Frank Lascelles (né Stevens), 1875 – 1934

Pageant Master and Lord of the Manor of Sibford Gower

In 1905 a new meaning was given to the word “pageant” when Louis Napoleon Parker produced his elaborate outdoor civic “folk play” at Sherbourne which was quickly imitated by others. Usually a combination of dramatic sketches, dances and singing, the theme of these modem civic pageants was usually the history of the place where they were staged. Pageants were a distinctive twentieth century spectacular dramatic form of entertainment, relying on a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, of amateurs of all classes. They were said to induce local and national pride and were thought to be a good way of educating the public. They remained popular, often as a means of raising money for charity, until the second world war. Pageants were also produced in other English-speaking countries in this period, notably the United States.

Frank Lascelles was born Frank William Thomas Charles Stevens on 30 July 1875. His father was the Rev. Edward Thomas Stevens, the vicar of Sibford Gower. Lascelles read English Literature at Keble College, Oxford, but did not take a degree. He was a leading light of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, notably playing Romeo in 1898 when he was named an “Isis Idol” in the student magazine. After Oxford, he worked as an actor in London between 1904 and 1906 and understudied Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, appearing in several productions in his own right. It was during this time that he changed his name. It is no accident that the name “Lascelles” had nobler connotations than “Stevens”. Frank Lascelles was, according to some, rather arrogant and distant, although others said he had a “magnetic personality”, and he seems to have invented a grander persona for himself that misled over his humble origins. Indeed, he held the title of Lord of the Manor of Sibford Gower (which I understand he probably acquired rather than inherited) and created a new manor house out of an old barn in the village, despite the fact that there was already a manor house standing. Lascelles was a prominent member of the local community; he was a member of the Parish Council and of the Town Estate Trustees and also helped to produce charitable plays for the village.

His first pageant was the Oxford Historical Pageant held in 1907 which was a great success, despite initial reservations by the University authorities and a student riot. The following year be organised a pageant as part of the celebrations of the Tercentenary of Canada at Quebec, in front of the King and Queen. Lascelles enlisted the services of the Iroquois Indians and was made an honorary chief under the name of Tehonikonraka, “the man of infinite resource”. In 1909 be organised the Bath Historical Pageant and was Master of Pageantry at the celebration of the opening of the Union Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. He managed to persuade several indigenous peoples to participate alongside the British and Boers, despite being warned that he would never succeed, and was made a chief of the Basutos under the name of Rakalello, “the father of wonderful thoughts”. The following year he organised the Pageant of London with 40 scenes performed by a cast of 15,000 volunteers from all the Boroughs of London, at the Festival of Empire and Imperial Exhibition at Crystal Palace. It was the first public event that the new King and Queen attended and they held their Coronation party there for an audience of 250,000. In 1912 Lascelles was Master of the Pageant at the Coronation Durbar at Calcutta, in which over 300,000 indigenous peoples and troops participated, and also produced Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. In 1923 he was Master of the Harrow Pageant and, the following year, Master of the Bristol Pageant (Cradle of the Empire) and the Pageant of Empire at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley. The latter was performed by a cast of over 15,000 volunteers from London and the Dominions, as well as an assortment of exotic animals, to an audience of over 120,000. He received laurel wreaths from all the Dominions and Colonies as thanks for his work in a public ceremony at Wembley. A number of local historical pageants followed in Carlisle (1928), Stoke-on-Trent (Wedgwood Bicentenary Celebrations) (1930), Rochester (1931), Bradford (1931), Barking (1931), Leicester (1932), Essex (1932), and Kent (1932).

Lascelles also practised sculpture; among his subjects were the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, Earl Grey and the Aga Khan. He sculpted a memorial to his mother, Isabella Hannah, in the church at Sibford Gower, as well as painting a Roll of Honour. He also contributed prose and verse to periodicals. His recreations included rose-growing, as well as music and outdoor life. In 1932 a volume of essays entitled Frank Lascelles: Our Modern Orpheus, edited by the Earl of Darnley, was published in his honour by Oxford University Press.

Towards the end of his life, ill health restricted Lascelles’s finances and he died in poverty on 23 May 1934 in rented rooms in Brighton. At the time of his death extensive renovations were being carried out on the Manor House and several of the obituaries suggest that these were adversely affected by his diminishing finances. His dying wish that his estate should be used by his friend Frank Brangwyn, the painter, to set up a “School of Nations” where children from all over the world could study was unable to be realised as, despite a gross value of £12,899 8s. 1d., the net value of his personal estate was nil. As Lascelles never married, his main beneficiary was his gardener Ewart Bodfish, of “The Yews”, Sibford Gower, and his sister-in-law Mrs Harry Stevens.

This is a slightly edited version of an article by Dr Deborah Ryan published in the Sibford Scene of October 1995. Dr Deborah Sugg Ryan is now (2021) Professor of Design History and Theory at the University of Portsmouth.

There are many references to Frank’s childhood in his father’s diary. The simplest way to find relevant diary entries is to search for “frank” in the website search box.

Fank Lascelles in Sibford

How did the vicar’s son from a sleepy Cotswold village grow up to be the most famous pageant master the Empire had ever seen? Why did the celebrities of the day flock to his self-created Manor House and pay homage to the visionary, the great actor and the great artist? And why after having led such an impressive and influential life is he now a virtually forgotten man – lost in history and tinged with a hint of scandal?

For some he was charismatic, kindly and a visionary. For others he was flamboyant, a poser and a tiresome self publicist.

Michael Donovan, formerly a resident of the Manor House, addressed these questions in a presentation to The Sibfords History Society in October 2022. Michael has kindly given us permission to publish this video of the event:

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