Games for May: the Pageant and the Queen 1908

If the past really is another country and they really did do things differently there, photographs can sometimes show just how different it could be. In this collection of images you seem to have all the ingredients for a supernatural drama. A creepy giant figure, people in costume, with a teenage girl, ready for sacrifice right out of one of those stories about a folk tradition gone bad as in the Wicker Man….

A procession of enigmatic robed men…….

Some sinister nuns….


Women in classical costume ready for a fertility rite…..

A ceremony beside an ivy-covered wall. Isn’t that a maypole?

All the while an audience watches from the shadows, waiting for the conclusion of the ritual. As always in a supernatural story  in the style of M R James  there is a framing narrative in which the editor asserts that it’s all true. A library is just the place for uncovering secrets and just like in a story I discovered these pictures a few years ago at the bottom of a dusty box which had been sitting untouched for years in a basement room. Would I lie to you?

Some of the other pictures I found make things clearer.

You can figure out who the man in the right is supposed to be. And the woman in the centre is more concerned with having her photo taken than looking at the King.

The nuns look much less sinister in a group photo. And as for the women in white….

They are of course the court of Queen Agnes the May Queen of Whitelands College, a teacher training college which was founded in Chelsea in the 1840s. The art historian John Ruskin was instrumental in starting the tradition of an annual coronation for the May Queen. Queen Agnes was crowned in 1909. The ivy covered wall was in the courtyard of the College on the King’s Road.

And the rural setting of all the costumed performances was the grounds of the Royal Hospital. The event was the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908.Note the presence in this photo of some people in “modern” dress who break the spell. The historical fancy dress costumes actually take the people out of their own time into a special zone – an “any” time where it’s difficult to say exactly what the year is.

As if to prove this point, here’s a picture which could easily have been taken at almost any time in the last century.

So whatever strange activities they got up to in the past, perhaps it wasn’t so different then.

The photographs, discovered in one envelope were by Kate Pragnell about whom I know nothing except that it’s good she was there. She may have taken some of the official photographs of the events but these are the candid shots from behind the scenes.

By rights you should have had a Kensington post this week but there have been so many modern topics recently that I thought it would be a good idea to go further back in time and now that we’re in autumn take a look at some long gone summers. The kids in the last picture had the twentieth century in front of them. How far did they get?


Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 1908

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams

Kate at the Pageant 3: an adventure at Ranelagh

Whitelands College posts:

Rite of Spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

The May Queens of Whitelands:return to the hidden kingdom




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