Festival of Britain

From Academic Kids

The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition which opened in May 1951 in London. At that time, shortly after the end of World War II, much of London was in ruins and redevelopment was badly needed. The Festival was an attempt to give Britons a feeling of recovery and progress and promote better quality of 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 the Labour Deputy Leader Herbert Morrison who described it as "a tonic for the Nation".



Construction of the site opened up a new public space, including a riverside walkway, where previously there had been only warehouses. There was, however, opposition to the project from those who believed that the money (8 million) would have been better spent on housing. The location was next to Waterloo station on the South Bank of the Thames.

In 1948, young architect Hugh Casson, 38, was appointed director of architecture for the Festival and he unashamedly sought to appoint other young architects to design its buildings. He was knighted in 1952 for his efforts in relation to the Festival.

The majority of the buildings on the main South Bank site were of the International Modernism style little seen in Britain before the war. The new buildings included the Dome of Discovery (perhaps later the inspiration for the Millennium Dome), the Skylon, an unusual cigar-shaped steel tower supported by cables, the Lion and the Unicorn pavilion celebrating the history of the British nation, and the Guinness Festival Clock.

All the Festival buildings except the Royal Festival Hall were later demolished and replaced by other buildings to become an arts complex known as The South Bank. However, a public housing estate in Poplar, named the Lansbury Estate after George Lansbury, was built as part of the festival and is still extant. There is a public house named The Festive Briton (and now called Callaghans) in a corner of Chrisp Street Market, also part of the estate, with The Festival Inn nearby. Also as part of the Festival Parliament Square was redesigned and extensive improvements were made to Battersea Park.


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 Park brought Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to wider public notice.


Although the Festival was extremely popular and made a profit it was conceived and executed in haste and with little thought for subsequent use. The Labour Party who had championed the Festival lost power while it was open and Terence Conran has speculated that the haste with which the main site was cleared was an act of political revenge by the incoming Conservative Party government. Profits made from the Festival retained by the Greater London Council were used to convert the Royal Festival Hall and establish The South Bank. Aside from this the architectural legacy of the Festival is mixed, many architects especially those working for Local Government enthusiastically copied its forms and materials but without too much consideration to their durability resulting in a stock of buildings that became criticised.

Politically the Festival of Britain has become a symbol for the incomplete promise of the immediate post-war period. The support of Peter Mandelson for the Millennium Dome project was an attempt by New Labour to engage with this symbol as Mandelson is the grandson of Herbert Morrison.


The Festival is featured in the film Prick Up Your Ears.

See also


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