This week we hear from Library Officer Karen Downham, who explores a fascinating new addition to our Leodis archive of historic Leeds images…
The Local & Family History Library often takes donations of photographs to go onto the Leodis online photographic archive (www.leodis.net), and as often happens when researching the background to images, the trail leads to a fascinating area of other research. We received from Collingham Parish Council a collection of 17 photographs depicting scenes from the pageants held in the villages in the early twentieth century, along with a newspaper cutting with details and a full cast list. Further research of library stock, newspaper cuttings and online links revealed the story below, and links to a national research project.
Historical pageants were hugely popular in many British communities throughout the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the inter-war years, when the country was sometimes described as having “pageant fever”. The plays performed featured mostly historical scenes, often medieval stories with local or national links. They tended to involve large casts, be held at outdoor venues, and often performed several times. Small and large communities had their own pageants, and often well-known people were involved. In this case, caricaturist J.A. Dodgson, known as ‘Kester’ was involved in the productions. Kester was well known in Leeds and a prominent member of Leeds Savage Club (For more information see Leeds Libraries Heritage Blog for 31st May 2019 – Leeds Savage Club: A Brief History).
The play thought to be the first of these pageants was written by Louis Napoleon Parker and performed in 1905 in Sherborne, Dorset. Others such as performances written by Frank Lascelles in Oxford, Bath, and London, in 1907, and by Herbert Jarman in St Albans, Winchester, and Scotland are also well known.
The performances did continue after the Second World War, given a boost by the Festival of Britain, and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but by the 1950s the stories were changing, and becoming either more romantic or more grotesque. There was a decline in number of performances by the 1960s, and the 1970s and ‘80s saw more community plays taking place, although these are not thought to be a direct successor of the pageants.
All the Collingham pageants (there are thought to have been four) were written by nearby resident Mrs T.R. (Florence) Dawes, wife of Thomas Richard Dawes, first headmaster of Castleford Grammar School. Thomas took major roles in many of the plays, along with their daughter Marjorie. All the plays had close links to local communities and local stories, and often featured music played by local musicians, and dancing by local school children. They were all performed at Collingham Vicarage field, in addition to other local locations.
St Oswald’s Pageant
The first Collingham pageant celebrated the life of St Oswald, King of Northumbria, and was performed on St Oswald’s Day, 5th August, in 1918. The play of St Oswald comprises 4 scenes depicting the lives of early Christian figures associated with Oswald, now venerated as a saint. King Oswald was played by Mr T.R. Dawes, and Queen Cyneburga by Mrs Tuer from the village. The prologue to each of the scenes was read by Miss Marjorie Dawes.
There was a cast of around 120 local people, with costumes having a Saxon cross design as a theme, made by villagers under supervision from vicar’s wife Mrs H.B. Beckwith, and funds raised were donated to the Red Cross Society. Events started with a procession to St Oswald’s church, and short service at 4pm, followed by the main pageant at 5pm in the vicarage field behind the church. The performance was repeated by request on 17th August 1918.
Scene 1 – The Battle of Heavenfield
The first scene of the pageant depicted the Battle of Heavenfield, between St Oswald, King of Northumbria, and Cadwallon of Gwyned, King of The Britons, in 634 AD. The site of the battle is at the village of Chollerford, on Hadrian’s Wall and 4 miles west of Hexham. The result was a victory for Northumbria, and a wooded cross at the roadside marks the site. St Oswald’s Church there is on the hill to the north of the cross.
Scene 2 – Garden of the Monastery on Iona, 636 AD
The second scene was set on the island of Iona, in the monastery that pre-dated the Benedictine Abbey on the site, and featured singing monks, played by the clergy and choir from the church in Collingham. The Abbott, in cope and mitre, was played by Mr J.N. Mitchell.
Scene 3 – ‘A Field at Collingham in 641’
The third scene featured the visit of King Oswald and Queen Cyneburga to Collingham, accompanied by a large crowd, plus a large feast, with music and dancing. Song were sung by Miss Hilda Royston, and a solo dance was performed by Miss Margot Dodgson (probably about 11 or 12 years at the time)
Scene 4 – ‘After the Battle of Maserfield’ 641 or 642 AD
The final scene was set at the Battle of Maserfield, traditionally associated with Oswestry, between King Oswald and King Penda of Mercia. The battle resulted in Oswald’s defeat, death, and dismemberment.
Lady Elizabeth Hastings Pageant
The Lady Elizabeth Hastings pageant, like the Collingham pageant in 1918, was written by Mr & Mrs T.R.Dawes of Linton. It depicted some incidents in the life of Lady Elizabeth Hastings of Ledston Hall, a philanthropist who created educational trusts in Ledston and Collingham. Characters in the play included Joseph Addison of the Spectator, playwright William Congreve, historian Ralph Thoresby, painter Godfrey Kneller, and the fictional character Sir Roger de Coverley, plus Dick Turpin and a variety of vicars, publicans and servants. Props and costumes for the cast of 106 were made by Mrs Maggs of Collingham. The play was performed twice – on Saturday 26th July 1919 at Collingham, and again on Wednesday 30th July at Ledston Hall.
From notices in the Leeds Mercury, there seem to have been additional performances of this pageant in 1921, on Saturday 30th July and Monday 1st August, probably in Collingham.
Robin Hood Pageant – Collingham and Kippax
The third Collingham pageant featured the story of Robin Hood, and like the previous plays, was written by Mr & Mrs T.R. Dawes of Linton. The first performance took place on Saturday 24th July 1920 in the field behind St Oswald’s church, Collingham, with around 200 performers taking part. Characters included Robin Hood, Friar Truck, Queen Elinor, Lady Hillaria, Maid Marian and Prince John. The performance included songs, dances, and music on harp and violin. The play was repeated in Collingham on Bank Holiday Monday 30th August 1920, and a further performance took place in Kippax, with different actors, on 15th September 1920.
‘Britannia’ Pageant, Collingham
There also appears to have been a fourth pageant, of which the date performed is uncertain. There is one photograph, in the Leodis Collection, of a group photographed in a field, probably at Collingham, with the figure of Britannia with shield and flag, surrounded by supporters in costumes representing countries in the British Empire.
During research for these images, the pageants project The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain was consulted, and the details and images of the Collingham pageants from the above research will be added to their database of historical pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain. The project can be accessed at www.historicalpageants.ac.uk and is partnership between historical societies, universities, and local authorities, which has received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
- Yorkshire Evening Post (6th August 1918) Anglo-Saxon Play at Collingham
- Leeds Mercury (13th August 1918) Play and Pageant at Collingham
- Yorkshire Post (17th August 1918, p1) Collingham Bridge
- Yorkshire Evening Post (28th July 1919) ‘Lady Betty Hastings’ – Successful Pastoral Play at Collingham
- Yorkshire Post (28th July 1919) Village Play and Pageant at Collingham Bridge
- Leeds Mercury (31st July 2019 p4) Play and pageant
- Leeds Mercury (20th July 1920) Pageant Playwriting
- Leeds Mercury (24th July 1920) Third Annual Pageant Play “Robin Hood”
- Yorkshire Post (26th July 1920) Robin Hood and His Merry Men
- Leeds Mercury (26th July 1920) The Collingham Pageant
- Leeds Mercury (31st July 1920) Third Annual Pageant Play – “Robin Hood”
- Yorkshire Post (16th September 1920) Pageant Play at Kippax – Miners as Robin Hood and His Merry Men
- Yorkshire Post (21st February 1921 p11/5) Experiments in Drama
- Leeds Mercury (30th July 1921) Collingham Pageant Plays
- Yorkshire Post (15th September 1921 p4) Village Folk Plays, by Frank Kidson
- Wetherby News and Yorkshire Agricultural Gazette (date unknown) Play and Pageant at Collingham
- Jones, Ken (2003) Collingham: A Village Scrapbook. Amadeus Press, Cleckheaton
- The Redress of the Past – Historical Pageants in Britain (2020) Available at www.historicalpageants.ac.uk [Accessed 03/01/2020]
- UK Research and Innovation: The Redress of the Past – Historical Pageants in Britain 1905 2016. Available at https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FK003887%2F1 [Accessed 03/01/2020]
- Bartie, Angela, et al, Historical Pageants and the Medieval Past in Twentieth-Century England. The English Historical Review, Volume 133, Issue 563, August 2018, Pages 866–902. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/cey158 [Accessed 03/20/2020]
- Bartie, A. et al. (2016) The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century England. International Journal of Research on History Didactics, History Education, and History Culture, 37, 19-35.
- Bartie, A. et al. (2018) ‘History taught in the pageant way’: Education and Historical Performance in Twentieth-Century Britain. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0046760X.2018.1516811 [Accessed 03/01/2020]
Contact us at the Local and Family History Library to find out more about our many other exciting photographic collections: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on 0113 37 86982