Speaking with Shadows

Episode 1: A 1930s Pioneer – The First Female Pageant Master

The early 20th century saw a craze for historic pageants – huge theatrical events with casts of thousands. Gwen Lally called herself England’s first female pageant master, and in 1932 she arrived at Battle Abbey in Sussex with great ambitions for her latest show. It was unusual for a woman to wield such power, but even more unusual was her decision to wear masculine clothes. This was a woman who pushed the boundaries.

Join presenter Josie Long as she uncovers this story for Episode 1 of Speaking with Shadows – the podcast which listens to the people that history forgot.

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For this episode Josie travels to Battle Abbey, site of the Battle of Hastings. With English Heritage curator Kathryn Bedford and Gwen Lally’s biographer, Deborah Sugg Ryan, she explores the story of the Battle Pageant and the life of its unconventional pageant master. Josie also meets E-J Scott, Curator of the Museum of Transology, and Francesca Reid (aka drag king Brent Would), to discuss how gender roles have been challenged through performance.

Listen to this episode below, and subscribe to Speaking with Shadows on your favourite podcast platform.

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Image Gallery

Gwen Lally in 1913

Gwen Lally in 1913

Gwen Lally in 1913
A publicity photograph taken in about 1913 of Gwen Lally wearing top hat and tails. (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Battle Abbey Pageant Leaflet

Battle Abbey Pageant Leaflet

Battle Abbey Pageant Leaflet
A leaflet produced for the 1932 Pageant of Battle Abbey. The pageant told the story of Battle Abbey in the wider context of the county of Sussex in nine episodes, starting with the Battle of Hastings
Photograph of Gwen Lally by Elliott and Fry

Photograph of Gwen Lally by Elliott and Fry

Photograph of Gwen Lally by Elliott and Fry
People often remarked on Lally’s resemblance to famous male historical figures. George Bernard Shaw told her ‘you are a pageant in yourself: a George Washington pageant’ (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Gwen Lally as Henry V

Gwen Lally as Henry V

Gwen Lally as Henry V
Gwen Lally playing the part of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play, during the First World War. (© Folger Shakespeare Library)
Gwen Lally and Mabel Gibson

Gwen Lally and Mabel Gibson

Gwen Lally and Mabel Gibson
Gwen Lally (right) as Henry V and her partner, Mabel Gibson, as Princess Katharine, performing at Wroxton Abbey in 1928. (© Image courtesy of the Banbury Guardian)
Black and white photograph of Gwen Lally sitting while her portrait is painted
Gwen Lally sitting for a portrait in 1933
© Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Gwen Lally

Born in 1882, Gwen Lally began her career as an actress, and was renowned for playing only male parts – she later wrote that she was the only actress never to have worn a skirt on stage. She began producing historical pageants in the 1920s, and was said to have the manner of a sergeant-major, directing the action through a megaphone from an elevated crow’s nest.

Off stage, Lally was much remarked on for her androgynous appearance and masculine clothes. And although she left no known record of her private life, recent research suggests that she may have had a long relationship with another woman.

Read more about Gwen Lally
Black and white publicity photograph of male impersonator Vesta Tilley in policeman's uniform, falling off a bike
Male impersonator Vesta Tilley in 1910
© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Experiments in Gender: Women and Masculine Dress

In the early 20th century women such as Vita Sackville-West, Gwen Lally and Radclyffe Hall adopted masculine styles of dress that were subversive, exploratory and playful. Historian Alison Oram explores how such clothing choices might have expressed increasingly fluid ideas about gender identity and sexuality, as well as sometimes simply being about fashion or practicality.

Read More about masculine dress

Further reading

  • Bartie, A, et al., ‘Battle Abbey Pageant’, The Redress of the Past (accessed 5 Sept 2019) 
  • Ryan, DS, ‘Lally, Gwen [real name Gwendolin Rosalie Lally Tollandal Speck] (1882–1963)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2014 (subscription needed; accessed 5 Sept 2019)
  • King’s College London, ‘Gwen Lally’ (accessed 2 Oct 2019)

Download a transcript of episode 1

Episode Credits

Presenter: Josie Long

Producer: Katharine Kerr for Fresh Air


  • Kathryn Bedford, English Heritage Collections Curator (South East)
  • Deborah Sugg Ryan, Professor of Design History and Theory at University of Portsmouth
  • E-J Scott, Historian, Curator and Queer Cultural Producer
  • Francesca Reid, performer and creator of the Drag King, Brent Would


Top image: Gwen Lally directing a pageant (King's College London Archives K/PP251/2/8)

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