke of Pavenham
  • Francis Noel-Baker
  • Chairman of LCC
  • Chairman of Metropolitan Water Board

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

Lytton, David

Names of composers

  • Gardner, John Linton

Numbers of performers


Financial information

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion


Audience information

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

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events


Pageant outline

Part One

1. The Beginning

The Naming of the place. The Wells.

2. The Priory of St John of Jerusalem

Its establishment, its effect on the community. The Patriarch of Jerusalem’s visit to Henry II; ransacked during the Peasants’ revolt; reconstruction; converted to the Office of the Master of the Revels.

3. The Black Death

Pardon chapel; Sir Walter de Manny and the Charterhouse

4. Dissolution of the Monasteries

Suppression of the priory; St. Mary’s nunnery and the Charterhouse

5. The Tradition of Dissent in a community outside the City Walls

Sir John Oldcastle and the Lollards; Earl Jesuits and the Players

6. The Theatre

The Red Bull and The Fortune

7. Alice Wilkes and the Cow

Owen’s School and other Finsbury Schools

8. Sir Hugh Myddelton and the New River

Myddelton was instrumental in constructing the New River, an engineering project aimed at bringing clean water to the locality from the River Lea. This scene likely dealt with this story.

9. The Civil War

Divisions in Finsbury; Mountville fortifications; the honourable artillery company; the Puritan ascendance

10. The Restoration

Decline of the Puritans; the Great Plague; the Fire of London; The Refugees on Finsbury Fields

Part Two

11. Sadler’s Wells and Finsbury’s entertainment and diversions

The uncovering of the Well; Thomas Sadler; Merline’s Cave; Bagnigge Wells; Thomas Britton’s musical concerts

12. Religion and Politics

The Quakers and the Friends House; Peel Court; Bishop Burnet; Swedenborg; Wesley; Wilkes; Paine

13. Social and Domestic – Life and Death

Bunhill Fields; Clerkenwell Bridewell; Hick’s Hall, St. John’s Street; St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics; A home for penitent females

14. Sadler’s Wells Again

Charles Dibdin; Grimaldi; Rosoman; Samuel Phelps

15. The Coming of Industry

Magniac and the Clocks; Gas in Finsbury Square; First Balloon ascent; Distilleries and breweries

16. Finsbury’s Famous Residents – Samuel Johnson to Lenin

17. Modern Times

Rosebery Avenue; The Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury; Mount Pleasant Post Office; The Health Centre; Lillian Bayliss and the New Sadler’s Wells

18. The Future

The End or the Beginning?

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Henry II (1133–1189) king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Mauny [Manny], Sir Walter (c.1310–1372) soldier and founder of the London Charterhouse
  • Oldcastle, John, Baron Cobham (d. 1417) soldier, heretic, and rebel
  • Britton, Thomas (1644–1714) concert promoter, book collector, and coal merchant
  • Burnet, Gilbert (1643–1715) bishop of Salisbury and historian
  • Wesley [Westley], John (1703–1791) Church of England clergyman and a founder of Methodism
  • Wilkes, John (1725–1797) politician
  • Paine, Thomas (1737–1809) author and revolutionary
  • Dibdin, Charles (bap. 1745, d. 1814) actor, composer, and writer
  • Grimaldi, Joseph [Giuseppe] (1709x16?–1788) dancer and dentist
  • Rosoman, (Henry) Leonard (1913–2012) painter and illustrator
  • Phelps, Samuel (1804–1878) actor and theatre manager
  • Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784) author and lexicographer
  • Lenin, Vladimir (1870–1924)
  • Baylis, Lilian Mary (1874–1937) theatre manager

Musical production

Newspaper coverage of pageant

The Guardian



Book of words


Other primary published materials

The Finsbury Story, Sadlers Wells Theatre, June 20th-July 2nd, 1960. London, 1960.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Copy of Programme in the British Library

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The Finsbury Story was a late and commendable instance of municipal pageantry, the type which had flourished in interwar Britain but had gone into decline in the immediate post-war decades. These pageants sought to boost civic identity through forging a link between present and past, both for the spectators and performers in a pageant whilst, at the same time, providing advertisement for local business.1

Paradoxically, at a time when the rest of the country was complaining of the increasing social and cultural dominance of London (described in Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain (1962)), the Borough of Finsbury, or at least prominent council members, was likewise feeling its own peculiarities and differences being squeezed out by the unstoppable sprawl of London, which the dyspeptic architectural critic Ian Nairn had memorably described as ‘subtopia’ four years previously.2 Their answer to this was a pageant on a grand scale. As the Times remarked ‘Though many local councils up and down the country take it into their heads from time to time to commemorate festivals and anniversaries with a pageant, few can have done so on so grand a scale as the Borough of Finsbury.’3 John Betjeman, who had featured the borough in many of his poems (such as ‘The Cockney Amorist’) wrote a memorable foreword to the programme:

What makes London different from other cities is that it is still a collection of villages. Each has its own character…It is only by taking an interest in a place where we live that we can hope to keep its character alive. Finsbury is a part of London which has much character and many fine buildings, particularly those of the Georgian period. This Pageant of Finsbury is something which will make all who inhabit the Borough or have associations with it proud that they belong here.4

For Betjeman and the organisers, the pageant was about stamping the local distinctiveness of Finsbury against the undifferentiated mass of London’s cityscape. As the Guardian, which had recently dropped its provincial ‘Manchester’ identity (moving to London in 1964) declared:

The object of the pageant is to help to awaken the local community sense, a worthy intention now that a good many of London’s ‘villages’ are prone to a blurring at the edges, a certain haziness of identity. It is also hoped to stimulate the children’s interest in the borough’s history. This should not be too difficult: the history still bubbles up from below.5

This was, of course, a reference to the spring water which had provided the initial impetus for the settlement in Sadler’s Wells.

Significantly, the Finsbury Story was virtually the first pageant to receive funding from the Arts Council.6 From the inception of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) in 1940, pageants had been seen as too amateurish and low-brow to merit funding, which was instead poured into the opera, the theatre and fine arts.7 Yet Finsbury Borough Council managed to secure sufficient funds to put on a production featuring many notable professionals from the arts world. These included the actor Ernest Milton, famous for his long-running productions of Hamlet (he was also the mad hatter in the 1949 film version of Alice in Wonderland);8 David Lytton, the noted BBC scriptwriter; the conductor Leonard Hancock (a regular at Sadler’s Wells);9 and the composer John Gardner, whose second opera The Moon and Sixpence had premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1957.10 Though a number of pageants had been staged at Sadler’s Wells, including T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, the venue was perhaps more used to high cultural works of international importance.

The pageant sought to tell the history of Finsbury in minute detail over eighteen scenes, going back to the discovery of the spring waters and omitting few incidents of personalities from its colourful history. The scale and centrality of the pageant garnered it coverage by both the Times and Guardian, with the former suggesting that

This last extravagance is in fact the main error in a commendably ambitious production: if ever a show cried out for open-air presentation, with all the charming diversions of sun and shower, it is The Finsbury Story, for strait-laced into the confines of a preoscenium [proscenium] it loses much of its potential charm. Another tactical error is its division into two endless halves instead of three parts of reasonable length.11

Still, the reporter noted that ‘in spite of these strictures, The Finsbury Story is, as befits its origin and its purpose, a pleasantly homely entertainment.’12 Philip Hope-Wallace, the Guardian’s theatre critic, agreed:

Our passion for pageants runs deep and suffereth long. Not that much such suffering is experienced in this well-staged, handsomely mounted pageant in the comfort of Sadler’s Wells, which hymns a borough which can lay under contribution Wat Tyler, Grimaldi, Lenin, and Lilyan Baylis (her original cap and gown too). But like all such histories, one is reminded how much the common people moping and mowing with their heads done up in dusters, were apt to suffer, always dying, or catching fire, or being evicted. Small wonder they rage furiously and make such menaces with cardboard crowbars when they get the chance.13

The reviewer likewise managed to mix lukewarm praise and enormous condescension, praising ‘some charmingly imaginative touches’, and comparing it (somewhat incongruously) to ‘Brecht and the epic drama’.14

The Pageant was a moderate success. Indeed, certain parts of it were performed in the open-air by the Finsbury Theatre Society as part of a mercifully successful campaign to stop the theatre from being developed into offices.15 Sadly, the metropolitan spirit which the pageant was trying to foster ran up against the London Government Act (1963) and in 1965 the Borough of Finsbury was merged with Islington, taking the latter’s name as its local identity quickly faded from memory.16 The area suffered intensely from de-industrialisation from the late 1960s onwards. Between 1961 and 1975 the number of manufacturing jobs in Finsbury halved from 39530 to 20307.17 Unsurprisingly, the Pageant proved unable to halt the rapidly changing face of London as historical locations were developed or else gentrified and the local population gradually forced to move out of the borough. Finsbury today is far more ethnically diverse, with only 48% of the population classing themselves as white British (although 61% were born in the UK).18 Whilst historians are rightly wary of deploying such statistics, it can be said that the rapid social changes across London in the last fifty years means that the history of a place must be rewritten to reflect new diversity and multiculturalism if the area is still is to wrestle its history out the hands of the property developer or the corporate sponsor of the arts.


  1. ^ Tom Hulme, ‘A nation of town criers’: civic publicity and historical pageantry in inter-war Britain’, Urban History, published online 24 February 2016, accessed 26 July 2016,
  2. ^ Ian Nairn, Outrage: Architectural Review Special, June 1955.
  3. ^ Times, 21 June 1960, 4.
  4. ^ John Betjeman, ‘Foreword’, The Finsbury Story, Sadlers Wells Theatre, June 20th-July 2nd, 1960 (London, 1960), 17.
  5. ^ Guardian, 15 June 1960, 8.
  6. ^ Times, 13 June 1960, 3.
  7. ^ Robert Hewison, Culture and consensus: England, art and politics since 1940 (London, 1995).
  8. ^ ‘Ernest Milton’, Internet Movie Database, accessed 26 July 2016,*
  9. ^ Elizabeth Forbes, ‘Obituary: Leonard Hancock’, Independent, 20 March 1999, accessed 26 July 2016,
  10. ^ Bret Johnson, ‘John Gardner’, Guardian, 17 December 2011, accessed 26 July 2016,; Times, 13 June 1960, 3.
  11. ^ Times, 21 June 1960, 4.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Philip Hope-Wallace, Guardian, 21 June 1960, 7.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ ‘From Our Notebook’, Tablet, 23 September, 1961, 11.
  16. ^ ‘Finsbury, Islington’, Hidden London, accessed 26 July 2016,
  17. ^ 1 Islington Planning Department, Finsbury District Study, 1977, 4, quoted in David R. Green, ‘Finsbury: Past, Present & Future’, Report for EC1 New Deal for Communities, May 2009, 16, accessed 26 July 2016,
  18. ^ Islington: Census 2011 Second Release, 11 December 2011, accessed 26 July 2016,

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Finsbury Story’, The Redress of the Past,