Exactly one hundred years after the triumphant success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival of Britain was launched on London’s South Bank. At the turn of the mid-century, Britain remained mired in the post-war malaise: the economy had not yet recovered, rationing was still in place, the glory days of Empire had faded into the distance, and the shadow and horror of war still loomed large in the British psyche. The nation needed a pick-me-up, and so the idea of the Festival of Britain was born.
The main Festival events took place on a newly appropriated site on London’s South Bank, which was transformed into a space for showcasing British art, technology and ingenuity. However, the Festival extended throughout the county, and towns and cities across the nation put on events and exhibitions that were broadly designed to celebrate the British contribution to the advancement of the arts and sciences. This public declaration of unity, and forward-looking celebration of British achievement was precisely what was needed to reconfigure British identity in the radically altered post-war world.
- March 1948 Festival of Britain Office was established
- 3 May 1951 Opening of the Festival Hall
- 4 May 1951 Official opening of the Festival of Britain
- September 1951 End of the Festival of Britain
- Herbert Morrison MP for South Hackney and Festival organiser
- Hugh Casson Chief Architect for the South Bank Festival Site
- Robert Matthew Lead architect and designer of the Festival Hall
- Clement Attlee British Prime Minister (1945-1951)
The Need for a Post-War Success
The inspiration for the Festival of Britain was, ostensibly, the Great Exhibition of 1851. As the centenary of the Great Exhibition approached, politicians in Britain began to ask whether a celebration in the same vein might operate as a tonic to lift the nation’s spirits. However, the world of 1951 was very different from the context in which the Great Exhibition took place. In 1851, Britain had been a nation in ascendance, with an enormous Empire, a strong sense of civilizing mission, and confidence in the ideas of progress, technology and development. By 1951, however, Britain had lost its sense of purpose and place in the world. The Second World War had sounded the death knell for the days of Empire, which had been in a phase of steep decline since 1918. British pride in its Empire could no longer be sustained in the face of renewed and strident calls for independence by the subject peoples of its colonial holdings. Following the end of the war, a series of independence movements chipped away at the British Empire, leading to the establishment of new states such as Jordan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. In 1947, India, the Empire’s most prized possession, was partitioned, creating the two new, independent states of India and Pakistan.
Where the Great Exhibition had been a celebration of the British Empire and its international territories, the Festival of Britain needed to focus specifically on the British Isles. The years immediately following the end of the war had lost the triumphalist, proud tone of the age of empire, and a general sense of gloom and depression prevailed in public discourses, brought on by the persistent rationing, austerity and the traumatic memory of the conflict as soldiers gradually came home and families began to rebuild their lives. The Festival was designed to address this malaise, focusing on the British recovery, emphasising British technology, design and engineering, and setting a brand new tone and style for Britain in a new age. Rather than focusing on the joys and spoils of empire, the Festival would place Britain itself at the centre, and emphasise its contributions, both past and future, to knowledge, science, art and industry. The Festival was a reminder of British greatness on its own terms, empire or not.
The idea for a centenary celebration of the Great Exhibition was floated by the Royal Society of Art in 1943, but the concept had been shelved due to the lack of available funds in the mid-1940s. However, when the Labour government headed by Clement Attlee came to power after the end of the war, it was decided that a version of the Great Exhibition based on British achievements would be worth the expense, and might even fuel redevelopment. The MP for South Hackney, Herbert Morrison, was put in charge of the events, and the project was given a £12 million budget. In March 1948 the Festival of Britain Office was established, which would be responsible for coordinating festival events around the country.
Rebuilding Britain: Constructing the Festival
The South Bank of the Thames, near Waterloo Bridge, was chosen as the principal site for the Festival events and exhibits, primarily because it had been aggressively bombed and then abandoned during the war. The event organizers wanted to do something unique and progressive with the space, in order to create an iconic architectural statement that would stand for a new era. In line with this agenda, Hugh Casson, a young, brilliant and ambitious architect, was put in charge of the construction and design of the Festival site. He was charged with putting together a team of young architects who would create a modern visual identity for the Festival. This was an important decision because it meant that the festival was, from the outset, imbued with an entirely fresh visual aesthetic that seemed to indicate the inception of a modern, British age.
Casson’s vision for the South Bank sought to make innovative use of the remains of old Victorian buildings which had been left or discarded after the war. He and his team used these old, iconic structures that recalled Britain’s past in new and innovative ways, creating a radically modern visual aesthetic that nevertheless had Victorian echoes. The site was futuristic and daring, with wide, open spaces, elevated walkways and diverse buildings.
The South Bank site was marked by a number of important architectural structures. Perhaps the most iconic Festival building, and one of the only ones to endure past the end of the summer of 1951, was the Festival Hall. This brand new concert hall, designed by Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin, was able to seat 2900 people, and was constructed using reinforced concrete, luxurious timber and fossilised limestone, creating a modernist feel that was simultaneously organic. The extensive use of glass ensured that the Hall was bright and luminous during the day, and that it illuminated the wider South Bank site after dark. Particular attention was paid to the acoustics of the auditorium, which were designed to be state-of-the-art. The Festival Hall opened on the 3rd of May 1951 with a concert attended by the Royal family, to widespread critical acclaim. The dramatic beauty of the Hall’s interior impressed its early visitors, and ensured that the Festival would leave a monumental legacy on the South Bank.
One of the other most notable structures that occupied the South Bank site was the Dome of Discovery. This remarkable building was, at that point, the largest dome and the biggest single structure ceiling ever constructed, with a diameter of 365 feet, and a height of 93 feet. The Dome was the home of all exhibits that came under the theme of discovery, including expeditions to the North and South Poles, space travel and underwater exploration. It also housed a 12 ton steam engine, and the interior was decorated with a 50 foot mural created by the artist Keith Vaughn. The Dome was paired with another unusual structure, the Skylon, which stood next to it and dominated the landscape of the South Bank. The Skylon was an enormous cylindrical tower, suspended by metal cables in the air, giving the impression that it was floating above the ground. These two structures were placed next to one another in homage to the Trylon and Perisphere that were constructed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Other structures on the South Bank site included the Exhibition of Science and the Telekinema, a modern cinema operated by the British Film Institute. This was one of the most popular sites of the entire Festival, and hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the cinema over the summer of 1951 to watch popular films and television shows. After the Festival the Telekinema was turned into the National Film Theatre until it was demolished in 1957.
In addition to the main site on the South Bank, Festival events were also held at Poplar and Battersea. In Poplar, the Exhibition of Live Architecture was the principal attraction, which included a Building Research Pavilion, a Town Planning Pavilion and an exhibition of semi-constructed houses. The impetus for this exhibition was to demonstrate British redevelopment and construction in the post-war period, but it appears to have held little interest for visitors. The Poplar site was among the least-visited attractions in the Festival and attracted a wide range of criticism from reporters and industry figures. More popular, however, were the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park, which contained a host of attractions and could be accessed from the South Bank site by boat. The Gardens contained a funfair, walkways suspended in the trees, a water garden, and luxury shopping. Its focus was entertainment rather than education, which seemed to be the core purpose of the other exhibits, and consequently, it was widely enjoyed by large numbers of Festival visitors.
Discussion of the Festival of Britain tends to centre primarily on London, but in reality, a large number of cities and sites across the country participated in the celebrations. In the north of England and Scotland, many of the events were focused on British industry, such as the Industrial Power Exhibition in Glasgow. In Belfast, the Ulster Farm and Factory Exhibition showcased Northern Ireland’s agriculture and development. In addition to this, the Festival Ship Campania travelled around the nation to towns and cities attracting a large amount of attention and significant numbers of visitors.
The Festival was met with widespread public approval during the summer of 1951, and it is estimated that approximately half of the population of Britain participated in some way in Festival events. The South Bank site attracted 8.5 million visitors, and the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea attracted 8 million. Nevertheless, the Festival was the source of significant controversy, from the very early days of planning and construction. The British conservative media was adamantly opposed to the scheme, believing it to be a waste of public money that was sorely needed elsewhere. Conservative critics described the Festival as a Socialist vanity project for the Labour government, ridiculing its agenda and execution. The futuristic and modernist design of the Festival, particularly on the South Bank site, was considered to be ugly and in poor taste, and to be a scar on the face of the city. In addition to this, there were fears that the festival would be prohibitively expensive, with entrance to the Dome of Discovery set at five shillings, a fee that would surely exclude the majority of the working classes. These fears proved to be unfounded, and despite the damning publicity that accompanied the launch of the Festival, it was an unmitigated public success.
The Festival of Britain was open for five months over the summer of 1951 and was ultimately a tremendous public success. Despite fears of poor attendance and wasted funds, the Festival actually ran at a profit and appeared to have achieved the organizers’ aims of reinvigorating the post-war nation. A new style and tone was set for the second half of the 20th century, and the visual aesthetic of the Festival represented the optimism that would accompany the Baby Boomer generation. These same visual aesthetics had a profound impact on planning, architecture, and development in London during the 1950s and 1960s, creating a new modernist style that was replicated throughout the city. In addition to this, South Bank site itself became a home for arts and culture within London. Today, the Southbank Centre occupies the Festival space and promotes a broad cultural programme of events and attractions.
Despite these successes, however, the incoming Conservative administration, which was catapulted to power following the election of October 1951, remained radically opposed to the idea of the Festival. The new Conservative government, headed by Winston Churchill, wanted to erase the memory of the Festival, construed as a piece of socialist propaganda. The South Bank site was almost completely demolished, leaving only the Festival Hall intact, and the Festival’s legacy soon dwindled. Despite this, the Festival had achieved its mission. Post-war Britain began to revive itself, focusing on domestic regeneration rather than the old ideas of Empire, and creating a new sense of hope for the nation’s future as it emerged from the shadow of war.
Sites to Visit
- The Southbank Centre, Southwark, London. This complex stands on the original site of the festival, and includes the now-iconic Royal Festival Hall. A diverse programme of events and exhibits are showcased here all year round.
- Battersea Park, Battersea, London. The Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park were a major attraction over the summer of 1951 and drew as many visitors as the main South Bank site. However, they escaped demolition after the festival drew to a close, and therefore it is possible to see some of the original buildings and pavilions.
Film, Literature and TV
- The Happy Family, This comedy film centres on popular resistance to the destruction of the festival site after the closure of the exhibition.
- Prick Up Your Ears, 1987. The Festival of Britian is featured in the early sections of the film, providing the backdrop to post-war literary and performance culture.
- Harriet Atkinson and Mary Banham, The Festival of Britain: A Land and its People, (I.B. Tauris, 2012). Detailed account of the event in its national context, exploring the implications of the festival beyond the South Bank, and the ways in which it affected national identity, post-war recovery, and ideas about Britain’s role in the world.
- Barry Turner, Beacon of Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age, (Aurum Press, 2011). Written on the eve of the 2012 London Olympics, this book looks at the issue of urban regeneration and public displays of nationhood. It explores the way in which the festival inculcated new ideas, norms, and concepts into British architecture and design.
- Becky Conekin, The Autobiography of a Nation: The 1951 Festival of Britain, (Manchester University Press, 2003). Excellent and comprehensive study of the Festival of Britain, focused specifically on British post-war identities.
Festival of Britain: Original film footage of the event from the BFI:
The Festival of Britain 1951: Observer documentary from 1951:
Dan Snow’s London Guide: Waterloo Bridge and the Festival of Britain: