The early 20th century saw a great revival in the staging of historical pageants across Britain. Cities, towns, and villages the length and breadth of the country staged their own unique events. The pageants recreated the past with scenes from local and national history and involved casts of hundreds of amateur performers often from churches, workplaces, or societies.
Overwhelming demand for Pageants
88 years ago, the city of Wakefield staged an event on a massively grand scale. Sadly, it has been all but forgotten. Whilst the West Riding of Yorkshire was late in joining the party, by 1933, both Leeds (1926) and Bradford (1931) had already held large and significant events. Wakefield, the county town of the region did not want to be left behind.
This was a time of uncertainty both internationally and on the domestic front. Just six years later the country would be plunged into war and more locally, for many, severe financial hardship was a way of life with an unemployment rate of over twelve percent. It was hoped that the pageant would, “Increase the trade of the city and help to relieve unemployment.”
It was therefore important to get as many local people involved as possible. The mayor stated that:
“It will be an occasion of great civic pride and citizenship… The success of the pageant is absolutely dependent upon the effort and goodwill of every citizen who participates in it.”
The pageant had been organised to coincide with the opening of a new bridge over the River Calder with the expected traffic bypassing the chantry bridge and its 14th century chapel of St Mary the Virgin. Car parking was increased for the expected visitors, with over 2,000 places provided and provision made for the growing number of visitors with a caravan.
By late 1932, Matthew Anderson (presenter and organising director) and Edward Glenn (pageant master), who had staged similar pageants in Manchester and Liverpool, had been engaged and the planning was in the final stages. The pageant would run over the period 17–28 June, with the final three dates being added due to overwhelming demand.
Thousands of volunteers behind the scenes
Over 2,400 performers, all volunteers were recruited along with many others working behind the scenes. In a sign of the times, the various organising committees were headed by local businessmen, former senior military officers and members of the clergy.
The expected spend was some £3,750 with an anticipated income of over £6,750 (almost £500k by today’s rates). Admission and seat prices were set at between 6d and 10s 6d (roughly £1.75 and £37 respectively). The venue for the event was to be the city’s Clarence Park and although last minute council wrangling regarding access to the venue threatened to derail the entire event with just two weeks to go, the crisis was eventually settled.
A background was constructed some 300 feet long and 40 feet high (approximately 91 by 12 metres) by Percy O Platts, county architect, showing the cathedral and chantry chapel and the new bridge. A series of related events was organised including a race of ‘Old Crocks’ vehicles to Leeds and back, a carnival parade with the pageant queen, Katherine Leach, and an industries exhibition. The proverbial stage was therefore set for a great few days in the city’s history.
The pageant featured 11 episodes relating the history of Wakefield and the West Riding, from stone-age man through to the present day. It opened with the prologue, in which the ‘Spirit of Wakefield’ was recited whilst children from the city dressed in historical costumes representing 13 eras, including the future, processed through the arena. It was meant to reflect changing times:
O You who love to read the ancient tale Of Merrie Wakefield in the Calder’s Vale, Halt here awhile: we’ll gaze on distant years When this dear soil in other guise appears.
Whilst the children were obviously proud to take part, one lady speaking many years later remembered that part of the fun was that “it got us off a bit of schooling”.
The event was on a huge scale and is best summed up in an article from the Yorkshire Observer of 16 June 1933:
“In the still warm air of a June evening with the fitful rays of the setting sun occasionally drenching a great open air stage in gold, nearly one thousand years of richly coloured romance and tragedy were revived in Wakefield tonight.
“It was the birth of the great historical pageant which the Merrie Citie shares with the West Riding, and 2,500 men, women and children of modern Wakefield leapt the gap of centuries, and by a touch akin to magic relived the lives of their forbears 100, 200, nearly 1,000 years ago.”
It went on to report that, “The Spectacle that followed made one almost drunk with colour and beauty as the dry bones of history were clothed in warm flesh and blood before our eyes”.
The night ended in a riot of colour and sound in a finale that “looted the paint box”, when the entire cast returned to the stage and sang O God, Our Help in Ages Past.
Despite extremely poor weather at the start of the week, the pageant was a great success, and it was estimated that 150,000 visitors saw the performances. Some 3,000 free tickets were given to the unemployed and an additional 3,000 to children. A surplus of £1,412 was made (over £99k at today’s rates) and amongst the beneficiaries were the local Clayton Hospital and the cathedral restoration fund. The city itself benefited to the tune of around £100,000.
Nearly 90 years on, it makes one wonder if the city would be capable of or indeed willing to stage such a mighty event now?