Spectacular pageant which went down in Ludlow history

With a cast of thousands, the Shropshire Historical Pageant of 1934 was a stunning spectacular which made national headlines and drew folk to Ludlow from not only across Britain, but from across the world.

The climax of the epic extravaganza was a staging of the Masque of Comus, by poet John Milton, performed by a specially selected company in the very place – Ludlow Castle – where it had first been enacted before the Earl and Countess of Bridgewater some 300 years previously.

But a 1930s picture which has come the way of Bishop's Castle local historian Janet Preshous has posed a conundrum which she is hoping somebody will be able to solve. It shows ladies in Elizabethan costume and she is trying to find out if there was a connection with the pageant all those years ago.

"I was given two pictures some time ago, and I think people from Bishop's Castle were among the 3,000 who took part, probably in the pageant's Episode V, which was about Sir Philip Sidney," said Janet.

"I can find no-one left alive who can confirm my belief that the ladies on the cart, who are possibly members of Bishop's Castle Women's Institute, are taking part in a 1930s Bishop's Castle carnival dressed in their costumes from the pageant. But if the picture was published someone might have handed-down family memories of the event. Can the Shropshire Star help?

"We have had some information from the Church Stretton Advertiser of the time about the 1934 pageant but can't quite tie up the connection with the Bishop's Castle ladies.

"If you could publicise the carnival float picture it might jog a family memory."

happens, we can help to a certain extent, as the picture was indeed taken at the Bishop's Castle carnival and fete which was held on Wednesday, September 19, 1934, just a few weeks after the pageant in Ludlow. We know that because it was published in the contemporary Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News with the caption: "A stunning tableau by members of the Women's Institute Choir."

And the Shrewsbury Chronicle went one better and published a list of prizewinners, and the winners for decorated dray or lorry were the Women's Institute Choir, with an "Elizabethan scene". The report then gave the names Mrs F E King, Mrs G Lockley, Mrs S Roberts, Mrs D Saysell, and Misses F Sinclair, F Morris, F Robinson, E E Gotobed, and Z King, who are no doubt those on the float.

So it can be positively identified as Bishop's Castle Women's Institute Choir, but what is unknown is whether these ladies also took part in the pageant a few weeks beforehand, and if so, whether they wore the same costumes for their winning entry in their town's carnival.

The pageant and masque was a key cultural event in Ludlow's history which had long-lasting ramifications as it led in a roundabout way to the creation decades later of the famous, and now sadly defunct, Ludlow Festival.

Blessed by glorious weather, an audience watches some of the spectacular action in Ludlow Castle grounds. Picture courtesy of Sir Michael Leighton
Sir Richard Leighton as "Wild Edric" with "Godda"
A scene from the spectacular pageant at Ludlow Castle – this is one of a number of images in an album owned by Sir Michael Leighton, of Loton Park, Alberbury, whose parents played the parts of Wild Edric and Godda

The inspiration for the 1934 showpiece came from it being the 300th anniversary of the first performance of the Masque of Comus in Ludlow Castle in 1634, staged back then in honour of the Earl of Bridgewater and celebrating his formal installation as Lord Lieutenant of Wales and the border counties.

A masque is a mix of music, dance, acting and verse, usually tailored for a specific audience. In Milton's work the devilish enchanter Comus tries unsuccessfully to tempt the central female character from the path of virtue.

The original 17th century performance was held in the castle's great hall, but the 1934 remake was staged outdoors.

A week of performances began on July 2, with the historical pageant, comprising five episodes showcasing incidents in Shropshire's history over 15 centuries, leading up each time to a performance of the masque.

There were matinees on every day during the week, and evening performances on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Profits went to Shropshire hospitals and the event, which was blessed with glorious weather, was judged a great success, with the record attendance for the week of nearly 8,000 coming on the Saturday night.

Those thousands taking part in the pageant were drawn from every section of the community from across the county, including the local nobility, the Church, the professions, Scouts and Guides, and schoolchildren.

In contrast there was a relatively small cast for the masque. Comus was played by Stafford Byrne, a New Zealander, who went on to appear in pioneer British television drama, such as Emergency Ward 10, in the 1950s.

The Lady was played by Australian-born Miss Ruth Naylor, described as a brilliant soprano who had joined Sadler's Wells Opera in 1932.

Hubert Langley was the Attendant Spirit, Miss Olive Dyer played Sabrina, John Kentish was Elder Brother – but was affected by the heat on the Tuesday night and was replaced by Alan Webb of London when he was unable to resume the following day – and E A Vasey, playwright and producer at the Shropshire Drama Festivals, was Second Brother.

Organisers were keen to involve descendants of those who had been involved in the 1634 performance, and the result was that members of Shropshire's aristocracy took some of the minor roles.

According to a Historical Pageants in Britain website, there were tensions behind the scenes.

"As Evelyn Lloyd, Mistress of the Robes, recalled on the pageant’s 50th anniversary, the two producers of the pageant, the seasoned Pageant Master Edward Baring and Avalon Collard, ‘almost came to blows and several times each threatened to resign; but tempers were smoothed down by tact and diplomacy… Though the two leading lights were not on speaking terms long before the production of the pageant, everything went off not only smoothly, but with triumph.’"

Harry Baker, a performer and also trainee reporter for the Ludlow Advertiser, whose father was secretary of the Stand Committee, also remembered difficulties getting enough extras for the "Roman Army."

According to the website: "The pageant organisers pasted up recruitment posters around Ludlow declaring ‘Roman Army. Caesar needs men’ and offering a cheap holiday sleeping in tents for a week on Ludlow’s common. Despite this, troops were not particularly forthcoming and numbers had to be bolstered by local unemployed men, and finally a company of the local Territorial Army."

Baker was to remember that the pageant was experienced by its members through a fog of war: "Like private soldiers in a battle, we ordinary mortals had no clear picture of what was going on. We only knew that the pageant was most favourably received – but we did pick up what we thought wonderful little stories."

Comus was staged again in Ludlow Castle with a professional production in 1953. The event was a success, both financially and artistically, and a further production followed in 1955 when T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral was staged in the parish church.

At the last night party, the Rector of Ludlow expressed the hope that something similar would be done in 1956, adding prophetically: “We might even turn it into a Ludlow Festival.” The seeds for the Ludlow Festival had been sown and the first official Ludlow Festival production was in 1960.

Any reader who can shed light on the mystery photograph can contact Janet at preshous@btinternet.com by email, or drop us a line and we'll pass it on.

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