Our Heritage: Century of town’s historic pageant

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Dr Mike Winstanley takes a look at the historical pageants which took place in Lancaster in the early 1900s. A new exhibition at the City Museum celebrates 100 years since the first pageant in August Bank Holiday week 1913.

Historical pageants were elaborate open air dramatisations of events from local history with casts of thousands, specially scripted text and music.

They were all the rage in Edwardian England particularly in ‘historic towns’ like York, Chester, Liverpool, Oxford, London, Warwick, Dover and Bath.

In 1912 even the village of Halton staged its own ‘dream pageant’.

All this prompted Lancaster, as ‘one of the historic towns’, to mount its own historical pageant in 1913. Every afternoon in the first week of August thousands of spectators flocked to Springfield Park, now the site of the Royal Lancaster Infirmary,

to watch spectacular open air performances over three hours long depicting the Romans, King John, John of Gaunt, medieval revels, the Battle of Flodden, the dissolution of the monasteries, Lancashire witches, Charles II, the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

This remarkable achievement was achieved entirely by volunteers.

John Nuttall, who ran Mansergh’s department store (where TK Maxx is now) was the driving force behind it. Herbert Storey, who played King John, was the pageant president.

Various committees were responsible for deciding on the content of the pageant, casting, props, advertising, arrangements with railway companies, obtaining horses (and riders), printing tickets and programmes.

A cast of 1,800 local people from all ranks of society were recruited and allocated parts.

In ‘Pageant House’, now the city museum, more than 200 ladies made more than 1,000 costumes.

Local artists designed and made heraldic banners and shields and painted watercolours of scenes from the pageant.

Local contractors erected a grandstand and a mock castle. Halliwell Sutcliffe, a noted author of the time, was commissioned to write the script or ‘Book of Words’.

James Aldous of Lancaster composed new musical compositions and arrangements and the headmaster of Halton was responsible for choreographing dancing by local schoolchildren.

The appropriately named Rev Harold Hastings, also of Halton, was ‘pageant master’ and took the role of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Blessed with good weather and large audiences the pageant was able to raise more than £1,000 to endow a ‘pageant bed’ in the women’s ward at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

Its success inspired another pageant 17 years later, also directed and now scripted by Harold Hastings.

A new exhibition had just opened in Lancaster City Museum drawing on rich local collections of photographs, artwork, documentation and costumes to portray this remarkable achievement.

A full copy of the programme with names of all the participants and organisers is also on display.

Another exhibition, ‘Seal of Approval’, displays some of Lancaster’s royal charters dating back to 1193.

The exhibitions is due to run until October 2. Entry to the eventis free.