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Historian Looks Back To Yorkshire’s Mount Grace Priory Historic Pageant
The players (Robinson Library, Newcastle University)
As tens of thousands of people from across the country head in their droves to the Kyren: An Epic Tale of England outdoor spectacular in Durham this summer, University of Huddersfield Historian Dr Tosh Warwick has delved into the records of Newcastle University’s Robinson Library, North Yorkshire Record Office and local newspaper archives to uncover the story of a spectacle that took place at Mount Grace Priory in September 1927.

Mount Grace is one of the area’s historic treasures and is best known as a reminder of the story of the Carthusian monks who occupied the beautiful priory, now an English Heritage site. Yet, the North Yorkshire residence was also home to one of the region’s most celebrated industrial families – the Bell family who amongst them developed ironworks at Port Clarence, helped shape the Kingdom of Iraq, carried out a celebrated survey of Edwardian Middlesbrough and provided a Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding.

It was in September 1927 that author of At the Works, founder of the Middlesbrough Winter Garden and playwright Lady Florence Bell hosted the Historic Pageant of Mount Grace Priory, drawing thousands of participants and spectators from the nearby towns and villages including performers from Hutton Rudby, Middlesbrough, Northallerton and Port Clarence. Participants and performers were united in celebrating the story of the Carthusians, who for centuries occupied the priory that once stood on the site. In a quaint setting distant from the manufacturing centre of Middlesbrough, the extensive gathering of some 1,500 players and thousands more spectators transformed the industrial elite family’s country estate for three days.

The Bell family

The Bell family were one of the leading late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialist dynasties influential in both the North Yorkshire countryside and the north east manufacturing region. Having had manufacturing interests in early nineteenth century Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by mid-century, as the Cleveland iron industry boomed, the Bells had turned their attention to establishing works and an industrial village at Port Clarence on the north bank of the River Tees.  After decades of success led by Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, Bell Brothers merged with Middlesbrough’s Dorman Long at the turn of the twentieth century to form one of Britain’s largest iron and steel manufacturers, with Sir Hugh Bell playing a leading role. It was one of many roles the steel magnate held including that as thrice Mayor of Middlesbrough, Alderman and Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding.

Yet it was Lady Florence Bell who took centre stage and combined her passion for performance and the family’s interest in their home’s history to put on the spectacle in the North Yorkshire countryside with the furnaces of her husband’s firm bellowing near the River Tees. Having been delayed for a year following the death of her stepdaughter explorer Gertrude Bell and son Hugo Bell in 1926, organising the pageant was a major logistical and costly exercise – the pageant would ultimately make a loss – including rehearsals and transporting participants from far flung corners of Yorkshire and Durham spanning industrial centres to quaint villages.

The Pageant

Despite encountering numerous hurdles along the way - including bereavement, conflict and strike - after years in preparation, bringing with it significant financial investment, detailed logistical organisation and months in rehearsals, the pageant was held across three days from 1st to 3rd September 1927.  The pageant opened with actress Elizabeth Robins as ‘The Spirit of the Past’ and the chronological focus spanned from 1084 through to the abandonment of Mount Grace at the Dissolution, while the geographical reach covered France and various scenes in England. Scenes in England included a medieval castle in the midlands and followed in 1430 by Mount Grace; Hampton Court in 1535 with King Henry VII at Tennis; a street in London in the same year thronging with hoards present to see Carthusian priors pass to execution; with proceedings then returning to Yorkshire where the prior eventually succumbed in the final episode – the Dissolution of Mount Grace.  

Payment into the Pageant Account ( North Yorkshire County Record Office, ZFK)
Armed with their one shilling ‘Book of the Words’, the pageant attendees were afforded a journey across centuries of Carthusian history, played out by a mixture of celebrated performers, ecclesiastical figures, national politicians, prominent industrialists, landed gentry and military leaders.  Alongside members of the Bells’ elite networks were a rich ensemble of cultural and philanthropic organisations to which the industrialist family were affiliated, with a particularly strong representation of a cohort of Women’s Institutes drawn from across North Yorkshire and South Durham.

Amongst the performers were Charles Trevelyan, MP for Newcastle Central and formerly Elland, and son-in-law of Lady Bell as Richard II, alongside his wife Molly Trevelyan as Lady Manners, her sister Lady Richmond playing Lady Beauchamp, with Vice Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond assuming the part of Chaucer. The families’ younger generations were also represented with the Richmond and Bell children having parts to play alongside Mrs Hugh Bell (the widower of ‘Hugo’ Bell), heir to the family dynasty and Dorman Long director Colonel Maurice Lowthian Bell, and other members of the Pease, Richmond and Trevelyan families.  They were joined in the episode by Charles Dorman, director at Dorman Long, who himself was a leading local notable and served alongside Sir Hugh Bell on the Teesside steel manufacturer’s board.
The hard work put into the play was recognised at the close of the performance when the players ‘were accorded round after round of cheering’ followed by Sir Hugh Bell stepping into the court to heap praise on the performers and producer Edith Craig.  Craig in turn called for ‘three cheers to the creator of what has been a beautiful pageant’, with Lady Bell fittingly having the last word to bring proceedings to a close.   

Reception, Reviews and Legacy

Spectators at Mount Grace Priory Pageant, including Sir Hugh Bell and Lady Florence Bell right (Robinson Library, Newcastle University)

The pageant was reported extensively across regional newspapers with generally positive reviews, acknowledging the scale of the event and praising Lady Bell in particular. The Yorkshire Post chronicled the build up to the pageant including coverage of dress rehearsals and even a visit by the Queen in the days prior to the event. The North Eastern Daily Gazette reported how ‘scenes of great enthusiasm marked the close of the final performance’ with all seats occupied and the nearby woodland thronging with hundreds of onlookers.

The Northern Echo provided detailed coverage of the pageant from rehearsals through to the launch of the pageant and reported on the pageant with accompanying photographs of several notables in costume, praising Bell for having brought together people ‘from all parts of Cleveland between Saltburn and here [Mount Grace] — humble farm workers, men of commerce and the Church, women from the dairy and from the drawing room, workers with hands and with brains’. Meanwhile The Leeds Mercury headline read ‘Pageant in Perfect Setting’.

Sir Hugh Bell and Lady Florence Bell (Teesside Archives)

Criticisms of the pageant were minor, and tended to focus on issues with local accents coming through. One newspaper warned attendees against talking to characters ‘off stage’ as to not spoil the illusion - noting an encounter when a Carthusian brother, smoking a pipe, broke his vows of silence to tell one audience member about ‘two good things at Manchester’.  Similar criticisms followed from another newspaper in noting how ‘hesitancy in speech and position were occasionally noticeable’ and ‘numerous lines in the book were treated discourteously’, paying particular attention to the ‘accents that spoil the illusion’ noting the how the ‘modernity of enunciation…can hardly be eradicated’.

Despite these minor criticisms of this north country pageant, the event was clearly a positive one, and left behind a legacy remembered for decades to come. Janet E. Courtney’s tribute to Lady Bell on the latter’s death in 1930 noting how ‘she once staged the History of the Bells' beautiful old Carthusian priory, Mount Grace.  Almost half a century later, mourners at the funeral of Sir Hugh and Lady Bell’s grandson (also Sir Hugh Bell) in 1970 recalled ‘the beauty of the a scene from the great pageant of Mount Grace’.  Today, a short piece of footage of the pageant survives in the Yorkshire Film Archive, originally recorded for screening at cinemas in nearby Northallerton.  The footage not only captures part of the performance but also shows preparation for the pageants and key figures that were in attendance, including Lady Bell greeting guests and Sir Hugh Bell walking amongst the cloister ruins.

Three Cheers for Lady Bell (Northern Echo 5th September & Middlesbrough Reference Library)

For any looking to explore the wider connections of the industrialists and industries with the surrounding Yorkshire countryside, there can be few better starting points than to explore the story of The Historic Pageant of Mount Grace Priory and pay a visit the ruins of the monastery and explore the Bell’s Manor House.

Historian Looks Back To Yorkshire’s Mount Grace Priory Historic Pageant, 5th September 2018, 17:46 PM