In 1951, 100 years after the hugely successful Great Exhibition brought crowds to the capital, Britain again hosted a huge celebratory event. This time, though, the Festival of Britain was designed to lift spirits after World War II and celebrate Britain’s resilience and achievements.
This Festival was not a single event on one site, but took place across Britain from May to September. And unlike the Great Exhibition, it was purely about Britain and the British people. There were fixed and travelling exhibitions, along with local initiatives and special events. But it was the London installations that became synonymous with the Festival.
In 1951, people were still suffering shortages and living with rationing caused by the War. Bomb damage was visible everywhere. So the Festival offered the opportunity not just to celebrate, but also to replace remnants of war-torn London with new, exciting attractions – mostly temporary, but some permanent.
By the Thames, 27 acres of the South Bank was transformed from an industrial wasteland into one of the Festival’s main sites. Pavilions celebrated who the British people were and what they did. The 111m wide, 28m tall exhibition-filled Dome of Discovery was the largest dome in the world at the time. Elsewhere they could look into the future, experiencing 3D films and stereophonic sound. And for many, the Festival marked the first time they had seen a television set.
Everything at the South Bank was specially designed for the Festival, from the water features and works of art to the benches and litter bins. Most importantly, after the greyness of the post-war years, the Festival of Britain put colour back into people’s lives. There were colourful pavilions, displays and signs everywhere, and the tall, slender, space-age Skylon was lit up from inside like a beacon every night.
Most of the structures were designed to be temporary, but the Royal Festival Hall was built to last. Poet John Betjeman described the Festival Hall as “forbidding outside”, suggesting that the architects “seem to have lost their nerve and missed the gaiety of the merry exhibitionists outside in the sun”. But the inside was totally different. “Amazing,” exclaimed Betjeman; it “must be the finest Concert Hall in the world”.
While the South Bank installations looked forward, the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition was celebrated in Battersea by recreating a Victorian pleasure garden. The Festival Pleasure Gardens featured huge tented pavilions hosting theatre, dancing and music hall events. There were ornamental pagodas and arcades with cafes and shops. And there were Victorian-style attractions such as Punch and Judy shows, acrobats and a steam railway.
The new Lansbury Estate in Poplar, East London - a 30-acre ‘Live Architecture Exhibition’ – was another highlight of the Festival. This, along with the South Bank riverside walk, the Royal Festival Hall and part of the Science Museum, are the only major legacies to survive in London.