Tag Archives: John Ruskin

The May Queens of Whitelands College: the early years

It’s that time of year again when the May Queen Festival is celebrated at Whitelands College in its current home as part of Roehampton University (May 14th) and also when I write my annual post on the College’s time at Whitelands House in Chelsea. As with horror film sequels (Ginger Snaps Back: the beginning, Evil Dead 3: Amy of Darkness etc) the third outing usually goes back in time, so this time the pictures come from the period from the start of the Festival in 1881 to 1900 when its founding father, the art critic and writer John Ruskin died. Although he never actually attended the May Day celebrations Ruskin’s influence is seen strongly in this period when the whole idea was new.

For new readers I should summarise. Whitelands College, a training school for female teachers was set up in 1842 and had its home at Whitelands House in the King’s Road until 1930. The College was highly successful with supporters such as the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts but it was a strict regime. Charles Kingsley, father of the novelist of the same name and Rector of Chelsea reported an atmosphere of “silence, simpering and stays” at the College under a Lady Superintendent who had previously been in charge of a penitentiary.

Students of 1855 from 1924 WA

[1855 picture, probably half a group photo, reprinted in the 1924 Whitelands Annual]

The first Principal of the College was John Faunthorpe. Academic standards were raised and the College  judged to be the best in England by a government inspector. Perhaps he though the students needed something more than constant learning which may be why in his correspondence with John Ruskin the idea for a May Queen Festival emerged. It would be an annual event which would combine Ruskin’s romantic ideas of old English customs and rituals with the High Anglican tradition of the College. Between the two of them they glossed over the wilder pagan / medieval versions of May Day.

Each year there would be an election and the student judged to be the “likeable-est and the loveable -est ” (Ruskin’s words) would be crowned May Queen and reign for a year. I’ve covered this in my first post but to give you an idea of the tone of the early festival here is a quote from an article in the magazine Leisure Hour from 1886 which tells how the students idolise Ruskin (“the Master”) and how Ellen, the first Queen reacted. “The choice fell on the only girl present in black. She was mourning a dead father. The trembling maiden required some persuasion before she would consent to don the May Queen’s shining attire; and her first act after doffing it was to send off the pure white lilies that had surrounded her, to lie on her father’s new-made grave.” By suggestion the author of this piece links the festival with virginity and death.

You can imagine that the May Queen was an idea which appealed to the idealistic (or sentimental) view of young women which many Victorian men held. But you can also imagine that this was also an idea which the students themselves would appreciate. A day of processions, singing and dancing with one of them getting to be a May Queen, gifts of books for all the Queen’s companions and new white dresses all round. No lessons or exams all day. What’s not to like?

018a flower girls 1897[Revellers 1897]

And of course, as regular ceremonials do, the Festival got more elaborate. Once you’d been a Queen you were part of the history of the College and part of an elite sisterhood, and the former Queens got to come back and take part again.

004d Queen Minnie with Edith and Ellen and Gertrude 1884

These are the first four queens, Ellen (centre back, now out of mourning), Gertude, Edith and Minnie, in 1884. Minnie is wearing a dress which was worn by each queen from 1882 . It’s quite suitable as a robe of office but of course it meant the previous queens had to go back to ordinary white dresses. Minnie was back in civilian dress the following year.

005a Queen Rosa with Queen Minnie 1885

Dowager Queen Minnie is kneeling before her successor Queen Rosa in an act of homage which the annual photographs  show happening every year as the old queen makes way for the new.

007a Queen Margaret Coleman with Queen Elizabeth 1887

From 1888 the Queens used a dress designed by Ruskin’s friend and protege Kate Greenaway A green underskirt had been added to the queen’s robe. In this picture Queen Elizabeth I kneels before Queen Margaret. Below the Queen and her attendants, wearing mostly white versions of ordinary day dress, carrying the long sticks or staffs used in some of the ceremonies.

007d Queen Margaret and attendants 1887

The Queen’s companions are called her chamberlains or sometimes her bodyguards.

The  picture below is of Queen Annie with her own entourage in 1888.

008 Queen Annie Clarke 1888

1888 was the year that local resident Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance attended the Festival, back in his respectable days. Constance returned in 1892 and 1894 the year one of their sons presented a bouquet.

By 1892 they’d finally figured out that each queen would need her own dress. which would be a permanent part of her identity as a May Queen. Below, Elizabeth II establishes her individuality with a unique dress. (It would also make her easy to identitify in future group pictures as the number of former queens grew.)

1892 Queen Elizabeth II DSC_2435

The photographs themselves are by this time I think an important part of the Festival. They help to establish that sisterhood, a group of women bound together by the ceremonies, not just the queens but all the students. Although you glimpse the exterior world in the background of some of the pictures, you can also sense the atmosphere of a place apart.

In the pictures the pagan associations of May Day seem to emerge. A court of women in white decorated with flowers.. a new queen on a throne, renewed each year. A ceremony which might mean one thing to the clergymen officiating and another to the women around them. But let’s not get too Picnic at Hanging Rock.

019e Queen Elsie I and revellers 1897

Revellers, with Queen Elsie, against the background of an ivy strewn gothic wall.

020c crossed sticks 1898

In front of the same wall, the attendants, with their own special uniforms. The Queen now has a train like a bride which has to be carried by an acolyte.

020d procession 1898

The procession from the Chapel featuring the outgoing and incoming queens, and as time went by any others who could attend.

005d Maypole 1900

The Maypole dance. You can just see something of the real Chelsea in the distance as the age-old dance goes on.

004c Queen Eveline and bodyguards 1900

The 1900 Queen, Eveline. Below, she sits on her throne with her court of attendants and older queens.

004b Queen Eveline enthroned 1900

Photographs of the May Queens, and the celebrations have an undeniable charm in themselves, a romantic notion of a hidden place separate from the world outside. Think Hogwarts, or Brakebills or any boarding school story. The pictures are timeless because like fancy dress or theatrical costumes they show women out of their own time and hence more like the women of any time period. Quite a few of the pictures remind me of the 1970s era of folk music, pastoral psychedelia and mystical cults or movements. (Did you hear that Radio 4 programme Black Aquarius the other day? It covered  a whole area of modern interest in the occult in films and television. A May Queen festival could have slotted quite easily into that imaginative zone.) For other viewers they may bring back other decades and other impresions. Probably it makes you look back to when you were young when picturesque celebrations under summer skies seemed like a great idea. Actually as far as I’m concerned it still does, so I’m pleased that the May Queen (Or May Monarch) festival still goes on.

The picture below shows the 1897 Queen Elsie with her predesessor Edith II. (Seen in the procession picture above.)

019d Queen Elsie and Queen Edith II 1897

The two of them look elegant and confident as though the women, students and staff. had finally taken control of the direction of the Festival. Their dresses look a little like the one Lady Gertrude Agnew wore in the painting by John Singer Sargent. The picture also has a certain luxuriousness about it, or even sensuality. This is our moment, they seem to be thinking.

Postscript

As I’ve covered in two previous posts, (here and here) the celebrations carried on getting more elaborate and serious in the Edwardian era reaching a kind of conceptual peak then, and more light hearted after WW1.  The May Day Festival is capable of supporting many flights of fancy and perhaps a few moments of insight from me and others.

I’ve assembled a large number of images on the subject from the Library’s collection and the Whitelands College archives thanks to the help of the Whitelands Archivist Gilly King who graciously allowed us to have copies of the photographs from the May Queen scrapbooks. My thanks to her.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the series of images of group photos of May Queens of different years allows you to see individual women as they grow older. Matching them up can be tricky at times.I’ll take you through some of them one day. Maybe that’s next year’s angle. Obsessed, Moi?

Queens featured in this post: Ellen Osborne (1881) Gertrude Bowes (1882), Edith Martindale(1883), Minnie Griffiths (1884), Rosa Ashburne (1885), Elizabeth Blowfeld (1886), Margaret Coleman (1887), Annie Clarke (1888), Elizabeth Hughes (1892), Edith Desborough(1896), Elsie Wilkes (1897), Ellen Rose (1898), Eveline Head (1900)


The May Queens of Whitelands: return to the hidden kingdom

As promised recently this is the second annual post devoted to the May Queen Festival at Whitelands College. New readers start here:

Whitelands College was a teacher training college for women started in the 1840s, one of the first of its kind. In 1881 they held the first of their annual May Queen Festivals. The idea for the Festival had come from the art critic John Ruskin and had been taken up enthusiatically by the Principal of the College John Faunthorpe. This odd combination of Christian ceremonies with elements of paganism (or rather late Victorian ideas of what constituted paganism) was embraced by the staff and students alike and it became a key part of the College’s identity. I wrote about the May Queens last year and the way the festival reached a kind of cultural apogee around 1908 or 1909.

1904 Queen Mildred  DSC_2345

Here for example is Queen Mildred I leading the procession in 1904, surrounded by her white clad fellow students.

And here is the masque from 1907:

1907 Queen Elsie etc

Although these ceremonies were taking place yards away from the King’s Road they look just like they belong to some cloistered enclave far removed from urban life. You can think of fantasy places like Hogwarts or Brakebills if you like. The romantic spell of the May Queen Festival is maintained by the absolute seriousness of the participants.

 1912 Queen Alice and Queen Elsie  DSC_2369

Here you can see the dowager Queen Elsie III paying homage to her sucessor Queen Alice in a lightly hand coloured photograph. (Behind glass, unfortunately – I took the picture myself at the Whitelands Archive). You could say that the May Queens and their attendants had formed a kind of order of chivalry or a female Masonic Lodge. It was probably not what Ruskin had anticipated. Whitelands College itself was a kind of refuge where young women were entering into a profession when most of their contemporaries were excluded from professional life. Outside the wall of the college the Suffrafgettes were fighting for the rights of women to become equal members of society. Inside those walls some of the privileges of professional life were already available.

1914 The Golden Stair of Happy Service - the Principal, the two Queens and the Senior Monitors

This picture was taken in 1914. The College remained a kind of secluded enclave even during the First World War, although students and staff played a part in the war effort and there was some damage during a Zeppelin raid. For the most part the inhabitants of the College went on with their lives.

 1914 College Garden

There had been a change in the zeitgeist though. Perhaps the reality of the coming war and the shock of its progress meant that it was no longer possible to concentrate so hard on the ceremonies and entertainments. That short period around 1908 (also the date of the Chelsea Pageant) was the high point of that strange theme in the Edwardian imagination of nostalgia for an imaginary lost Albion.

The photographs in the Whitelands Annual seem to me to show that the Festival was not being taken quite so seriously.

1915 Fooling around

Or even seriously at all:

 1915 Fooling around - jesters

Both these pictures come from the 1915  Annual.

After the War there was a new reality. The Festival went on of course. This is the 1919 group photographs of the new Queen Janet I and the former queens.

1919 Queen Janet I and former queens

On Queen Janet’s right is the first Queen, Ellen. Agnes II (1909) sits at the front on the right, and Elsie III is also on the right at the end of the seated row. I’m not sure about the others.

This is Queen Janet by herself:

1919 Queen Janet

Her dress shows the influence of post war fashion.

Some things didn’t change:

1922 group DSC_2399

The fake nuns seen in previous masques were still there. The masque below looks like an amateur theatrical event, or a fancy dress party.

1922 masque

By 1927 the May Queen herself looked quite prosaic:

1927 Queen Sylvia with Queen Iris and Miss Headford senior student

Queen Sylvia, her predecessor Queen Enid and the Senior Student. In this picture of the Bacchanals that year are it looks like the group is vaguely aware of the Margaret Morris style of dancing which was being promulgated in Chelsea at the time.

1927 The Bacchanals - unconvincing

But definitely not so serious.

A couple of years later the College moved to a new purpose built building in Putney as its role in teacher training expanded. The first Queen after the move to the suburbs, Queen Joan looks a little more traditional:

1931 Queen Joan and Queen Edna DSC_2419

The rural-looking setting seems to have brought back some of the old flavour of the event.

At that point Whitelands College moves out of our sphere of interest. The College and the May Queens have carried on as part of Roehampton University and the old tradition has survived.

I’ve got two endings for you. Remember Queen Janet? Here she is in 1981 at the Centenary of the Festival with the 1981 Queen Heather and a large group of former queens in a photograph from the Daily Telegraph.

1981 Queens Janet I - Hughes - and Heather - Forbes - TES 15 June 1981 - Copy

And to remind us of the Edwardian days of the May Queens a final look at Queen Elsie III enthroned with the 1910 Queen Louise standing in attendance:

1911 Queen Elsie and Queen Louise

Postscript

Thanks to Gilly King, the archivist at Whitelands College who invited me down to see the archive last year, and spent some time talking about the history of the May Queen Festival. I wrote about the visit on our main Library blog. I’ve used some of the photographs I took in this post – some of them are not quite as good as properly scanned pictures. I believe the College is digitizing their collection for future study. I’m not quite sure if I’ll be able to mange a third annual May Queens post next year. But come back then and we’ll see.

Whitelands House, the original home of the College had another story to tell after the College moved. But that’s for another day.


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