Pageant of London, Crystal Palace (Sydenham, 1911)


The Pageant of London was a gigantic and spectacular historical re-enactment in four parts, staged 120 times over the summer of 1911. Linked to the Festival of Empire and Coronation of King George V, it was the biggest and boldest of the pageants of the period – if not the whole century. It cost a whopping £66,000 (about £3.7 million in today’s money), and involved huge stage sets and live music in the open air. The ‘pageant-master’ was Frank Lascelles, one of the most important producers of these events in the opening decades of the century. He commanded a whopping 15,000 amateur performers, who portrayed the history of London and the British Empire to a total audience estimated at over 1 million people.

In the first three parts of the pageant, the ambitious storyline concentrated on events in Britain, and went all the way from ‘Primitive London’ and its small Celtic community to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The fourth part of the pageant instead looked to the Empire, with episodes depicting events in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, before ending with a an ‘imperial masque’ on ‘the advantages of Empire’ (to Britons, that is). In the third part, one scene depicted ‘Eastward and Westward Ho’ – part of which was the Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, set in Plymouth harbour:

"Pilgrims, their wives, children and servants, the governor-elect Deacon Carver, William Brewster, Edward Winslow, William Bradford, and Captain Miles Standish all gather on the quay. Last goodbyes are exchanged and Puritan ministers bless the pilgrims, who silently walk down to the waterside to embark upon the Mayflower."

The scriptwriters drew on William Bradford’s 17th century History of Plymouth Plantation as the inspiration for the scene.

Above all, the Pageant of London was an attempt to demonstrate British pride in Empire, and London as its ‘heart’, at a time when other nations, most notably Germany, were expanding their own colonial territories. At the same time, however, historical re-enactment was a way to celebrate contemporary geo-political alliances. One scene, for example, showed Henry of England and Francis of France meeting and cementing goodwill between their two countries in the 16th century – perhaps reflecting the recent Entente Cordiale in 1904. In the same way, an episode of the Pilgrim Fathers – which ‘American visitors’ helped organise – was a symbol of the growing rapprochement between Britain and the USA.  


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