The Mother of all pageants
Tom Hulme looks at the extraordinary story of the 1905 Sherborne Pageant
Published in March ’15
In 1904 Sherborne was a small, sleepy town of about 6000 people – ‘a dull enough place to live in,’ according to the Daily Express. It was at one point the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex; King Alfred’s brothers, Ethelbert and Ethelbald, were buried in the town’s Abbey and it was home to a glorious 16th-century Tudor mansion, built by Sir Walter Raleigh, and the romantic ruins of a 12th-century castle. Apparently unbeknownst to many of its Edwardian inhabitants, its history went back further still, being founded by the bishop St Aldhelm in 705, when the Diocese of Winchester was divided into two.
When a renowned local historian – Canon Charles Herbert Mayo, the author of the Bibliotheca Dorsetiensis – informed the Church Council in 1904 that the 1200th anniversary of this momentous occasion was approaching, it was decided that it would be fitting to have a local ecclesiastical celebration. Twelve months later most of Britain, and a fair part of America, knew the name of Sherborne, while towns and cities scrambled to stage their own historical plays as ‘pageant fever’ swept the land.
If C H Mayo deserves the credit for bringing the anniversary to the attention of the Church, it was the Rev. Arthur Field who set in motion the chain of events that led to the staging of a grand local pageant. A former pupil of Sherborne School, Field recalled the local patriotic school songs written by his old schoolmaster, Louis Napoleon Parker, in the 1880s. Now a successful playwright and composer resident in London, Parker, a French-born English/American, jumped at Field’s suggestion of a play telling the town’s local history as part of the anniversary celebration.
Following a public meeting hosted by the town council in July 1904, at which Parker brought the audience to a near-hysterical enthusiasm, it was settled. Originally envisaged as a smaller event including ‘only’ 300 performers, the cast of his modern historical pageant eventually grew to 900. If the cast was large, the crowds that flocked from across the country, and even across the Atlantic, to witness the innovative spectacle they had seen glorified in both local and national newspapers was even larger.
The pageant took place in the ruins of the town’s 12th-century castle and consisted of eleven distinct episodes, covering 888 years, beginning with the coming of Ealdhelm in 705 and ending with a humorous visit from Sir Walter Raleigh in 1593. In between the whole story of Sherborne was told, from intense battles with Danish marauders in 845 and the imposition of the Benedictine Order on greedy drunken monks in 998, to the foundation of the 12th-century castle and the receiving of the school’s charter in 1550.
Local history was joined to the history of England as the pageant made a case for remembering Sherborne’s role in the larger life of the nation. Many of these themes were replicated across Britain in future pageants, as other towns rediscovered their history and the power it could have in the present-day.
As Parker told a meeting of the Society of Arts in December 1905: ‘out of local patriotism, I think, springs a far finer national patriotism than any founded merely on rifle-clubs and Morris tubes’.
All the stage sets and costumes, apart from the armour, were made locally, and the whole town was bedecked in bunting and flowers celebrating 1200 years of civic pride; this was a display of classless cooperation, from ‘peasant’ to squire, uniting to put Sherborne on the map. By ending the narrative of the pageant hundreds of years before it was performed, Parker also avoided having to tackle any of the thorny social and political issues of the day. The final ‘triumph song’ carolled of the great ship of Sherborne: ‘With 1200 years beneath her, and the bend of heaven above, Down the ocean of the ages lo! We launch her forth once more.’
Over several days, 30,000 people packed themselves into the pageant grounds, 2000 per performance in the specially built grandstand, with many more on benches or standing. Newspapers widely reported overflowing attendances, suggesting that some visitors had paid two or three times the asking price for tickets.
The Times praised ‘the beauty of the spectacle, the smoothness of the working, and the vividness of the effects’; the Western Gazette described the event as a ‘gorgeous and unparalleled spectacle’. Thrilled spectators wrote to the local press and the pageant secretaries to express their pleasure. Mr Edwin Arrowsmith saw the pageant three times, writing: ‘I have witnessed many striking spectacles, including the last Delhi Dulbar, but nothing has ever pleased me more than the beautiful scene I witnessed with much grateful appreciation for all your splendid labours.’
Unsurprisingly popular with American visitors – and the New York Times – was the final tableau: raised on a pedestal was a majestic female figure symbolic of Sherborne, holding a model of the abbey in one hand and a shield emblazoned with the school arms on the other. Alongside her was a younger woman, representing the American town of Sherborn, holding a model of a caravel, a type of sailing ship, and resting her left hand on the arms of the State of Massachusetts.
This scene was the outcome of, in the months leading up to the pageant, an exchange of letters between Sherborne, Dorset, and Sherborn, Massachusetts that had elicited great excitement in the latter, which sent official greetings to the ‘Mother Town’ as well as announcing the pageant to the press in America.
At the end of the pageant a herald stepped forward and read the official message of greeting, as the strains of the Star Spangled Banner burst forth from the orchestra. Parker’s daughter played Sherborn – she was an American descendant through Parker’s father – and by a strange turn of fate it turned out that it was an ancestor of Parker who had originally sold the land to the Dorsetshire emigrants.
The spectators were just as appreciative to Parker as the press, calling him back into the arena following the final performance to deafening applause. Sherborne school boys tore the rosettes from their caps, throwing them onto Parker has he went past; he was carried around the arena in a chair; he shook hands with the performers as the band played ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow.’
When the time came for Parker to leave for London by train a tremendous crowd again gathered to see him off, presenting a bouquet of flowers as there was more singing, accompanied by handkerchief and flag waving. He was invited back for a public presentation of two massive, richly bound albums consisting of photos of the pageant and the autographs of all the performers.
Parker, in the Dorset and Somerset Standard, ‘could not even begin to describe the enthusiasm and zeal with which [the townspeople] have carried out every small hint or wish of mine. When one realises that here were eight hundred people, not six of whom had trodden the boards, even as amateurs, the result is little short of marvellous.’
The 1906 Story of the Sherborne Pageant, would, Parker argued, ‘help us to remember what it was… I see many an old man and many an old woman, too, for that matter, years and years hence, opening its battered covers and calling the children, and crooning: “This is what we did in the year 1905 to show honour to our dear town and to the dear school which is the glory of the town”.’
In 1925 a memorial block of granite, with an inscription commemorating the pageant, was unveiled in Sherborne by Parker, his speech maintaining that ‘the memorial would be a reminder to coming generations of how a handful of enthusiasts helped to restore to the country the ancient title of “Merry England” and showed some of its buried treasures of history, song, and romance.’
That same year, the Rev. Arthur Field gave a lecture entitled ‘Thoughts on the Sherborne Pageant’ to the members of the Congregational Brotherhood, where he put across his opinion that the ‘delightful spirit of harmony… lingered amongst them still,’ and James Rhoades, one of the original writers of the pageant, published ‘In remembrance of the Sherborne pageant’ as part of a volume of collected poems.
When Parker died in 1946 the former Bishop of Salisbury, Dr Neville Lovett, unveiled a brass to the memory of the pageant master in the Sherborne School Chapel, followed by a screening of the old pageant film in the Carlton Theatre to a full house. The pageant gardens, costing £700 and opened in 1906, were paid for and maintained using the £1872 profits of the pageant (around £200,000 in modern money) and provided a lasting memorial to the event.
The Sherborne pageant clearly deserves its status as the first modern historical pageant; it created a distinctive format that was replicated throughout Britain and, indeed, North America. Pageants were seen as a way to contain class tension and to create a sense of local community; whilst they were, in a sense, conservative in the way they looked back, they also projected those values into the future. The Sherborne pageant effected a massive change in how, in the early 20th century and beyond, ordinary people engaged with the past. ◗