Uncovering Southend’s Carnival Queens
The Beecroft has recently been donated some fantastic items that formed part of the Southend Carnival Court regalia. Due to the unfortunate ending of the Carnival Queen in 2016, the Southend Carnival Association donated the Carnival Courts regalia, as a lasting reminder of a tradition that formed a special part of the town’s cultural history.
Unpacking the items was like discovering a treasure chest, with velvet robes, gold and silver chains as well as tiaras and an impressive jewelled crown. The robes, crown and chain of office themselves date to the 1920s from when the Carnival started and all feature the pomp of Royal frippery, with sparkling jewels, rich fabrics and embroidered crests. They form the special ceremonial dress the Carnival Queen and her court would wear, marking them out as special figureheads for Southend.
Southend Carnival was an important event for the town, especially during its heyday as a popular seaside resort in the first half of the twentieth century. It was held at the peak holiday season in Mid-August, when many holidaymakers flocked to the town. The summer season saw the Southend Illuminations, boat trips off the Pier, dances at the Kursaal, performances at the Palace Theatre and later in the century the Miss Lovely pageant and performances at Westcliff Open Air Swimming Pool.
A popular seaside holiday event
Guides to the town often featured photos of the Carnival procession, to promote the events of the Summer season. The 1936-1937 Official Guide printed a picture of a crowded Southend Street with the Queen and her court on a float. The Guide promotes the event as ‘the most famous throughout the World and is justly known as England’s greatest Carnival’ It is said to have attracted a quarter of a million people. Judging by the photograph it shows the popularity of the event, with streets and balconies thronged with spectators, the Carnival float for the Queen is very grand and is preceded by a marching band and young ladies in waiting.
At this time in the 1930s and into the 1950s the Carnival was not just a day’s celebration but was a week of festivities. The selection process of the Carnival Queen was also a big event and prospective candidates photos would be printed in the local newspapers.
Newspapers such as the Southend County Pictorial Telegraph also published extensively about the Carnival, printing route maps, the crowning of the Queens as well as covering the other tie-in events with the Carnival, such as local fetes across the borough.
The ‘crowning ceremony’ as it was called in the 1950s was held at the Odeon Theatre in 1954 and marked the ascension of Patricia Fox, Carnival Queen of 1954. There are swathes of draped fabric around a raised podium and Patricia is seated on an elaborate throne, surrounded by her Carnival Court. As you can see the Queen and her court are all in ballgowns with tiaras and bouquets, replicating the grandeur of a real coronation.
The crowning of Queen Elizabeth II had only taken place the year before and it is possible these young women were embodying the new monarch. In the photo you can see the Carnival Queen is wearing the crown that is now in the Beecroft archive, it is positioned tilted backwards on her head, so as not to spoil her carefully curled hairstyle.
The crown I think is a simplistic copy of the Imperial State Crown, used in coronation ceremonies of the English monarchy, with its distinctive purple velvet and many jewels. The Southend crown is formed of a gold band on which various gemstones are pasted, although due to its age a number of gems have fallen off. The purple velvet matches the purple of the Carnival robes.
The crown is very heavy which would make it uncomfortable for long stretches of time, especially considering the Queen would have to wear the crown to all public events, all still dressed in the proper regalia of crown and cloak. The County Pictorial covered Miss Fox’s Carnival Week, showing her permanently wearing the crown titled backwards on her permed hair. Her hair was specially redone for the Carnival at the exclusive ‘Moskowitz Maison’ Hair salon in Hamlet Court Road, providing a photo opportunity for the Pictorial the following week.
In later years the crown was no longer used, instead tiaras were worn and these tiaras are now also within the archive.
The Royal Robes
Whilst the crown was only worn by the Queen the robes were worn by all members of the court. Recently donated are three purple velvet robes that would have been worn by the Carnival Court, consisting of the Queen and her two ladies in waiting or ‘princesses.’
The robes are all in purple velvet but there are certain clues to mark out the Queens higher rank among the Carnival Court. Her cloak is lined in purple, as opposed to light blue and features a stitched applique Southend coat of arms at the right front, symbolising her importance within the Town administration. The Southend armorial bearings depicts the fisherman and monk which represents the motto of the town: Per Mare per Ecclesiam (By the Sea and by the Church) which was granted to the town in 1915.
These were not the only robes that were worn, many photographs show the Queen’s attendants in shorter fur capes in the 1950s and into the 1970s but it may be that these were discarded in later years.
Various guides also show the Queen’s robe with a fur edging. In a 1957 Official Guide to Southend the Carnival Queen wears a robe which has the same stitched Southend coat of arms. It is possible this is the same cloak but its fur edging was later removed. This cloak was worn to The Tiny Tots Parade, a fancy-dress procession for children, with exciting prizes to be won organised by the Carnival Committee.
The Queen’s chain of office
One of the most fascinating items is the Carnival Queen’s chain of office. It is a ceremonial necklace, much like that worn by local mayors and dignitaries and the Mayor of Southend would invest the Queen with her chain of office in a special ceremony.
The chain is gold with hundreds of interconnecting links and not noticeable at first is that each shaped link is engraved with a past Carnival Queen’s name and her year of reign. This creates a kind of shared heirloom of Southend’s Carnival past. These names date back to the 1920s which is when the Carnival was first launched.
The chain of office would be worn draped over the shoulders, with chains hanging over the back and front in three parallel chains. There are pins on the necklace so that it could be pinned to the robe to prevent it slipping when the Queen is greeting her audience or attending to her duties.
The chain has a hanging medallion, which features the same Southend coat of arms sewn onto the robe. Painted around this armorial bearing are the words ‘Southend-on-sea and District Voluntary Hospital’. The Carnival was closely tied to the hospital and has always raised money for charitable causes.
Southend Carnival was started in 1926 in order to raise funds for a much needed new hospital, in Prittlewell Chase, the site of the current hospital that was eventually opened in 1932. This was to replace the older hospital in Warrior Square which was founded in 1888. The Carnival continued to raise money after 1926 and in the ten years between the Carnivals inception and 1936 the Carnival had raised £50,000 for the Southend General Hospital, an extremely impressive figure at that time.
What is special about the Carnival is the feeling of goodwill that it generated, visible through the evident joy of the Carnival Queen documented in newspapers and also through its focus on charitable causes. It also provided the chance for normal everyday girls to become elevated to the status of Queens. By dressing up in robes and crowns they were invested with a special status, becoming the centre of attention in front of hundreds of spectators, as they were carried along the procession. Looking through these items you can easily imagine the excitement of being part of such an event and it’s comforting to know this special piece of Southend History is being preserved.
By Iona Farrell
Fashion and Curatorial Volunteer