Visitors to the London’s South Bank between May and September this year will be able to enjoy a series of events and displays, relating to the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain.
The original Festival was conceived as a "Tonic for the Nation” designed to boost the spirits of a nation still suffering the after effects of the Second World War. London at that time was still blighted with bomb sites and a ruined infrastructure. Major redevelopment and reconstruction was urgently needed and it was hoped that the Festival would be the catalyst that would drive this forward. Additionally, it was seen as a way to promote Britain worldwide as a a leader in design, manufacturing and the arts. All of this from a country that was to continue rationing sweets until February 1953 and meat until July1954!
Conceived by the Labour government in 1947 and timed to coincide with the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a team of forward looking young architects, headed by Hugh Casson began transforming the site located between Waterloo Bridge and County Hall in 1948
The Festival was opened by King George VI on the 3rd May 1951 and went on to be a great popular and financial success. It should be remembered that although the events were centred on the South Bank, there were other associated Festival sites in London and throughout the country. It closed, as planned, in September of the same year having had over 10,000,000 paid admissions to the main sites in 5 months.
Despite the Festival’s popularity, or perhaps because of it, Winston Churchill and his newly elected Tory government loathed the Labour conceived Festival and almost the first act of that government was to order the clearance of the site (the Royal Festival Hall being the only being the only significant survivor).
There are a few fragments still to be found away from the main site, the largest being the Lansbury Estate in Poplar, conceived as a “live architecture” experiment in the spirit of the Festival. Battersea Park still has the remains of the Festival Gardens though, sadly, there is nothing left of the fun fair which soldiered on, in a progressively dilapidated state, until 1974. I’m pleased to say that I was taken to the Fun Fair several times during its prime period in the mid to late 50’s. There are reminders too in Oxford St
and White City.
Of course, the Festival was only ever conceived as a temporary show, but some of the constructions could have been saved. I know that I’m not the only person to wish that the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon were still there for us to enjoy.
This was never intended to be an in depth history of the Festival. For those interested in learning more you could do far worse than starting here and here. Rather, this was to mark an important point on my own personal timeline.
The Festival and I are almost the same age. When my parents visited the Festival of Britain in the Summer of 1951, my Mum was already pregnant with me! I was born a little over 3 months after the event finished. I wish that I'd seen it. I know I would have enjoyed it.
It’s a sad truth that there can never be another FOB. It just wouldn’t work in the modern world. I think we are all to savvy and cynical these days. Technology, in particular, is racing ahead at an alarming pace but it is there, in your face, all of the time, and of course, we haven’t just been through the nearly six years of global conflict which so coloured the views and the attitudes of the late 40’s and early 50’s.
There are some things we should be grateful for!