Festival of Britain

Festival of Britain

The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition which opened in London and around Britain in May 1951. The official opening was on May 3. [ [http://www.packer34.freeserve.co.uk/barry.htm Contemporary account of start of festival.] ] The principal exhibition site was on the South Bank Site, London of the River Thames near Waterloo Station. Other exhibitions were held in Poplar, East London (Architecture), South Kensington (Science) and the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow (Industrial Power) as well as travelling exhibitions that toured Britain by land and sea. Outside London major festivals took place in Cardiff, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Perth, Bournemouth, York, Aldeburgh, Inverness, Cheltenham, Oxford and other centres. ["The Festival of Britain" (Official Book of the Festival of Britain 1951). HMSO, 1951.]

At that time, shortly after the end of World War II, much of London was still in ruins and redevelopment was badly needed. The Festival was an attempt to give Britons a feeling of recovery and progress and to promote better-quality design in the rebuilding of British towns and cities following the war. The Festival also celebrated the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. It was the brainchild of Gerald Reid Barry and the Labour Deputy Leader Herbert Morrison who described it as "a tonic for the nation".

Throughout the festival numerous Londoners participated in street markets, which sold fruits, poultry, vegetables, and antiques, at the Petticoat Lane (Middlesex Street) Market on the eastern edge of the London; Berwick Market, in Soho; and at Portobello Market Kensington Gardens.

The South Bank

Construction of the South Bank site opened up a new public space, including a riverside walkway, where previously there had been warehouses and working-class housing. There was, however, opposition to the project from those who believed that the money (£8 million) would have been better spent on housing. (An Ealing Studios film was made about working-class resistance to the demolition that the festival required and featured a London family barricading themselves into their terraced house to prevent it being demolished to make way for the Festival of Britain. The house is finally saved when red-faced Whitehall bureaucrats decide to feature it in the Festival as a “typical English home”).

In 1948, the young architect Hugh Casson, 38, was appointed director of architecture for the Festival and he broadmindedly sought to appoint other young architects to design its buildings. He was knighted in 1952 for his efforts in relation to the Festival.

The layout of the South Bank site was intended by the organisers to showcase the principles of urban design that would feature in the post-war rebuilding of London and the creation of the new towns. These included multiple levels of buildings, elevated walkways and avoidance of a street grid. Most of the South Bank buildings were International Modernist in style, little seen in Britain before the war. All except the Royal Festival Hall were later destroyed by the incoming Churchill government in 1953, who thought them too 'socialist' for their taste. ["BBC Radio 4 programme, 8-9pm. 9th June 2007"]

Design and the Festival buildings

The graphic designer for the Festival of Britain was Abram Games who had been Official War Poster artist and whose iconic Britannia symbol of the Festival remains memorable.

The main South Bank site buildings and their architects were:

* Dome of Discovery, perhaps later the inspiration for the Millennium Dome (designed by Ralph Tubbs)
* Skylon, an unusual cigar-shaped aluminium-clad steel tower supported by cables (designed by Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell).
* An old Shot Tower (built 1826)
* Transport, designed by Arcon
* Festival Administration Building, by Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and Edward Mills
* The Lion and the Unicorn pavilion celebrating the history of the British nation (designed by R.D. Russell, R.Y. Gooden and Richard Guyatt)
* Land of Britain, by H.T. Cadbury Brown
* Minerals of the Land, by the Architects Co-Partnership
* Power & Production, by George Grenfell Baines and Felix Samuely
* Sea and Ships, by Basil Spence
* The Royal Festival Hall
* A mural painted by the British Modernist artist John Tunnard
* A mosaic designed by Victor Passmore
* Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth.

A public housing estate in Poplar, named the Lansbury Estate after George Lansbury, was also built as part of the festival, and is still extant. There is a church called Trinity Independent Chapel, a public house named "The Festive Briton" (and now called "Callaghans") in a corner of Chrisp Street Market, also part of the estate, with "The Festival Inn" nearby.

Trowell, a village in Nottinghamshire, was selected from among 1600 others to be the "Festival Village" as a typical example of British rural life. Trowell also has a "Festival Inn".

Also as part of the Festival in London, a new wing was built for the Science Museum, to hold the [http://www.GoodeveCA.net/science1951 "Exhibition of Science"] , and a so-called FunFair (actually an amusement park) and "Pleasure Gardens" – with attractions such as a Fountain Lake, a "Grotto", a "Tree Walk", and the "Guinness Festival Clock" – were constructed in Battersea Park. Parliament Square was redesigned as well.

While not formally part of the Festival the architects of a new office building at 219 Oxford Street that was completed in 1951 incorporated carved stone plaques depicting festival scenes. These are from top to bottom, the Royal Festival Hall, Games' Festival of Britain Logo and the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon.

Events associated with the Festival

*The Festival ship "Campania" took a travelling version of the South Bank exhibition to several ports from May to October: Southampton, Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast, Birkenhead and Glasgow. ["The Festival of Britain" (Official Book of the Festival of Britain 1951). HMSO, 1951. ]
*The Festival was the first time that steelpan music had been played in Britain, thanks to the "Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra".
*An exhibition of sculptures organised by the Arts Council in Battersea Park brought Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to wider public notice.
*There were two exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as part of the Festival Programme: a display on the History of East London and a show of craft and popular art forms.
*A commemorative British crown coin (5 shillings in the money of the time) was also minted with a striking of over 2 million, and it remains inexpensive.
*World premiere of Ferde Grofé's Atlantic Suite, also conducted by Grofé. It was Grofé's first time abroad since 1923.

Images of the Festival of Britain

Several images of the South Bank Exhibition can be found on the internet [ [http://vads.ahds.ac.uk/learning/designingbritain/html/festival.html Designing Britain] ] while a filmed retrospective view of the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank, with special reference to design and architecture and entitled "Brief City" (1952), was made by Massingham Productions Ltd. for the British Government as a public information film. It can be also be seen at the Internet Archive [ [http://www.archive.org/details/brief_city_TNA "Brief City"] ]

The Festival was also filmed by documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings, as "Family Portrait" and it is featured in scenes in the feature films "Prick Up Your Ears" and "84 Charing Cross Road".


Although the Festival was extremely popular and made a profit, it was conceived and executed in haste and with little thought for subsequent use. The Labour Party government, who had championed the Festival, lost power while it was open and Terence Conran has speculatedFact|date=August 2007 that the haste with which the main site was cleared was an act of political revenge by the incoming Conservative Party government. Profits made from the Festival were retained by the London County Council and were used to convert the Royal Festival Hall into a concert hall and to establish The South Bank.

Aside from this, the architectural legacy of the Festival is mixed: many architects, especially those working for local government, enthusiastically copied its forms and materials, but without too much consideration of their durability, resulting in a stock of buildings that have since been much criticised.

The 221B Baker Street exhibit of Sherlock Holmes apartment is still displayed in a pub near Charing Cross railway station. Politically, the Festival of Britain has become a symbol for the incomplete promise of the immediate post-war period. The support of Peter Mandelson for the Millennium Dome project was perhaps an attempt by New Labour to engage with a similar symbolism, the promise of the new Millennium, as Mandelson is the grandson of Herbert Morrison.


* Banham, Mary and Hillier, Bevis, "A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain 1951", London: Thames & Hudson, 1976 ISBN 0500270791
*Rennie, Paul, "Festival of Britain 1951", London: Antique Collectors Club, Ltd., 2007 ISBN-13 9781851495337 ISBN 1851495339

ee also

* World's fair
* List of world's fairs
* Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway


External links

* [http://vads.ac.uk/learning/designingbritain/html/festival.html Festival of Britain] , e-learning module by the Design Council Archives
* [http://www.packer34.freeserve.co.uk/ The Festival of Britain]
* [http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/MOLsite/exhibits/festival/ Festival of Britain] exhibit from the Museum of London
* [http://whitstablepier.com/fob/ The Festival of Britain Society]
* [http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=conInformationRecord.238 The Festival of Britain - Exploring 20th century London]
* [http://www.flickr.com/groups/southbankcentre/ http://www.flickr.com/groups/southbankcentre/] (A Flickr group dedicated to pictures of the Southbank Centre)
* [http://osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/specialcollections/events/2007paulingconference/video-s2-3-anderson.html Video] of a talk by Robert Anderson on the development of the Exhibition of Science as part of the Festival of Britain
* Internet Archive Films:
** [http://www.archive.org/details/festival_in_london_TNA Festival In London (1951)]
** [http://www.archive.org/details/brief_city_TNA Brief City (1952)]
* [http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarflondondunc/2360029031/in/photostream/] 219 Oxford Street

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