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The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition which opened in Londonmarker and around Britainmarker in May 1951. The official opening was on 3 May. The principal exhibition site was on the South Bank Site, Londonmarker of the River Thames near Waterloo Stationmarker. Other exhibitions were held in Poplar, East Londonmarker (Architecture), Battersea Parkmarker (The Festival Gardens), South Kensingtonmarker (Science) and the Kelvin Hallmarker in Glasgowmarker (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.

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 Barry and the Labour Deputy Leader Herbert Morrison who described it as "a tonic for the nation".

The South Bank

A view of the Festival of Britain from the north bank
Construction of the South Bankmarker 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 Studiosmarker 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 Hallmarker were later destroyed by the incoming Churchill government in 1953, who thought them too 'socialist' for their taste.

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.

Misha Black, one of the Festival architects, said that the Festival created a wide audience for architectural modernism but that it was common currency among professional architects that the design of the Festival was not innovative. The architects also tried to show by their design and layout of the South Bank Festival what could be achieved by applying modern town planning ideas. A number of buildings on the main South Bank site became iconic of the festival.

The Dome of Discovery

The dome had a diameter of 365 feet and stood 93 feet tall making it at the time the largest dome in the world. It was constructed from concrete and aluminium in a modernist style and housed many of the festival attractions. Internally the dome included a number of galleries on various levels housing exhibitions on the theme of discovery — the Living World, Polar, the Sea, the Earth, the Physical World, the Land, Sky and Outer Space.

Like the adjacent Skylonmarker tower, the dome became an iconic structure for the public and helped popularise modern design and architectural style in a Britain still suffering through post-war austerity. Controversially after the Festival closed, the dome was demolished and its materials sold as scrap. The site was cleared for reuse, and is now the location of the Jubilee Gardensmarker, near the London Eyemarker.* Dome of Discoverymarker, which anticipated the Millennium Domemarker (designed by Ralph Tubbs)

The Skylon

The Skylon tower at the Festival of Britain, 1951

An unusual cigar-shaped aluminium-clad steel tower supported by cables, the Skylonmarker was the “Vertical Feature” that was an abiding symbol of the Festival of Britain. It was designed by Hidalgo Moya, Philip Powell and Felix Samuely, and fabricated by Painter Brothers of Herefordmarker, Englandmarker, on London's South Bankmarker between Westminster Bridgemarker and Hungerford Bridgemarker. The Skylon consisted of a steel latticework frame, pointed at both ends and supported on cables slung between three steel beams. The partially constructed Skylon was rigged vertically, then grew taller in situ. The architects' design was made structurally feasible by the engineer Felix Samuely who, at the time, was a lecturer at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury. The base was nearly 15 metres (50 feet) from the ground, with the top nearly 90 metres (300 feet) high. The frame was clad in aluminium louvres lit from within at night. Both the name and form of the Skylon perhaps referred back to the Trylon feature of the 1939 World's Fair. Mrs A G S Fidler, wife of the chief architect of the Crawley Development Corporation, suggested the name and said she derived it from skyhook and nylon.Skylon was scrapped in 1952 on the orders of Winston Churchill, who saw it a symbol of the preceding Labour Government, when the rest of the exhibition was dismantled it was toppled into the Thames and cut into pieces.

Royal Festival Hall

Designed by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro and Robert Matthew from the LCC's Architects' Department and built by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts for London County Council. The foundation stone was laid by Clement Attlee, then Prime Minister, in 1949 on the site of the former Lion Brewery, built in 1837. Martin was just 39 when he was appointed to lead the design team in late 1948. Martin designed the structure as an 'egg in a box', a term he used to describe the separation of the curved auditorium space from the surrounding building and the noise and vibration of the adjacent railway viaduct. Sir Thomas Beecham used similar imagery, calling the building a 'giant chicken coop'. The building was officially opened on 3 May 1951. The original plan was that Arturo Toscanini would conduct the opening concerts, but he was unwell, and the inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. In April 1988 it was designated a Grade I listed building, the first post-war building to become so protected.

The Telekinema

Funded by the Festival authorities, this 400-seat, state-of-the-art cinema was specially designed to screen both film (including 3-dimensional films) and large-screen television. Situated between Waterloo Stationmarker and the Royal Festival Hallmarker, it proved one of the most popular attractions of the South Bank Exhibition between May and September 1951. Designed by Wells Coates, operated and programmed by the British Film Institute, it re-opened as the National Film Theatremarker in October 1952. It was eventually demolished in 1957. The NFT was relocated a stone's throw away from its original site, under Waterloo Bridge, where it still stands today.

Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway

A pleasure railway in Battersea Parkmarker, designed by Frederick Roland Emett. The line ran for 500 yards between Far Tottering and Oyster Creek passing a vista designed by John Piper.

The design of the railway's locomotives, rolling stock and stations were based on his whimsical cartoons in Punch which parodied a pre-Beeching decrepit rural branch line as well the popular myth surrounding such lines. The most famous of the locomotives was Nellie, a copper and mahogany kinetic sculpture who appeared on a charity stamp and a model published by Puffin Books.

Other structures

Other notable structures on the South Bank site included:

Live architecture

In addition to the main and science exhibitions at Battersea it was planned to have a separate exhibition which focussed on building research, town planning and architecture. To that end it was decided that to get the public interested in these disciplines that a live architecture exhibition be created which would display actual buildings, open spaces and streets of a new community. To that end a public housing estate in Poplarmarker, named the Lansbury Estatemarker after George Lansbury, was created. Plans to build new planned social housing in the area had been mooted as far back as 1943, at the end of the war, nearly a quarter of the buildings in the area had been destroyed or seriously damaged. In 1948 the Architecture Council decided to develop the Poplar site for its exhibition partly due to its proximity to the other exhibitions. Despite setbacks with funding work began on the site in December 1949 and by May 1950 preparations on the site were well advanced. The winter of 1950-51 was one of the wettest in living memory and led to many delays, however the first properties were completed and occupied by February 1951.

In common with the rest of the exhibition it opened on May 3, 1951. Visitors to the live architecture exhibition would first visit the Building Research Pavilion where they were shown problems with housing and there scientific solutions. Then came the Town Planning Pavilion, a large, broadly striped red-and-white tent, which demonstrated the principles of town planning and the urgent need for new towns, including a mock up of an imaginary town called Avoncaster. Visitors then went on to see the buildings which would occupy the site in various stages of construction.

Despite the efforts, attendances were disappointing with only 86,426 people visiting, compared to 8 million who visited the South Bank exhibition. Reaction to the development at the time by industry professionals was lukewarm, with some criticising the small scale of the development, subsequent governments and local authorities concentrated in developing high rise, high density social housing rather than the Lansbury estate model. However the estate continues to the present day and remains popular with residents.

Notable buildings which remain include a church called Trinity Independent Chapel, a public house named The Festive Briton (and now called Callaghans) in a corner of Chrisp Street Marketmarker, also part of the estate, with The Festival Inn nearby.

Trowellmarker, a village in Nottinghamshiremarker, 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".

Science museum

Also as part of the Festival in London, a new wing was built for the Science Museummarker, to hold the 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 Parkmarker. Parliament Squaremarker was redesigned as well.

Events associated with the Festival

Stamps commemorating the Festival of Britain - note the Festival icon on the 4d issue
  • The Festival ship MV Campania (formerly HMS 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 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 Parkmarker brought Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to wider public notice.
  • There were two exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallerymarker 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 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 also be seen at the Internet Archive

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 popular and made a profit, Winston Churchill was contemptuous of it and the first act of his newly-elected government in October 1951 was an instruction to clear the South Bank site, although the Festival exhibition was scheduled to close at the end of September anyway. Profits from the Festival were retained by the London County Council and were used to convert the Royal Festival Hallmarker into a concert hall and to establish The South Bankmarker. The 221B Baker Streetmarker exhibit of Sherlock Holmes apartment is still displayed in a pub near Charing Cross railway stationmarker.

The Guide Book to the Festival described its legacy in these words: "It will leave behind not just a record of what we have thought of ourselves in the year 1951 but, in a fair community founded where once there was a slum, in an avenue of trees or in some work of art, a reminder of what we have done to write this single, adventurous year into our national and local history."

The "Festival Style", combining modernism with whimsy and Englishness, influenced architecture, interior design, product design and typography in the 1950s. William Feaver describes the Festival Style as "Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Costswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule." It was manifested in the New Towns, coffee bars and office blocks of the fifties. (A 1951 office building at 219 Oxford Street, London, incorporated images of the Festival on its facade.) The Festival style was ultimately manifested in the design of Coventry Cathedralmarker (1962), by a Festival architect, Basil Spence. 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 criticized. The design writer Reyner Banham has questioned the originality and the Englishness of the Festival Style and indeed the extent of its influence.

Attendance figures

There were over 10,000,000 paid admissions to the 6 main exhibitions in 5 months:

  • Architecture Exhibition, Lansbury/Poplar (London): 86,646
  • Industrial Power Exhibition, Glasgow: 282,039
  • Science Exhibition, South Kensington (London): 213,744
  • South Bank Exhibition, Waterloo (London): 8,455,863
    • Visitors from London 36.5%
    • Outside London 56%
    • Overseas 7.5%
      • USA 15%
      • Commonwealth 32%
      • Europe 46%
      • Elsewhere 7%
  • Land Travelling Exhibition: 462,289
    • Manchester 114,183
    • Leeds 144,844
    • Birmingham 76,357
    • Nottingham 106,615
  • Festival Ship "Campania": 889,792
    • Southampton 78,683
    • Dundee 51,422
    • Newcastle 169,511
    • Hull 87,840
    • Plymouth 50,120
    • Bristol (Avonmouth) 78,219
    • Cardiff 104,391
    • Belfast 86,756
    • Birkenhead 90,311
    • Glasgow 93,539

  • Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea (London): 8,031,000
    • Visitors from London 76%,
    • Outside London 22%
    • Overseas 2%

  • Ulster Farm & Factory Exhibition, Belfast: 156,760

  • Living Traditions Exhibition, Edinburgh: 135,000

  • Exhibition of Books, South Kensington (London): 63,162


  • 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 9781851495337 ISBN 1851495339

See also


External links

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