Illustration of festival of britain site and Thames river, from above.
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The Story of the Festival of Britain

The Festival of Britain was a government-sponsored nationwide exhibition celebrating and promoting Britain’s excellence in design, technology, industry, architecture, science and the arts. 

The Festival of Britain was a government-sponsored nationwide exhibition celebrating and promoting Britain’s excellence in design, technology, industry, architecture, science and the arts. 

The Festival’s cultural heart was a purpose-built spectacular showcase on London’s South Bank, along with over 2,000 other locations round the country.

Cover of the HSO brochure to the Festival of Britain with a gold background, featuring the white, blue and red 'Festival star' with Britannia in the centre.
Cover of the official HMSO brochure to the Festival of Britain (‘A Guide to the Story it Tells’) showing the iconic symbol of the exhibition, the ‘Festival Star’ – Britannia symbolically in the centre of the four points of the compass. It was designed by one of the most important graphic designers of the 20th century, Abram Games (1914-1996). As well as detailed Festival information, the guide contained 64 full colour adverts, including Hoover, Black & White Scotch whisky, Liberty, Craven ‘A’ cigarettes, Kayser Bonder nylons, Ford of Dagenham, Cow & Gate, Marconi and London Transport. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Opening 70 years ago on 3 May 1951 and lasting until 30 September, the Festival was a tonic for a drab rundown Britain, still suffering six years on from the devastation of the Second World War (1939-1945) – austerity, rationing, making do, and widespread bomb damage.

A screen of yellow, red, white and navy  balls, reminiscent of an atomic model.
A screen of brightly-coloured balls, reminiscent of an atomic model, masking Waterloo Bridge. Image courtesy of the 20th Century Society.

The Festival’s fun, colourful exploration of British ingenuity and creativity, its inspirational and optimistic look towards the brave new world of the future, helped foster a national sense of recovery.

The origins of the Festival of Britain

The concept of an exhibition of British products and good design had been mooted during the Second World War. But it was not until the end of the war that the idea of a landmark event was fully embraced to coincide with the 100th anniversary year of the Great Exhibition, held in 1851 in the Crystal Palace within London’s Hyde Park. This had celebrated British, Commonwealth and international culture and innovation. The 1951 Festival, however, would focus entirely on British achievement.

Red stamp for the Festival of Britain
Stamp marked 1851-1951 and franked on 3 May 1951 – the day the Festival of Britain opened. It carries profiles of Britannia and King George VI. The King, accompanied by the Queen and senior royals, inaugurated the Festival. He and the Queen were patrons. Image in the Public Domain.

A Labour government had won a landslide victory in the post-war General Election. Herbert Morrison – Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s deputy and the former leader of the London County Council (LCC) – was put in charge of the exhibition. In January 1948, they chose the name ‘Festival of Britain.’

The Director-General of the Festival was Gerald Barry, the celebrated former editor of the left-leaning News Chronicle newspaper. He had a popularist eye, was a champion of the arts and had a strong interest in architecture. He had originally written an open letter to the government advocating a great trade and cultural exhibition, and now was its hands-on driving force. Barry coined the phrase ‘A tonic for the nation’ – a nation that had lost the ability to enjoy itself.

Planning and organising the Festival of Britain

Map of the South Bank Festival site with 22 pavilions and 13 restaurants.
The map of the South Bank Festival site illustrating the 22 themed pavilions (and 13 restaurants). The recommended route is marked with a dotted red line. The guide states: ‘The Exhibition, which tells a continuous story, will make most sense if the Pavilions are visited in the order shown…’ The South Bank event attracted 8.5 million paying visitors, half from outside the capital. It was also estimated that over one third of the British population of 49 million experienced the Festival in some way. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The Festival umbrella brought together several key organisations, including the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Council of Industrial Design and the National Film Institute, as well establishing a Council for Science and Technology and one for Architecture.

Transport pavilion with crowds of people outside.
The Transport Pavilion with a boat and a locomotive displayed outside. Inside were examples of cars, aeroplanes, further locomotives and sections of ships. Image © Historic England/OP04523.

The Pavilions between them – in themed displays, films, galleries and demonstrations – created a narrative autobiography of Britain and a look towards the future.

The Homes and Gardens Pavilion, for example, offered six solutions to space problems in the home. The New Schools Pavilion looked at equipment and the modern classroom, including a full-size mock-up. There were farm animals in the Country Pavilion – over 5,000 prize animals were exhibited over the 5 months, from bulls to goats to ducks.

Postcard - people gather to watch sports demonstrations in the open air, outside the Sports arena.
Vintage postcard of the Sports Arena at the base of the Shot Tower where sports demonstrations were held in the open air. The nearby Sports Pavilion traced the history of sport in Britain. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Other Pavilions included The Land of Britain, Minerals of the Island, Power and Production, Sea and Ships, Health, the Seaside and Television. 

Four of the Festival co-ordinators, two with pipes, examine a model of the Festival site, on a desk covered with maps.
Left to right: Four of the five Festival co-ordinators – architects Ralph Tubbs and Hugh Casson; exhibition designers James Holland and James Gardner – discussing a model of the Festival site. (Architect Misha Black was the fifth co-ordinator). Image © Historic England/OP04519.

Barry appointed architect Hugh Casson, a 38 year old rising star and future President of the Royal Academy (1976-1984), as Director of Architecture, who in turn put together talented up-and-coming young architects, along with textile, furniture and graphic designers, launching their careers.   

Colourful, Quirky and Epic Festival Architecture

A screen of red, yellow, white, grey, green made of canvas triangular pyramids on York road.
A colourful screen along York Road, Waterloo, made of canvas triangular pyramids (tetrahedrals). Image courtesy of the 20th Century Society.

Different architectural practices were invited to produce the 22 Pavilions. The sheer number of young architects working on the Festival – most of whom had qualified before the Second World War and had had little chance to design anything until now – resulted in a quirky, colourful mix of styles and designs, scale and silhouettes. It was a nursery of new ideas.

People at the Festival site, including the Dome of Discovery and the Transport pavilion.
General view of part of the Festival site, with the Transport Pavilion to the left and the enormous tubular steel struts of the Dome of Discovery to the right. Image © Historic England/JRU01/01/110.

The majority of buildings were constructed at great speed from asbestos sheets on a lightweight steel framework. Landscaping referenced the terrain and geology of Britain, using plants, mature trees, boulders and wildflowers from across the land.

The Royal Engineers built a temporary pedestrian Bailey Bridge across the River Thames to link the North Bank of the River Thames at Northumberland Avenue with the Festival site.

Dome of discovery

Visitors outside the Dome of Discovery.
Visitors – sitting in ‘Springbok’ stackable chairs designed especially for the Festival by Ernest Race – are dwarfed by the vast Dome of Discovery. The Festival was the first time that Britain had experienced open-air cafés and restaurants. Image via Creative Commons.

The Dome of Discovery housed displays focusing on Britain’s pre-eminence in exploration (the Polar Regions, the New World), scientific discovery, weather forecasting, biological research, astronomy and outer space.

Structurally, the Dome was revolutionary and a feat of engineering. At the time it was the biggest dome in the world – 365 foot in diameter and nearly 100 foot high; the largest building ever made of aluminium.

Skylon

The futuristic Skylon had no practical function. It was pure and of itself; designed to amaze. Pointing skywards, with highly silvered aluminium louvres, it was a striking, uplifting symbol of hope for the future.

Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Festival Hall, Skylon and Shot Tower.
The Royal Festival Hall (Listed Grade I), Belvedere Road, Waterloo, could accommodate an audience of 2,900, an orchestra of 100 and a 250 strong choir. It was opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 3 May 1951. The Skylon is in the distance. The Shot Tower to the left was adapted to demonstrate radar. A display of boat building and a dock were nearby. Image courtesy of the 20th Century Society.

Part of the agreement with the LCC for the Festival to use the South Bank site was the building of a new concert hall. It was always planned to be permanent.

The result was the Royal Festival Hall, designed by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro and Robert Matthews of the LCC’s Architecture Department. It was built on the site of the old riverside Lion Brewery.

Telecinema

Audience of men and women wearing special sunglasses in the cinema.
Audience wearing special glasses to view a 3D stereoscopic film in the Telecinema (Telekinema). There was also stereophonic sound. Image © The National Archives/WORK25/208.

The Telecimema was a state-of-the-art cinema, the first in the world to be built for showing both films and television. It held an audience of 400 and was one of the Festival’s most popular attractions, with nearly half a million visitors – people in Britain were avid film-goers, but few owned a television.

Specially-made documentary films, shown every hour, celebrated British life and its traditions. The public could also watch the technicalities of the projection box through glass screens.

The Telecinema eventually became the National Film Theatre (NFT), renamed the British Film Institute (BFI) in 2007.

Sculptures and murals, from Hepworth to Paolozzi

Roger Nicholson mural featuring an assortment of items including a stamp, a ship in a bottle, a rowing boat.
Roger Nicholson mural on the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. Image © Historic England/OP04520

Director-General Gerald Barry wanted the Festival to host: ‘The widest possible use of mural decoration and sculpture’. Architect Misha Black was keen to ensure to ensure that: ‘…painters and sculptors could work with architects, landscape architects and exhibition designers to produce an aesthetic unity.’

As a result, visitors would see more than thirty sculptures and fifty murals as they walked around the Festival site.

The celebrated heavyweights of the sculptural world, such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein, were commissioned by the Arts Council.

Hanging mobile in a cafe
Lynn Chadwick’s hanging mobile. Image © Historic England/AA51 06850.

The Festival Design Group – which included Hugh Casson and Misha Black, well versed in modern art – had a populist ethos and tended towards commissioning emerging young talent. Some Festival sculptors became highly acclaimed artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Laszlo Peri, Victor Pasmore, Feliks Topolski, John Piper and Lynn Chadwick.

Two statues sunbathing, attached to the wall
Left: ‘The Sunbathers’ by Peter Laszlo Peri, located on the wall at the Festival’s Station Gate, welcomed visitors arriving from Waterloo station. Image © Historic England/AA51 06814.

At the end of the Festival, most sculptures were dispersed across the country, including to museums, art galleries, Harlow New Town, schools or returned to the artist. Some were lost or destroyed.

‘The Sunbathers’ was discovered, dilapidated and broken, in a hotel garden in London’s Blackheath. Restored by public crowd-funding in 2017, it is now on display at Waterloo Station.

The birth of a new design aesthetic – ‘Festival Style’

Screen printed furniture fabric, brown with yellow, red, black shapes
Lucienne Day’s celebrated ‘Calyx’ screen-printed furnishing fabric. Image via Creative Commons.

The Festival became a catalyst for a new design aesthetic – Modernist, joyful, experimental – dubbed ‘Festival Style’. Its influence was felt throughout the 1950s in the design of New Towns, offices, coffee bars and the rebuilding of city centres. Established designers, as well as those younger and lesser-known, received Festival commissions.

Lucienne Day was one of the most influential. Her radical fabric and wallpaper designs, showcased in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, were light years away from the traditional floral prints available at the time.

A range of 'Lounge chairs'
Robin Day’s ‘Lounge Chairs’ (known as the ‘658’ and made of bent plywood, with steel legs ending in distinctive ball feet – wood was still rationed) in situ at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. Pictured too is architect Peter Moro’s celebrated ‘Net and Ball’ carpet design. The building is still carpeted with the same design today – recreated during the 2005-2007 refurbishment. Image via Creative Commons.

Lucienne Day’s husband, Robin Day, was furniture consultant to the LCC. He designed all the seating for the Festival Hall, from auditorium to restaurant. His ‘Lounge Chair’, one of the most famous and long-lasting Festival designs, went into regular production.

Green wallpaper based on a mineral's structure
Wallpaper design by William J. Odell, based on a mineral’s structure, one of many designs deriving from X-Ray crystallography that were showcased in the Misha Black-designed Regatta Restaurant. Image via Creative Commons.

A Festival Pattern Group mixed design with science, commissioning designs for domestic items, exhibits, fabrics and wallpaper based on molecular and atomic structures.

The Festival elsewhere in London and nationwide

Atomic themed screen
The atomic-themed screen at the entrance to the Science Museum, South Kensington. Image © Historic England/AA093673.

As well as the South Bank, the Festival of Britain was celebrated in other London locations:

A new wing was built on the Science Museum to hold the Exhibition of Science.

A new housing estate, the Lansbury Estate, was built in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, as a ‘live architecture exhibition’ with buildings for local residents’ use. The Estate incorporated the latest ideas about town planning, architecture and neighbourhood living, and was a model for future New Towns.

The Festival Inn in Poplar
The Festival Inn, Poplar, Tower Hamlets. Image © Historic England/DP170350.

A pub on the Estate, the Festival Inn built 1951-1952 to the designs of leading architect Frederick Gibberd, has been listed Grade II. It was the first permanent, modern pub of the post-war period.

The Festival Pleasure Gardens were also created in Battersea Park.

Postcard of The Parade
Archive postcard of The Parade, Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea, London, created under the supervision of exhibition designer James Gardner. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The Pleasure Gardens were about pure enjoyment; an amusement park inspired by Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and harking back to the former 18th century Pleasure Gardens in nearby Vauxhall.

Two passengers on Water Splash at night
Passengers on the Pleasure Gardens’ Water Splash ride at night. Image © Historic England/AA054055.

The Pleasure Gardens offered everything from a funfair, beer gardens and a tree walk, to theatres showing music hall and ballet, eating places and shops selling a range of goods from fountain pens, jewellery and make-up, to toys, electric razors and cameras – balm for a public still experiencing austerity. A 25 foot high elaborate Guinness Clock played Three Blind Mice every quarter, accompanied by automata – spinning acrobats, a town crier, the Mad Hatter.

Nationwide

Postcard of the Festival ship
Archive postcard of the Festival ship, the Compania, that toured the coast of Britain. As an aircraft carrier, she had seen service in the Second World War and became the HQ ship for Operation Hurricane in October 1952 when the UK exploded her first atomic bomb in Western Australia. Image courtesy of Wayne Cocroft.

The Festival of Britain permeated British life for 5 months.

In towns and cities across the country there were exhibitions and festivals of art and design. Glasgow hosted the Industrial Power Exhibition, and Belfast the Ulster Farm and Factory Exhibition.

The ship, the Campania, became a floating exhibition, reflecting some of the main Festival themes. She visited ten ports round the country, staying up to two weeks in each. There was also a Land Travelling Exhibition that visited four cities.

Aftermath

The festival site being demolished
Demolition underway on part of the Festival site. Image in the Public Domain.

The Festival of Britain, although subject to some contemporary criticism – too costly (the money would have been better spent on re-building Britain), too futuristic – had been hugely popular, as well as making a profit.

The Conservatives, led again by Winston Churchill, were returned to power in October 1951, just one month after the Festival’s closure. The government ordered a wholesale demolition of the site, except for the Royal Festival Hall. It is thought perhaps that the Conservatives viewed the Festival as Labour propaganda for a Socialist society. The site stood largely derelict for a decade.

The Festival’s legacy is the development and continuing success of the South Bank as a centre of culture and the arts, as well as its enduring contribution to Modernism in architecture and design.

Banner image caption – Illustration of the 1951 Festival of Britain site on the South Bank of the River Thames, with the railway line over Hungerford Bridge to Charing Cross station running through it, and Waterloo Bridge beyond that. Among buildings and structures pictured is the Royal Festival Hall located by the former 1826 Shot Tower (where lead shot used to be made and the only existing structure incorporated within the Festival site), the tall needle-like shape of the Skylon and the vast circular Dome of Discovery. Image © The National Archives/WORK25/64/25.

Written by Nicky Hughes.


Further Reading

5 comments on “The Story of the Festival of Britain

  1. Very interesting article.

  2. artculturetourism

    Love it! Many thanks for sharing!

  3. Nigel Robert Wilson

    I was about three years old when I was taken to the Festival of Britain. We got off a bus at what I now know was the end of Waterloo Bridge to be hit by huge wall of sound and colour that the experience remains with me today. This was 1951, Austerity Britain where there was little sound other than railways and buses and very little colour other than murky brown, grubby red and gloomy green. The riot of colour, the different shapes and the loud music was unforgettable.

  4. It was the Festival of Britain that stirred my first design employer, Colin Cheetham, to give up on being a stationery salesman (he was a junior ARP warden during the War). He was transfixed by the new environments and products that FoB offered and signed up as a mature student at the Central School of Art in Holborn. His tutor was the legendary Douglas Scott (of Routemaster fame) and Colin completed his design course with not one, but two RSA bursaries and subsequently started his own design consultancy in North London.
    Many years later, in 1973, I too entered the Central School to do my Industrial Design degree course – and who was my tutor, but Douglas Scott!

    3 years later at our degree show of work, Colin approached Douglas asking who he should take on as a design junior of his consultancy which by then had moved to Hertfordshire. My name and one other came up and I was invited for an interview. The other student didn’t turn up for his interview and I walked it. A great 6 years before I moved on.

    I’m still designing today (just) with my own consultancy, Equinox Partners – 45 years later!

    Colin died a while ago, but his wife, Joyce, still lives in their immaculate house that he built, still decorated in elegant FoB style with white Scandinavian furniture, elegant woodwork and fabulous wallpapers! A real 50s/60s time capsule.

  5. Christopher Baglee

    On 24thJuly1951, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels, designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson Civil Engineers, were opened by Alfred Barnes, Minister of Transport, followed by a celebration luncheon at the Royal Station Hotel in Newcastle.
    The tunnels and domed entrance buildings were publicised as Tyneside’s contribution to the ‘Festival of Britain’ that year and the total cost was £833,000.

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