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.
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.
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 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.