Rochester Dickens Festival Pageant
Place: Grounds of Rochester Castle (Rochester) (Rochester, Kent, England)
Number of performances: 14
16–23 June 1951, at 3pm and 7pm.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master and Author [Pageant Master]: Swinson, Cyril
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman: J.E. Harrison
- Chairman: H. T. Leech
Shop Displays and Street Decorations Committee
- Chairman: G. Tickner
- Chairman: K.W.P. Kirkton
- Chairman: C.S. Knight
Grandstand and Grounds Committee
- Chairman: Lt-Col W. Law
- Chairman: C.H.R. Skipper
Sub-Producers and Pageant Performers Committee
- Chairman: W.S. Searle
Designs and Costumes Committee
- Chairman: J.D. May
- Chairman: M.O. Gill
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
Names of composers
Numbers of performers2000
Production costs £14000
The production made a loss of £6181, reduced by the guarantee fund for £3538 to £26431
Object of any funds raised
Linked occasionFestival of Britain
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 19000
Capacity was 85000.2
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
- A Fayre, Dickens tours and other themed events were put on.
- The Rochester Players performed Nicholas Nickleby on 19 and 21 June
- David Copperfield was performed by the Dickens Players on 22 June.
Episode 1. Mr Pickwick Arrives at Rochester
Episode 2. At the Ball
Episode 3. The Duel
Episode 4. The Field Day
Episode 5. A London Street Scene—Summer
Episode 6. Dingley Dell versus All-Muggleton
Episode 7. The Eatanswill Election
Episode 8. Nicholas Nickelby at School
Episode 9. A London Street Scene—Winter
Episode 10. Christmas at Dingley Dell
Episode 11. A Masque of Dickens
Key historical figures mentioned
- Dickens, Charles John Huffam (1812–1870) novelist
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Book of words
Other primary published materials
Dickens festival pageant presented in the Castle grounds, Rochester, Kent, June 16th-23rd, 1951: souvenir programme. Rochester, 1951.
References in secondary literature
- Freeman, Mark. ‘Splendid display; pompous spectacle': historical pageants in twentieth-century Britain. Social History, 38 (2013) at 439.
- Turner, Barry. Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Helped to Shape a New Age. London, 2011. At 107.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Copy of Programme in Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone, Reference K/Rochester
Sources used in preparation of pageant
The 1951 Festival of Britain saw something of a revival of historical pageantry. Although 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.3 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. Festival pageants ranged from relatively large affairs such as the Three Towns Pageant at Hampton Court, Brighton, and nearby Dartford to relatively small village pageants at Rushden and East Grinstead.
Dickens Pageants had been popular in the first half of the twentieth century. There were Dickens pageants in Hastings in 1912, in Portsmouth (Dickens’s birthplace), in 1922, 1929, and 1934;4 in Brighton (which he visited) in 1926;5 in Lichfield in 1934;6 and in Hull in 1948.7 These pageants served to emphasize the community of Dickens readers who loved his books. The large-scale Pageant of Rochester in 1931 had featured an episode featuring many of Dickens’s most famous characters, and it was decided that the town’s pageant for the Festival of Britain should focus exclusively on the famous novelist. As the foreword to the pageant programme remarked: ‘We at Rochester love Dickens and we present this Pageant as a tribute to his memory…This is a project that would have been most heartily approved by Dickens, in whose life and works the love of acting played an influential part.’8 Whilst Dickens was associated with many places in the south of England, and was, in the words of the Manchester Guardian, ‘essentially a Londoner’, the newspaper acknowledged that ‘he spent many happy years in the town and has been immortalised in several of his books under the names of Mudfog, Dullborough, and Cloisterham.’9
The Times advertised Rochester’s pageant as a major element of the Festival outside London.10 Whilst the Festival was designed to be a truly national event, with twenty-three official Festival Centres (including Rochester) and a touring exhibition,11 it was overwhelmingly associated with its home on the Southbank. Festival celebrations within easy travelling distance to the capital often paled in comparison with the spectacle of the London Festival site. Particularly in places within a short train ride of London’s South Bank, local efforts often met with local indifference: the nearby Dartford Pageant had struggled to attract sufficient participants. At Rochester, the pageant was on an ambitious scale, featuring over 2000 local performers (with only five professional actors),12 with the Prologue recited by the veteran actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who had featured in the Runnymede Pageant (1934) and the Pageant of St Paul’s Steps (1942).
The Manchester Guardian, which attended a dress rehearsal for local schoolchildren, was modestly appreciative: ‘The scene was a gay and charming one, played on the sloping green lawn with the austere Norman keep, with its ruined walls, for a background. As the pageant began the setting sun came out to light the scene, mellowing the old grey stone and picking out the vivid scarlets and golds and greens of the men’s clothes and the sweeping crinolines of the ladies.’13 The newspaper report also noted that ‘The players could not hope for a more appreciative audience than the children to-day, who were particularly thrilled by the field-day scene when Mr Pickwick, Mr Snodgrass, and Mr Winkle become involved with the soldiers’.14
Scenes from the pageant proper were broadcast on the BBC Light Programme on 16 June 1951.15 Yet if this suggested wider interest in the event, the reality on the ground in Rochester was rather discouraging. The paying audiences (who paid between 5 and 21 shillings, significantly above most pageant prices and more expensive than admission to the South Bank itself)16 were much less numerous than had been hoped. The Times noted that ‘while provision was made for 85,000 to see the pageant, only 19,000 attended.’17 Averaged over 14 performances, this meant that there were fewer spectators each time than performers. The pageant, which had cost the huge sum of £14000 to stage, made a considerable loss of £6181, of which only £3538 had been covered by the Guarantee fund.18 The vast majority of Festival Pageants lost money and their audiences paled into insignificance when compared to the eight and a half million people who visited the South Bank during the Festival year.19 Despite this fiasco, Rochester continues to host a Dickens Summer and Christmas Festival each year and indeed held a pageant in June 2012 to celebrate Dickens’s bicentenary.20
- Times, 21 September 1951, 3.
- 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 (2013), 423–55.
- Portsmouth Evening News, 4 April 1922, 6; Portsmouth Evening News, 17 July 1929, 2; Portsmouth Evening News, 17 October 1934, 8.
- Portsmouth Evening News, 16 November 1926, 8.
- Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 November 1934, 3.
- Hull Daily Mail, 10 November 1948, 3.
- Dickens festival pageant presented in the Castle grounds, Rochester, Kent, June 16th-23rd, 1951: souvenir programme (Rochester, 1951), unpaginated.
- Manchester Guardian, 15 June 1951, 5.
- Times, 27 April 1951, 3.
- Conekin, ‘The Autobiography’, 89.
- Manchester Guardian, 15 June 1951, 5.
- ’15.00: The Dickens Festival Pageant’, 16 June 1951, BBC Genome Project, accessed 8 August 1951, http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/light/1951-06-16
- Conekin, ‘The Autobiography’, 117.
- Times, 21 September 1951, 3.
- Conekin, ‘The Autobiography’, 4.
- ‘News Archive’, Rochester Dickens Festival Supporters Website, accessed 8 August 2016, http://www.rochesterdickensfestival.org.uk/news_archive.htm
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Rochester Dickens Festival Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1311/