In 1949, with much of Britain still showing the visible scars of the Second World War, and a decade of rationing and austerity, the Labour government, under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, decided that British spirits needed a boost. Their solution to the gloom of postwar Britain was a Festival of Britain – a national exhibition that would focus on the nation’s achievements in design, technology, industry, science and the arts, and promote a feeling of recovery.
In just 22 months, with a budget of £12m – mostly funded by the government – an area on London’s South Bank was transformed into a huge exhibition space, crammed with examples of British innovation. Nearly 8.5 million people – of which half were from outside London ‑ visited the exhibition. Armed with festival maps and guides, they paid their 5 shilling entrance fee to enter the space-age Dome of Discovery – moving between themed pavilions (‘Power and Production’, ‘Homes and Gardens’, ‘Outer Space’ and more) – drank tea beneath garlands of patriotic bunting, donned goggles to watch new-fangled stereoscopic films in the Telecinema, and temporarily forgot the cares of everyday life.
The festival was not without its critics, though, and many hailed it as a waste of money that could have been spent on housing. In September 1951, the festival doors were closed. The following month, Winston Churchill’s Conservative government was back in power and all traces of the exhibition were removed; the glittering Dome of Discovery was sold for scrap.
Here, we explore festivities through these images of the event…
Would-be sailors find their sea legs on a boating lake in Battersea Park. The park played host to the Festival Pleasure Gardens, which also featured a Guinness Clock (with mechanical characters from the brewer’s advertisements), a funfair, grotto and tree walk.
View from above
As this aerial image shows, the festival area was huge, with the main site spanning 27 acres on London’s South Bank. Looking like something from a science fiction film, the gleaming, aluminium Dome of Discovery – the festival focal point – was the largest in the world at the time. It stood at a whopping 27 metres tall and had a diameter of 111 metres.
In January 1951, under the watchful, and impressed, gaze of members of the festival team, expert model maker CM Longbotham puts the finishing touches to the Big Dipper rollercoaster in his scale model of the Festival Gardens.
Works of art
Some of the biggest names in British art, architecture and sculpture were commissioned to create pieces for the Festival of Britain, including Barbara Hepworth, Frank Dobson and Henry Moore. The huge fountain – Water Mobile – on the left side of this image was the brainchild of Welsh designer and engineer Richard Huws. Also visible is Siegfried Charoux’s monumental relief in concrete, The Islanders. Displayed near the ‘Sea and Ships’ pavilion, the work, which featured two adults with a child between them, symbolised the relationship between the British people and the sea.
Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, talks to the Lord Mayor of London during a tour of the site. King George opened the festival at St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 May declaring: “Two world wars brought us grievous loss of life and treasure, and though the nation has made a splendid effort towards recovery, new burdens have fallen upon it and dark clouds still overhang the whole world.”
On a wire
In September 1951, thousands of people crowded onto London’s embankments, craning their necks to watch moustachioed Frenchman Elleano cross the Thames on a tightrope, becoming the first person to complete the feat in almost a century. To the consternation of those below, as he neared the South Bank site, Elleano slipped. He went down onto one knee for four minutes before waving to the crowd and successfully continuing the crossing. Remarkably, given the nature of the stunt, Elleano could not swim.
Loop the loop
One popular form of entertainment at the festival were these miniature racing cars, which could be driven upside down in a giant wheel. British achievements in transport formed an entire section of the exhibition, and included displays on the railways, road vehicles, sea and air transport, car design, roads and bridges.
The illuminated Schweppes Grotto was a highlight of the Festival Pleasure Gardens, upriver from South Bank, at Battersea. Described as an “English tradition of elegant follies” the grotto was created by set and costume designer Guy Sheppard and featured a series of chambers, representing the four elements of wind, fire, earth and water.
The Earth Chamber (pictured above), featured a musical fountain, which glowed “pale phosphorescent blue”, while special lighting illuminated glittering minerals and stalactites. The ‘Temple of Winds’ brought engineered breezes from all four points of the compass, accompanied by the aroma of spices, flowers, seaweed and pine. The ‘Cave of Fire’ boasted a volcanic crater, bubbling with realistic lava, while fish and sea creatures swam in the coral reef of the “magical luminous world” of water.
The beautiful game
Footballers from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) take photos of an English ‘bobby’ during a visit to the festival. The squad of 20 players – who played barefoot – was on a tour of Ireland and Britain and, together with several Irish clubs, played friendly matches against British teams as part of the festival’s sporting element. Following independence in 1957, Ghana’s football team would go on to win its first African Cup of Nations six years later.
Two young visitors investigate a self-priming centrifugal pump on display in an exhibition on board HMS Campania. Originally a Royal Navy escort aircraft carrier that served during the Second World War, the vessel was repainted white and rebranded as the Festival of Britain’s ‘Sea Travelling Exhibition’, touring the country’s ports with a civilian crew.
Barmaids dressed as medieval ale-wives sample the wares at the Festival Inn in Poplar, London – part of a ‘Live Exhibition of Architecture’, which saw the largest part of a new housing estate constructed from scratch.
The Festival of Britain was a nationwide celebration, and exhibitions, street parties and events took place across the UK, including the Industrial Power Exhibition in Glasgow and the Ulster Farm and Factory Exhibition in Belfast. Here, residents of Harcourt Avenue in Edgware, London, enjoy a street party in August 1951, an event that included sport, a gymkhana and a children’s tea party.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman, editor of BBC History Revealed
This content first appeared in the May 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed