Home Architecture & Buildings Festival of Britain 1951 at the South Bank & Battersea Pleasure Gardens

Festival of Britain 1951 at the South Bank & Battersea Pleasure Gardens

A Festival of Britain poster designed by Abram Games, who also designed the festival emblem in the centre, the Festival Star.

On 3 May 1951, the Festival of Britain was opened by King George VI. It was conceived by the Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, as ‘a tonic for the nation’, a cheerful, forward-looking event and a break from rationing, austerity and the brown landscape of a still bomb-scarred country. The heart of the Festival was constructed on a 27 acre area on the South Bank of the Thames in London between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge, that had remained untouched since being bombed in the war. But some not did see it in that light. Winston Churchill, Leader of the Opposition, was opposed to the Festival. He said it was all just ‘three-dimensional, socialist propaganda’ that squandered American financial aid. Churchill was to get his own back later.

The plan first mooted in 1947 was to celebrate the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it was not to be another world fair. The festival was to focus entirely on Britain and its achievements. The Festival was to be funded chiefly by the government with a budget of £12 million. But there was a political dimension.

On the South Bank site, there was to be a Dome of Discovery, the Royal Festival Concert Hall, numerous pavilions, and the iconic Skylon, a 296ft high Dan Dare-like needle that apparently floated above the ground.

Although the aim of the Festival was to promote British science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts, the Labour government, after five years in office following its landslide victory in 1945, was losing support. It was hoped that the Festival would give people a feeling of successful recovery from the war’s devastation. But again, many thought there were better ways of spending taxpayers’ money. There was still meat rationing and petrol shortages, and millions of homes needed re-building. Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor and impresario, described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’.

However when the Festival  closed five months later on 30 September, eight and a half million paying visitors had come to the South Bank site, far more than predicted.

A pen and ink cartoon by Ronald Searle. Woolly Smothers MP says to the person in the ticket kiosk, who is obviously meant to be Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister responsible for the Festival of Britain.
‘And what’s more Sir – I still think it would be a waste of money if it weren’t such a success!’

The public enthusiasm and the support of the King and Queen for the festival resulted in the newspapers, which had been so hostile before the opening of the festival, now being supportive. King George could not attend as he was recovering from an operation. He died just over four months later, and his eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became queen. The final net cost of the Festival of £8m (about £227m today) was less than budgeted. The Festival was acclaimed as a ‘triumphant success’.

However in a general election just weeks after the closing of the Festival, Winston Churchill was returned to power as leader of a Conservative government. Churchill, who saw the Festival as a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and their vision for a new socialist Britain, promptly ordered the dismantling of the landmark Festival buildings on the South Bank, with the exception of the Festival Hall (now a Grade I listed building). Here is a British Pathé newsreel about the demolition in 1952. Watch out at the end when the commentator says all the latest equipment is being used and then shows a chap wielding a sledgehammer, and then for the man who appears to survive a potentially fatal fall when the girder he is cutting smashes to the ground. There was no sense of irony and the commentator treats the incident surprisingly light-heartedly.

The futuristic-looking Skylon was the ‘Vertical Feature’ that was an abiding symbol of the Festival of Britain. It consisted of a steel latticework frame, pointed at both ends, clad in aluminium louvres, and supported on cables slung between three steel beams.

The film also shows the supporting girders of the Skylon being cut. It is said that once the cables were severed, the Skylon toppled over into the Thames. Although the metal was sold as scrap, there are unsubstantiated stories that remains of the Skylon still lie on the bed of the Thames or in the River Lea (like the Euston Arch).

The Festival site was cleared completely and remained so for ten years. Today the site is occupied by a park, Jubilee Gardens, which was created in 1977. You can read here more about the Festival, as well as the events held across the country. A short film Brief City about the South Bank Festival buildings was made by the Observer newspaper. Here are part one and part two. The commentary is very much of its time, and to me, fascinating. Watch out for the milkman in Downing Street in part one, around 7.30 minutes.

But two miles upstream from the South Bank in Battersea Park, on the opposite side of the Thames from Chelsea, a more frivolous exhibition had also been opened in 1951, the Festival Pleasure Gardens. This exhibition harked back to the English pleasure gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries elsewhere in London at Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Cremorne.

The cover page of the Pleasure Gardens guide was different from the other more formal official guidebooks. This was to highlight the more entertaining experience that the visitor would have compared with other events such as on the South Bank.

The main area of the Festival Pleasure Gardens was the Grand Vista at the western end of the park with a view of towers and arcades, lakes and fountains. At the eastern end was a large funfair or amusement park. Along the southern edge ran a whimsical pleasure railway between the festival gardens stations of Oyster Creek and Far Tottering, and the northern side was bounded by the riverside with a pier where boats docked bringing visitors from the South Bank.

Once again there was opposition from Lord Beaverbrook’s press and Conservative MPs at the money being spent given all the other places crying out for financial aid. In the years leading up to 1951 the project became something of a political football. It was shelved for a year, but then given the green light but with only half the budget that had been originally allocated. This resulted in many of the attractions at Battersea having to be sponsored.

The Grand Vista at the Festival Pleasure Gardens, designed by John Piper and Osbert Lancaster, was intended to emulate on a small scale the visual effects seen in the parks surrounding English country houses, or within the grounds of Versailles.

On payment on two shillings at the gates that led into Battersea Park, the Festival Pleasure Gardens offered endless attractions. As well as numerous restaurants and cafes and three beer gardens, named after the original London pleasure gardens, there was the Guinness Festival Clock, the Schweppes Grotto, the Tree Walk, the Children’s Zoo and Aviary, Peter Pan’s Railway, Nestle’s Playland, a Punch and Judy Theatre, the Fountain Lake, the Mermaid Fountain, the Dance Pavilion, the Music Pavilion, and the Riverside Theatre.

The Guinness Clock. Every fifteen minutes the crowds were spellbound by the four and a half minute routine featuring well-known characters from Guinness advertising. The 25 foot high clock was designed by the firm of Lewitt Him and took five months for clockmakers Baume and Co Ltd of Hatton Garden to construct.

There were fireworks in the evening launched from a platform at the end of the Grand Vista. There were retailers as well: ‘Nell Gwynn girls’ selling Outspan oranges or a presentation of ‘Festival Fashions’ by Cooks of St Paul’s opened by the actress Janette Scott.

To guarantee the crowds, spectacular fairground attractions were needed, and that meant getting them from the USA. Astonishingly, in 1950 the Festival Committee obtained £30,000 from the Treasury for the purpose, and a trip was made to America to acquire the latest amusements. Unsurprisingly the trip was kept ’very hush hush’. But the press found out. Questions were raised in Parliament and the Daily Mail ran critical headlines about the spending of thousands of dollars on a funfair roundabout.

As a result of the visit, the Festival Gardens ended up with some of the latest American funfair rides. The names of the rides give a good idea, well mostly, of what to expect: Octopus, The Whip, Dragon Ride, The Wall of Death, Lighthouse Slip, Leaping Lena, Dodgems, Caterpillar, Waltzer, Moon Rocket, Big Dipper, Ghost Train, Bubble Bounce, Hurricane, Fly-o-Plane, Rotor, Boomerang, Flying Cars, Sky Wheel and three-abreast Gallopers or carousels. These rides were not all open at the same time. New rides opened, and old rides were replaced as visitors lost interest, or because the ride was too costly to maintain.

There was also the Haunted Mirror Maze and the Crazy Cottage, as well as a boating pool with a Cornish village backdrop at one end, and the Cremorne beer garden on two other sides.

The project had started eighteen months late due to the funding difficulties, and together with construction problems, there was little chance of opening on time on 3 May 1951. Instead of a Venetian pavement with steps going down to the main lake an undulating mass of tarmac had been laid. Some showmen had rides and other attractions ready to open and they threatened to light up for business on 3 May. In the event, the amusement park, albeit hastily fenced off from the rest of the incomplete gardens, opened its gates to invited guests on May 10 and to the public a day later. The Gardens opened a few weeks after at the end of the month.

As the Caterpillar speeded up, a green cover would rise up from the side of the car, and descend over the seats so that it was dark inside. As the Caterpillar went faster and faster, the occupants would be jerked and jolted as the car moved up and down over the track.

It had been intended that after the end of the Festival in October 1951, the Pleasure Gardens would stay open for three years. Unfortunately 1952 saw a huge drop in visitor revenue, and despite a cut in admission prices 1953 was even less successful. The Pleasure Gardens were closed, Battersea Park was reinstated though a few features such as the Guinness Clock and the Tree Walk remained into the 60s and 70s.

The amusement park was only supposed to operate for six months but was such a success that it re-opened for business the following year. At the end of the 1953 season a private company took over, and operated the park for the next twenty years. Following a tragic incident on the Big Dipper rollercoaster in May 1972 when five children were killed, the rollercoaster was closed. The loss of the funfair’s main attraction led to the decline in its popularity, and its eventual closure in 1974. The site was then levelled.

From 2002 to 2004, Wandsworth Borough Council carried out a £11m restoration of the park, funded in part by a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant, which allowed many of the remaining features of the Festival Pleasure Gardens to be incorporated into the design of the original mid-nineteenth century park. This website compares many of the locations around the Pleasure Gardens with how the park looks today, evoking the designs from 1951.

The Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway began in a series of cartoons in Punch magazine in 1939 created by Rowland Emett and which came to life in the third of a mile long 15″ gauge railway in the Festival Pleasure Gardens. Three diesel-electric locomotives were built each with fanciful mechanics, Nellie, shown here, Neptune and Wild Goose.

I visited the Pleasure Gardens with my family, though it was probably not in 1951 as I was only five. It could have been 1953 when all the attractions, as well as the funfair, were still open. I was amazed by the Guinness Festival Clock, and fascinated with the Oyster Creek and Far Tottering railway. I remember going on the elevated Tree Walk, 30ft above the ground, and into the Mirror Maze and the lopsided Crazy Cottage, viewing the Wall of Death motorcycle riders, and going on the Caterpillar, with the scary green covers unfurling and coming down over me as I whizzed round and round.

I likely went on some of the other less scary rides but not the huge Rotor. I was told that visitors entered halfway up a huge drum. They stood against the walls and the ride started to rotate. When it had reached a certain speed the floor would drop away leaving riders stuck to the wall. Even today it stills sounds a bit terrifying.

Over eight million people came to the Festival Pleasure Gardens between May and the final day on 3 November 1951, two million more than expected. At the final firework display, Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister who had been the enthusiastic leader of the Festival of Britain project, and who had been hailed as ‘Lord Festival’, said to the crowd, ‘you seem to have been enjoying yourselves’. There was never any doubt.

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