Birmingham Pageant

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Description:In 1938 Birmingham celebrated the 100th anniversary of the city’s Borough Charter. A pageant was the main feature of the celebrations, held at Aston Park from July 11th to the 16th (because of its success, the pageant was extended to the following week, from July 18th until the 23rd). Eight episodes told the story of Birmingham from its prehistoric origins to its position as the ‘hub of industrial England’ and its final status as a city in its own right. It was produced by Gwen Lally (1882-1963), the first female pageant master, and thousands of residents from across the city took part.

By the late 1930s, historical pageants were a regular feature in British entertainment, particularly at a local level, and were seen by audiences as both a social and educational event. They were usually held outdoors, episodes were like acts in a play, and they combined dramatic sketches, dances and singing with minimal narrative dialogue. A revived interest in Shakespeare was also an influential factor and many pageant masters, including Lally, had started their careers as Shakespearean actors and directors. (Deborah Sugg Ryan, ‘’Pageantitis’: Frank Lascelles’ 1907 Oxford Historical Pageant, Visual Spectacle and Popular Memory’, Visual Culture in Britain, Winter 2007).

Gwen Lally held her own beliefs about the importance of pageants, as reported in the Birmingham Post in March 1938; ‘they engender pride in local history and encourage national patriotism, they raise funds for charities, they create fellowship between all classes, they provide an absorbing new interest in life for those who take part, and they bring nation-wide publicity to the town and locality, with resultant benefits’.

Text and research by Dr Nicola Gauld and Neil McComb