St Albans Museum celebrates the lost tradition of historical pageants with a fascinating exhibition dedicated to the times the city was gripped by pageant fever
St Albans caught ‘pageant fever’ three times in the 1900s. In 1907, 1948 and 1953 the people of the city came together to organise and perform episodes from its rich history, and they were wildly ambitious and popular affairs.
Thousands of locals acted in these historical outdoor performances, each time to an audience of thousands in the city’s Verulamium Park. There were beautiful costumes, stirring music and teams of horses. There were kings and queens, abbots and monks and, of course, Saint Alban himself.
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According to the website The Redress of the Past, Historical Pageants in Britain, which has helped stage the exhibition, the Edwardian period was the UK’s heyday of the historical pageant, and St Albans’ 1907 pageant was one of the best; a suitably ambitious occasion with eight carefully choreographed episodes before an estimated total audience of over 24,000.
The eager spectators paid between three shillings sixpence in the cheap seats to five pounds for a box in the 4,000 capacity grandstand from where they watched a colourful spectacle that travelled from the Romans in Britain and Boudicca’s revolt through the martyrdom of St Alban, King Offa and the Eleanor Procession of 1290, culminating in the Peasants Revolt, the Second Battle of St Albans and the visit of Queen Elizabeth I. This was then topped off by a full cast procession.
With its Roman connections, its monastery and its own namesake martyr – the first saint to be martyred in England – St Albans was never going to be short of a historical episode or two to parade before the crowds.
It is said a cast of 3,000 delivered six performances before the grandstand – the culmination of a massive effort organised around the fulcrum of a local organising committee, which had ten sub committees coordinating everything from the costumes to the welfare of the horses.
The meticulous organisation paid off, and the 1907 pageant has since gone down in history as an unrivalled success that lived on in the memories of those who witnessed it and enjoyed the colourful spectacle of pageant week, when the city was apparently awash with people wearing a panoply of period costumes.
Pageant fever gripped the town again in 1948 when organisers managed to put on a magnificent – albeit slightly more modest – spectacle in the midst of post war austerity and the ration book, and then once again in 1953 to mark the Queen’s coronation.
St Albans Museum’s exhibition tells their via a fascinating collection of objects and costumes, audio recordings, images and film. It shows how the events were organised, how they brought history vividly to life and what they meant to the people of St Albans, then and now.
“St Albans residents have always been proud of their history and heritage and the popularity of the pageants demonstrates that,” says Sarah Keeling, Curator of Collections (Post Medieval to Contemporary). She adds that this is “a fun exhibition with a great programme of events” which has allowed the museum to “bring out objects and items from our collections to tell this story.”
Historian Mark Freeman, from The Redress of the Past, who worked with St Albans Museums on the exhibition, says “St Albans has such a rich history of pageants and we’re delighted to tell this lesser-known story about the city. We are grateful to Peter Swinson and Ellie Reid for lending objects and recordings for the exhibition and for their advice.”
Peter Swinson’s father Cyril Swinson was the pageant-master and script-writer of the 1948 pageant and went on to forge a career as a pageant organiser during the 1950s and 1960s including St Albans’ last major attempt at the spectacle in 1953, a legendary occasion which marked the coronation of Elizabeth II with, amongst many other things, a smoke breathing dragon.
Sadly the pageant made a financial loss and, with exception of pageant play in 1968, it was the last major pageant to grace the city.
Pageant Fever! St Albans Performs its Past is at St Albans Museum and Art Gallery until February 23 2020. Admission is free.
A series of events and talks accompanies the exhibition; see the Museum website for more details. https://www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/whats-on
St Albans Museum + Gallery
St Albans, Hertfordshire
St Albans Museum + Gallery opened to the public on Friday 8 June 2018 and looks to be a leading centre for arts and culture at the heart of one of Britain’s most historic cities. Set over three floors, the newly created state-of-the-art gallery spaces showcase over 2,000 years of…