It’s that time of year again when a blogger returns to the subject of the May Queen Festival at Whitelands College for the annual blog post on that subject. Can I find something new to say? Well, earlier in the year I wrote a piece for the Chelsea Society Annual Report about the May Queens and read the Whitelands Annual for 1906. I thought it was interesting enough to look at that year in more detail.
I should add that the particular copy of the Annual I was reading originally belonged to a student at the College, Violet J Welch. She’s written her name on the cover.
This copy is also unique because between the pages I discovered two pressed leaves.
Were they from a tree in the grounds of the College?
There were a few available in the quadrangle.
1906 was the year of three queens. Usually there would be an outgoing queen and an incoming one. It was a two year course and the new queen was always chosen from the first year. But for some reason the queens of 1904, 1905 and 1906 were all in attendance. I’ve used this picture before as it’s one of my favourites and because the queens look a little as though they were characters in a Hammer film. (In reality they would probably have been scandalised by the idea if you tried to explain Hammer films to three young Edwardian ladies, but I ask your indulgence for my fancies)
I promise that it’s the last picture I’ll repeat.
The first queen of this trio was Mildred Harvey
Mildred, Queen of the May!
Queen of our hearts we hail today!
Sweetest and best among all girls art thou,
Fair as the flowers that rest on thy brow.
So said one R. Paton in 1904. And why not? The camera liked Mildred and she looks convincingly Medieval with the chair and the background (although I can’t quite make up my mind whether that’s actually a corridor in the College or one of those painted backcloths portrait photographers used then.)
The official photographs seem to have begun to be a significant part of the annual festival. There are plenty of photos of Queen Mildred. But none better than this one:
The throne, the gown, the draped platform, the ivy, the arches and the flowers. I don’t know if she’s about to bless you or sink her fangs into your neck. Or if I could modernise my frame of reference a little hint of Daenerys Targaryen in that costume (Not as revealing obviously) . Stand back if she gives that command to the dragons.
The second queen is Evelyn Farthing. Here she is with Mildred, supplanting her on the throne.
Mildred has been relegated to a stool next to the throne but remains the focus of the picture. That pillar looks even more like a backcloth.
Below the photographer is aiming for an artistic pose dispensing with the flowers. Evelyn’s gloved left hand holds a volume of Ruskin, usually the Queen of the Air. “Evelyn, the gentle, modest, dignified new queen.”
I detect a sense that Evelyn was a little overshadowed by Mildred who got a poem in the 1905 Annual.
All happiness surround thy paths
Sweet Mildred! None can tell,
What sadness now it seems to us,
To bid thee this Farewell!
Although Evelyn was not forgotten by the poets.
Evelyn, with beaming face,
And violet’s tender grace
Thy goodness we can trace with love abiding
Who leaves not dusty ways
When violets’ scent betrays
Where the flower nestling stays, its sweet face hiding.
From the 1906 Annual:
“May Day has come…the brightest, happiest day of all the glad new year.It heralded in the spring, the time of flowers, of the singing of birds, of a renewal of fresh life and hope to everything on this fair earth.It brought us Florence, a Queen with a name of happy meaning and a charm of gentle grace – a real queeen of hearts.”
Like Mildred, Queen Florence Hadaway poses outdoors by the throne with the leopard skin rug.
“The procession round the old world garden..Cloistered and secluded, the white robed maidens chanting in slow and stately array under the fresh budding lime trees, the warm sunlight dappling all their fairness. It seemed a picture of far off medieval days, when the sun went slowly and there was time and will and opportunity to rejoice in youth and joy and hope and in sunshine and flowers.”
After Queen Evelyn’s abdication speech there was some singing and country dancing but while the newly crowned Queen Florence was “engaged in state affairs” the Dowager Queen Mildred’s third year was celebrated with a masque just for her, subtitled the Pageant of trees and flowers was written especially for the occasion.
The masquers assembled below, represented Primrose, Laurel, Bluebell, Ivy, Violet, Moss, Daffodil, Woodbine, Hawthorn, Rose and Oak.
They all addressed Queen Mildred swearing loyalty and devotion, laying flowers and branches at her feet. She replied to them all (the speeches are transcribed over several pages of the Annual) ending with these words: “So we bid you lift these blossoms from the lowly place in which ye have laid them, set them high in your hands and gather round us that we may gaze on their beauty before we pass on. ‘Tis love to us that ye have shown, and happiness that ye have promised and for that I thank you from my heart.”
All this sounds completely earnest and certain. It’s not hard to imagine that the participants took away a memory and a sense of having joined in with something special that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The picture below looks like some kind of finale. All three queens are visible on the dais. (You can see a picture of Mildred’s masque in progress here in my first post mentioning the May Queens.)
I’ve said before that this decade was some kind of peak of Edwardian optimism, expressed through fantasies of an older England like the Chelsea Historical Pageant and many other instances of ritualistic celebrations. The optimism was never going to last. But the rituals linger on. I attended last year’s May Monarch Festival. I travelled there by bus through Fulham and Putney and kept seeing young men and women in costume dressed as fairies and astronauts and cartoon animals (it turned out that there was some rugby based event at Twickenham). It all seemed quite appropriate to a Saturday morning in early summer. So the urge to dress up and celebrate hasn’t left us. And it’s good to look back at Evelyn, Florence and Mildred, Christian Queens honouring pagan traditions.
The 1905 annual also contains a notice of the death of Queen Agnes Gourlay the 1899 Queen, who could have been no more than 25 or 26 : “The sweet soul of Agnes Gourlay entered into rest on March 28th of this year. Her illness was short and painful, but borne with the beautiful serenity of perfect resignation.” The annual often contained an account of a female saint usually martyred. Agnes’s sad death is portrayed as having something of that quality as though the Queens entered into a heightened spiritual state by joining this sisterhood. Agnes I was missed out in last year’s post on the pre-1900 queens, so here’s her photo.
The backdrop places her in a sylvan scene. I found myself looking for her in the group photos of the following years to see if I could see any sign of her early passing. She doesn’t appear in any pictures after 1901.
The coronation of the 2016 May Monarch is on May 14th at Whitelands College, Roehampton. As it happens I’m working that day but my best wishes to the new Queen or King.