Tag Archives: Whitelands College

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.


Rite of spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

Ruskin and Rossetti VAW copy

John Ruskin wouldn’t sit down for this picture. However poor the state of his health he felt it was unthinkable for him to sit in the presence of Rossetti so the great artist held him up. Ruskin was a man of high ideals and aesthetic principles. He had been one of the early supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites so Rossetti’s loose morals and the strange ménage at Tudor House wouldn’t have bothered him. But nevertheless it would have been hard to find two more unlikely companions in the whole of Victorian England. Rossetti represents the sensual side of the Victorian imagination let loose about as much as it could be. Ruskin of course represents the repressed imagination and it was that respectable side of his nature which drew him into collaboration with John Faunthorpe the Principal of the teacher training establishment in the King’s Road, Whitelands College.

Copy of Whitelands College PC109C

1902 John Faunthorpe from 1924 WA

[John Faunthorpe 1902]

Faunthorpe was a fan of Ruskin’s. He admired the great man extravagantly, idolised him even. So in1880 inspired by Ruskin  he floated the idea of starting a May Queen Festival at the College. Ruskin had form in this area, he had tried to start something similar at a school in Cheshire but parents had objected (Ruskin’s divorce / annulment from his marriage with Effie Gray and her subsequent marriage to Millais had been a great scandal). Between them the two men worked something out which combined Ruskin’s love of picturesque old English ritual and Faunthorpe’s desire for high Anglican ceremony. The notion of a may queen may also have appealed to  Ruskin because it involved pretty young women for whom he had a sentimental regard after the failure of his marriage and the derailment of his romance with Rose La Touche. The Victorians in general were given to sentimentalizing youth (perhaps because they frequently saw it snatched away by sudden disease and death, the very fate of Rose la Touche who died at the age of 27).

Ruskin donated a set of his books each year to be handed out by the new Queen, and paid for the design of the first in a series of crosses which were given to each Queen. The May Queen was chosen by the votes of the students (she should be “the lovablest and the likeablest” was Ruskin’s mawkish guidance to the voters). The first was Queen Ellen I.

1881 Queen Ellen I

Unfortunately for the ceremony Ellen was in mourning at the time and wearing black so a white shawl was found for her to wear. Ruskin pestered Faunthorpe for a photograph and then rather ungraciously said the Queen looked like she was 38. (She was 20). Although he did visit the College regularly he never attended the May Day ceremony. Perhaps he preferred the festival as a romantic ideal. After Queen Ellen the Queen and her maidens had dresses made for the occasion.

Ruskin had his protégé Kate Greenaway design a dress for the Queen which was passed on for four years.

1891 Queen Jessie 02

[Queen Jessie 1891]

But as the Festival continued it became customary for former queens to return and take part in the festival so the Queen needed a unique outfit.

1892 Queen Elizabeth II 02

[A small and faded view of Queen Elizabeth II, 1893]

1895 Queen Annie Bawden May 1895 CM259

[Queen Annie II, 1895]

May Day is a festival dating back to pre-Christian times. It’s related to the Celtic festival Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Nacht. Faunthorpe wanted to emphasise the Christian elements, and Ruskin had exalted ideas about feminine innocence and purity. But despite that this version of May Day still had its May Pole, and retained the flowers, garlands, branches and wooden staffs which still have their older pagan connotations. Here’s Queen Annie again in her throne room.

Queen Annie II 1895 CM258 Queen enthroned - Copy

They look like they’re starting to get the hang of it. Some former queens are present (see if you can spot Elizabeth II). They’re beginning to look a little like a female Masonic lodge.

Ruskin died in 1900 but the Festival no longer needed his blessing and seemed to grow in importance and complexity. If you remember I first dealt with the May Queen in Games for May. In that post I linked the Festival with the Chelsea Pageant just because I found the pictures together but the more I find out about the two events the more I think they belong together as part of the same current in the first decade of the 20th century. The Edwardians seemed to have a propensity almost amounting to mania for dressing up and engaging in theatrical rituals and performances, especially out of doors. In an age of technological innovation perhaps they were reliving the myths and legends of an older England. An England of their imagination.

Behind the stern walls of the College was a quadrangle with ivy-covered walls where the ceremonies could take place out of sight of the busy streets outside.

1899 Queen Agnes I and bodyguard CM259

[Queen Agnes I 1899]

The May Day festival took a whole day and required much preparation. The entire student body of about 150 got white dresses paid for by the college. There were services in the college chapel, a procession, an abdication ceremony, an election (although it became expedient to have the election before May Day so the new queen could be fitted for her dress) a masque, or some “revels”, and the crowning of the new Queen who would give out gifts of copies of works by Ruskin to selected students.

In 1906 there happened to be three queens in the College at the same time, the new Queen Florence, her predecessor Evelyn and the 1904 Queen Mildred.

1906 Queen Florence with Queen Mildred -left-and Queen Evelyn

Mildred in particular looks like she’s just come off the set of one of those 1970s Hammer films like the Vampire Lovers. Or (as I’ve said before) the cover of an album by a 70s English folk rock group, especially in the masque picture below.

They pulled out the stops on this one. Florence proceeded to her coronation with her maidens in tow.

1906 Queen Florence and maidens

And Mildred took the lead in a masque in which the students played flowers and trees and paid homage to her.

1906 masque featuring Queen Mildred and the cast of flowers and trees

In 1909, the year after the Chelsea Pageant there were more elaborate ceremonies. Here is Agnes II, with her chamberlains.

1909 Queen Agnes II & chamberlains

On the throne with the Dowager Queen Dorothy.

1909 Queen Agnes II & Dowager Queen Dorothy 1902 painting behind

Behind them is a painting of the 1902 ceremony. Check out the leopard skin.

There was even a special appearance by this lot:

1909 nuns

Not real nuns of course, just some of the Pageant performers from 1908 who just couldn’t resist coming back for an encore. It might have been their last chance to join the procession with the women in white.

1908 procession 02

And oddly, it seems to me that at that point they had peaked. The May Queen Festival continued of course, carries on to this day in fact, but in the second decade of the century the ceremonies gradually became less elaborate and the College slowly seemed to stop making quite such a big thing of May Day. Or it could be that young women were getting more serious about their profession and less serious about quixotic ritual. I heard someone on the radio recently saying that the Edwardians had a kind of innocence based on hope, the hope that the new century was going to bring progress and prosperity. By 1910 perhaps the zeitgeist was looking a little less hopeful than before and the revellers decided it was time to put the costumes back into the dressing up box.

Still, there were many more May Queens at Whitelands and when they gathered together for the ceremonies there was quite a bunch of them, now engaged in charitable works as well as Christianised neo-pagan rites. They even had a leader, the Mother Queen who was the oldest of this select group.

1912 Queen Ellen the mother queen

The first May Queen, Ellen I, now out of mourning, in her own robes, leading the procession again in 1912. She died in 1923, mourned by her fellow queens, but never forgotten.

Postscript

That was quite a long post. Just as with the Chelsea Pageant I discovered a lot more material than I had imagined we had. Enough for another post next May Day if you can wait that long. I showed the pictures to a colleague and she said “it looks so pagan” – so it isn’t just me who thinks that.

The picture of Ruskin and Rossetti comes from the book the Victorian art world in photographs by Jeremy Maas. There is supposed to be a copy of it in William Rossetti’s memoirs but our copy had that page missing. There was an interesting picture of Maria Rossetti though which I intend to use in a future post.

Whitelands College moved to Putney in 1930 and has since moved again. It is now part of the University of Roehampton. The May Day Festival continues and they have May Kings now as well as May Queens. This year’s festival is on May 18th.

Postscript to the postscript

See comment below. Queen Thyra (1890) from Malcolm Cole’s book on the May Queen Festival,

1890 Queen Thyra


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….

Druids….

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?

Postscript

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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