Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor tells how thousands flocked to the town’s Great Pageant of 1907
A charismatic dramatist, Louis Napoleon Parker, was employed to be the Master of the Pageant, having already had major successes with pageants in Sherbourne in 1905 and Warwick in 1906.
Against a magnificent backdrop of the beautiful Abbey Gardens, a programme of seven historical episodes involving 12 different scenes was agreed upon, starting on Monday, July 8, and running through to July 13.
The main cast of 200 people – the great and the good of the town – took part in five dress rehearsals which enabled those who were less well-off to see the pageant with cut-price tickets. Such was the demand for tickets for this acclaimed event hundreds of applicants had to be turned away.
Day two of the pageant even saw royalty visit, members of Queen Victora’s family attending.
So what were the seven instalments chosen from the myriad available from the town’s past?
Episode 1 – The Villa Faustini AD 61; although it can now be looked upon as totally erroneous to Bury’s history, it dealt with Queen Boudicca and the Romans.
Episode 2 – Beodericsworth AD 855; relates the story of Edmund’s martyrdom. Edmund was played by Dr Stork, the medical officer of health who lived at the Acacias which later became the Regency Hotel, in Looms Lane.
Episode 3 – Twilight AD 903,1014, 1132; Sveyn Forkbeard’s death, supposedly slain asleep by Edmund’s ghost and then Sveyn’s son Canute founding the abbey.
Episode 4 – Abbot Samson AD 1182-1211; Samson (Archdeacon Hodges) and the murder of the Jews and King John (played by Horace Barker, Moyse’s Hall curator) who visits Bury.
Episode 5 – Magna Carta AD 1214; The barons meet at Edmund’s shrine.
Episode 6 – Duke Humphrey AD 1433-1447; Henry VI visits the abbey, holds a parliament here leading to the death of his uncle and former Regent Humphrey.
Episode 7 – The New Age AD 1533,1539, 1550, 1578; Bury’s St Matthew’s Fair and Queen Mary Tudor’s attendance, it ends with Queen Elizabeth I in 1578.
Many local people were involved as actors, organisers, costume makers or stage hands, in total around 1,800.
In a family like the Andrews, of Andrews and Plumptons ironmongers in the town, the whole household were involved, including all of the servants, even nine-year old Sybil Andrews took part.
Well-known artist Rose Mead was the set designer and local printers Pawseys issued a commemorative set of postcards depicting the scenes. Amazingly, virtually everything used in the pageant from costumes to scenery sets was sourced from within the town.
The pageant lasted three hours, dancers performing under the tuition of the Misses Jennings and Tinkler, while music was supplied by nearly 60 members of the 1st Battalion Suffolk Regiment, from Woolwich. Other music was re-enforced by local musicians and ‘the sweetness with which the softer passages rendered was delightful’. Accompanying the episodes, where required, was an ecclesiastical chorus.
The pageant cost £7,000 with, amazingly, a profit of £1,000 gleaned from the 4,000 attendees which enabled a B sanitorium to be built.
A postscript to the pageant was that a large number of members of the London Society of East-Anglians attended the Thursday performance, travelling to and from Bury by special train. It was this group that decided who was to be celebrated on 11 oval plaques and one rectangular plaque to re-enforce the history and heritage of Bury in time for the wonderful pageant; the plaques are still with us. The plaque (rectangular) shown is to Humphrey Plantagenet on St Saviour’s Hospital, Fornham Road, paid for out of his own pocket by George Gery Milner Gibson Cullum of Hardwick. The Pageant characters are King Henry 1st and 2nd wife Adela from episode III played by Mr & Mrs Reginald Bascombe.
-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.