Tag Archives: Chelsea Pageant

The contents of the box

In the comments section after a recent post, loyal reader Marcia Howard asked what do we keep in the famous cedar wood box? Well this week I’ll tell you.

First, the box, quite a nice object in itself.



The metal plate which is now detached from the lid of the box, attests to its origin.



It reads: 1846 Made from a portion of one of the Two Cedar Trees, designated “The Brothers” planted by Sir Hans Sloane in the Botanic Garden, Chelsea AD 1683

There is also a handwritten note:


Conveniently transcribed:



The trees themselves, looking north.



You can just about make out the statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the distance. Here is a 1903 photograph of the last of the trees.


The one from which the box was made it seems.

Within the box are several small objects which were kept there so they didn’t go astray:

A pass to the King’s Road. This was given, as Chelsea aficionados would expect, by Reginald Blunt, historian and founder of the Chelsea Society.



Which King?



George. The second, as it happens.

A pass to Ranelagh House,1745



The same George. The pass is not as impressive as some of the printed invitations we have seen, like this one to the Regatta Ball, of 1775.




Or this one:



Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited“, if I’m remembering the quotation correctly.

I have added a few other items to the box over the years:

Reginald Blunt’s pass to the Chelsea Physic Garden (stamped “one visit only”) and printed with the instruction “Ring the Bell at the Gate in Swan Walk and present this order” ,which sounds like it comes from a mystery story.



A small coin, or medal, a souvenir of the Gigantic Wheel at Earls Court



A pair of tickets to the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908,



and a useful map of the grounds.



We’ve been to the Pageant before of course. And no doubt we will go there again.

Another coin/medal which seems to commemorate the Great Exhibition.




With a monarch and her consort on the back.



You don’t need me to tell you who they are.


And of course, a blue elephant. No inventory of the contents of an old wooden box is complete without one of those.




Even the short posts have dried up recently. And I can’t guarantee that this post represents a return to normal service. I’ve had a lot on this summer/autumn: a bit of illness, recruitment issues and other actual work problems which have detracted from the frivolous activity of blogging. And now I’m in the middle of the London History Festival, which is going pretty well, but does consume my time. I’m sure you know however that blogging is my first love, and that I’m trying to get back to it.

The Pageant in colour


Tickets - Copy


In the early years of the 20th century a fever was sweeping through the country – pageant mania,. At http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/ you will find accounts of the Sherborne Pageant of 1905, “the mother of all pageants” and many others including Chelsea’s own Historical Pageant of 1908, the first in London.

Chelsea Historical Pageant poster 1732

Loyal readers will remember that I have written several posts about the Chelsea Pageant, mostly through the eyes and lens of the photographer Kate Pragnell, one of the first professional woman photographers. Feel free to go back to those posts and see some of the odd  sights such as St George and  a small lion (and the Dragon), druids, Romans, grey nuns and black nuns, Tudors and Stuarts, Nell Gwynne and several incarnations of Elizabeth I. In this post I’ll be mostly looking at the artwork of the Pageant.

Cassivelaunus and the Druids 1st episode Caesar's Crossing

The Chelsea Pageant was an event held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital to celebrate the history of Chelsea in ten episodes of dramatic performances, music and dancing. The performers were largely amateurs and the organisers were the great and the good of Chelsea, headed by Earl Cadogan but including two crucial figures in Chelsea Local History, Reginald Blunt, the historian and journalist who was one of the founders of the Chelsea Society and J Henry Quinn the Librarian at Chelsea Library. That’s what you see on the face of it, a festival of local history and identity.

May Day in Chelsea Fields circa 1500 3rd episode May day Revels the Miracle Cart

But is there something deeper at work? At the optimistic start of a new century, looking forward to social and technological progress was some part of the Edwardian psyche yearning to connect with the stories of an older country. Look closely at the picture above, one of the commemorative set of postcards. On the Miracle Cart can you see a devil?

The funeral of Anne of Cleeves 6th episode

Why opt for a procession of black clad figures? What posessed this number of women to dress as nuns for the occasion?

Chelsea Pageant 1908 Nuns - Copy

We know that there were 1200 performers in the Pageant, most of them amateurs, all playing their part in the tableaux and ceremonies, all engaged with the mammoth task. Not to mention committee members, set constructors, authors of the ten episodes, musicians, dancers and designers. The sketches of the costume designer have survived.

Lady Sandys p37 - Copy

His conception of Lady Sandys,….. and a photograph of the design as it was executed

Episode 4 Lady Sandys (2)

The Princess Elizabeth:

Princess Elizabeth p45 - Copy

Along with a remnant of the dress material

Material - Copy (2)

I found it slightly harder to locate the woman who wore the dress but I think she’s in this picture:

Elizabethan group

The one on the far left. I like this image.  The women look like “ordinary” people and although the pose and the setting are far from authentically Tudor/Elizabethan the women look as though they belong in those costumes and feel comfortable in the fantasy. (Edwardian cosplay?)

Actually, I’m wrong about that. It’s a great picture and I couldn’t leave it out but I’ve now had a good look through a copy of “The Book of Words” as the longer version of the souvenir of the Pageant was called and I found this captioned picture of the actual Princess Elizabeth, played by a woman named Dawne O’Neill. Perhaps they used the dress pattern several times.

princess elizabeth

A full cast list was never provided by the organisers but we have identified some of them from an autographed copy of the Book of Words

I don’t thnk this one is in the picture either:

Lady Jane Grey p46

Here are some of the characters in postcard form:

Catherine Parr interceding for Lord Dudley 5th episode with Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Gray

Catherine Parr intercedes for Lady Jane. And as a photograph:

Episode 4 Catherine Parr intercedes for Lady Jane Grey

You can see the “real” Princess Elizabeth not doing too much acting third from the left and the other one behind her thinking “That could have been me”.

The signature of the designer, Tom Heslewood  appears on some of these pictures like this one:

Lady Mary Howard p62 - Copy

Which was easier to find:

Episode 7 - Copy - Copy

Heslewood himself took part in the Pageant as an actor too, and secured a good role for himself:

Charles II 79 reverse

Opposite an equally well known partner:

Nell Gwynne p79

Here they are with Nell persuading the King to build the Royal Hospital

Charles II Nell Gwyn and the old soldiers 8th episode Nell persuades

In the actual grounds of the Hospital of course. I’ve used this picture before but it belongs here:

Chelsea Pageant 1908 Episode 8 Founding of Chelsea Hospital 1681

I’ve wandered away from interpretation and gone back to simply admiring the pictures, colour and monochrome, and being grateful that J Henry Quinn and his staff took care to assemble a small archive about the Pageant.

The Pageant itself was not the sensation of the year. This was London after all with many competing attractions for the pleasure of the people. The ticket prices were high, the organisers couldn’t get the grounds for as long as they might have wanted, but it was a critical success and remains a colourful event in the history of Chelsea.

Queen Elizabeth attends a masque 7th episode Faerie Queen


I’ve enjoyed going back to the Pageant after a long gap. There is still plenty of material to look at and a few stories to tell.

If you don’t mind indulging me this week’s post is dedicated to the memory of two school friends of mine: Carl Spencer who died in 1999 and Ian Thompson who died last week. Both of them were taken suddenly from their families and friends.

Kate at the Pageant 3: An adventure at Ranelagh

You may have heard the Fortean story of Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain who went for a walk at Versailles one sunny afternoon in 1901 and found themselves back in the 18th century, where they saw Marie Antoinette. Or so they thought. After thinking about their experience for some time and doing some historical research they wrote a pseudonymous account simply called “An adventure”. Some writers called it a form of imaginative hallucination, others found rational explanations. I always wonder why the people in the past didn’t notice two strangely dressed English women in their midst. Pick out several time travelers in this picture among the 18th century people:

Episode 10 of the Chelsea Pageant was particularly appropriate. It was set in the 18th century pleasure gardens in the grounds of Ranelagh House, and the performance was taking place on the site of the Gardens.

Performers from the Pageant would be suitable subjects for another experiment in time travel. They’re already dressed for the part after all. But who to send?

Those guys, who are dressed as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, men of letters, from Episode 9. They both look like they’d enjoy themselves, especially Mr Steele, the one on the right. Unfortunately the real men were dead by 1741 when the Gardens opened. But this trip back is to meet someone in particular. One of the non-speaking roles in the Pageant was a Miss Chudleigh. Could one of the ladies in this picture be playing her?

I’m thinking of one of these three:

They look like they could blend in with the crowd at Ranelagh. So let’s go.

Our trio can slip in among the daytime crowd. It’s early in the day in this view. Later on things will get a little hectic.

The building in the centre is the Rotunda. When the theatrical entrepreneurs and MP Sir Thomas Robinson bought the house and grounds belonging to the late Earl of Ranelagh they wanted something that would give their new venture the edge over the already established Vauxhall Gardens, south of the river but not too far away. The Rotunda was their answer. The domed structure was the same size as the Pantheon in Rome. Inside there was room for music, dancing, refreshments and that perennial 18th century pastime walking around looking good and seeing who else was there and what they were wearing.

The large structure in the centre supported the roof. It was originally a place for the orchestra, but the acoustics were no good apparently so the musicians moved to the side. Here is a view by Canaletto:

The boxes around the walls were small rooms which could be hired individually. Visitors could have meals served in them, or engage in other private activities. Ranelagh was open for visitors three days a week. There were morning and evening concerts, balloon ascents and other fireworks on special occasions. The most exclusive set of patrons thought it best to arrive after the last concert about 11 pm. The social gatherings went on for several hours more, often until dawn.

Our time traveling trio can mingle with the eminent and fashionable people of the day. Derby and Dawson of Cheyne Walk, the firm who provided costumes for the Pageant dealt in authentic 18th century clothing so no-one will penetrate their disguises. Many visitors to Ranelagh wore masks like Venetian carnival-goers.

Others wore more extravagant outfits as in this satirical, presumably slightly exaggerated view:

Cartoonists have always liked extreme hairstyles.

Others returned home the worse for the night’s festivities.

Our 20th century travelers are too careful for that. Remember I’ve sent them back on a mission. Look at these two images of the Venetian Masquerade on April 26th 1749.

There’s Mr Punch on the left and a host of exotic carnival characters both holy and unholy.

Do you see the difference? For some Ranelagh magic save both pictures and view them in rapid succession in your picture manager.

We’ll find the person we’re looking for next week, when we may also see our friend Mrs Rush. In the words of a 20th century pleasure seeker: “Hear all proper. Angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited.”

You can find a full account of the Versailles adventure in the August 2011 issue of Fortean Times or on wikipedia under the heading Moberly-Jourdain Incident.


Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 1908

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams


Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams

We’re back at the Chelsea Pageant this week moving out of the medieval era into more familiar historical times. The Pageant devoted four of its ten episodes to Tudor subjects. This is not surprising. Chelsea begins with the big riverside houses of the Tudor aristocracy. It was in Chelsea that Henry VIII had a manor house and a hunting lodge conveniently accessible by boat. And of course his sometime friend Thomas More lived in Chelsea. The Tudor monarchs haunt Chelsea in fact and legend and they continued to loom large in the Edwardian imagination.

Mr Herbert Jarman, an amateur Henry VIII, looking a little like Charles Laughton in the later film. Mr Cavendish Morton portrays Thomas More but we have a less definite idea of how More should look. In the background two of his daughters look on anxiously. Here’s one of them, Margaret Roper with her mother, sharing another moment with a distinctly non-Tudor fence in the background.

Episode 4 has two parts: a friendly visit to More’s house by Henry for the purpose of offering the post of Chancellor to him, and later, More’s last day in the same house as he obeys the summons to his trial and execution. Episode 5 covers an attempt to seduce the young Princess Elizabeth, episode 6 the funeral procession of Anne of Cleves which began at the Manor House.

Catherine Howard intercedes with the young King Edward on behalf of Thomas Seymour. The woman with her hair down on the left is the young Princess Elizabeth.

The ladies and gentlemen of Chelsea seemed happy to take on the roles of their Tudor forbears.  Kate Pragnell was also patrolling the entrance of the Royal Hospital like an early paparazzo.

An older version of Elizabeth arrives with an anachronistic escort.

Interested parties and spectators with no tickets await the arrival of another important personage.

Episode 7 was about Elizabeth’s return to Chelsea to relive childhood memories and watch a children’s masque of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, a sprawling allegorical poem in which Elizabeth features under several different guises.

Here are two other versions of Elizabeth an adult and the child Gloriana along with the poet Spenser stepping inside his creation. Elizabeth also appears as Lucifera, Queen of Pride:

The Faerie Queen is full of unsuitable wonders.

Including a version of George and the Dragon.

This must be a rehearsal, assuming the man in the straw boater in the group on the left doesn’t represent a time traveler.

Are those horses or mice (or something worse) pulling the coach? Is that Mr Punch driving it?

He’s not in the cast list but is this Dr John Dee facing the queen?

There is still something magical about these scenes. Amateur actors act out fact and fantasy living out dreams of another English dreamtime.  Here’s another group with an infiltrator from modern life. She is us, spying on the past.

Two more primal scenes from the Masque:

Our friend, the giant Orgoglio.

And best of all, a woman St George, the maiden Una and a friendly lion. That’s what I call entertainment.

Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 1908

Kate at the Pageant 3: an adventure at Ranelagh

Kate at the Pageant 1: Ancient Britons and Galliard Dancers

The photographs in the Games for May post of the Chelsea Pageant (see link opposite) by Kate Pragnell were from the deleted scenes menu. When I looked into the official guides and souvenirs of the Pageant I found a great many more. A little research into Miss Pragnell herself showed that she was pretty remarkable. At the time of the Pageant she was one of only two women professional photographers in London, and the only one who regularly photographed men as well as women. She had a woman assistant who eventually took over the business and only worked with female technicians who she trained herself. As it says in the advertisement above which is from the programme she was the Pageant’s official photographer, with access to all areas as we would say today.

The Pageant involved hundreds of people and looks like it must have lasted for hours. Hence the need for refreshments of the kind seen above. Misspelling well known words is still seen as a way of indicating that something is ancient and traditional. The Pageant was divided into ten episodes so there is enough material for more than one post on the subject. So we can come back a couple of times..

The episodes range from the historically plausible to the unlikely. Episode one deals with the Roman Army fording the Thames at Chelsea, which might be perfectly possible but these scenes remind me of inaccurate 1940s historical films.

A group photos of the lads in Caesar’s army. Why do men in costume always look much less convincing than women? Is it that most of these guys suspect that they might look a little silly?

A studio shot of a woman I take to be a British chieftain’s wife, or a Boudicca type. She’s taking it much more seriously. The girl on the left is pictured several times. To me she has the look of one of the young heroines of an E Nesbitt fantasy. (This era seems to have spawned a good many of the fantasy archetypes that lasted us throughout the 20th century) Here are the two of them in context off to the right of the picture:

The bearded man is captioned as the Herald Bard. There seems to be a mixture of costumes in this scene but I’m most intrigued by the man with the archaic musical instrument and the robed figure next to him we can’t quite see. When I look at strange old photographs I want to write my own stories about them rather than stick to what I know and you could certainly make something of this.

Episode 2 was about the Synod of Chelsea for me a quite obscure theological event, but it does give me a chance to include another picture of some women dressed as nuns, which is a very popular internet search term (for some reason).

These are Grey Nuns as you can see by the caption, as opposed to the nuns dressed in black featured in Games for May. I don’t know if these ladies changed their habits for the later episode (the Funeral of Anne of Cleves) or if these were an entirely different group of women dressed as nuns. Or if this group later turned up in the eighteenth century as Ranelagh revellers. One thing we can be sure of is that a large number of people played parts in the Pageant and if there was an after show party it would have been worth attending.

Episode 3 was called May Day in Chelsea Fields 1500 and seems to have been put in to bridge a gap between the ancient and medieval scenes and the Tudor episodes, when the proper history began. The episode was mostly music and dancing. May Day is one of those semi-pagan Merrie England kind of things. Imagine the first scenes of Powell and Pressberger’s A Canterbury Tale.

Or looking at this picture, imagine an all female folk rock band from the 1970s. This could be the inside of the gatefold sleeve, for those of you who remember LPs. Just put in guitars, a mandolin, a fiddle etc. Just think of a name like the Silbury Angels, or Hexagram…

Or the Galliard Dancers:

And here is the Galliard Dance:

There were also gypsy dancers:

This is another studio portrait. Miss Pragnell like many photographers of the time took a lot of trouble over the backgrounds to studio shots, and in posing the subject in a convincing way as in this excellent study.

The candid shots are also pretty good. Look at this one of the children in the May Day episode:

Look at the boy in the group of four on the left wearing the same costume as the girls. He looks like he’s thinking how on earth did I let them persuade me to do this? The tall girl behind him has the look of a much put upon teenager also wishing she was somewhere else. Perhaps she looked at Kate the photographer and decided she should get a job like that when she was older.

We’ll be coming back to the Chelsea Pageant again to those warn and innocent June days at the beginning of the 20th century.

Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams

Kate at the Pageant 3: an adventure at Ranelagh

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