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‘A nation of town criers’: civic publicity and historical pageantry in inter-war Britain

  • TOM HULME (a1)


Historical pageantry emerged in 1905 as the brainchild of the theatrical impresario Louis Napoleon Parker. Large casts of volunteers re-enacted successive scenes of local history, as crowds of thousands watched on, in large outdoor arenas. As the press put it, Britain had caught ‘pageant fever’. Towards the end of the 1920s, there was another outburst of historical pageantry. Yet, in contrast to the Edwardian period, when pageants took place in small towns, this revival was particularly vibrant in large industrial towns and cities. This article traces the popularity of urban pageantry to an inter-war ‘civic publicity’ movement. In doing so, it reassesses questions of local cultural decline; the role of local government; and the relationship of civic responsibility to popular theatre.

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1 For the pervasiveness of ‘Merrie England’ ideas, see Judge, R., ‘May Day and Merrie England’, Folklore, 102 (1991), 131–48.

2 For the Edwardian period particularly, see Yoshino, A., Pageant Fever: Local History and Consumerism in Edwardian England (Tokyo, 2011); and Readman, P., ‘The place of the past in English culture’, Past and Present, 186 (2005), 147–99.

3 For a contemporary description, see Goodden, C.P., The Story of the Sherborne Pageant (Sherborne, 1906).

4 For Parker's influences, see Dobson, M., Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History (Cambridge, 2011), 168–9; Goodden, The Story of the Sherborne Pageant, 11; and Withington, R., English Pageantry: An Historical Outline (Cambridge, 1920).

5 As Mick Wallis has argued, historical pageantry is an example of Hobsbawm's theory of ‘invented traditions’: the use of new customs, that appear to be old, in order to justify the essential rightness of their content. Wallis, M., ‘The Popular Front pageant: its emergence and decline’, New Theatre Quarterly, 11 (1996), 20 . See Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983). For pageants outside of Britain, see Glassberg, D., American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (London, 1990); Nelles, H.V., The Art of Nation-Building: Pageantry and Spectacle at Quebec's Tercentenary (Toronto, 1999); and Dean, J.F., All Dressed Up: Modern Irish Historical Pageantry (Syracuse, 2014).

6 ‘Historical pageants’, Times, 17 May 1930, 13.

7 A notable exception to this southern England focus was the enormous National Pageant of Wales (Cardiff, 1909), expertly analysed in Edwards, H.T., The National Pageant of Wales (Llandysul, 2009).

8 According to ‘1921 Census of England and Wales, General Report with Appendices, Table 13: P0PULATI0N, 1901–21’, Vision of Britain. Accessed online 7 Jul. 2015 at

9 See A. Bartie, L. Fleming, M. Freeman, T. Hulme and P. Readman, ‘“And those who live, how shall I tell their fame?” Historical pageants, collective remembrance and the First World War, 1919–1939’, Historical Research (forthcoming).

10 See the work of Wallis, such as ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: ideological production in the 1930s’, New Theatre Quarterly, 38 (1994), 132–56. The League of Nations Union also utilized pageantry – see McCarthy, H., ‘The League of Nations, public ritual and national identity in Britain c. 1919–56’, History Workshop Journal, 70 (2010), 108–32.

11 Wallis, M., ‘Unlocking the secret soul: Mary Kelly, pioneer of village theatre’, New Theatre Quarterly, 16 (2000), 347–58.

12 Esty, J.D., ‘Amnesia in the fields: late modernism, late imperialism, and the English pageant-play’, ELH, 69 (2002), 250 .

13 Lau, M., ‘Performing history: the war-time pageants of Louis Napoleon Parker’, Modern Drama, 54 (2011), 282 . Michael Woods, too, argued that ‘By 1928 the high tide of pageantitis’ had ‘ebbed away in the sobering aftermath of the First World War’. Woods, M., ‘Performing power: local politics and the Taunton pageant of 1928’, Journal of Historical Geography, 25 (1999), 59 .

14 S. Begley, ‘Voluntary associations and the civic ideal in Leicester, 1870–1939’, University of Leicester Ph.D. thesis, 2009, and Woods, ‘Performing power’.

15 Yoshino, Pageant Fever, 69–92. Esty has also described the movement as using ‘the boosterist prose of chamber-of-commerce commerce brochures, gussied up into flowery couplets’. Esty, ‘Amnesia in the fields’, 248.

16 Jackson, A.J.H., ‘Civic identity, municipal governance and provincial newspapers: the Lincoln of Bernard Gilbert, poet, critic and “booster”’, 1914’, Urban History, 42 (2015), 129 .

17 Garrard, J., ‘1850–1914: the rule and decline of a new squirearchy?’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal concerned with British Studies, 27 (1995), 583621 ; Morris, R.J., ‘Structure, culture and society in British towns’, in Daunton, M. (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. III (Cambridge, 2000); Gunn, S., The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and Authority in the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester, 2000), 187–97; Fraser, D., The Evolution of the British Welfare State: A History of Social Policy since the Industrial Revolution, 4th edn (Basingstoke, 2009), 209–10; J. Davis, ‘Central government and the towns’, in Daunton, The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, 272.

18 Wildman, C., ‘Urban transformation in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918–1939’, Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 119–43; Begley, ‘Voluntary associations and the civic ideal in Leicester’; Hulme, T., ‘Putting the city back into citizenship: civics education and local government in Britain, 1918–45’, Twentieth Century British History, 26 (2015), 2651 .

19 Nick Hayes has even challenged the conclusion that the middle classes had left urban governance. See Hayes, N., ‘Counting civil society: deconstructing elite participation in the provincial English city, 1900–1950’, Urban History, 40 (2013), 287314 . See also Hayes, N. and Doyle, B.M., ‘Eggs, rags and whist drives: popular munificence and the development of provincial medical voluntarism between the wars’, Historical Research, 86 (2013), 712–40.

20 Freeman, M., ‘“Splendid display; pompous spectacle”: historical pageants in twentieth-century Britain’, Social History, 38 (2013), 427 .

21 L'Etang, J., Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the Twentieth Century (London, 2004), 20 .

22 Jay Winter has shown how, despite the rupture of World War I, there was an overlap of vocabularies and approaches between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ in the 1920s, as both artists and the public self-consciously returned to forms and themes popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was also the case with historical pageantry. Winter, J., Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1996), 34 .

23 Ward, S.V., ‘Time and place: key themes in place promotion in the USA, Canada and Britain since 1870’, in Gold, J.R. and Ward, S.V. (eds.), Place Promotion: The Use of Publicity and Marketing to Sell Towns and Regions (Chichester, 1994), 64 .

24 Ward, ‘Time and place’, 64.

25 ‘Oyez! Oyez!’, Civic Progress and Publicity, 1 (1931), ii.

26 Ibid .

27 ‘A nation of town criers’, Civic Progress and Publicity, 1 (1932), 24–5.

28 Messinger, G.S., British Propaganda and the State in the First World War (Manchester, 1992), 214 .

29 For a description of his charm, see his son's memoirs: Higham, C., In and Out of Hollywood: A Biographer's Memoir (New York, 2009), 6 .

30 ‘Obituary: Sir Charles Higham development of advertising’, Times, 27 Dec. 1938, 10; Messinger, British Propaganda, 219.

31 ‘Sir Charles Higham on community advertising’, Civic Progress and Publicity, 1 (1931), 25.

32 See Hulme, ‘Putting the city back into citizenship’; Otter, S.D., ‘‘‘Thinking in communities’’: late nineteenth-century Liberals, Idealists and the retrieval of community’, Parliamentary History, 16 (1997), 6784 ; and essays in Biagini, E.F. (ed.), Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals and Collective Identities in the British Isles 1865–1931 (Cambridge, 2002; orig. publ. 1996).

33 Hulme, ‘Putting the city back into citizenship’.

34 Constantine, S., ‘“Bringing the Empire alive”: the Empire Marketing Board and imperial propaganda, 1926–33’, in MacKenzie, J.M. (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986).

35 Jarvis, D., ‘Mrs Maggs and Betty: the Conservative appeal to women voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History, 5 (1994), 129–52; and Beers, L., ‘Education or manipulation? Labour, democracy, and the popular press in interwar Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), 129–52.

36 The only substantial analyses of Civic Weeks have been Wildman, ‘Urban transformation in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918–1939’, and Dean, J.F., ‘Rewriting the past: historical pageantry in the Dublin Civic Weeks of 1927 and 1929’, New Hibernia Review, 13 (2009), 2041 .

37 Rydell, R., World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago, 1993), 63–7.

38 ‘Liverpool's Civic Week’, Manchester Guardian, 19 Sep. 1924, 11.

39 ‘A “Civic Week” scheme’, Western Daily Press, 20 Nov. 1923, 5.

40 ‘To boost Bristol’, Western Daily Press, 21 Nov. 1923, 7.

41 For a brief description of the Civic Weeks at Wembley, see Stephen, D., The Empire of Progress: West Africans, Indians, and Britons at the British Empire Exhibition 1924–25 (New York, 2013), 111 .

42 ‘London Civic Week at Wembley’, Times, 22 Jul. 1924, 15.

43 Ibid .; ‘Wembley next year’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 10 Nov. 1924, 3; ‘The weather and Wembley’, Aberdeen Journal, 14 Oct. 1924, 6; ‘Push the port!’, Hull Daily Mail, 4 Mar. 1925, 4; ‘The future of Wembley’, Times, 12 Nov. 1924, 11.

44 ‘Liverpool “at home”’, Hull Daily Mail, 18 Nov. 1924, 7.

45 ‘Civic advertisement’, Times, 25 Nov. 1924, 15.

46 ‘City's open house’, Manchester Evening News, 7 Aug. 1926, 8.

47 Manchester Local Studies Library: Miscellaneous Souvenirs of Manchester Civic Week, MSC 942.7391, ‘Report of the first meeting of the Civic Week Advisory Committee’, 23 Mar. 1926, 3.

48 ‘Civic Week's meaning to Manchester’, Manchester Guardian, 16 Oct. 1926, 113.

49 C.E. Wildman, ‘The “spectacle” of interwar Manchester and Liverpool: urban fantasies, consumer cultures and gendered identities’, University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis, 2007, 88.

50 Figure from Manchester Guardian Yearbook (1927), 230. Calculated using the National Archives Currency Converter tool, National Archives. Accessed online 8 Jul. 2015 at

51 See, for example, ‘Civic pride: what Manchester is doing this week’, Walsall Observer, 9 Oct. 1926, 152. The following places also held Civic Weeks before 1933: East Ham, Stoke-on-Trent, Walsall, York, Islington, Liverpool, Hull, Colchester, Eastleigh.

52 ‘Manchester and Wembley’, Manchester Guardian, 14 Feb. 1924, 11; ‘Manchester abandons Wembley’, Manchester Guardian, 3 Apr. 1924, 11.

53 ‘Sir Charles Higham on community advertising’.

54 ‘To boost Bristol’, 7.

55 ‘Progress with the pageant’, Western Daily Press, 6 Mar. 1924, 4; ‘Bristol pageant’, Western Daily Press, 29 Jan. 1924, 5.

56 ‘Bristol pageant’, Western Daily Press, 3 Jun. 1924, 5.

57 ‘Bristol pageant at Wembley’, Times, 9 Jun. 1924, 8; ‘Huge crowds at Wembley’, Times, 10 Jun. 1924, 12.

58 ‘Crowded days at Wembley’, Times, 29 Jul. 1924, 10.

59 ‘Bristol pageant deficit’, Western Daily Press, 1 Jul. 1924, 7.

60 Pageants were also part of Civic Weeks in Liverpool (1924), Carlisle (1928), Dublin (1927 and 1929) and Newcastle (1931).

61 N. Monck, ‘English fond of pageantry’, Portsmouth Evening News, 7 Jun. 1938, 6.

62 See Pageant of Birmingham, Aston Park 11th–16th July 1938 (Birmingham, 1938).

63 Entertainments at Manchester's Belle Vue Amusement Park in the 1920s and 1930s often included historical re-enactments – usually a battle or a joust. See From Hulme All Blessings Flow: A Collection of Manchester Memories by Harry Watkin (Manchester, 1985), 60. For the growth of the amusement park movement more generally, see Kane, J., The Architecture of Pleasure: British Amusement Parks 1900–1939 (Farnham, 2013). Many historians have pointed out the growth of opportunities for leisure in the period – such as Fowler, D., The First Teenagers: The Lifestyles of Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain (London, 1995).

64 L.N. Parker, ‘Historical pageants’, Journal of the Society of Arts (1905), 142.

65 Readman, ‘The place of the past’, 186–7. It should be acknowledged, however, that the story is more complicated for Scottish and Welsh pageants, which often affirmed the importance of individuality and their own artistic culture and history, but within a framework of national British history. See, as an example for Wales, Edwards, The National Pageant of Wales. For Scotland, see L. Fleming, ‘The pageant of Ayrshire 1934’, The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905–2016 (2014). Accessed online 12 Oct. 2015 at

66 Esty, ‘Amnesia in the fields’, 269–70.

67 In reference to the Dorset Pageant (1929), produced by the Dorset Federation of Women's Institutes. See ‘Pageant of Dorset history’, Bridport News, 26 Jul. 1929, 4; and The Dorset Pageant Book of Words and Programme (Dorchester, 1929).

68 See Andrews, M., ‘“For home and country”: feminism and Englishness in the Women's Institute Movement, 1930–1960’, in Beach, A. and Weight, R. (eds.), The Right to Belong: Citizenship and National Identity in Britain, 1930–1960 (London, 1998); Andrews, M., The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women's Institute as a Social Movement (London, 1997); Beaumont, C., ‘Citizens not feminists: the boundary negotiated between citizenship and feminism by mainstream women's organisations in England, 1928–39’, Women's History Review, 9 (2000), 411–29.

69 Parker, L.N., Several of My Lives (London, 1928), 297–8.

70 Reid, D.L., Discovering Matthew Anderson: Policeman-Poet of Ayrshire (Beith, 2009), 67 .

71 ‘Former Duns journalist's appointment’, Berwickshire News and General Advertiser, 9 Mar. 1926, 8.

72 Southern Reporter, 4 Mar. 1926, 4. In 1925, the Guardian published the Manchester Guardian Year Book (Manchester, 1925), which explained and promoted local government.

73 Anderson, M. (ed.), How Manchester Is Managed: A Record of Municipal Activity (Manchester, 1925), 2 .

74 ‘Publicity expert’, Southern Reporter, 11 Nov. 1926, 4.

75 ‘Former Duns journalist's appointment’.

76 ‘Liverpool's Civic Week’, Yorkshire Evening Post, 15 Oct. 1926, 10.

77 ‘Liverpool puts on bunting’, Manchester Guardian, 11 Sep. 1930, 13; and ‘Rail centenary pageant’, Manchester Guardian, 29 Aug. 1930, 11.

78 Anderson, M., The Lancashire Cotton Pageant (Manchester, 1932).

79 ‘Lancashire Cotton Pageant’, Manchester Guardian, 8 Jun. 1932, 11.

80 These scenes were interweaved with moments of more contentious history, such as the massacre of Peterloo in 1819. ‘Cotton Pageant “Book”’, Manchester Guardian, 28 Nov. 1931, 14. Anderson had working-class sympathies; in 1934, with Genn and the communist composer Alan Bush, he scripted the indoor Pageant of Labour – designed to recruit young people to the union movement. Chambers, C. (ed.), The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre (London, 2002), 580 .

81 ‘The Cotton Pageant’, Manchester Guardian, 17 Jun. 1932, 13.

82 ‘The pageant opens’, Manchester Guardian. 27 Jun. 1932, 11.

83 Anderson, The Lancashire Cotton Pageant.

84 Anderson, M., ‘The importance of pageants in community advertising schemes’, Civic Progress and Publicity, 1 (1932), 1012 .

85 Deborah S. Ryan provides an excellent description of Lascelles transformation: Ryan, D.S., ‘The Man Who Staged the Empire: remembering Frank Lascelles in Sibford Gower, 1875–2000’, in Kwint, M., Breward, C. and Aynsley, J. (eds.), Material Memories (Oxford, 1999).

86 Ryan, D.S., ‘“Pageantitis”: Frank Lascelles’ 1907 Oxford Historical Pageant, visual spectacle and popular memory’, Visual Culture in Britain, 8 (2007), 6382 .

87 Ryan, ‘The Man Who Staged the Empire’, 168.

88 Wallis, M., ‘Delving at the levels of memory and dressing up in the past’, in Barker, C. and Gale, M.B. (eds.), British Theatre between the Wars, 1918–1938 (Cambridge, 2000), 200 .

89 The Association for Education in Citizenship, for example, was formed by the politician, industrialist and philanthropist E.D. Simon due to his belief that the young needed to be guided away from the temptations of fascism. See Whitmarsh, G., ‘The politics of political education: an episode’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 6 (1974), 133–42. As Richard Overy has argued, there was a general sense of a crisis of civilization felt in Britain despite the ‘absence of serious threat or profound discontinuities’. Overy, R., The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars (London, 2009), 7 .

90 Wilford, W.E., ‘The pageant of Leicester’, The Historical Pageant of Leicestershire: Official Souvenir (Leicester, 1932), 3 .

91 ‘Pageantry in the Midlands’, Observer, 29 May 1932, 8.

92 Lawrence, B., ‘Industries’, in The Book of Barking: Being a Souvenir of the Charter Celebrations, Historical Pageant, and Industrial Exhibition (London, 1931).

93 ‘Fishing village to borough’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 3 Sep. 1931, 5.

94 Derwent, R., ‘History, art and commerce’, in Frank Lascelles: Our Modern Orpheus (Oxford, 1932), 147 .

95 ‘Pageants and the people’, in Stoke-On-Trent Historical Pageant, Military Tattoo, Pottery Exhibition (Stoke-on-Trent, 1930), 5.

96 10 of Josiah Wedgwood's descendants took part in the episode. ‘Stoke Pageant’, Manchester Guardian, 19 May 1930, 16.

97 Description of pageant taken from Stoke-on-Trent Historical Pageant and the Josiah Wedgwood Bicentenary Celebrations: Book of Words (Stoke-on-Trent, 1930).

98 Ryan, ‘The Man Who Staged the Empire’, 177.

99 Ibid ., 169.

100 Ibid ., 177.

101 ‘Birmingham fair’, Manchester Guardian, 18 Feb. 1933, 16.

102 Such as during Nelson's funeral in the Greenwich Night Pageant (1933). ‘Greenwich Pageant’, Times, 23 Jun. 1933, 12.

103 See Woods, ‘Performing power’, 62–3, for a breakdown of the key organizers in the pageant.

104 Historians, such as Wallis and Woods, have seen this mobilizing as conservative attempts to maintain existing power structures. More recently, however, Readman and Freeman have pointed out that pageants also achieved objectives that did not necessarily involve hegemonic control. Wallis and Ryan have also argued that, whatever the aims of the organizers, pageanteers could still take away their own meanings – or could simply take part for the fun of it. See Wallis, ‘The Popular Front pageant’; Woods, ‘Performing power’; Readman, ‘The place of the past’; Freeman, ‘“Splendid display”’; and Ryan, D.S., ‘Staging the imperial city: the Pageant of London, 1911’, in Driver, F. and Gilbert, D. (eds.), Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity (Manchester, 1999).

105 For example, the producers of the Manchester Pageant in 1938 at first had had no intention of portraying the bloody massacre of Peterloo (1819), likely, as the Manchester Guardian reported, the event was still too recent to be retold without causing ill-feeling – especially in the context of a decade of mass working-class urban protests. But, after protests by the trade unions and the Manchester and Salford District of the Communist Party, the organizers relented and included a short scene as part of a tableau. ‘Peterloo for Manchester Pageant’, Manchester Guardian, 13 Apr. 1938, 11; Manchester Historical Pageant (Manchester, 1938), 85.

106 City councils continued to promote their work, now through the Institute of Public Relations, formed in 1948. L'Etang, Public Relations in Britain, 63–5.

107 Ward, ‘Time and place, 64.

108 L'Etang, Public Relations in Britain, 98. See, for example, the new Central Office of Information films (from 1946).

109 Brown, J., Gaudin, P. and Moran, W., PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services (London, 2013), 4 .

110 Chandler, J.A., Explaining Local Government: Local Government in Britain since 1800 (Manchester, 2007), 184 .

111 Shapely, P., ‘Governance in the post-war city: historical reflections on public–private partnerships in the UK’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37 (2012), 2 .

112 As Mark Freeman has shown, there was a new outbreak of ‘pageant fever’ in the post-war period, especially in the early to mid-1950s. But, apart from Nottingham in 1949, these pageants were back in smaller places, such as Warwick (1953), St Albans (1953) and Bury St Edmunds (1959). Freeman, ‘“Splendid display”’, 439–40.

113 Freeman, ‘“Splendid display’”, 454, drawing on Williams, R., Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London, 1974).

114 ‘Borough frowned upon its “creckett” pioneer’, Manchester Guardian, 8 May 1957, 7.

115 Son et Lumière was first presented at Chambord, France, in 1952, devised by M. Paul Robert-Houdin. See The Pageant of Buxton in Light and Sound (London, 1958) for Ede's version, and ‘Obituary: Christopher Ede’, The Stage, 25 Feb. 1988, 29, for a career overview.

116 Beddow, N., Turning Points: The Impact of Participation in Community Theatre, ed. Schwartz, M. (Bristol, 2001), 10 .

117 Usually consisting of float parades made up of local people and businesses, carnivals offer a similar voluntarism/boosterism. National events – such as the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 – also continue to provide opportunities for events orientated towards local culture and economy.

118 ‘London 2012 Olympics: Danny Boyle's “once in a lifetime” opening ceremony wows audience’, Telegraph, 28 Jul. 2012. Accessed online 12 Oct. 2015 at

* The research on which this article is based was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, ‘The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain’ (award number AH/K003887/1). My thanks go to Katie Palmer Heathman, Gillian Murray, Paul Readman and Mark Freeman for feedback on earlier drafts, and the anonymous referees for their incisive criticisms and suggestions.

‘A nation of town criers’: civic publicity and historical pageantry in inter-war Britain

  • TOM HULME (a1)


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