Rochester Historical Pageant
Place: Rochester Castle Gardens (Rochester) (Rochester, Kent, England)
Number of performances: 6
22–27 June 1931, at 2.45pm.
Whilst the literature only advertises only matinee performances, the presence of floodlighting and the number of spectators quoted suggests that there were also evening performances.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Lascelles, Frank
- Organising Director: Edward Baring
- Mistresses of the Robes: Miss W.D. Walford and Miss F.A. Dundas
- Master of Designs: A.L. Reeve
- Master of Music: L.B. Mackay
- Master of Grand Stand: W. Law, City Surveyor
- Master of Horse: Miss K. Gates
- Master of Properties: Councillor J.W. Leech
- Press: W.C. Fox
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman: Mayor of Rochester, Councillor G. Jenner
- Vice-Chairman: Deputy Mayor, Alderman S.J. Brice
- Hon. Secretary: J.L. Percival
- Chairman: Rev. Canon S. Wheatley
- Hon. Secretary: J.L. Percival
- Chairman: Earl of Darnley
- Chairman: Councillor R.W. Dale
- Chairman: J.E. Phillips
- Chairman: Mayoress of Rochester
- Chairman: R.L. Bradley
- Chairman: Ald. F.F. Smith
- Chairman: L.B. Mackay
- Chairman: Councillor R. Sanderson
- Chairman: N.S.B. Miller
- Chairman: Ald. S. J. Brice
Grand Stand and Grounds Committee
- Chairman: W. Law
Historical, Industrial and Trades Exhibition Committee
- Chairman: J. Wood
Fancy Dress Ball Committee
- Chairman: C. Lewis Levy
- Chairman: Councillor E. Washford
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
Names of composers
- Bennett, H.A.
- Stewart, C. Hylton
- Whitlock, Percy
- Williams, Ralph Vaughan
- Shaw, Martin
Numbers of performers5000
The pageant cost around £10000 and made £2400 profit.1
Object of any funds raised
Rochester Civic Week, 22-27 June 1931.
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: 3000
- Total audience: 68500
There was also a standing enclosure for 6000 people.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
- Torchlight Spectacle and Tattoo
- Mass Physical Training by 1000 school children
- Band concerts, mass choral
- Fancy dress ball, folk and classical dancing
- Boy Scouts, Girl Guide displays
- Fireworks, decorations, illuminations at the Castle Gardens
- Historical, Industrial and Trades exhibitions.
Episode One. The Foundation of the Roman Military Town of Durobrivis, A.D. 43.
The episode opens with a tribune, satisfied that the camp at Durobrivis has been prepared for the reception of a portion of Emperor Claudius’s army on its return to Gaul, ordering the remains of a small tribe be brought into the presence of Claudius. The emperor appears with Praetorians and orders the building of walls and a bridge over the Medway. The chieftain arrives and implores mercy and protection. Claudius assigns the tribe as slaves to carry out work on the fortifications.
Episode Two. The Arrival of the First Bishop of Rochester with Ethelbert of Kent and Saint Augustine, 604.
The Ealdorman of West Kent is awaiting the arrival of Ethelbert. There is a demonstration by pagan priests but the people disapprove. Monks approach followed by Ethelbert and the missionaries, and the King conveys his desire that Bishop Justus be accepted by the local people. Justus promises to found a Christian school and the King gifts lands to him and wishes a church be built near the forum of the old Roman city.
Episode Three. The Visit of King Henry I on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Nave. 1130.
The setting for this episode is a churchwake at which ale is sold to defray the expense of the completion of the cathedral nave. After singing, a royal and ecclesiastical procession emerges from the Cathedral, where a solemn dedicatory service has been in progress. The King expresses his disapproval of the churchwake. Attention is distracted by alarmed reports of a fire. The King, learning that the city is in danger, sees that steps are taken to protect the cathedral. Then, in spite of protests, he decides to make a progress through the town.
Episode Four. De Montfort’s Last Unsuccessful Attack on the Castle, 1264.
As De Montfort prepares to storm the bailey, the alarm is given from the keep and men-at-arms fill the court, with crossbowmen training their weapons on the attackers who are beaten off. De Montfort’s soldiers sing a ballad as defenders retreat to the keep. De Montfort demands the surrender of the garrison and is defied. The battering-ram is brought up, but a messenger arrives warning that the King is marching to relieve the castle whereupon De Montfort withdraws his troops and is taunted.
Episode Five. The Commencement of Work on the Medieval Bridge and Arrival of Chaucer, 1388.
Workmen meet morris dancers who inform them that a group of pilgrims is approaching Travellers arrive, including Chaucer and the Canterbury pilgrims. Sir John and Sir Robert welcome Chaucer. A squire orders the morris men dance.
Episode Six. Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Mr. Richard Watts at Satis House, 1573.
The Queen arrives in Rochester and is greeted by various townspeople. Children imitate a dumbshow, a song is sung by scholars of the King’s School and a masque is then performed. Lord Leicester sings a song and then the courtiers dance.
Episode Seven. Departure from Rochester of Charles II, lately restored to the throne, 1660.
After visiting the Dockyard, Charles II makes to depart. A royalist song is sung, flags flown, bells pealed, maidens strew flowers in the path. Townspeople give gifts and Charles praises the loyalty of the citizens, knighting some of them. A woman foretells James II’s return on his flight to France. The cavalcade departs.
Episode Eight. Dickens’s Last Vision of Rochester, 1870.
On the eve of Dickens’s death, having written the last words of Edwin Drood (a description of Rochester), the novelist’s mind reverts to some of his famous fictional characters. Pickwick and companions dance a minuet and Dickens recall snatches of conversations from his books. Dickens also remembers visiting Rochester with his friend the poet Longfellow, who recited ‘A Psalm of Life’. The vision fades and Georgina Hogarth comes to summon her brother-in-law to the house.
- Procession of citizens connected to the town.
- Procession of characters from episodes.
- Representatives of modern industry.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Claudius [Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus] (10 BC–AD 54) Roman emperor
- Vespasian [Titus Flavius Vespasianus] (AD 9–79)
- Plautius, Aulus (fl. AD 29–57) Roman governor of Britain
- Æthelberht I (d. 616?) king of Kent [also known as Ethelbert]
- Augustine [St Augustine] (d. 604) missionary and archbishop of Canterbury
- Justus [St Justus] (d. 627x31) archbishop of Canterbury
- Mellitus (d. 624) archbishop of Canterbury
- Laurence [St Laurence, Lawrence] (d. 619) archbishop of Canterbury [also known as Laurentius]
- Paulinus [St Paulinus] (d. 644) bishop of York and of Rochester
- Henry I (1068/9–1135) king of England and lord of Normandy
- Adela, countess of Blois (c.1067–1137) princess
- Matilda [Edith, Mold, Matilda of Scotland] (1080–1118) queen of England, first consort of Henry I
- Gloucester, Robert of (fl. c.1260–c.1300) chronicler
- Montfort, Simon de, eighth earl of Leicester (c.1208–1265), magnate and political reformer
- Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400) poet and administrator
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
- Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588) courtier and magnate
- Watts, Richard (c.1529–1579) naval administrator and benefactor
- Carey, Henry, first Baron Hunsdon (1526–1596) courtier and administrator
- Cecil, William, first Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598) royal minister
- Howard, Charles, second Baron Howard of Effingham and first earl of Nottingham (1536–1624) naval commander
- Ratcliffe, Thomas (d. 1599) Church of England clergyman
- Clinton, Edward Fiennes de, first earl of Lincoln (1512–1585) military commander
- Devereux, Robert, second earl of Essex (1565–1601) soldier and politician
- Hawkins, Sir John (1532–1595) merchant and naval commander
- Brooke, William, tenth Baron Cobham (1527–1597) nobleman and diplomat
- Charles II (1630–1685) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- James II and VII (1633–1701) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Henry, Prince, duke of Gloucester (1640–1660)
- Rupert, prince and count palatine of the Rhine and duke of Cumberland (1619–1682) royalist army and naval officer
- Seymour, William, first marquess of Hertford and second duke of Somerset (1587–1660) politician and royalist army officer
- Butler, James, first duke of Ormond (1610–1688) lord lieutenant of Ireland
- Vere, Aubrey de, twentieth earl of Oxford (1627–1703) nobleman
- Montagu, Edward, second earl of Manchester (1602–1671) politician and parliamentarian army officer
- Sackville, Charles, sixth earl of Dorset and first earl of Middlesex (1643–1706) poet and politician
- Morice, Sir William (1602–1676) politician [also known as Morrice, Sir William]
- Wilmot, John, second earl of Rochester (1647–1680) poet and courtier
- Dickens, Charles John Huffam (1812–1870) novelist
- Hogarth, Georgina (1827–1917) companion and confidante of Charles Dickens
100-piece orchestra and 300-member chorus
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald
Sussex Agricultural Express
Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser
Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald
Derby Daily Telegraph
Kent and Sussex Courier
Book of words
- Sole Official Souvenir and Programme of Rochester Historical Pageant and Industrial Exhibition Civic Week, June 22-27, 1931. Rochester, 1931. [Price 1s]
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Further material in Medway Archives, Kent.
- Copy of Programme in Kent Library and History Centre, Maidstone, Reference 942.23
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- Becker, M., Rochester Bridge, 1387-1856. A history of its early years compiled from the wardens' accounts, etc. London, 1930
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History
- Cameos from English History
- Dictionary of National Biography
- Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London, 1879.
- Harris, Edwin. History of Richard Watts’s Charity. Rochester, 1924.
- Salzman, Louis Francis. English Life in the Middle Ages. Eng. Trans., Oxford, 1926.
- Smith, Frederick Francis. A History of Rochester. London, 1928
- Strickland, Angnes, Lives of the Queens of England. London, 1840–48.
- Tacitus, Annals
- Tacitus, Vita Agricolae
Tom Hulme has written about interwar Civic Boosterism through Pageantry, whereby cities competed to raise their profile and, often combined with industrial and trades exhibitions, sought to boost the sales of local businesses in the face of the economic depression.2 The Rochester Pageant of 1931 was a classic example of this, along with Pageants in Stoke, Bradford, and Wakefield. The Mayor of Rochester, George Jenner, wrote in the Book of Words:
To be content to live on past history and achievements is a real temptation to individuals and communities alike, and in a City such as Rochester, which has been the important centre of ecclesiastical, military, naval and commercial importance from very earliest times the temptation is probably exceptionally strong. Progress demands, however, that we shall not stand still. If we are to hand on untarnished that wonderful heritage we have received it is vitally necessary that we should exert every effort, not only to maintain but to improve upon the achievements of the past.3
The town of Rochester therefore sought to use episodes from its illustrious past as a means of catapulting it into the present. An interview with the Observer, ostensibly to comment on the use of floodlighting in the pageant (Rochester was one of the first pageants to do this), was all about presenting Rochester as a forward-looking town that was ready for business:
The real object of the Pageant…is to ensure that Rochester ‘gets on the map’. We feel that we should not keep merely to ourselves our historical and literary associations, the great architectural interest our city possesses and all its commercial advantages, but should let all the rest of the world know of them.4
Jenner proceeded to add that ‘the Corporation have purchased three hundred acres of land on the river bank, and it is now available for manufacturers and new businesses at very reasonable prices’, going on to extol the ‘deep-water river facilities, and good road and rail communications’, as well as mentioning that the corporation was in talks to build an aerodrome (which was built in 1933).5 When the Pageant was opened by Prince George after carefully perusing the industrial exhibition, he stressed these virtues of the town and its potential for economic expansion (one senses he didn’t write his own speech).6 The Prince went on to open the Bradford Pageant (which also had Frank Lascelles as the Pageant Master) the following month.
The pageant, as with many others staged in the 1930s—a time of economic uncertainty—was a cathartic opportunity for the town to come together in an outpouring of civic pride. The Observer’s reporter commented that:
For the past month or so the city has been growing gayer and gayer. The visitor finds his way under arches of bunting and ribbon, even some shops have been repainted…Even the visitors who had no part in the recent festivities cannot help getting caught up in the general rejoicing. The little girl who serves you with cigarettes is so full of the dress she is going to wear at the pageant that she cannot keep silent about it.7
Overenthusiastic cigarette-pedalling children aside, it seemed that the town really took to the spirit of pageantry. Whereas some pageants had difficulty recruiting sufficient performers, Rochester seems easily to have filled the positions for its 5000-strong cast. One problem arising from such enthusiasm, however, was finding the best person for each role. For the final scene, featuring Charles Dickens, Lascelles was required ‘to pick out from the many volunteers the best and most lifelike’ impersonator of the famous novelist. Lascelles was aided in this and much else besides by Edwin Harris, a printer and author of a series of pamphlets on Dickens and Rochester. Harris, who also performed in the pageant, had known Dickens as a boy.8 The Daily Mail announced that there was a competition to find ‘fattest boy it can find’ to play the character of Joe, Mr Wardle’s page from Dickens in the pageant. The paper announced that ‘There are so many applicants for the job that Rochester has decided to inspect them all. A choice will be made on Tuesday, when the boys will be entertained to tea in the Guildhall.’9 Indeed, Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles Dickens’ son and the man who opened the final performance of the pageant, wrote to the Times praising the performance:
I must confess that I was a little bit apprehensive as to this scene…But I had no occasion to feel any doubts on this head, for the scene was produced and carried through with the utmost delicacy and reverence; and indeed, as the impersonator of Charles Dickens…walked quite alone down the lawn amid the cheers of the audience, I was deeply touched. It was a scene which calls for my tribute of thanks to all engaged, a tribute which I gladly offer to them.10
All in all, the Pageant was a great success. The interest of the third and fourth scenes, which involved the fire and the failed assault on the castle by Simon de Montfort, as well as the Dickens scene, made up for the fact that most of the other scenes featured significant historical figures either visiting briefly or departing on their way to somewhere more interesting. Nonetheless, the critics were suitably impressed, with the Observer suggesting ‘Whether Merrie England ever existed or not is a matter for the historians; Rochester at any rate gives the past a generous interpretation.’ It added that ‘Some of the school children in Rochester who will be taking part in the pageant must by this time have come to the conclusion that there is more in history than a few facts that up to now seemed to have very little significance.’11 Indeed, the paper subsequently associated Rochester’s efforts with a wider resurgence of pageantry that year, on a par with the great Edwardian craze for the form: ‘In the first decade of this century the pleasures of the pageant were lavishly pursued. “Punch” pictured Edwardian youth inquiring over a cigarette “Do you paj?” The answer, once more, is in the affirmative. We paj. It is a pajjer’s year.’12
The Rochester Pageant was seen by over 68000 people and made a profit of £2400.13 The town continued to be fiercely proud of its pageant, as well as its various literary associations, holding a further (much less successful) Dickens Pageant in 1951. In fact, J.T. Hawes, who had performed as the uncanny likeness of Dickens which Henry Fielding Dickens had praised, went on to serve as the Mayor of Rochester between 1938 and 1940.14
- Dover Express, 25 September 1931, 4; Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 2 October 1931, 12.
- Tom Hulme, ‘“A nation of town criers”: Civic Publicity and Historical Pageantry in Inter-War Britain’, Urban History (forthcoming).
- George Jenner, ‘Foreword’, Sole Official Souvenir and Programme of Rochester Historical Pageant and Industrial Exhibition Civic Week, June 22-27, 1931 (Rochester 1931), unpaginated.
- Observer, 19 April 1931, 10.
- Ibid; ‘Rochester Airport’, Medway Council, accessed 15 August 2016, http://www.medway.gov.uk/businessandinvestment/medwayregeneration/rochesterairport.aspx
- Times, 23 June 1931, 18.
- Observer, 21 June 1931, 11.
- Scotsman, 26 May 1931, 10.
- Daily Mail, 1 June 1931, 7.
- Henry F. Dickens, ‘The Rochester Pageant’, Times, 1 July 1931, 15.
- Observer, 21 June 1931, 11.
- Observer, 2 August 1931, 8.
- Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 10 July 1931, 12; Dover Express, 25 September 1931, 4; Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 2 October 1931, 12.
- Manchester Evening News, 29 July 1939, 10.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Rochester Historical Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1310/