Sixty years ago on 3rd May 1951 King George VI opened The Festival of Britain declaring that it was “a Symbol of Britain’s abiding courage and vitality”. The Festival was originally planned to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition – an event so popular that six million people would go there – amounting to an incredible one-third of Great Britain’s population at the time.
Planning for the Festival of Britain had started six years previously a few months after VE Day, and was intended to highlight a century of artistic, industrial and scientific innovation over the previous 100 years. A 27-acre site was chosen on what was later to become the South Bank, but was at the time a wasteland after the war, but at least had good transport links with Waterloo Station nearby.
Men had arrived home after the war swelling Britain’s population and coupled with the dreadful winter of 1946-47 which had led to fuel shortages followed then by horrendous flooding, Britain found itself in serious difficulties which resulted in rationing becoming even stricter than it had been during the war. Life in London at that time really was grim.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government had gained power after the war and Attlee’s number two was Herbert Morrison who was put in charge of organising the Festival. He soon realised that the Festival needed to be more than just a celebration of 100 years of Britain’s achievements and set about raising the tone of the exhibition. When he was asked his views on what the Festival would achieve he replied simply “I want to see people happy”.
Over the next few years the Festival’s organisers encouraged more than 1,500 towns and villages to stage miniature celebrations of their own to coincide with London’s event.
It was to be a schoolboy’s dream. Funded by the Festival authorities a 400-seat, state-of-the-art cinema was specially designed to screen both film (including 3-dimensional films) and large-screen television. The newly constructed escalator on the South Bank had Churchill riding up and down like a delighted child. With exhibitions on the theme of discovery, The Dome of Discovery which had a diameter of 365 feet and stood 93 feet tall making it at the time the largest dome in the world, showed the Living World and the Sea to the Sky and Outer Space. A Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion was steeped in patriotism; Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, paintings by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The most memorable sight was the futuristic Skylon [pictured] a vertical steel cylinder which appeared to have the ability to float unaided in the air.
By the time the Festival of Britain closed in September almost 10 million – a quarter of Britain’s entire population – had visited its pavilions.
The Festival captured the public’s consciousness at the time, renewing a feeling of patriotism at a time of severe austerity. One can’t help comparing the National psyche then and now. Will the Olympic Games light our national flame next year? I doubt it.