The May Queens of Whitelands College

Dave Walker, our Local Studies Librarian writes our weekly local studies blog, The Library Time Machine. We’re very lucky that he writes for us occasionally too! Over to Dave….

Following my recent post Rites of Spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen on the Library Time Machine blog, I was invited to visit the May Queen archive at Roehampton University. Whitelands College, a teacher training college  was one of the first educational establishments for women and was started at Whitelands House in the King’s Road in the 1840s.

The art critic John Ruskin, together with the Principal of Whitelands College John Faunthorpe devised the idea for an annual May Queen festival at the College. The first May Queen Ellen I was elected by her fellow students in 1881 and there has been a May Queen or (from 1986 when King Gary was elected) a May King ever since. Whitelands College left Chelsea for a bigger building in Putney in 1930 and subsequently amalgamated with a number of other colleges to form the University of Roehampton. The Whitelands campus is now in a part Georgian part modern building originally called Manresa House which is an odd coincidence as the other Manresa in London is Manresa Road home of the first Chelsea Library.

Whitelands College
Whitelands College

We were taken by the Archivist, Gilly King to the secure archives room in the old part of the building. I was expecting to see photographs and college records preserved in archive boxes which we did find but I hadn’t anticipated what you can see below: two racks on which were hanging the dresses of the May Queens.

May Queen's dresses and a May King's suit!
May Queen’s dresses and a May King’s suit!

The dresses (and one May King’s suit on the left) in the pictures are for the living May Queens and Kings who can come back to the festival each year. The archive boxes contain the dresses of the dead queens packed away carefully as they will never be worn again although a few of them are on display in the College. There was also the one below.

Queen Ellen II's May Queen dress (1898)
Queen Ellen II’s May Queen dress (1898)

This is the dress first worn in 1898 by Queen Ellen II which had been on display and was now waiting to go back in its box.

I was accompanied on the visit by an Australian archives student who was doing a placement with us. I thought it would be useful for her to see a small specialist archive as part of her programme but my main purpose in going was to see the scrapbooks of photographs which cover the history of the May Queen festival, especially the ones that cover the period when the College was in Chelsea. I’ve been trying to get an image of each May Queen and to identify the previous queens in the group photos like this one.

Queen Agnes II and former May Queens (1909)
Queen Agnes II and former May Queens (1909)

From the left: Mildred I (1904),  Florence (1906), Elizabeth II (1892), Ellen I (1881), Agnes II (1909),Dorothy I (1908), Elsie II (1907) ,Evelyn (1905), Elizabeth I (1886)(I think),Muriel I (1903), Annie II (1895), Edith (1883)

The archive at Whitelands College is a fascinating and significant collection. It’s not open to the general public but the College does take part in the annual Open House event and there are also group tours.

On our way out we saw some more May Queen dresses on display.

Queen Elsie's and Queen Edna's May Queen dresses
Queen Elsie’s and Queen Edna’s May Queen dresses

These are the dresses of Elsie II who you can see in the group photos and Queen Edna (1924).

Here, in the May Queen corridor you can see Queen Thyra (1890) on the far right.

May Queen corridor
May Queen corridor

I managed to get a decent picture of Queen Elizabeth II (1892) who was also in the group photo as she was seventeen years before in the year when she was elected.

Queen Elizabeth II (1892)
Queen Elizabeth II (1892)

I took plenty of other pictures in the archives which will form part of an extensive file on this fascinating part of Chelsea’s history. The final picture is one for Shari to send home.

Shari at Whitelands College
Shari at Whitelands College
Dave Walker
Dave Walker

Dave Walker

Local Studies Librarian

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