Written April 2016 by Gavin Morgan
Next weekend there will be celebrations for the Queens 90th birthday. There is nothing like a Royal occasion to bring people together in celebration of our common heritage. For those of us following the future of Guildford Museum it is a poignant moment at which to reflect on past Royal occasions and how we might celebrate our heritage in the future.
I remember the celebrations for the royal wedding in 1981 and helped decorate the Guildhall. I also remember the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and how the whole town came together to celebrate in style. If we can somehow rekindle that spirit then our museum will have a great future.
The highlight of the celebrations in 1977 was the Silver Jubilee Pageant. Hundreds of people in the town took part. It was the brainchild of David Clarke, a larger than life character with infectious enthusiasm. He toured schools, drama clubs, and other community groups around the town drumming up a small army of people from all walks of life and all ages. For weeks we rehearsed in Shalford Meadows in rain, wind and even one eventful thunderstorm when someone's umbrella got struck by lightning.
By June a small village had started to appear in Shalford Meadows. There were three grandstands and tents for costumes, cast members, hospitality, souvenirs, first aid as well as the press.
On the weekend before the pageant a grand procession took place down the High Street and to the site of the pageant. The whole town came to a standstill as a hundreds of people in every historical costume imaginable paraded through the town. There were civil war Roundheads and cavaliers on horseback, Edwardian characters in veteran cars, World War II vehicles and a Dennis Fire engine. There were Victorian policemen giving out mock parking tickets to the traffic held up to allow the procession to pass through.
But that was just the beginning. For the next two weeks crowds were entertained to a potted history of England on the grandest of scales. Starting with a sacrifice at stone henge the pageant presented Romans battling the ancient Britons. Norman invaders, a medieval fair and joust. The audience were taken to Vauxhall gardens for a firework display. A one dimensional replica of an early steam engine puffed it way across the arena to take Queen Victoria on a royal tour
The voices of principle characters were mimed by actors on stage whilst narrators spoke their words from a box offstage. Their voices were broadcast via loud speakers. Music was also a big part of the show and used to create dramatic effect. The whole evening was rounded of by the stirring words of Winston Churchill and Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. There was no holding back!
It was a great success and even Princess Anne came to see it. As an impressionable schoolboy it seemed like the whole town had got behind the project. Thousands of people from the town were entertained by hundreds of amateur performers from the town. But what is more the event seemed to kindle a spirit that saw Guildford embrace its past.
Over the next few years David Clarke's theatrical army reappeared. The award winning local film group, Circle Eight started to make historical films and many people dressed up for the crowd scenes. First there came "Tales of Guildford", followed by "Tales of Surrey". There was a mini pageant featuring scenes outside historic buildings in the town and then in 1987 another full scale pageant in Shalford Meadows.
Guildford embraced its heritage big time and there was more to it than a bunch of eccentrics dressing up to entertain. Out of this enthusiasm came the Guildford Town Guides who have contributed so much to tourism. Guildford also embraced heritage weekend when historic buildings are opened to public. Guildford's offering is frequently amongst the top 10 in the country. Guildford Museum was also very active with publications and events in the town.
The pageant may not have directly inspired all this but it gave expression to a spirit which has touched many aspects of the town's heritage industry. If this is to continue then we need to inspire a new generation. In the week that the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday the Council voted for an impressive new extension to its museum in Quarry Street. Over the next 2 to 3 years Guildford Museum will be transformed. However its success should not be measured just by the quality of the building or its exhibits. If the pageant tells us anything then it is that the success of Guildford museum will must be measured by its ability to inspire Guildfordians and get them behind their heritage. If that can be achieved then everything else will follow.
So as I celebrate the Queen's Birthday this weekend I will remember those exciting months in 1977 in particular. It certainly changed my life and took me into a career in museums. I would love to find a way of bringing groups from all over the town together again to celebrate our heritage in different and exciting ways.