Linda Fleming is a long-time committee member of Women’s History Scotland. She is co-editor, with Esther Brietenbach, Karly Kehoe and Lesley Orr, of Scottish Women: A Documentary History, 1780-1914 (Edinburgh University Press, 2013). At present, she is working as a research associate based at Glasgow University on a 3-year AHRC funded research project called The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain 1905- 2016.
I’m a lucky person because I get paid to exploit my nosiness instinct! My job as a research associate has taken me into many wee nooks and crannies of the past that others have overlooked. At the moment, I’m working on a fascinating project called the Redress of the Past, which is looking at the phenomenon of historical pageants in the last century. And by phenomenon I am not overstating as there were countless numbers of these events from 1905 onwards. This means that I get to visit libraries big and small, as well as archives, museums and galleries all over this land, looking at amazing documents, photos and all kinds of ephemera, which have so far escaped much notice from historians. It’s a three year project, but there were so many pageants that running out of time may be a constant battle.
Twentieth-century Britain was subject to regular bouts of ‘pageant fever’ when communities across the land threw themselves into staging theatrical re-enactments of historical events. These performances were once hugely popular and could attract audiences of thousands of spectators. My main remit within a larger project team is to examine those historical pageants that took place specifically in Scotland and in the north of England. So far, it’s looking like the winner of the earliest Scottish theatrical pageant goes up north to the city of Aberdeen (run by the Northern Arts Club in 1908). But many pageants were held in small towns and villages as well as in major centres of populations. Indeed some of the small events are among the most interesting because they reveal so much about the ways that even tiny, remote places took ownership of their past .
The lack of attention to modern historical pageantry is surprising really, because as this research undoubtedly shows, these events offer important insights into many aspects of how the past is remembered. Perhaps most notable of all in pageant enactments is the interaction that can be seen between local, national and imperial identities. And especially where the smaller events are concerned, a lot can be learned about the character of community life and the role played then and now by heritage in shaping views of places and their peoples. Pageants reveal a lot about who and what featured in popular historical consciousness and how these memories were shaped at different points during the 20th century.
Women were nearly always active participants in pageants and they could play prominent roles as organisers, writers and performers. Sometimes they took lead roles, for example, here’s a couple of women pageant performers from the 1934 Pageant of Ayrshire playing the parts of ‘Scotia in Chains’ clearly an allegorical role and ‘The Spirit of Ayrshire’. The ‘Spirit’ was the commentator on all of the historical action of the pageant and so was the main woman of the piece. Yet even more often, though the work they did was essential and skilled, women worked behind the scenes. It’ll come as no surprise I expect, that most costumes (and in these photos we can see that these could be elaborate!) were made by women. The expertise and labour needed to clothe hundreds of performers in historically accurate dress needed an army of seamstresses and the team of women who got together to meet this task would have had to form an organised and focussed workforce. Women in the places where pageants took place often volunteered as individuals once a call had gone out for help, but even more regularly, they were approached as members of established women’s organisations. The WRIs for example were pageant superstars! And there were many others: from local branches of the British Housewives’ Association to the Girl Guides.
My most recent foray into the archives has been focussed on the pageant capital, not just of Scotland, but also of the UK… Most people when asked cannot guess where this might have been, and if they do, they usually get it wrong! It is none other than ARBROATH (looks like the northeast are cleaning up the prizes here!) This seaside town in Angus held no less than 18 pageants at intervals from 1947 onwards. The gender dimensions of this group of performances are particularly illuminating because, at least in the early years, there were hardly any women on either the pageant committee or taking an acting part in the main theatrical scene, which imaginatively recreated the signing of the Declaration of Scottish Independence in 1320. In press reports therefore, men hog most of the limelight…But just occasionally getting a short vote of thanks in such articles were the hundreds of Arbroath townswomen who acted busily behind the scenes and without whom the pageant would have foundered.
Where women were on show however, was in a popular auxiliary element of the Arbroath pageant ‘gala’ weeks that took place. This was the pageant procession, which usually took place on the Saturday afternoon towards the end of the week’s events and before the final performance of the pageant, and which regularly formed a mile-long parade that made its way through the town. This was the most accessible part of the pageant week and it’s clear women had some fun with it.
Here’s some examples of the scenes women choose to portray in tableau form within the procession of 1948: the story of Black Agnes was re-enacted by the Arbroath Branch of the British Housewives’ Association. The Rescue of the Crown Jewels from Dunnottar Castle in 1652 was played by the Arbroath Branch of the British Legion Women’s League, and Arbroath Business and Professional Women’s Club chose to stage a scene named Women–Then and Now (which I would love to have seen!).
This is to name only a few, for women were just as in evidence as men, for the parade at least. Arbroath Fisherwomen also took part as did one lone performer, a ‘Miss Bowman’ who anticipated Dame Judi and took on the role of Queen Victoria!
There’s one more woman I’d like to mention in respect of the Arbroath pageants in particular and this was Agnes Mure Mackenzie to show that women’s work was not always along gender stereotypical lines. Often described as ‘a great friend’ of the Arbroath pageants it was this female scholar who produced a new translation from the original Latin of the Declaration of Independence. This, I believe, was likely commissioned for Arbroath; and for many years, it was read out as part of the pageant. I’m pleased to say that Dr Mackenzie is included in the entries within the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (p.229) where it states that her work ‘has been unduly overlooked’. How very true… and also true of most of the women who worked hard the length and breadth of Britain to make these community entertainments happen. In engaging with this study, I will try to make sure that wherever I find them, they do get a moment in the limelight of the research.
If anyone reading this has any information to share about women and historical pageantry in the UK, I’d love to hear from you because nosy as I am, and great as the official archives’ catalogues sometimes are, a lot of material about pageants is very ephemeral and survives only in collections of personal papers and memorabilia. Needless to say, it can be even harder to find material on the women involved. Just reply to this blog or drop me an email! Thanks.
Images are reproduced with the kind permission of the local studies section in the Carnegie Library, Ayr. This is one of the many libraries who have given invaluable assistance with pageant research.