The Pageant of Plymouth Hoe (Plymouth, 1953)


Historical pageants, a form of largescale amateur historical re-enactment, had seen their heyday in the 1920s - some, such as Southampton's John Alden's Choice, had focused especially on the Mayflower. After the Second World War, with the rise of the television, such re-enactments were starting to seem a bit outdated. A few large spectaculars were still staged in the 1950s and 1960s, however. Plymouth’s last major pageant was in 1920, another that was staged as part of the 300th anniversary of the voyage. In 1953, the city (the city council, local associations and navy working together) again decided to put on a re-enactment – this time to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

Cyril Penrose, a well-known name in the amateur theatrical circles of the West Country, produced the pageant; Crispin Gill – a local historian and playwright – wrote the script; over 1,500 local people took performing roles; and the pageant took place on the Royal Citadel on Plymouth Hoe. Each episode was organised by a different local group – such as the Plymouth Air Training Corps, the Parish Church of St Andrew, or the staff of the City Library. The storyline went all the way from 120 BC, with the ‘legendary’ birth of Plymouth (featuring Trojans fighting Giants), to a sobering epilogue memorialising the Second World War (with searchlights picking up air-raid wardens and local people huddling together before the bells of St Andrews announced the resolution that the heavily-bombed Plymouth would rise again). In general, the pageant concentrated on Plymouth’s relationship with the navy and the city’s development into a major port.

In the eighth episode, presented by the Free Churches of Plymouth and the Swarthmore Settlement, the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth in 1620 was shown. The scene focused on the Pilgrims in the town, and their determination to leave England ‘despite the kindness of Plymouth’. The narrator declared that they succeeded, and repeated the erroneous claim that ‘in honour of that already Puritan town behind them, they called their first settlement Plymouth.’

Attendances, marred by poor weather because the pageant took place outside, were less than expected; over 21,000 (around half capacity) saw one of the 7 performances, but it still made a small financial loss. Nonetheless, the organisers were pleased with the spirit of co-operation that had been fostered – an important goal as the city rebuilt in the years after the Second World War.



For more on this pageant, see Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Pageant of Plymouth Hoe’, The Redress of the Past,