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YWCA Performs Its History: A Journey Into the Archive!

In Melbourne, 1952, the YWCA pageant, entitled “The Story of Seventy Years,” featured the organization’s own history, as told by a high-minded narrator characterized as “The Voice of Youth.”

The event’s purpose brought out the dramatic in the piece’s author, Hazel Belcher. YWCA histories have often tended toward understatement, but Ms. Belcher’s pageant included stirring recreations of events important to the story of the Y from its 1882 founding until her present day. She planned to have girls in period costumes recreate the organization’s founding, its early outreach programs to women working in Melbourne’s factories, Traveler’s Aid, picnics by the sea, its first gymnastics class in 1896 (equipment for which, she takes care to note, cost £8, 6 shillings, and ninepence), and its Depression-Era employment agency, which the author promises kept girls’ shorthand speeds up despite unemployment. At each milestone, the actors would physically pass a burning torch while reciting:

Closing with a description of of the YWCA’s work in her period, including it’s new outreach programs to migrants, and the organization’s programs for probably one of the most significant inventions of the 1950’s, the teenager, Ms. Belcher reminded her audience to “guard the sacred flame” of the YWCA’s mission to assist women and engage with the community. Her narrator, “The Voice of Youth,” intoned as the actors, dressed as Y women of different eras, surrounded her: “By the girls and young women of today will the task be carried on, to illuminate the path for the girl of tomorrow.”

The script for Hazel Belcher’s 1952 pageant, “Melbourne Y.W.C.A.: The Story of Seventy Years” is a part of YWCA Victoria’s archive. Sadly no photographs seem to exist of the event.

Historical pageants were a quite popular form of mass entertainment in the first half of of the twentieth century, and the YWCA’s history pageant was not alone in its focus on local events. It was, perhaps more unique in its exclusive focus on women, since many events recreated in pageants have left little for women, beyond the odd reenacted royal, to do–despite the significant presence of women in the civic groups that were often responsible for the local pageants.

In Australia, pageants often depicted events surrounding early settlement by Europeans. 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations occurred at the high point of interest in historical pageants. The New South Wales government planned a massive recreation of the landing of the First Fleet, followed by a parade, to be attended by dignitaries and open to the public. The celebrations were a point of contention for the burgeoning Aboriginal Rights Movement, which declared the first Day of Mourning and Protest for 26 January 1938. When Aboriginal organizations in Sydney refused to participate in the reenactments, the NSW government organizing the event brought 26 Aboriginal people from western NSW (Wiradjuri, Barkendjii and Murawari people) to act out resistance to the landing of the Fleet. The visitors were housed in the Redfern Police barracks and members of the Sydney-based Aborigines Progressive Association were not allowed to meet with them.

For more about that, go here and here.

For more on Historical Pageantry see this still-developing site on pageants in Great Britain:

See also:

Julian Thomas, “Pageants” in The Oxford Companion to Australian History (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2011) An electronic version is available, but for premium users only. It may be available from your local library.

Stephen Gapps, “Performing the Past: A Cultural History of Historical Reenactments,” PhD dissertation, University of Technology, Sydney, 2002.

David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: the Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1990).