Pageant of Birmingham

Other names

  • Birmingham Centenary Pageant

Pageant type


Centenary of the signing of the Civic Charter in 1838. The Pageant committee was effectively run by the city council.

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Place: Aston Park (Aston, Birmingham) (Aston, Birmingham, Staffordshire, England)

Year: 1938

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 15


11–23 July 1938

11 July 8pm; 12 July 8pm; 13 July 8pm; 14 July 3pm and 8pm; 15 July 8pm; 16 July 3pm and 8pm; 18 July 8pm; 19 July 8pm; 20 July 8pm; 21 July 8pm; 22 July 8pm; 23 July 3pm and 8pm.

After the first run, due to have ended on Saturday 16 July, The Pageant Committee unanimously extended the pageant for a second week, with seats tickets offered at heavily discounted prices.

The city of Birmingham was historically divided between three counties.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Lally, Gwen
  • Grand Mistress of the Robes: The Lady Mayoress of Birmingham, Mrs E.R. Canning
  • Business Manager: E. Elliott
  • Author of Scenario: S.C. Kaines Smith, MBE, MA, FSA
  • Chief Stage Manager: H. Gordon Toy
  • Mistress of the Robes: Jean Campbell
  • Chief Property Master: Bernard Coaling
  • Grand Master of the Horse: W. Brennan DeVine, FRCVS
  • Master of the Arena: J.R. Keyte, ARIBA, FSI
  • Press Manager: F.W. Bradnock
  • Master of the Music: G.D. Cunningham, MA, FRAM, FRCO
  • Assistant Master of the Music: Harold Gray
  • Publicity Manager: L.W. Faulkner

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Executive Committee:

  • Chairman: Lord Mayor, Councillor E.R. Canning, JP and Deputy Mayor, Alderman Harold Roberts, JP
  • Aldermen: Miss Bartleet Ager, Sir Percival Bower, Sir John Burman, Crump, Gelling, Grey, James, Kenrick, Lancaster, Morland and Sir Frederick Smith. Councillors Alldridge, Burman, Cooper, Giles, Richardson and Yates
  • The Town Clerk (Mr F.H.C. Wiltshire)
  • City Treasurer (Mr J.R. Johnson)
  • City Engineer and Surveyor (Mr H.J. Manzoni)
  • Chief Constable (Mr C.C.H. Moriarty)
  • Chief Education Officer (Dr P.D. Innes)
  • Messrs A.C. Baker, H.M. Cashmore, J.H. Codling, F. Forrest, S.C. Kaines Smith, A.W. Smith, E.S. White, Colonels Danielsen, Sir Bertram Ford and Smallwood
  • Messrs E. Elliott and W.E. Ballard (St John’s Ambulance Brigade)
  • Messrs G. Philip Achurch and Frank Wain (Chamber of Commerce)
  • Professors Thomas Bodkin and Victor Hely-Hutchinson
  • Sir Barry Kackson
  • Messrs C. Hardaker, Sam Harrison and William Haywood
  • The Rt. Rev. J.H. Richards (Provost), the Most Rev. Dr T.L. Williams (Archbishop of Birmingham), the Rev. Canon T. Guy Rogers, and the Rev. Noel Hutchcroft.
  • Clerk to the Committee: C.W. Bloor

Pageant Subcommittee:

  • Mayor, Deputy Mayor (are on every committee)
  • Chairman: Councillors Giles, G. Richardson and Rigby

Decorations and Illuminations Subcommittee:

  • Chairman: Councillors Bolton and Giles

Children’s Sub-Committee:

  • Chairman: Alderman Kenrich

Finance and General Purposes Committee:

  • Chairman: Lord Mayor

Pageant (Musical) Sub-Committee:

  • No chair
  • Mayor, Deputy, Alderman Kenrick (etc.)

Pageant (Episodes):

  • Chairman: Councillor Rigby


  • (Includes the Lady Mayoress)
  • Chairman: Councillor Rigby

Musical Sub-Committee:

  • Chairman: Councillor Morland

Religious Services Sub Committee:

  • No chair

Executive for the Decorations of the Municipal Buildings and Principal Throughfares:

  • Architect in Charge and Designer: William Haywood, FRIBA, MTPI, FRSA
  • City Engineer and Surveyor: H.J. Manzoni, MInsCE.
  • Designer of Heraldry: S.C. Kaines Smith, MBA, MA, FSA
  • Sculptor for the Floral Fountains: William Bloye, ARBS

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

  • Smith, S.C. Kaines


S.C. Kaines Smith, MBE, MA, FSA, was Keeper of the Museum and Art Gallery from 1927 to 1941

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Financial information


Pageant Master’s Fee; £850. 0s. 0d.
Costumes: £5589. 16s. 3d.
Wages and Expenses: £1384. 7s. 1d.
Arena: £3215. 4s. 8d.
Stands: £5593
Seating: £212. 11s. 2d.
Tents: £621. 10s. 3d.
Horses: £1606. 8s. 7d.
Transport: £926. 18s. 7d.
Souvenirs: £435. 1s. 6d.
Music: £1260. 18s. 11d.
Insurances: £637. 7s. 1d.
Box Office: £466. 18s. 0d.
Advertising: £2901. 2s. 8d.
Administration: £981. 2s. 6d.
Miscellaneous: £31. 9s. 11d.

Total: £31735. 1s. 5d.


Booking Fees: £15759. 17s. 11d. (for 137545 people)
Catering and Sales: £706. 16s. 6d.
Car Park: £211. 0s. 7d.
Contributions: £1202. 13s. 6d.
Broadcasting Fees: £11. 12s. 6d.
Miscellaneous: £7. 1s. 7d.

Total: £17899. 2s. 7d.

Loss: £13835. 18s. 10d.

Minus Mayor’s Allowance of £2000.

Total Deficit: £11835. 18s. 10d.2

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

Centenary of the granting of the town’s civic charter in 1838.

Audience information

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


The Pageant Sub-Committee had initially proposed that an attendance of 50000 paying on average 2s. 6d. for admission would be ‘required to make the Pageant pay.’4

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

12s. 6d.–1s.

The admission prices fluctuated significantly. The Royal Visit prices were greatly increased. However, the second week of the pageant’s run saw prices slashed, with tickets ranging from 1s. to 5s. (previously, the cheapest ticket, for a restricted side-view, had been 1s. 3d.).

Associated events

  • Public Thanksgiving Service (11 July 1938, 10.45am).
  • Special meeting of the City Council giving freedom of the City to Aldermen Ernest Martineau, Cadbury, Kenrick, Sayer (11 July).
  • A forty-five minute firework service at dusk (16 July).
  • Connected Exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Public Libraries, and Historical Museum at Cannon Hill Park of portraits of prominent people, flourishing trades, etc. (3–14 July),
  • A Royal Visit (14 July). George VI and Queen Elizabeth were to open the new Hospital Centre and then visit the Centenary Park. A long parade (16 miles) through the town with banners and the town crests. Most notably the ‘Spirit of Birmingham’ in the form of a young smith bestriding the City, and holding in his left arm a wrought disc, upon which was embossed a mother and child standing against an oak tree, to signify the birth of art in association with natural beauty of two large floral fountains 30ft wide and 28.6ft high. 11.10am onwards, till 4.30. In the event, the King had gastric flu and was represented by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.
  • Concert (Saturday 16 July at 7.30) in the Town Hall, CBSO, Conductor Harold Gray and the Combined Choir of Birmingham Festival Choral Society and the City of Birmingham Choir, 
  • National Anthem, Oratorio from Elijah, and music by composers with a Birmingham connection including Arthur Sullivan, Dvorak, Granville Bantock, Parry, and Elgar (the Dream of Gerontius, originally composed for the Birmingham Music Festival, 1900).

Pageant outline

Episode I. The Dawn of History

Before the dawn of history, there roamed through the Forest of Arden and over the ground on which modern Birmingham stands, vast monsters whose shape almost defies description. It is, therefore, appropriate that in starting a Pageant of the story of Birmingham, these beasts should appear in the opening episode. They enter the arena, three of them, crashing through the undergrowth, while a fourth flies across the arena, symbolic of the very beginning of life on this earth as we know it to-day.

‘Then come pre-historic men and women, clad in sheep-skins, with painted bodies, and armed with stone axes and clubs. Symbolic of man’s conquest, the monsters retreat. Then in a rapid sequence the story of England is sketched. Into the arena come Bronze Age Warriors followed by a group of Druids in white robes with a victim for human sacrifice carried in a wicker cage. By now the pre-historic men and women have left the arena and while the Druids are incanting, a phalanx of Roman soldiers march down upon them. There is a short struggle which leaves the Romans in possession of the arena. Next, the Saxons arrive and capture the Roman Standard and these in turn are attacked by the Danes and later a body of King Alfred’s English appear with the King mounted at their head. Edward the Confessor follows in a litter and a procession is formed, terminated by William the Conqueror with a group of Norman soldiers on horseback, and so in 1066 we leave the story of England and the Pageant concerns itself with matters concerning more intimately the story of Birmingham.

Episode II. Granting of the Town Charter to Birmingham, 1250

The second episode re-enacts a Birmingham event ninety years after the Norman Conquest—the granting of a Market Charter to Peter de Bermingham. The scene opens with the entry of waggons laden with market stalls which are erected on the arena. There are stalls displaying meat, fruit and vegetables and cheeses—stalls for the pill maker and harness maker, barber and weaver, and many others, all with bright canvas awnings. A Royal Dais is erected and while the crowd are moving about the market Peter de Bermingham enters. A number of mounted and foot soldiers keep back the crowds and then de Bermingham meets Gervase de Panagel and receives from him the document of the Charter. Trumpets are heard and a stately procession enters including Henry II and his Queen. They proceed to the Royal Dais where de Bermingham kneels and surrenders the Charter to the King. Henry II hands it back to de Bermingham who reads the Charter to the assembled crowd. The King and Queen retire; the crowd go back to the business of marketing and then the stalls are packed up and removed from the arena.

Episode III. The Battle of Crecy, 1346

The third episode depicts the Battle of Crecy and includes approximately a thousand soldiers, many of them mounted on horseback and some six hundred clad in armour and surcoats bearing, in brilliant colours, their coats of arms. This episode opens when the English army has crossed the Somme and is marching on its way to Calais. The army of Godemar de Fay, having failed to stop their passage of the river, enters in full flight, closely followed by the English army, which however, does not pursue them, but takes up its position, dismounted, on the field of Crecy in three divisions, commanded by the King, the Earl of Northampton and the Black Prince respectively. As soon as they have taken up their position, the French army appears and sends forward its Genoese crossbowmen to the attack, but these are completely defeated by the English archers, who form a screen in front of the English army, and the rest of the Battle consists of a series of gallant but futile charges of French cavalry upon the English Front. Only at one point in the Battle do the French men-at-arms get to grips with the army of the Black Prince, and immediately after this the whole English line is engaged, with the resultant defeat of the French Cavalry who flee from the scene in disorder, leaving three quarters of their number dead behind them. The King of England invests the Prince of Wales with the three ostrich feathers taken from the Helm of the dead King of Bohemia, and the scene closes with the English army pursuing its way towards Calais, while the priests and peasantry flock in to carry away and bury the dead.

Episode IV Part I. Visit of Charles I to Aston Hall, 1642

For the next episode the scene changes back to Birmingham in the middle of the seventeenth century, depicting the visit of Charles I to Aston Hall in 1642 and the subsequent siege of the Hall by Roundhead Troops. First we see Sir Thomas Holte and his family and friends awaiting the arrival of Charles I. They group themselves round a pavilion, greeting the guests who arrive on foot and on horseback, and then, preceded by a troop of mounted cavaliers, riding a magnificent white horse, the King enters the arena. Various members of the family are presented to the King, the choir boys sing their song, but in the background the crowd is gathering and becoming increasingly hostile, and as the King and Sir Thomas Holte leave, the King’s baggage waggons enter the arena and are immediately surrounded by the now angry mob who disarm the escort and drive the waggons away.

Episode IV Part II. Siege of Aston Hall, 1644

Then comes the siege of Aston Hall. We see Sir Thomas Holte warned of the approach of the Parliamentary troops, who soon afterwards enter the arena, on foot and mounted, with two cannon. From the upper windows of the Hall fire is opened on the attacking forces, who in turn bombard the Hall with their cannons. Suddenly it is noticed that part of Aston Hall is on fire and through the clouds of smoke we notice the Holte flag being lowered. Parliamentary troops escort Sir Thomas Holte away and the Commonwealth flag goes up on the Hall.

Episode V. Ascension Day Fair, 1660

It is nearly twenty years later when the next episode to be depicted took place. This deals with the Birmingham Ascension Day Fair in 1660 and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and when the scene opens the Commonwealth flag is flying on Aston Hall. In the arena are a number of elderly Puritans and Roundhead soldiers who have an argument with a party of gipsies, in Birmingham for the Annual Fair. Other gipsies and show-people enter the arena with caravans and properties and the Puritans who remain are hustled by the crowd. The Fair promises to be a very dull affair when suddenly there is an outburst of wild cheering and into the arena gallop twenty horsemen in gay cavalier costumes, waving big oak branches and followed by a cheering crowd shouting for the King. Bells are heard pealing in the distance and so the news is received of the Restoration of the Monarchy. The Stuart Royal Standard replaces the Commonwealth flag on Aston Hall and gipsies in the stocks are released and replaced by a number of Puritans. The High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant enter and read the Proclamation of the Accession of King Charles. The whole attitude of the Fair changes and out of the crowd emerges a party of Restoration ladies and gentlemen who take the floor in an elaborate dance.

Episode VI. The Priestley Riots, 1791

The next episode is that dealing with the Priestley Riots which should prove one of the most thrilling in the Pageant and certainly requires one of the most elaborate settings. The scene opens with the casual entry from all sides of a large number of people who gradually converge on the Birmingham Hotel. The curtains of the upper windows of the hotel are parted and the people in the hotel are immediately greeted by a shower of brick-bats and a storm of booing. This commotion goes on for some time until some of the guests from the hotel emerge and, apparently emboldened by wine, threaten the crowd with their swords. The cry is then heard ‘To the New Meeting’, towards which the crowd surges along. Some are seen to stop on their way at a house belonging to Sampson Lloyd, who with his wife and servants emerge with pots of ale and loaves of bread thus placating part of the crowd. The rest set fire to the New Meeting House. In the meantime, some of the guests from the hotel have made their way to Dr Priestley’s house. He is already on the steps watching the disturbance and the people implore him to escape. At first he refuses but is eventually persuaded to enter his coach with his wife and daughter, and as they drive off, the mob race across the arena to attack the house. Soon it is in flames; books and scientific instruments are flung from the windows and gradually some of the crowd disperse, while the more violent are driven from the scene by a squadron of Dragoons.

Episode VII. Queen Victoria’s Visit, 1858

After the tumult of the Priestley Riots episode, comes one of dignity and peace, but nevertheless delightfully colourful, depicting the visit of Queen Victoria to Aston Park in 1858. The episode opens with people arriving at Aston Park, marshalled by troops and police in top hats. Then we shall see the Mayor of Birmingham followed by the Town Clerk and members of the Council and watch the arrival of other crowds of people on foot and in carriages. The excitement amongst the crowd grows and then a royal escort of the 10th Hussars heralds the arrival of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. Various local nobilities are presented and loyal addresses are read, and the Queen, commanding Mr Ratcliff, the Mayor, to kneel, knights him. Then we see the whole party form a procession and proceed towards a balcony erected in the arena. On reaching the balcony the Queen proclaims Aston Park open; a procession of school children enters the arena and the band strikes up ‘God save the Queen’ which is sung by the children.

Episode VIII. Birmingham Today, 1939

The final episode introduces some of Birmingham’s famous men and women of the past including Joseph Chamberlain, Boulton, Watt, Murdock, Baskerville, William Hutton, R.T. Cadbury, David Cox, John Bright, George Dixon, George Dawson, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Sir Josiah Mason, Sir Rowland Hill, Cardinal Newman and Miss Ryland. Many of the important trades including the jewellery, gun, motor, cycle and motor cycle, pin, chocolate and electrical trades of the City, social organisations, sport, art and science will be represented.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Alfred [Ælfred] (848/9–899) king of the West Saxons and of the Anglo-Saxons [also known as Aelfred, the Great]
  • Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor] (1003x5–1066) king of England
  • William I [known as William the Conqueror] (1027/8–1087) king of England and duke of Normandy
  • Henry II (1133–1189) king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Eleanor [Eleanor of Aquitaine], suo jure duchess of Aquitaine (c.1122–1204) queen of France, consort of Louis VII, and queen of England, consort of Henry II
  • Edward III (1312–1377) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Bohun, William de, first earl of Northampton (c.1312–1360) magnate
  • Edward [Edward of Woodstock; known as the Black Prince], prince of Wales and of Aquitaine (1330–1376) heir to the English throne and military commander
  • Holte, Sir Thomas, first baronet (1570/71–1654) landowner and royalist sympathizer
  • Charles I (1600–1649) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
  • Priestley, Joseph (1733–1804) theologian and natural philosopher
  • Victoria (1819–1901) queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and empress of India
  • Baskerville, John (1706–1775) printer and typefounder
  • Hutton, William (1723–1815) historian
  • Boulton, Matthew (1728–1809) manufacturer and entrepreneur
  • Watt, James (1736–1819) engineer and scientist
  • Murdock [formerly Murdoch], William (1754–1839) engineer and inventor
  • Richard Tapper Cadbury (1768–1860) draper
  • Attwood, Thomas (1783–1856) politician and currency theorist
  • Cox, David (1783–1859) landscape painter
  • Sturge, Joseph (1793–1859) philanthropist
  • Hill, Sir Rowland (1795–1879) postal reformer and civil servant
  • Mason, Sir Josiah (1795–1881) pen-nib manufacturer and philanthropist
  • Newman, John Henry (1801–1890) theologian and cardinal
  • Bright, John (1811–1889) politician
  • Ryland, Louisa Anne (1814–1889) philanthropist
  • Dixon, George (1820–1898) educational reformer and politician
  • Dawson, George (1821–1876) preacher and political activist
  • Jones, Sir Edward Coley Burne-, first baronet (1833–1898) painter
  • Chamberlain, Joseph [Joe] (1836–1914) industrialist and politician

Musical production

Incidental music provided by the Birmingham Civic Orchestra.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Birmingham Mail

Birmingham Daily Post

Tamworth Herald

Manchester Guardian


Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph


Daily Express

Birmingham Daily Post


Birmingham Gazette

Bath Chronicle

Leamington Spa Courier

Yorkshire Post

Gloucester Echo

Tamworth Herald

Leicester Mercury

Wester Daily Press

Lincolnshire Echo

Hartlepool Mail

Book of words


No book of words.

Other primary published materials

  • Birmingham 1838-1938 Charter Centenary Celebrations, Official Programme, 2d. Birmingham 1938.
  • A Photographic Souvenir of the City of Birmingham Centenary Pageant, 1838–1938. Birmingham, 1938.

References in secondary literature

  • Armstrong, Eric and Frost, Vernon. Central Birmingham Through Time. Gloucester, 2013.
  • Cannadine, David. ‘The Bourgeois Experience as Political Culture: The Chamberlains of Birmingham’. In Enlightenment, Modernity, Passion in European Thought, edited by Robert S. Dietle and Mark S. Micale. Stanford, CA, 2000.
  • ___. In Churchill’s Shadow. Oxford, 2002. At 138.
  • Curthoys, Mark. ‘Black Country Lives in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’. History of the West Midlands Magazine, January 2014, accessed 10 December 2015,

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Birmingham Library:
  • Centenary Celebrations Committee minute book 1937–1939. BCC/1/CJ/1/1/2.
  • Annotated Notes on the Scenario. LF22.41.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The Birmingham 1938 Civic Pageant was one of the largest pageants ever held in Britain, designed to eclipse civic and national rivals at Runnymede in 1934 (also directed by Gwen Lally) and Manchester in 1938.7 The pageant represents the culmination of inter-war pageantry in which the epic scale, and the range and complexity of audio-visual effects, wholly eclipsed the performance itself. Indeed, the Birmingham Pageant was epic in a number of ways, not least its epic financial losses. Despite many failings in realisation, and a hostile press which saw the pageant as preferring sound and fury over substance, the pageant has gone down in folk memory, and its more overblown aspects made a deep and lasting impression on local civic culture.

The main pretext of the pageant was a conjunction with the Royal visit to Birmingham to mark the centenary of the city’s civic charter. This was a meticulously planned day beginning with the arrival of George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Birmingham New Street, their opening of the new Hospital Centre, and a visit to a newly opened Centenary Park. The day would continue with a sixteen-mile long procession through the city, with the route lined with floral displays and symbols of Birmingham’s heraldry. Most notable would be the ‘Spirit of Birmingham’ in the form of a young smith bestriding the City, and holding in his left arm a wrought disc, upon which is embossed a mother and child standing against an oak tree, to signify the birth of art in association with natural beauty’. The Royal couple would then view the pageant accompanied by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (himself a famous son of Birmingham). In the event, however, things did not quite go to plan: the King was too ill to visit the pageant and the Duke of Gloucester attended on his behalf.8 In fact, the costs of the Royal visit (paid for by the City Corporation) were only £7466, £2533 less than the £10000 put aside.9 This was to be the only part of the event which did not run massively over-budget.

The Pageant Committee had initially preferred to use as pageant master Edward Baring, who had distinguished himself in the 1935 Nottingham Pageant, but as Baring had already been booked for the Manchester Pageant, Gwen Lally was chosen instead. Whilst Baring ‘contemplated speaking parts and suggested 800 to 1000 words per episode: Miss Lally, on the other hand, prefers mime performances, with incidental music throughout.’10 Though mime had increasingly come to supplant spoken word in pageantry, the absence of any spoken dialogue by a narrator, with the explanation wholly confined to the programme notes, presented a number of issues, not least for those unwilling to pay for a programme that might leave them guessing at the meaning of the visual display. One reporter noted that the knight who ended the first episode was wrongly mistaken as William the Conqueror. On one occasion when the knight ‘failed to appear, a party of school-boys in the grandstand set up enthusiastic shouts of ‘We want Bill!’11

The preparation of the pageant encountered many difficulties: ‘some of the scenario was not completed until rehearsals began, while the script of the finale was not completed until a few days before the pageant itself.’12 The overall conception was altered a number of times, with an episode on the founding of King Edward’s Grammar School deleted a few months before its performance because it ‘had little dramatic effect.’13 Lally demanded some 8000 performers for the Pageant, and the city officials were more than happy to agree to the epic scale. Unfortunately, recruitment for the pageant was slow, particularly in the poorer areas of Edgbaston. Many people were unhappy at the size of the city’s expenditure on the pageant, combined with perceived high prices for admission.14 Ultimately, the pageant had to recruit volunteers from much further afield across the whole of the Black Country, and it paid nearly £1000 in transporting them to and from rehearsals or paying to accommodate them.15 Preparations were on a huge scale. The work rooms, attached to enormous warehouses, were employing, five months before the pageant, a mistress of the robes, four designers, six cutters, twenty machinists with sewing machines and irons, and twenty finishers, not to mention the metalworkers and blacksmiths to create real suits of armour for the Battle of Crecy.16

The local opposition towards the pageant’s high-handed attempts to impose civic spirt combined with appalling weather in the weeks running up to the pageant, which severely impeded rehearsals and added many unforeseen costs. The result was low box office takings, as fewer than hoped bought tickets in advance. Rain dogged the first week of the pageant and exacerbated the under-attendance. (The Pageant Committee had considered but then rejected the notion of insuring the pageant against adverse weather.)17 It was the decision of the pageant to be held over a second week, at greatly reduced ticket prices, which led to the record-breaking audience of 137,545. A cartoon in the Birmingham Mail depicted the famous dinosaur, Egbert, telling his prehistoric foil, Aerbert, ‘Blow the weather, chase me another week, Aerbut!’18 Given that the population of Birmingham was 995000, the attendance, which represented an average of eighty-per-cent capacity throughout the long run, was impressive. As the Pageant Committee had initially predicted that a 50000 audience would cover its costs, the financial shortfall despite record numbers of visitors (even at a reduced price), represents a spectacular miscalculation.

The pageant itself was conceived on an epic canvas. Its beginnings took a much more capacious view than other pageants that kicked off with the Saxons—or even the Romans. The Leamington Spa Courier remarked: ‘Both children and adults are inclined to date English history from 1066, with an occasional vague reference to Alfred and the cakes if pressed for something earlier. Birmingham proudly reminds us of a far more remote antiquity, for the Prologue introduces the spectators to two enormous pre-historic monsters, roaming the Midland plain. The use of such spectacular monsters was questioned in a number of reviews, with the Leamington Spa Courier referring to it as ‘a daring overture, especially as the introduction of such monsters gives a quite erroneous impression that the pageant is intended to be a burlesque.’19 This, indeed, was an astute characterisation of the pageant as a whole and its effect. The sixty-foot, smoke-breathing dinosaur Egbert, ‘as large as a church’ (the largest of three to feature in the pageant), had taken a great deal of time and effort to make and eclipsed the historical basis of the episode (which, given that he was being attacked by a group of cavemen, was not particularly rigorous—even by the standards of the time). However, Egbert has ever since remained a popular character in Birmingham’s folk memory and is frequently mentioned on internet forums, with one article entitled ‘Dinosaur Cosplay in the 1930s was Creepy as Hell’.20

A key problem was that incredible set pieces tended to eclipse the other scenes, such as the actual establishment of the town by Peter de Bermingham. The visit of Henry II to Birmingham and granting of a charter (featuring Gervase de Panagel, who endowed local priories) was an anti-climax when other pageants would have presented it as a climax. The third episode recreated the Battle of Crecy, which was a great spectacle, aided by the use of massive floodlighting: ‘No one who ever visits Aston Park this week will ever forget the thrill of the charging horses ridden furiously across the arena. It was an amazing achievement, daring both in conception and execution… There was an amazing incident when one of the “slain” fell off his steed so realistically that an ambulance man rushed to the rescue, to be waved off by the casualty—to the relief of the spectators.’21 The Manchester Guardian, whose hostility can only be partially explained by rival civic loyalties, pointed out that there was at best a highly tenuous link between the town and a battle fought on French soil, which was that a local historian had discovered that four percent of the men-at-arms were from Birmingham. The newspaper reported one spectator who said, ‘It is better than a Test match…and look, the English have won.’22

The Manchester Guardian was more irked by the pageant’s overall attitude to history: ‘The view of history which it presents is not everybody’s view…In particular, it is not the view of the Liberal or the democrat or the upholder of the British Parliamentary tradition; but it is a picturesque view and it makes a handsome pageant.’23 This was particularly evident in Episode IV, in which King Charles I visits Aston Hall, subsequently having his baggage train mobbed. The presentation throughout the scene, in which Aston Hall is subsequently besieged and taken by the Parliamentarian Army, sides heavily with the Royalists. One might draw parallels between the elite who ran the pageant (and had supported the King) and the ordinary townspeople who had supported Parliament and now resented the pageant’s expense.

The sense of Birmingham’s division was further highlighted in the seventh episode, depicting the ‘King and Country’ riots in Birmingham in 1791. The scene (which later formed the opening of E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963)) depicted a mob of local townspeople goaded through drink into rioting through the town and smashing the house of the freethinking Unitarian scientist Joseph Priestley. The authorities’ collusion in the disorder was not discussed, and one might guess that the scene’s inclusion was more to do with the spectacle than narrative arc. One commentator suggested that:

In some ways it seems a pity to revive an incident of such bitterness, and one which took place comparatively recently. So-called religion has not infrequently formed an excuse for mob-cruelty, and the outbreak against Priestley is one of the grimmest incidents in Birmingham history.24

However, the writer also acknowledged that ‘the Priestley Riots are so famous that it would have been difficult to have ignored them; and they are almost the only episode in the Pageant which is peculiar to Birmingham…The firing of Priestley’s house even triumphs over its own ingenuity, so that for a moment one forgets to wonder how it is done, and enters into the horror of the sight of a mob possessed with hatred and violence directed against an innocent man.’25

By and large, the pageant favoured spectacle over dramatic coherence. Though pageants throughout the 1930s had increasingly dealt with subjects of class conflict—a significant remove from the usual Edwardian view that the Civil War was still too divisive an issue to be depicted—the Birmingham Pageant made no attempt to connect this, or any other event, to a wider story. It is an inchoate mish-mash of scenes, alternately representing civic growth, royalty, and conflict. If one were being charitable, one might suggest that such a view reflected that of the inter-war historian H.A.L. Fisher, who rejected outright the notion that history possessed a meaning or pattern. The episode’s final scene appeared belatedly to justify Birmingham’s place in the empire as one of its pre-eminent manufacturing centres, which had provided countless inventors, writers, and politicians (depicted in the episode). Whilst this was true, the attempt to represent the continuum of Birmingham’s industrial power, from the early nineteenth century to the present, struck many observers as incongruent, particularly given the prolonged period of recession: The episode was something of ‘an anti-climax. The vast lorries carrying erections symbolising Birmingham’s leading commercial undertakings are more in the tradition of a carnival procession than that of a Pageant… [O]ne found the transition to a display of modern advertising methods not altogether to one’s taste. The two elements do not mix, and there is a complete absence of unifying idea.’26 The writer ‘felt that Queen Victoria would have made a better climax’, though was admittedly impressed at the spectacle of the final procession.

As Asa Briggs noted in Victorian Cities (1963), the attempt of Victorian cities to outdo one another in spectacular town halls, railway sheds and other buildings produced many architectural wonders (such as Manchester’s Town Hall) as well as many costly failures that were virtually uninhabitable and, despite the many ornate carvings and glittering function rooms, architecturally barren. The Birmingham Pageant presents a dramatic twentieth-century analogue to this. However, just as many of these town halls and other civic buildings, rejected at the outset, have become greatly valued in later years (one thinks of St Pancras Railway station, perhaps), so too has the unloved-at-the-time Birmingham pageant enjoyed a more favourable reception from later generations. A film of the pageant was recently put online at the British Film Institute archive and garnered significant coverage in the local press.27 And even at the time, by no means did negative commentary dominate completely. There were those that felt that while the Birmingham Pageant was certainly a financial failure that crippled the city’s finances, it yet succeeded in its aim of raising the city’s profile and boosting civic pride. The Birmingham Post noted, in an article lamenting the pageant’s finances, that ‘At the same time it is felt that the pageant achieved a very great success and was the means of arousing a civic consciousness attracting a considerable amount of attention to Birmingham.’28 The Sub-Committee report into its own spectacular failings ended a scathing report with a quotation from the Birmingham Post the previous week: ‘Whatever the deficit, and the reasons for it, perhaps it will be best to regard the Pageant of Birmingham as an adventure that drew the attention of Great Britain to “The Hub of Industrial England” and gave its humblest citizen a civic pride that should endure long after the dead past has reburied its dead.’29 In terms of the enduring local interest in the Pageant, this evaluation has proved accurate indeed.


  1. ^ Bath Chronicle, 2 July 1938, 10.
  2. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee, 3 January 1939, Centenary Celebrations Committee and Sub-Committees Minute Book, Birmingham Library Archives. BCC1/CJ/1/1/2. Reproduced in Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1939, 4.
  3. ^ Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1939, 4.
  4. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee, 7 January 1939, Centenary Celebrations Committee and Sub-Committees Minute Book, Birmingham Library Archives. BCC1/CJ/1/1/2.
  5. ^ Manchester Guardian, 15 July 1938, p. 12.
  6. ^ All quotations are taken from Birmingham 1838-1938 Charter Centenary Celebrations, Official Programme, Birmingham 1938.
  7. ^ Observer, 3 April 1938, 10.
  8. ^ Manchester Guardian, 15 July 1938, 12.
  9. ^ Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1939, 4.
  10. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee Minutes, 7 January 1938, Centenary Celebrations Committee and Sub-Committees Minute Book, Birmingham Library Archives. BCC1/CJ/1/1/2.
  11. ^ Leamington Spa Courier, 15 July 1938, 2.
  12. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee Minutes, 17 June 1938.
  13. ^ Episodes Sub-Committee Minutes, 3 February 1938.
  14. ^ Connecting Histories, accessed 3 November 2015,
  15. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee Minutes, 13 January 1939.
  16. ^ Pageant Work Rooms Sub-Committee, 12 February 1938.
  17. ^ Pageant Sub-Committee Minutes, 17 June 1938 and 13 January 1939.
  18. ^ Connecting Histories, accessed 3 November 2015,
  19. ^ Leamington Spa Courier, 15 July 1938, 2.
  20. ^ See, for instance, the following websites, accessed 3 November 2015,;; and
  21. ^ Leamington Spa Courier, 15 July 1938, 2.
  22. ^ Manchester Guardian, 12 July 1938, 6.
  23. ^ Ibid.
  24. ^ Leamington Spa Courier, 15 July 1938, 2.
  25. ^ Leamington Courier, 15 July 1938, 2.
  26. ^ Ibid. accessed 3 November 2015.
  27. ^ ‘Watch this 1938 Rare Colour Film of the Pageant of Birmingham’, Birmingham Mail, accessed 3 November 2015,
  28. ^ Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1939, 4.
  29. ^ Sub-Committee Minutes, 13 January 1939.

How to cite this entry

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