Tag Archives: Whitelands College

Dancing in Arcadia: the May Queen Festival

I saw Paul Wright’s film Arcadia recently shown on BBC4 (with music by Adrian Uttley and Will Gregory) which brought together archive footage about our obsession with the mysteries of rural life in the UK. I was most drawn to the footage of traditional rituals and celebrations which link us to the distant past in ways which we don’t always understand. I’ve lived in London for a large part of my life but we lived closer to a more rural way of life in my childhood and adolescence. I’m part of what a writer in Fortean Times magazine has called the “haunted generation” whose imaginations were inhabited by the paranormal and supernatural as it was seen on TV (in dramas for children and public information films) and in books of fantasy and horror. The ephemeral nature of the pre-video world  adds to that haunted quality and has an echo in my work, which often consists of assembling fragments of the past in old photographs and paintings.

[Bob Fischer, The Haunted Generation, Fortean Times 354 June 2017, with follow ups in later issues.]

I thought, naturally,  of the May Queen Festival at Whitleands College, a favourite topic of mine as regular readers of this blog know only too well.

Here, in 1900, the students danced around a maypole in the traditional way.

 

 

It looks quaint and old to us. But remember, they too were in a modern age, remembering an older world of folk dancing and singing. The Maypole dance has been revived before in Chelsea like here, forty years or more previously, at Cremorne Gardens.

 

 

The College dates from 1855, not far off the scene in the etching. Perhaps some of the students or teachers could have sneaked away to wicked Cremorne and seen the dance. So perhaps it imfiltrated the collective memory of the College. In any case, the dance was a fixture at the May Queen Festival throughout its history.

 

 

In 1919, the students were ready to dance.

As they were again in 1921. Or, with the pole wrapped, perhaps they had finished a practice session.

 

 

The long white gowns and fancy dress had given way to a kind of fitness uniform.

1923, two students pose with a class of local children.

 

 

The quadrangle at Whitelands College could pass for a sylvan setting behind the walls of the House but their move to Putney in 1930 moved them into a much more rural setting.

 

 

In 1931 they’re back to a more traditional look with long gowns and some interesting medieval / psychedelic costumes.

Later groups of students were pictured dancing confidently.

 

 

 

And managing the more complicated stuff.

 

 

In 1937 they’re dancing in pairs.

 

 

The young woman in the middle about to be sacrificed later, of course, metaphorically obviously.

The celebrations were not confined to the Maypole.

 

 

 

1926, on the mat.

And in 1932 some Greek dancing on the grass.

 

 

Influence of Margaret Morris? Below, a little more Cecil Sharp.

 

And the just plain odd. Harlequin.

 

 

And hypnosis (or you may have a better guess.)

 

 

A tame version of sword dancing, with sticks instead of actual swords, and another dancing uniform.

 

 

The dancing looks a little more light hearted and less haunted as the 1920s moved into the 1930s but as before the First World War, darkness awaited all the dancers in one form or another. Arcadia drifted back into the background, but it would be back later, because that idea of a timeless earthly paradise remains in our imagination. It takes me back to 1970s children’s television and as I’ve been told, Derrida’s hauntology.

With the 1970s in mind, the final image is, another in a series of pictures which remind me of 1970s folk-rock bands and quirky photos on the inside of gatefold album sleeves.

 

 

 

The May Monarch Festival goes on, as I always say, and with it my greetings to this year’s monarch who will be crowned this month.

 

Postscript

I had an idyll of my own over Easter so apologies for not publishing a post for a couple of weeks. Obviously I couldn’t miss the May Queens.

It is an odd coincidence perhaps that John Bowen, author and screen writer passed away this week. (he was the author of a seminal work of folk-horror Robin Redbreast, which originally appeared in the Play for Today slot, like David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen.)

Another recent death for lovers of the weird, that of Gene Wolfe, the author of the Book of the New Sun quartet and many other workd of science fiction. My sympathies to the fans, friends and famillies of both of them.

 

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Eveline, Elsie, Agnes and Joan – May Queens through time

We are all time travellers. Our dilemma is that we can only go in one direction. Sometime time goes slowly, like one of the endless summers of childhood. Sometimes hours or even days get eaten up like minutes. But we can only get off the flow of time by stopping, something you don’t usually want to do. And you can’t go back. But you can fake it sometimes. History, like memory, is one of the ways of hanging onto the past, and one of the best methods is photography.

Another feature of time travel is the regular appointment and my time machine visits this subject every year, the May Queen Festival of Whitelands College. This year’s post is about going back, and we start in 1937. This happens to be the last group photograph in the third volume of the May Queens scrapbooks which are in the College archives. The archivist generously let me have a set of digital images of the pictures in the scrapbooks some years ago, and I have been using them every year since.

In 1937 the College was in Putney. The original Chelsea building couldn’t contain the numbers of students and staff. But the traditions continued and every year there was a new May Queen who was joined on the day of her coronation by former holders of the same office.

 

 

[For reasons of clarity I have not compressed all of this week’s pictures so if you click on a picture to see a bigger version, you should be able to join in the game by studying faces.]

Queen Betty, in the centre of the group,sits on the wooden throne, has some child attendants, holds a bouquet but she is not the main focus of our attention. Look at a few of the other faces.

 

 

The Queen in the red circle is Queen Eveline, who would probably have been in her late 50s, We’re going to follow her back in time to the day she was crowned. I picked her because her dress is quite distinctive, but we won’t follow her on her own. We’re also going to look at Queen Agnes II who was a particularly faithful annual returnee, and Queen Elsie III. I’ve also circled a more recent queen, Queen Joan, but she won’t be with us for long.

 

 

Queen Joan is seated with Agnes at her left shoulder. I did wonder if the the other queen in a blue circle was our old friend from the 2016 post, Queen Mildred but as I looked further I  realised she was Queen Marjorie. By looking carefully and comparing pictures it should be possible to identify them all. But frankly there is a point where careful examination shades into time-consuming obsession so I’m limiting myself to a few names and if there are any other experts I’m happy to hear from you. But this isn’t like spotting vintage cars.

We’re not going back year by year but here is the 1936 group photo which has a good view of the new college building designed by Giles Gilbert Scott.

 

 

Queen Kathleen was the new queen then. You can see her in the first picture, sitting next to Queen Betty. Last year’s queen has to come back to pass on the title. Conveniently, Queen Eveline is just behind her, standing next to Queen Agnes. Queen Joan is there and behind her stands Queen Elsie, who hadn’t made it the following year.

 

 

Now  we move back to 1933.

 

 

Our group of three have clustered together again, with Joan still in the front row.

 

 

In 1932, Elsie was absent.

 

 

Eveline is behind Joan, while Agnes is on the far left, her robes billowing in a breeze. Keep you eye on the white or grey haired queen next to Eveline.

The previous year, 1931, was Joan’s year as Queen.

 

That’s the last time we see her, and the first ceremony in the new College, so to mark her special day, here she is planting a tree to celebrate the occasion, with some hand maidens in attendance.

 

 

In 1929 the College was still in Chelsea.

Queen Eveline wasn’t there that year, but Queens Elsie and Agnes were.

 

 

Elsie is quite plain to see on the right of the group.

 

 

Can you see Queen Agnes?

 

In 1923 there was a smaller gathering.

 

 

Fourteen years younger than the in 1937 picture, Eveline stands at the left next to one of the teenage girls (or younger children) who were were also a feature of the group photos.

This was Queen Marjorie’s year as Queen.

Eveline is also in the 1919 group.

 

 

The Queen that year was Janet, standing next to the Mother Queen, Ellen I.  Janet eventually appeared at the centenary of the festival in 1981.

 

There are Eveline, Elsie and Agnes. The Queen next to  Eveline is Mildred, the 1904 Queen, I think, who doesn’t seem to have attended many ceremonies.

 

 

Next to her is an older queen who might be the one we saw earlier. I’m leaning towards this being Queen Minnie, the 1884 queen. Something about her hairline. But I’m not certain.

 

The 1914 picture is crammed with children, but our trio is all here.

 

 

 

1911 was Elsie’s year. Here she is in the throne room being crowned by Queen Ellen I, the first queen (1881) also know as the Mother Queen, a title passed on to the oldest living queen.

 

 

Note the bust of Ruskin (?) on the far right.

Queen Eveline stands at the back. It’s not a good quality photo but you are beginning to see her as a young woman.

 

 

We mark Elsie’s leaving in this counter clock world with this view of her and her predessor Queen Louise.

 

 

Agnes’s day is coming. Here she is in 1909.

 

 

Mildred and Florence are there with more of the pre-1900 queens.

We’ve seen pictures of Agnes in previous posts but as a farewell, here is a studio  portrait against a painted backdrop.

 

.

Our next step in to go back to Eveline’s own year, 1900. This was the year that Ruskin died, and his influence over the festival was fading. Queen Eveline sits between Queen Annie and Queen Agnes I.

 

 

The three queens behind her who seem to be in civilian dress are from the period when the robes were passed on from year to year. They adopted a variety of dresses over the year.

On the right is Queen Elizabeth II with another distinctive dress. Behind her is Queen Minnie, and next to her Elizabeth I.

The little woman sitting on the floor is Queen Jessie, and she is wearing the second of the two shared robes.

Eveline looks very young in the pictures from this year, like this one with her predecessor, the first Queen Agnes.

 

 

And in this portrait.

 

 

Miss Eveline Head’s part in this story is now finished but in the regular world of time moving forward, her life, like the new century, was just beginning. (Later she married and became Mrs Grey.)

Postscript

This was a tricky post to do, looking back and forth between pictures trying to spot faces from year to year. And, as you’ve noticed, a bit of a marathon in terms of pictures. So one final picture won’t matter.

Queen Minnie, possibly the oldest queen in the 1930s pictures. (Or possibly not. At one point I wondered if she was Ellen II, but more of that another day.

 

 

My thanks as always to Gilly King, the Archivist at Whitelands when I first became fascinated by the subject, and to the College itself. My best wishes to this year’s May Monarch, who will be crowned on May 13th.


May Queens of Whitelands – the players

Last year’s May Queen post was set in 1906, at the psychological peak of the festival in terms of ceremony, costume and seriousness. After the Great War, the College and the students were in a different world. The role of women in society had changed, although arguably as teachers the graduates of the college were already professionals who were well regarded in the field of education. Fashions had changed, reflected in the more subdued robes of the post war queens. This is Queen Janet and her chamberlains in 1919. Shoe lovers can get a look in at last.

And attitudes had changed. I noted in an earlier post that I could detect an air of not quite taking the ceremonies and theatrical performances which accompanied the May Queen Festival quite as seriously as before. I think I can see a lot more fun in some of the pictures from the postwar period, which is why this post will concentrate not on the queens but the players in the various theatrical performances which were part of the May Queen Festival in Whitelands’ last decade in their original home in the King’s Road.

Some of the performances called for classical costumes such as this one:

(It looks like the grass needs mowing.)

And here are some more traditional figures from folklore, dancing for the Queen and her subjects in the quadrangle.

Now for some urns. Careful now,ladies.

A little bit of pagan worship possibly.

In earlier years there had been a Rose Queen celebration in June for the pupils of local schools, so they obviously had younger girls on hand for performances

So that’s not weird at all.

(This may relate to a play performed that year, “A red rose in the city of lilies” written by two of the students. Or not)

On other occasions there was medieval fun. Anyone for the stocks?

More of that here

A whole troupe of characters from the middle ages to celebrate “the birth of English Song”.

Do you see the nun? The students had form in this area of course (see 1908) which was continued in 1922.

Who had all these nun costumes available for hire? I can’t imagine an Anglican establishment having nun’s habits hanging about the place in case of a sudden counter-Reformation. Of course nuns used to be a more common sight in London. Chelsea and Kensington both had several convents.

Once again (see this post on the Chelsea Historical Pageant) I was reminded less of 1923, more of the 1970s when I could have imagined this picture on the rear cover of an album by an up and coming folk rock group.

Could they have imagined walking out of the front door of the college onto a King’s Road 50 years later, barely raising an eyebrow?

As this was Chelsea, the Tudor period can’t be forgotten, particularly Sir Thomas More  and his family.

And they kept coming back to the Greeks. Is that a satyr? Yes, the god Pan no less, in pursuit of the nymph Syrinx

Here he is again.

With some horned children. Fauns, probably.

There were really quite a lot of pictures of theatrical performances in this third album of pictures, and some of them look a bit odd now. They might even have seemed odd then.

Amusingly so of course. As regular readers will have realised, I’m a great fan of fancy dress and amateur dramatics from the past.

Go on ladies, push. But why?

Other periods in history were not ignored. From 1925, an Elizabethan group.

The lawn was better kept in the later years. An 18th century group.

And still, the classics. Below, the masque, Achilles in Scyros, in which Odysseus, disguised as a peddler searches for Achilles who is playing the part of a maiden at the court of King Scyros (“a strong tall maiden” apparently, in the Shakespearean tradition of a woman playing a man playing a woman.)

Although sometimes it was a non-traditional view of classical themes as Mercury arrives in a cloche hat.

May Day in 1929 “ the wildest May morning since – no one was sure Since when, but everyone was sure there had never been a colder one.. Green blazers were everywhere covering white frocks and thick coats hid the creations of the staff”. Nevertheless, the show went on with some 17th century music.

And some revels, taking us back to the roots of the festival in Old England. A few merrie (men).

1930 was the year the College moved to a new purpose built building in Putney. We might come to that period in a future post. All I can say by way of a spoiler is that the fun continued.

But to return to the Queens I picked this 1929 picture of Queen Irene and Queen Enid in a casual pose on the throne, because they look like they’re enjoying themselves.

 

The distressing coda to Whitelands College’s time in Chelsea was that the building was bought by the British Union of Fascists and renamed Black House. (You couldn’t make it up). I found a picture in History Today magazine of Moseley and some of his polo-necked henchman doing that walking towards the camera thing against a familiar background. What a —— (choose your own expletive).

 

Much satirized, even at the time, Moseley’s basket of deplorables were a blot on the landscape for only a brief period of time. The former college building was demolished in 1937 and the current large apartment block called Whitelands House built on the site.

The College itself carries on to this day, as does the May Monarch Festival. So the “ceremony of innocence” is not drowned in this case.

Unfortunately there’s not as much of this sort of thing these days.

Or this for that matter.

Postscript

I found I’ve used a couple of these pictures before but at that point I hadn’t seen the actual May Queen scrapbooks kept at the Whitelands archive. So that’s one reason for using them again.

The latest May Monarch will be crowned on May 13th. My good wishes to her/him and the College.


Three Queens at Whitelands: 1906

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.

WA 1906 cover

This copy is also unique because between the pages I discovered two pressed leaves.

Pressed leaf WA 1906 p25

Were they from a tree in the grounds of the College?

Pressed leaf WA 1906 p39

There were a few available in the quadrangle.

Quadrangle WA 1906 p96 - Copy

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)

017f Queen Florence with Queen Mildred and Queen Evelyn 1906

I promise that it’s the last picture I’ll repeat.

The first queen of this trio was Mildred Harvey

012c Queen Mildred Harvey Mrs Moss 1904 - Copy

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:

013b Queen Mildred I 1904 - Copy

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.

014b Queen Evelyn and Queen Mildred 1905 - Copy

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.”

015e Queen Evelyn 1905 - Copy

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.”

017c Queen Florence 1906

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.”

017d Queen Florence and bodyguards 1906

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.

016b Masque 1906

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.)

017b Masque 1906

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.
017a Queen Florence Hadaway Mrs Robbins with Queen Evelyn and Queen Mildred 1906

Postscript

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.

022 Queen Agnes I Gourley 1899

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.


Blog extra: May Monarch 2015

You get an bonus post this week, because I was invited to the May Monarch Festival at Whitelands College last Saturday. I was able to attend the new Monarch investiture and see the procession of former May Queens and Kings (just a handful of  kings as yet). I thought I would share some pictures with you so you can see the day in colour, quite a different perspective from the monochrome pictures of the early days.

The first queen I met was Queen Noreen (1955) seen below with a  later queen, Queen Kate.

DSC_5395Queen Noreen and another queen
The College had helpfully put up plenty of pictures around the corridors of the building where I found a picture of Queen Noreen in 1955 at the Putney home of the College:

DSC_5506

I also encountered the 1950 queen, Queen Sheila.

DSC_5393 Queen Sheila

And some more recent holders of the office, Queen Natalie, in brown and Queen Kate in blue.

DSC_5394 Quenn Natalie and

There were about 30 former Queens, and a couple of former Kings at the ceremony. The picture echoes the many group pictures of former queens I’ve seen in my research.

DSC_5430

In this picture you can see the outgoing queen, Queen Elle sat on the throne while the new Monarch King Qusai (apparently also known by his nickname Q) awaiting his investiture.

DSC_5431

Q is the first Muslim Monarch as far as I know.  The head of the College made a joke referring to the James Bond character Q but I was thinking of the Star Trek character Q, who would have beeen a natural ruler though probably hard to depose. The actual King made a brief but impassioned speech and the charity he will be supporting in his year as King,  Warchild.

DSC_5438

Presentations were made to some of the former queens, and with the new King invested, a group of Morris Dancers led the group out into the spacious grounds at the rear of the college which look out into Richmond Park.

DSC_5454
The dancers are a reminder of the old English and pagan elements to May Day which exist alongside the Anglican ceremony.

DSC_5473

It was a fascinating  morning and a chance to link everything I’ve learned about the May Queen Festival in its Chelsea days with the continuing history of the College and the Festival.

DSC_5481

My thanks to Gilly King, Whitelands College and the University of Roehampton for my invitation.

There will be a more or less normal post at the usual time next week.

DSC_5487


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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