Festival of Empire Crystal Palace 1911


Bill Tonkin.

            I am going to deal with a very short period in the history of the Crystal Palace. Just under six months in 1911, when they staged a large outdoors exhibition, and in the Palace itself the “All British Exhibition of Arts and Industries”, as well as a Pageant, all under under the title of “The Festival of Empire”.

            It is difficult to deal with the Festival of Empire without overlapping a bit at the edges. The fortunes of the Crystal Palace had been in decline for many years, it was bankrupt, and receivers had been appointed in 1909. After the Festival closed the Court of Chancery ordered the sale of the property which was then valued at £230,000. It was purchased by the Earl of Plymouth who presented it to the Nation in 1913, afterwards a Lord Mayors Fund was set up to raise money to relieve him of this burden.

            So the Festival of Empire could be regarded as the Crystal Palace’s swan song, and what a wonderful exit it was. It should have been held the previous year in 1910 but the sudden death of Edward VII caused it to be postponed for a year. After so much work had been done it would have been unthinkable to cancel it, the trustees would have been committed, and anxious to recoup some of their expenditure. Also, being held in the Coronation year of King George V, it was seen as part of the coronation celebrations. Indeed some of the exhibitors stressed the royal connection more the festival side.

            At a luncheon given in the Savoy, the Lord Mayor asked the Mayors of the Metropolitan Boroughs for their support in a spectacle to be staged at the Crystal Palace in the summer of 1911. It was to consist of two parts, an Imperial Exhibition open from May to October, and a series of pageants running from May to July. Over £250,000 had already been raised, and it was estimated that as much again would be needed.

            It was opened on the 12th of May by King George V and Queen Mary, and closed on 28th of October. Special arrangements had been made to line the streets to the Crystal Palace with some 50 to 60,000 school children. After being welcomed by the Duke of Plymouth, they made their way to the Royal Box in the centre transept to attend the Opening Concert. This was lead by the Imperial Choir of 4,500 voices making its first public appearance, singing the National Anthem conducted by Dr Charles Harriss. This has been described as a most moving spectacle with the men in the choir in black, the ladies in white with a great splash of scarlet in the centre caused by the uniforms of the Festival of Empire Military Band. One of the artists at the opening was Madame Clara Butt who sang two songs, one being Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory.

            After the official opening and a cup of tea, the Royal visitors entered a coach for a tour round the Exhibition, and on reaching the pageant ground reviewed the bulk of the 15,000 performers in the pageant. They were attended by the Earl of Plymouth and Frank Lascelles.

            The Imperial Choir of 4,500 people was the brain child of Dr Charles Harriss who in July 1909 had suggested the need for a National Choir to sing a special Patriotic functions such as this. It was composed from 49 of the leading Choral groups in the Greater London area. The idea was received so well that within a month he had started enrolling members. Sectional rehearsals in the north, south, east and west were commenced in 1909, but not brought to fruition owing to the putting back of the opening. When rehearsals resumed there were three series of sectional rehearsals and then two final rehearsals of the full choir a few days before the event. It is interesting to note that one of the Choral Societies enrolled in the Imperial Choir was the Penge and Beckenham Choral Society, and I suggest the name leaves no doubt about who was top dog in those days. Members from the Bromley Choral Society also sang. The Imperial Choir was still going strong well into the 1920’s,
and Dr Charles Harriss conducted them at the British Empire Exhibition, Empire Concert on May 31st 1924.

            It is perhaps surprising that there were so many singers available to choose from, but it must be remembered that in those days there was very little choice available in the way of music. A band in the park on special occasions perhaps and the concerts, so that singing was an inexpensive and popular “do it yourself” entertainment. There was of course no wireless or television.

            The first seven inch single sided “Berliner” wax gramophone records had only come on the market 13 years previously. Although rapid strides had been made in the industry and the “Gramophone and Typewriter Company was now producing 12 inch records, recording methods were crude in the extreme. A performer stood in front of a large horn and bellowed into it, at the other end of the horn a cutting device cut waggly grooves in a revolving disc of wax. These were called acoustic records, and was the only economical way of recording in those days. Having said that it must also be said by the twenties a very high standard of reproduction was attained. It was not until 1924 the first electric recordings were produced.

An Electric All Red Route train at India Station.

            One of the attractions of the outside exhibition, was replicas of the Parliament Buildings of the Commonwealth countries constructed in miniature in the grounds. The finest of them all was the Ottawa Canadian Government Building built at a cost of £70,000. others were South Africa, Newfoundland, New Zealand and Australia. The exterior of these buildings of wood and plaster were made as exact as possible to a scale of three quarter size, except the Canadian building which according to the Canadian Guide Book published for the event, states the Canadian building was built to two thirds scale. Inside the buildings each country exhibited their products and industries, and importantly offered wonderful deals to people wishing to emigrate to a new life abroad. Vast under populated countries like Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia were crying out for settlers, and this state of affairs lasted well into the 1920’s. The interior of the Palace itself was given over to the ‘All British Exhibition of Arts and Industries’ covering engineering, mining, chemistry, transport, art and the sciences, and many other industries.

            There was a Tudor Village and also an Irish Village named Ballymaclinton which had become famous in 1908 when it was first built at the White City for the Franco-British Exhibition. It was claimed the colleens owed their beauty to using David Brown’s Toilet Soap. He was the
proprietor of the soap factory that built the make believe Irish Village of Ballymaclinton. There were 200 colleens at the White City site, but the village at Crystal Palace was on a much smaller scale.

            The All-Red tour on a miniature electric railway was another attraction, There was a mile and a half long ‘All Red Route’ with trains leaving every minute, to conduct visitors on a tour of the Empire, stopping at a South African diamond mine, a Canadian logging camp and an Indian tea plantation amongst the other attractions. Passengers paying six pence for their ticket could leave the train at the various stations and rejoin it later.

            The central theme of the Festival was a series of pageants, with 15,000 voluntary performers taking part, in a 50 acre pageant ground on the north side of the grounds. A large stand in the form of a Greek Amphitheatre with seating accommodation for 40,000 was built overlooking the pageant ground. Music was supplied by a band of 50 players, and a chorus of 500.

            Historical Pageants at this time were a popular form of entertainment, and many were held through to the early 1930’s when other forms of entertainment became more popular. They were organised by a ‘Pageant Master’ and the most famous of these was Frank Lascelles. He was the organiser of most of the major pageants held in this country and abroad, including the Oxford Pageant in 1907, The Pageant for the Tercentenary of Quebec in 1908, The Bath Pageant in 1909, The Pageant for the Opening of the Union Parliament of South Africa in 1910, and what was to be the biggest of them all the Pageant of London and the Pageant of Empire held at the Crystal Palace in 1911. There was a second Pageant of Empire some years later at Wembley in 1924 as part of the British Empire Exhibition, and once again the Pageant Master was Frank Lascelles. He was still going well into the thirties, and in 1932 did two, the Historical Pageant at Bexley, and the Pageant of Leicester.

            The Pageants were held from May through to July, there are conflicting dates for the performance s. Bemrose & Sons Ltd were the printers for the Festival and their publications give three different dates. One period given is May, June and July, they also give May to October. When they are a bit more specific we find June 5th to July 23rd, or June 8th to July 19th, it is all very misleading. It was performed on six days of the week, with performances or Parts as they were called, either in the afternoon at 4.30 or the evening at 8.00, there were two performances on Wednesdays and Fridays. Prices of tickets ranged from 1/- for an unreserved seat, and from 2/6 to one guinea for reserved seats. Boxes to hold six people could be booked for ten guineas, with a reduction of prices for those booking for the complete series.

            The Pageant was divided into four parts, each part divided into about eight scenes. The first three parts were called the Pageant of London, and covered the history of London from is earliest days to the present. The Pageant opened with the Dawn of British History and portrayed primitive London. The scenes following were put on by 24 London Boroughs, some doing more than one scene, and in other cases up to three boroughs sharing one scene between them. Westminster Cathedral and the London Hospital Students each did a scene, and the only non British group, one compiled of American visitors did the “Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers”. Pride of place was given to Penge presumably because the Palace was in Penge, but it must also be born in mind that Penge around the turn of the century, was regarded as a far more important place than it is now. Penge put on “The Triumph of Carausius” under the chairmanship of Mr Bryce Grant, a well known name in Penge then and for many years remembered for the many drapery shops bearing his name. in the district.

            Carausius was a Roman Officer with a lot of naval experience, sent over here by Maxilianus the Emperor to subdue pirate raids led by the Franks and Saxons taking place in the third century A. D. He was later accused in Rome of being more interested in catching the pirates when loaded with spoil which he confiscated, than in actually stopping the raids.

            Unfortunately Carausius had sticky fingers, and it was perhaps doubly unfortunate that the Emperor Maximianus was also a keen collector of spoil, and when the latter discovered the Imperial
Exchequer was not getting its share which was being deducted at source, he took umbrage. I don’t know what Maximainus had planned for Carausius, perhaps he was going to be billed as the star attraction, with a couple of hungry lions at one of the spectaculars the Romans were so keen on.

            Carausius got to hear of this and decided he might just as well be eaten as a wolf rather than a lamb and decided to stage a revolt and having the seamen and army behind him, became the ruler of Britain. A reign that lasted for seven years, building a strong navy and defeating the pirates, and also repeatedly defeating the Roman squadrons sent against him by Maximainus. Thus for the first time Britain (albeit under a Roman) became the ruler of the northern seas. In the seventh year of his reign he became victim of a take over bid and being surplus to requirements, redundantcy soon followed, not to put too fine a point on it, he was murdered by one of his generals. The new management did not last long, lacking experience they were soon defeated by the Romans who took control of Britain again.

            This then was the bare outlines of the scene acted by Penge at the beginning of the Pageant of London. This was followed by the Borough of St. Pancras with a scene about King Alfred, all very serious with no mention of cakes. Another local Borough, Camberwell put on one about the Norman Invasion. Sydenham put on a scene about Pocahontas the Indian princess from Virginia at the Court of James Ist. Pocahontas was renowned “for features, countenance and proportion”. I’m sure if they’d had drawing pins in 1616 she would have been a pin up girl. Lewisham did May Day Revels in Merrie England, described as “a gay scene of revelry round the May Pole”. and the last scene in part three put on by Croydon was The Great War. Of course in 1911 they did not know about the Great War that was to start three years later, they were referring to the Napoleonic wars and Croydon covered the Funeral of Nelson in 1806 and the visit of the Allied Sovereigns to London to take part in the Victory Procession to the Guildhall in 1814. At the time this was a bit premature as Napoleon later escaped from Elba and the Great War was still to enter its final phase.

            While the first three parts were all about London’s history played mainly by Londoners, Part four, called the Pageant of Empire was about deeds that helped to make the Empire what it then was. It was acted by Colonial visitors in London at the time. Scene one was about the Landing of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and was undertaken by Newfoundland visitors. Scene two was Captain Cook in Botany Bay by Australian visitors, and visitors from South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and India did scenes relevant to their own history. The final scene The Masque Imperial, “An Allegory of the Advantages of Empire” was a collective effort by the Overseas Dominions.

The End


         © Exhibition Study Group 1998