1951 Festival of Britain

The construction of the Festival of Britain site on London’s South Bank, October 1950. Waterloo Station is on the left, with County Hall behind it, and the Houses of Parliament behind that. The festival buildings are (from left to right) the Dome of Discovery, the Transport Pavilion, the Royal Festival Hall and the Shot Tower. The image was taken from the Festival Church (St John’s Church) on Waterloo Road. (Photo by Warburton/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive)
12th May 1951: The River Thames curving past the Dome of Discovery, Festival Hall and Skylon during the 1951 Festival of Britain. (Photo by Central Press)

In 1951, six years after WWII, it was the centenary year of the Great Exhibition, A grand plan to invigorate the country and people from the post-war austerity took place. The plan was to gather all innovations in British architecture, science, industry and arts and celebrate in the form of exhibition. It was not only to advertise their prowess to the world but also to invite a mass crowd and to heal the country with optimistic enthusiasm that was prevalent in the scientific field.

left: 13th May 1952: A half dismantled Skylon surrounded by scaffolding at the Festival Of Britain site on the South Bank. (Photo by Edward G. Malindine) right: Queen meeting men working on South Bank

Festival of Britain was embedded with science in every aspect. From planning to execution, a significant number of scientists were involved(Forgan, 218). The organizers of the festival were concerned about the communicability of the displays being difficult and inaccessible to the lay people. At the same time, the organizers were also concerned about every captions and description being strictly accurate scientifically. One being precise and correct, the other being about communication to a lay public, the two approaches pushed and pulled the balance of festival and science throughout the preparation period(Forgan, 236).

To be understood easily to the public while maintaining strict accuracy, and also to bring science and well-designed products together to earn foreign currency which was a constant anxiety of Britain, organizers of the festival attempted to marry design with science(Forgan, 221).

The emphasis on design and science could also be found on King George VI’s address that was given from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral and declaration for the opening of Festival of Britain on May 3 of 1951.

“One hundred years ago Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Its creators were far-sighted men who looked forward to the world in which the advances of art and science would uplift civilization to enduring peace and prosperity…they will maintain the prestige of our arts and industries abroad by proof of our world-renowned skill in design and craftsmanship; and they will also show how vital a part is played in industry by scientific imagination and research.”

Britain’s King George VI is greeted by Leader of the Opposition Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth is greeted by Prime Minister Clemet Attlee, when they arrived at the South Bank Festival Exhibition, London, May 3, 1951. Behind Churchill is Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison.

The Exhibition went for five months, and it was more modest than the Director-General Gerald Barry’s original grandiose vision of national reassessment, less triumphant than the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the Festival was nonetheless a considerable success inviting more than 8 million paying visitors to the place(Leventhal, 452)

Festival of Britain in colour 1951 (HQ)


“Festival of Britain.” Nature 5 May 1951: 754–55. Print.

F. M. Leventhal”A tonic to the nation.” Albion 27.3 (1998): 445–53. Print.

Sophie Forgan, “Festivals of science and the two cultures: science, design, and display in the Festival of Britain, 1951” BJHS, 31(1998):217–240, Print.

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