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  • The League of Nations, Public Ritual and National Identity in Britain, c.1919–56
  • Helen McCarthy (bio)

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Fig. 1.

League of Nations Pageant in the Preston Guild celebrations, showing international costumes. Preston Guardian, 9 Sept. 1922, p. 9.

Courtesy of the British Library Newsapaper Library

[End Page 108]

On the morning of Saturday 8 November 1919, the streets linking the historic Guildhall in the City of London to the Royal Courts of Justice two miles to the west began to fill with crowds drawn by the promise of a dazzling visual spectacle. The occasion was the Lord Mayor's Show, an ancient ritual first performed in the thirteenth century to mark the installation of a new occupant in London's highest municipal office. The fortunes of the annual procession had waxed and waned over the centuries, but by the time of the First World War its status as one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the civic calendar was once more assured.1 As on previous occasions, spectators lining the route in 1919 marvelled at the brilliant display of civic and military pageantry, the mayor's familiar gilded coach and the eye-catching banners of the London livery companies interspersed with marching bands and columns upon columns of smartly uniformed troops.

This year, however, the Lord Mayor's Show unveiled a novel feature. Filling a large slot between the pipers of the Scots Guards and the Worshipful Company of Musicians could be seen a lavish pageant dedicated to the League of Nations, the supranational body created only months before by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference. At the head of the pageant strode the Herald of Peace, followed by a horse-drawn wagon festooned with foliage and conveying five exotically attired women representing the continents of the world. Appearing next, as the Times correspondent described, was 'a long cavalcade of women on horseback, personating the Allied States and neutral countries, all in the national costumes, and attended by "maids of honour", young girls in white with flowing veils and bearing roses'.2 Onlookers feasted their eyes upon France wearing her liberty cap and tricolour robe, Italy in green, red and white with a wreath of grapes on her head, Japan, whose hair was garlanded with yellow chrysanthemums, and beyond her the United States, clad in stars and stripes. The dominions and the four nations of the United Kingdom followed on, with the helmeted figure of Britannia bringing up the rear. It was, the Times reporter gushed, 'really one of the most wonderful sights of the kind ever seen in the streets of London'.3

The League of Nations was to make a repeat appearance at the Lord Mayor's Show exactly a decade later in the shape of an intricately decorated horse-drawn car occupied by a giant birthday cake, marking the tenth [End Page 109] anniversary of the signing of the Covenant in Paris.4 By then, however, such sights were far from unusual in the streets of interwar Britain, having become a stock-in-trade of the lively popular movement which had grown up around the League, and they would not disappear until well after the Second World War. This distinctly internationalist tradition of public ritual has been almost wholly ignored by historians, despite an abundance of literature on popular peace activism and a rich historiography exploring the complex relationship between national identity and the construction of so-called 'invented traditions'.5 The latter have been famously defined by Eric Hobsbawm as practices 'normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past'.6 Under this broad conceptual banner historians of modern Britain have analysed everything from civic centenaries and acts of remembrance to imperial pageantry and military tattoos.7 Although frequently disagreeing over the ideological effects of such traditions, these scholars tend to concur with sociologists that public ritual, in whatever form it takes, performs important identity work.8 Rituals draw attention to certain objects of thought and feeling through symbolic acts and thus...


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