Pageant of South Wales

Other names

  • South Wales Miners’ Pageant

Pageant type


Staged by the South Wales Miners’ Federation

Jump to Summary


Place: Abertillery Rugby Ground (Abertillery/Abertyleri) (Abertillery/Abertyleri, Monmouthshire, Wales)

Year: 1939

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 4


1 May 1939 at 1.30pm and 6pm.

The pageant was staged simultaneously in three separate locations: Abertillery Rugby Ground; Pontypool Park in Monmouthshire; Cwmbran Park (near Ystradgynlais in Brecknockshire). The evening performance at Pontypool was cancelled due to bad weather.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Van Gyseghem, Andre
  • Assistant Pageant Master: Rutherford, Norman
  • Author: Montagu Slater
  • Designer of Costumes: Miss Pegaret Keeling
  • Musical Programme Arranged by: Bumford Griffith
  • Conductor of Massed Choirs in Abertillery and Pontypool: Arthur E. Sims
  • Conductor of Massed Choirs in Ystradgynlais: Idris Evans
  • Historical Consultants: R. Page Arnot, Ness Edwards, John Warner, David Williams, UC Cardiff and W.H. Williams of Labour Research Dept


Names of executive committee or equivalent

Abertillery Committee

  • President: Councillor W. Hardwicke
  • Chairman: F.J. Jenkins Organising Secretary: Len Hill
  • Financial Secretary: Mr R.J. Gunter
  • J. Hughes, Ben Watley, I. James, D.R. Davies, F. Elford, J. Pritchard, R. Saunders, H. Williams, J. Morris, W. Hurl, G. Osland, B. Jenkins, B. Wakely, G. Knight, R. Parsons, G. Morgan, Smith, G. Meredith, Ald. W.J. Saddler, Councillors Tom Powell, W. Saunders, T. Mytton, H. Phinnemore, A.J. Robbins

Pontypool May-Day Pageant Committee

  • President: Mr. F. Neate
  • Vice-President: Mr W. Waters
  • Financial Secretary: Mr. J. Howells
  • Local Organisers: Mr. D.C. Harrison
  • E.E.J. Smith, J. Constance, H. Joshua, W.O. Rogers, Rhys Watkins, T. Lewis, William Bevan, W.L. Evans, T.E. Gilbert, B. Edwards, H. Pinney, G. Wakely, A>H. Jenkins, H.J. Harris, H.A. Harris, Matthew Lewis, James White, W.A. Ferguson, Arthur Kinnersley, W.J. Jones, W. Drinkwater, John Cox, Clifford Malsom, A. Clenvis, T. Smith, S. Merchant, H. Slade, A. Buck, M. Page, M. Parry, Reg. Smith, Councillors Mrs. M. Davies, Mr. R. Hanson, O. Evans.

Women’s Costume Committee

  • A.H. Barrett
  • Mrs Bowles
  • Mrs Bennett
  • Mrs R.A. Berry
  • Mrs Howells
  • Mrs A. Howells
  • Mrs E. Joshua
  • Mrs J. Johnson
  • Mrs Kays
  • Mrs Kilmister
  • Mrs A. Lawley
  • Mrs Morris
  • Mrs S. A. Norton
  • Mrs Page
  • Mrs L. Powell
  • Mrs Radford
  • Mrs M. Roberts
  • Mrs H. Slade
  • Mrs R. Smith
  • Mrs B. Thorne
  • Mrs W. Treadgold
  • Miss F. Martin
  • Miss C. Schweizer
  • Miss Williams

West Wales Committee

  • Organiser: D.D. Evans
  • Chairmen: Dan Howells and Tom Williams
  • Vice-Chairman: D. Williams
  • Secretaries: Mr. T. James, Mr Rhys Williams
  • Treasurer: Mr. R.J. Williams
  • Thomas Richards, Glyn Cape, C. Pritchard, T.J. Evans, W. Richards, K. Williams, J.L. Griffiths, Tom Dauncy, Glyn Phillips, E. Jones, Tom Jones, S. Moses, E. Evans, Isaac Parry, Harry Evans, W.A. Lewis, R. Beamish, J. Evans, E.R. Johnes, T.W. Davies, W.J. Thomas, A. Lewis, D. Jones, E. Jones, D. Francis, Bob Robeson, Rhys Williams, Chris Evans, W.H. Rees, W. Ferris, A. Walters, Shenkin Davies, E.W. Evans, Tom Davies, M. Morgan, T.D. Moore, A. Curtis, Eddie Woolf, R.J. Williams, J. Sexton, D. Laundry, R.L. Cope, W.G. Thomas, T. Samuel, S. Bowen, L. Miles, D.O. Jones, Evan Hughes, W. Edwards, G. Williams, Councillor Sam Thomas, Superintendent T.H. Davies

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

  • Slater, Montagu

Names of composers



Around 2000 in each location

Numbers of performers


Financial information

The pageant was sponsored by the South Wales Miners’ Federation and does not appear to have charged for admission. Various newspapers noted that the workers lost £65000 in lost wages.

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

May Day and the hundredth anniversary year of the Newport Rising.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 20000


The audience was far below what was expected. The figure of 20000 is an estimate.

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Admission was free

Associated events


Pageant outline

Episode One. The Trial of John Frost, Newport, 1839.

Choirs sing and bands play ‘Land of My Fathers’, followed by ‘March of the Men of Glamorgan’, during which the arena fills with the townspeople of Newport in 1839. Four town criers proclaim the sessions of Monmouthshire and the court of pleas. Forty soldiers enter, together with various officials. These latter include Sir Nicholas Tindal, Sir James Parke and Sir John Williams, with Sir Frederick Pollock for the defence. The town criers read out further proclamations. The Mayor appears with Captain Basil Gray (who commanded the soldiers against the people during the rising). The attorney general reads out an opening statement.

The Chartist prisoners, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones are led out in chains. They are cheered by the townspeople and the soldiers struggle to hold them back. The Attorney-General reads out their crimes of inciting a Chartist rising in south Wales. A commentator explains the six-point charter, asking ‘Are you frightened of Charter Law, Mr. Attorney-General? Or what are you frightened off [sic]? Is it Democracy? Is it freedom?’1

The charges are read out against John Frost. Afterwards, a jury of twelve townspeople is appointed. The Attorney-General directs the jurors to the charge of High Treason, of which the prisoners are accused.

Sir Thomas Phillips, the former Mayor of Newport, is called as a witness and describes his actions the previous year, when he sent troops in. He also relates the arrival of armed Chartists into the town and his ordering of the troops to fire. Sir Frederick Pollock begins cross-examining him, showing that he was a supporter for the Reform Bill who advocated the guillotining of intransigent members of the House of Lords.

Captain Basil Gray, who was in command of the troops, is called. In cross-examination, he is shown to have fired on largely unarmed civilians, killing at least nine of them.

James Hodge is then called. Hodge was one who marched with the Chartists. He tells of the Chartists’ plot to attack Newport and rob the Welsh Mail, thus instigating an uprising in Birmingham. In cross-examining, it appears he works for Mr Prothero, a coal-owner in business with Sir Thomas Phillips.

Pollock sums up the case for the defence, which argues that the Chartist demonstration was peaceful and the soldiers fired unjustly. Demonstrations, though illegal, are not to be considered treason. The Commentator declares that Pollock was a liberal reformer, and had showed that the case against John Frost and others was tendentious, drawing on false and conflicting accounts and that the mail-coach story was obviously false.

Whilst the Jury decides, the choir sings ‘All Through the Night’ and the Commentator speaks a poem ‘When John Frost / Came over the hills / There marched with him / The people of Wales’2

The jury return and the Foreman declares Frost guilty. The judge sentences the three prisoners to death, having previously sentenced others to life transportation. At this, the crowd falls silent, and weeping follows the prisoners as everyone leaves the arena. The chorus sings ‘Aberystwyth’. There is cheering suddenly, and the commentator announces that the prisoners have been reprieved and sentenced to fifteen years of transportation. The Bands strike up ‘Men of Harlech’ as the crowd leaves.

Episode Two. ‘Yesterday and Tomorrow’

The commentator introduces the intervening history of South Wales. A procession of men, women and children pass by wearily. A child speaks into the microphone about how tired he is working down the mine, for upwards of twelve hours a day. Others tell their stories of oppression and long hours. There is a scene of an early Miners’ Movement swearing in members. The choir sing ‘Cwm Rhondda’ and the band play ‘England Arise’ as various groups of workers connected to mining: labourers, ostlers, pumpmen, shacklers, engine-drivers, hitchers, rippers, rope-splicers, etc. enter each with a banner.

The band strikes up the Red Flag as a runner declares a strike in a neighbouring pit, causing the workers to stop. Unity is established at a meeting between the two pits. They are faced by a line of soldiers, showing Tonypandy in 1910, driving out the men from the arena. A coffin of one of those killed is brought in as the choirs sing ‘Ebenezer’.

The Commentator recites words by William Morris: ‘What cometh here from West to East awending / And who are these, the marchers stern and slow? / We bear the message that the rich are sending / Aback to those who bade them wake and know.’3 A further funeral procession enters for a man killed in a pit disaster. The choir sings ‘Lead Kindly light’. The Commentator announces countless disasters; miners come to the microphone and tell how they died: ‘The last I knew was a roar as if hell had toppled in, and a blue flame. The electric cutter was sparking. It exploded the gas. Everybody knew it would come sometime. Men were sacked for complaining.’4 One was killed from Miners’ Lung. A Man and a Woman decry the suffering caused by the pit.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Frost, John (1784–1877) Chartist
  • Tindal, Sir Nicholas Conyngham (1776–1846) judge
  • Williams, Sir John (1777–1846) judge
  • Williams, Zephaniah (c.1795–1874) Chartist and geologist
  • Phillips, Sir Thomas (1801–1867) local politician and writer on education
  • Pollock, Sir (Jonathan) Frederick, first baronet (1783–1870) judge

Musical production

Each location had choruses and massed choirs who sang a number of Welsh hymns and folk songs.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Western Mail
Daily Worker
Daily Mail
Manchester Guardian
World’s Fair, Oldham
South Wales Argus
South Wales News
News Chronicle
Picture Post
Daily Herald
Reynolds News
Daily Express

Book of words

May Day, 1st May 1939: Pageant of South Wales. Cardiff, 1939.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature

  • Gyseghem. Andre van. ‘British Theatre in the Thirties: an Autobiographical Record’. In Jon Clark, ed., Culture and crisis in Britain in the thirties’. London, 1979. At 218.
  • Jouannou, M. Women’s Writing, Englishness and National and Cultural Identity: The Mobile Woman and the Migrant Voice, 1938-62. Basingstoke, 2012. At 21.
  • McIvor, Arthur and Johnston, Ronald. Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining. Aldershot, 2007. At 195.
  • Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London, 1994. At 223.
  • Wallis, Mick. ‘Heirs to the Pageant: Mass Spectacle and the Popular Front’. In A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, edited by Andy Croft, 48-67. London, 1998.
  • Wallis, Mick. ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the “Thirties”’. New Theatre Quarterly, 10 (1994): 132–156.
  • Wallis, Mick. ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’. New Theatre Quarterly, 11 (1995): 17–32.
  • Williams, Chris. ‘History, heritage and commemoration: Newport 1839-1989’, Llafur: the journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History, 6 (1992). 5-16.
  • Wrigley, Chris. ‘May Day in Britain’. In The Ritual of May Day in Western Europe: Past, Present and Future. Abby Peterson and Herbert Reiter, eds. London, 2016. At 149.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • London Metropolitan Archives, Labour Research Department Papers, Correspondence, reports etc., Reference, LRD/1/B/1/11; LRD/1/E/07-08
  • Gwent Archives, Material relating to the May Day Pageant, Pontypool, Reference D845/109
  • Hull History Centre, Copy of Book of Words in Papers of Robin Page Arnot, Reference DAR(2)/5/98

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • A diverse range of sources were used. Slater and Williams drew particularly on the work of Ness Edwards: Industrial Revolution in South Wales (London, 1924) and History of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (London, 1938). The BBC was also approached to consult a recent radio play, Chartists’ March


As Chris Williams argues, commemorating the chartists in Wales was a contentious issue.5 Unlike in most of England, the Chartist movement turned into a rising in Newport in 1839 which was brutally suppressed by troops. Thus Wales’ narrative was at odds with that of the rest of the country in which the movement was co-opted into an account of the rise of peaceful, democratic, parliamentary socialism manifested in the Labour Party—an account popularised by G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate’s The Common People (1938). A separate trend tried to recapture the Chartists as both proto-revolutionaries and heroes of a tradition of popular resistance to authority, stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt and the Levellers, which the Labour Party had betrayed in its naked pursuit of power and accommodation with capitalism.

The Pageant of South Wales was one of three major pageants that year which celebrated the chartists: the others were Music for the People and Pageant of Chartism, both of which were held in London in 1939. The Pageant of Chartism was also directed by Andre van Gyseghem and written by Montagu Slater. All three were creations of the ‘Popular Front’ of left-wing politicians, writers and intellectuals who were loosely connected to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The Front sought to create a broad coalition to the left of the Labour Party to fight fascism and capitalism.6 Historical pageants were seen as a significant means of getting over the group’s message.7

In December 1938, Oliver Harris, secretary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) approached W.H. Williams, secretary of the London-based Labour Research Department (LRD), a TUC-affiliated educational and propaganda organisation, with the object of writing and coordinating the pageant. Harris wrote to ask ‘if you could help us in suggesting some 20 outstanding phases of incidents in the working class movement during the last 100 years which would be suitable for representation in a pageant.’8 Williams replied by suggesting a number of options, including a pageant featuring Robert Owen, ‘one of the outstanding Welshmen in working-class history’:

It might be worthwhile, at the same time, widening the scope of the pageant to include broad movements of social struggle, such as, for example, the very important struggles of the Welsh working class against the English landlords and capitalists, which took the form of a strong nationalist movement with a working-class content. Then, also, the election of Keir Hardie for Merthyr was an event of considerable importance.9

Further suggestions for scenes included the Hunger Riots in South Wales and Merthyr in 1800–1; the demonstrations and strikes in Merthyr and Dowlais in 1831, leading to the hanging of Dick Penderyn; the agitation and thwarted hopes of the Reform Bill of 1832; the trial of thirty-two Chartists at Welshpool in 1837; the march on Newport in 1839; the famous Rebecca Riots of 1843 (where men dressed as women smashed toll-gates); the development of Welsh trade unions, the eight-hour day agitation and the 1871 Miners strike; the Taff Vale and Osborne Judgment; the Cambrian Strike and subsequent fight against the Munitions Act of 1915; the great strikes of 1921 and 1926 as well as events which led up to the present day.10 Wales, it seemed, had far too many events which commended its working-class history to be included in one pageant. As Williams wrote, ‘The problem… is the elimination of data so as to get a simple and vivid portrayal of incidents, which at the same time is historically accurate.’11

It was ultimately decided that a simpler pageant of two scenes would be more effective than an attempt at depicting the entirety of Welsh history since the Industrial Revolution, and the incidents of the aftermath of the supposed Newport Rising of 1839 were chosen. Thus the centenary commemorations were far from inevitable. From an early stage, it was decided that the Communist writer and journalist, Montagu Slater, would write the libretto for the Pageant and Andre Van Gyseghem, who had done the Wembley Co-operative Pageant the previous year, would be Pageant Master.12 W.H. Williams was assisted in determining the scenes by David Williams, a lecturer at Cardiff University who had recently published John Frost: A Study of Chartism (1939) (the figure whose trial featured in the pageant), as well as Robin Page Arnot, a historian and founding member of the CPGB who went on to publish the seminal study The Miners in six volumes between 1949 and 1975.13

The pageant channelled the spirit of the Popular Front in bringing together a disparate number of people with differing political views in celebrations of the Chartists in Wales. Unlike the Popular Front itself, which was accused by many of being alternately an ideological vehicle for the CPGB or a talking shop of leftist intellectuals, this and other pageants were genuinely popular events attracting broad support from a range of groups and people—not least the 6000 miners and their families who took part on this occasion. As the number of performers imply, the pageant was a large-scale undertaking: indeed it was held simultaneously in three different locations—Abertillery, Pontypool and Ystradgynlais. The pageant differed markedly from the other left-wing pageants held in London in that it was a genuinely popular event involving large numbers from local communities. Welsh miners had long been among the most radical elements of the working class movement and were the most prolific strikers against pay cuts and declining work conditions which had been commonplace within an inefficient and badly run throughout the interwar period. Six thousand miners had been on strike for three days in January,14 and there were a number of other stoppages throughout the year. In mid-April the SWMF had also called on the Labour Party to enter the Popular Front with the CPGB and also to reinstate Stafford Cripps, who had recently been expelled from the party for advocating such a movement.15 Whilst many Labour politicians were hostile to the CPGB—which they saw as opportunist and anti-democratic, accusing the LRD itself of being overrun by Communist sympathisers—Welsh miners were themselves far more open to the radical left and to representing their history as one of direct opposition to English authority.

The pageant progressed quickly, helped, in no small part, to the enthusiasm and discipline of the miners.16 D.D. Evans, the Organiser for the performance in Abertillery, wrote that:

This co-ordination of mass actions and aspirations along with the symbol that expresses those things is a new feature in the dramatic life of Wales, and we hope that this pageant will be the means of combining all expressions of the cultural, social and political life of Wales in a unity of purpose that will reflect itself in a much more ambitious programme for future efforts in this area.17

The Pageant Master, Andre Van Gyseghem, stressed that the traditions and glories of the past provided an inspiration for the current movement which was, at the time, sorely lacking:

We in this country have as yet no such pride in the present, but we have a glorious past. The British working class has a tradition it can be proud of, a tradition of fight after fight successfully fought and won for freedom. In attempting to revive the form of the pageant to express this tradition we are, I think, choosing the only form which can truthfully frame so large a canvass. It is a form which calls for the co-operation of all for the sake of all. It demands crowds and processions and fine, rousing music which stirs the memory and sets the heart pounding.18

Van Gyseghem told the News Chronicle that ‘“it will be no village green, amateurish affair’”, commending the Welsh miners: ‘He knew they were singers, but never imagined they were actors. He could have filled his cast for the speaking parts in the two episodes over and over again.’19

Oliver Harris, the General Secretary of the SWMF made explicit in the programme the link between the past struggle, of which the Newport Rising was a key part, and the present struggle:

The story of the miners of Wales, during the last century and a-half, is one of hardship, suffering and struggle, but it records steady progress, in face of many difficulties, and of the callous opposition of employers, the privileged classes, and the Governments of the day. It is fitting that on the hundredth anniversary of the Chartist Movement some of the incidents of the miners’ struggle should be recalled in pageant form, to remind the present generation of the dark periods through which our forefathers passed on the road to the present better and brighter days. We are still a long, long way from the Promised Land; there is much yet to be done before we can create that earthly paradise which we visualise in our daily prayers, but it will encourage the younger generation to continue the struggle for these better conditions when they know and realise the depths from which their fathers struggled in the darker days of old.20

A number of prominent political figures in the movement spoke at the pageant, including Isabel Brown,21 the prominent anti-fascist who campaigned in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Among other notable speakers were John Morgan MP and Jim Griffiths, the Welsh trade unionist and politician who became the first Secretary of State for Wales.

The Pageant was in two parts of roughly equal length. The first part showed the trial of John Frost and other Chartists who were arrested for their part in the Newport Rising. Thus, rather than display the confused and ultimately unsuccessful rising itself, the action focused on the trial of the main protagonists, showing how threadbare the case against them was and the brutality of the authorities. The pageant does not mention that although Frost and two others were sentenced to death for high treason, their sentences were ultimately commuted to transportation, being pardoned in 1854.22 The pageant also omits Frost’s significant role in the years before the rising, acting as a significant voice of reform in the town and member of the town council who actually attempted to quell the violence. Frost is instead presented as a victim and a man unjustly prosecuted by the authorities. Whilst the effect of the crowd would have been effective, the somewhat dry proceedings of the court lacked action. The second, contrasting section tells the subsequent history of the miners and the labour movement.

The South Wales Miners’ Pageant should not be confused with the so-called processional ‘Silicosis Pageant’, also held on May Day 1939, in Cwamman Park in the Amman Valey to raise funds and awareness in combat of Silicosis or Miners’ Lung (although these were, in fact, largely separate events).23 Whilst the events were ostensibly discrete from one another, miners across the South Wales coalfields were involved in representing their history and struggles through pageants. However, the second part of the South Wales Miners’ Pageant was highly conscious of the risks to health, both immediate and long-term that Miners’ faced and endured on a daily basis. In this spirit, the pageant concluded by presenting a vision of the future, in which coal mines had been abandoned and people instead employed in clean electric plants. The tragedy is that whilst the mines were ultimately closed, no major new form of employment moved into the valleys which have become places of unemployment, deprivation and poverty.

The feat of staging such a large pageant was far beyond what the Labour Research Department had conceived, with Williams having to spend the entirety of the first four months of 1939 in South Wales: ‘However, the work that was being done in connection with the Pageant was bringing, and would in the future bring, considerable publicity to the Department.’ He subsequently added that: ‘To a certain extent the work of the organisation was held up, although by no means seriously. An educational tour was necessary, and concentration on that aspect of the pageant was given first place.’24

The pageant garnered a significant degree of interest, though as could be expected, this was concentrated in the sympathetic left-wing press. The News Chronicle and Daily Mail both asserted that the 130000 miners who were taking part in wider celebrations across the coalfield would be losing more than £65000 in wages by taking a day’s holiday, and that ‘the week’s coal output will fall by at least 150000 tons’.25 The Daily Mail also ran a peculiar (and incendiary) story. Apparently, a telegraph to the London Co-operative Society Works Department asking for ‘80 more rifles to be sent by passenger train’ caused a stir at the General Post Office. Detectives had begun inquiries before concluding that ‘The “rifles,” it appeared, were dummies to be carried by men taking part in the South Wales miners’ May Day Pageants.’26 Other newspapers, such as the Communist-affiliated Reynolds News were more positive, anticipating (perhaps over-optimistically) more than a million spectators and stressing the role of miners’ wives and daughters in costume-making and other preparations. It quoted the Pageant Master approvingly: ‘The British working-class…has a tradition of fight after fight, found t and won for freedom, and, in attempting to revive the form of the pageant to express this tradition, we are choosing the only form which can truthfully frame so large a canvas.’27

Unfortunately, the day of the pageant featured heavy rain, intensely cold winds and even sleet. Reading the newspaper reports one senses that the miners would not have been put off by a mere downpour of the kind which would have done for most English pageants. Sadly, however, the weather was truly awful even by Welsh standards, and it clearly ‘took much of the spirit out of the presentation at Abertillery and Ystradgnlais, and the event at Pontypool in the evening was abandoned.’28 The way in which the event was reported varied dramatically between newspapers, largely depending on their political orientation. The Daily Express sneeringly accused the whole event of being a shambles, with actors missing their cues and having to wear the wrong costumes. It wrote that: ‘It was a miners’ holiday, and the federation had spent £2,000 on the show. But only a few hundred people came to see the free spectacle and they stood huddled on the mountainside beneath umbrellas, despondently watching the actors in the valley below.’29 As one might guess, the Communist-run Daily Worker took a wholly opposite view, refusing even to acknowledge the weather. Its reporter, Rose Smith, presented the performance at Abertillery as an almost religious ceremony:

Thousands of people from the surrounding Welsh mining villages are gathered her to take part in May Day celebrations. They are paying homage to the working-class heroes of the past, and pledge themselves to carry on the struggle…The watching crowd is breathless. Thousands of voices break into mournful singing…Spectators and actors alike have sorrowed, rejoiced, and gloried in the noble struggles of the men who fought to establish trade unions, the right to vote, freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. We have been swept up into the singing of the simply hymn tunes, led by massed choirs. Resounding cheers are a tribute to the magnificent actors and an expression of the debt we owe to the Chartist pioneers.30

What then are we to infer from so many disparate accounts, often of pageants held in different valleys. The socialist, though by no means Communist-sympathising Daily Herald struck the most balanced note, sending reporters from both Abertillery and Ystranglais, the latter of which noted of the 5000 spectators that ‘Driving rain and a raw cutting wind did not deter them.’31 The Abertillery reporter wrote that ‘Although rain streamed steadily from a grey sky and a cold wind swept down the valley, thousands of people turned up on the water-soaked Rugby ground’ and that ‘umbrellas were very much in evidence’. The reporter added that ‘The setting here would be difficult to equal. The stage was the football field, which is overlooked on two sides by stark mountains, rising steeply. In the distance, among the trees, could be seen a colliery level which gave a touch of realism to the scene.’32

Despite these setbacks, the organizers were sanguine about their achievements, with the LRD noting that ‘despite the rain, the response was excellent. The Pageant had a good press in Wales, and there was a general desire to further develop the Pageant as a means of propaganda.’33 W.H. Williams appealed for comments and criticisms from those who had participated in or seen the pageant. On the whole these were highly favourable. Councillor Evan T. Lewis wrote to him:

Although the weather was not what we should expect at this time of the year, yet I am convinced that we reached our object and that it was a change from the old tradition of speeches and demonstrations which was out of date. One reason for this is that the audiences are much better informed and convinced. Another reason is that the Pageant is certainly stimulating to our knowledge of history. It would be very educative if a pageant could be devised teaching local history. Our children are not so well informed on the history of these valleys as we would wish.34

David Harris, who performed as the commentator in one of the pageants, wrote to W.H. Williams in May 1939 expressing his view that ‘The idea of a Propaganda Pageant is a great one, and should be continued annually, but I am afraid that May 1st is too early [in the year] to risk an open air production. Further, a much better atmosphere is created in the evening when the whole show could be flood lighted as was done at the Blaina Peace Pageant in 1936’.35 Harris suggested that the script had been a little awkwardly worded and that ‘there was too much speaking and not sufficient action’, before suggesting that ‘Had the weather been fine and warm, the influence would have been ten times as great, and that is no exaggeration…Please carry on, and good luck.’36 Indeed Williams’ reply suggested that he planned to do just this, taking the setback of the pageant as a step in the ongoing struggle: ‘I believe, and the South Wales effort has justified this, that the Pageant is a new form of dramatic expression which will be of incalculable value to the labour movement; it is in an experimental stage and any criticism such as yours is most essential if the Pageant is to be made a true medium for the people’s aspirations.’37 Van Gyseghem had conducted a grand musical pageant at the Albert Hall on 1 April 1939 (Music for the People), and went on to conduct the Pageant of Chartism in London in July. These three pageants proved to be the culmination of the popular front tradition.

Although the onset of the war effectively ended the tradition of popular front pageants, these events were important party of the interwar history of the labour movement. Despite the government nationalisation of the mines and the promise by unions to end strikes, there were 514 unofficial strikes in the South Wales coalfield between September 1939 and October 1944.38 They showed just how important history was to the thousands of Welsh miners who attended adult education classes organised by the Workers’ Educational Association or National Council of Labour Colleges, and read, performed or remembered key aspects of the history which had made the world they inhabited and which demonstrated that collective struggle had the potential of creating a better one for them and their children.39 It also showed the culture and community of the miners in the valleys was capable of putting on a pageant of a size and passion that could rarely be exceeded by their English comrades, whose own Popular Front pageants were almost exclusively carried on indoors away from the elements.


  1. ^ May Day, 1st May 1939: Pageant of South Wales (Cardiff, 1939), 21.
  2. ^ Ibid, 30.
  3. ^ Ibid, 39.
  4. ^ Ibid, 40.
  5. ^ Chris Williams, ‘History, heritage and commemoration: Newport 1839-1989’, Llafur: the journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History, 6 (1992), 5-16.
  6. ^ David Blaazer, The Popular Front and the progressive tradition: socialists, liberals, and the quest for unity, 1884-1939 (Cambridge, 2002); Ben Harker, ‘“Communism is English”: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front’, Literature and History, 20 (2011), 16-34.
  7. ^ Mick Wallis, ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’, New Theatre Quarterly, 11 (1995); Steve Nicholson, ‘Montagu Slater and the Theater of the Thirties’, in Patrick J. Quinn, ed., Recharting the Thirties (London, 1996), 206.
  8. ^ Labour Research Department Archives, London Metropolitan University (henceforth LRD), LRD/1/E/08/3, Letter from Oliver Harris to W.H. Williams, 2 December 1939.
  9. ^ LRD/1/E/08/4, Letter from Williams to Harris, 6 January 1939
  10. ^ LRD/1/E/08/2 Attached to letter from Harris to Williams, 2 January 1939.
  11. ^ LRD/1/E/08/4 Williams to Harris, 8 February 1939
  12. ^ LRD/1/B/1/11, LRD Executive Committee Minute Book, 6 February 1939.
  13. ^ Anthony Howe, ‘Arnot, Robert Page [Robin] (1890–1986)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Entry, accessed 19 July 2016,
  14. ^ Western Daily Press, 26 January 1939, 9.
  15. ^ Western Mail, 17 April 1939, 12.
  16. ^ D.C. Harrison, ‘May-Day Pageant in the Eastern Valleys’ in May Day, 1st May 1939, 6.
  17. ^ D.D. Evans ‘The Pageant in West Wales’, in May Day, 1st May 1939, 46.
  18. ^ Andre Van Gyseghem, ‘Pageantry and the People, 13.
  19. ^ Quoted in News Chronicle, 8 April 1939, 2.
  20. ^ Oliver Harris, ‘What We Owe to the Past’, in May Day, 1st May 1939, 5.
  21. ^ ‘Isabel Brown’, Spartacus Educational, accessed 19 July 2016,
  22. ^ Matthew Lee, ‘Frost, John (1784-1877)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, accessed 19 July 2016,
  23. ^ Arthur McIvor and Ronald Johnston, Miners’ Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining (Aldershot, 2007), 195.
  24. ^ LRD/1/B/1/11, LRD Executive Committee Minute Book, 6 March 1939 and March 1939.
  25. ^ Daily Mail, nd.; News Chronicle, 2 May 1939, 18., cuttings in LRD/1/E/07/11. It is unclear how these figures were arrived at.
  26. ^ Daily Mail, 28 April 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11. As the story appears nowhere else, it is likely to have been a fabrication or at least a wild extrapolation.
  27. ^ Reynolds News, 30 April 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11.
  28. ^ Weekly Mail, 6 May 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11.
  29. ^ Daily Express, [2] May 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11.
  30. ^ Daily Worker, 2 May 1939, 1.
  31. ^ Daily Herald, 2 May 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11.
  32. ^ Daily Herald, 2 May 1939, cutting in LRD/1/E/07/11.
  33. ^ LRD/1/B/1/11, LRD Executive Committee Minute Book, 8 May 1939.
  34. ^ LRD/1/E/08/18 Councillor Evan T. Lewis to Williams, 5 May 1939.
  35. ^ LRD/1/E/08/19, David Harris to W.H. Williams, 5 May 1939.
  36. ^ Ibid.
  37. ^ LRD/1/E/08/19, Williams to Harris, 6 May 1939.
  38. ^ Dr Martin Johnes, ‘The Coal Industry in Wartime’, Wales History, accessed 19 July 2016,
  39. ^ Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London, 2001), esp. chapters 7 and 8.

How to cite this entry

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