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Festival of Britain

Sixty-six years ago, you may well have been planning your visit to the Festival of Britain. If you fancied making the journey to London, you would have joined the 8.5 million visitors to the South Bank of the River Thames who encountered thirty pavilions showcasing various aspects of Britain’s life that had been constructed around the new Festival Hall.

The Festival of Britain was a celebration of Britain’s dominant position in the arts, science, technology and industry and provided visitors with the opportunity to be educated, bask in Britain’s culture and history and see the very best in modern industrial and decorative design. The government had allocated £14 million as a budget and the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, had appointed Gerald Barry to spearhead the project. He turned to Hugh Casson to oversee the riverside promenade where visitors could stroll, enjoy the thirteen restaurants and leisurely meander into Battersea Park where amusements and attractions were plentiful. This was arguably the world’s first theme park, opened a full five years ahead of Disneyland.

Britain’s most talented young artists contributed work to this event of national exuberance and those like Henry Moore, Terence Conran, Victor Pasmore, Robin and Lucienne Day, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and many more went on to build international reputations. Some Yorkshire folk, like the group of 1197 visitors from Bradford didn’t like the sign posting or graphics and complained that in the “Homes & Gardens” pavilion, the uncomfortable looking modern furniture was universally disliked. The introduction of soft toilet tissue in the public conveniences, however, began a trend that has become an accepted fact of life.

It didn’t matter if you couldn’t get to London as there was a Festival of Britain travelling exhibition that arrived in Leeds on 23rd June 1951 for three weeks. 145,000 people turned up and paid to enter the massive marquee full of the most modern aspects of life in Britain. Around the same time, the Festival ship “Campania” sailed into British ports carrying her floating exhibition that summarised everything on show in the capital. In Hull, obviously rehearsing for their present role as the City of Culture, 88,000 visitors went aboard in ten days, one of which was a Sunday when the ship was closed much to the disappointment of the crew who had hoped to be paid at overtime rates.

All over the country, towns and villages organised their own local events. In Knottingley, for example, a sports day, mounted police display, Punch & Judy and horticultural show coincided with a trade exhibition of local industry. An impressive five thousand mostly local people from a town population of eight thousand turned up for a great day of fun.

And fun was what this country needed. After all, the Second World War hadn’t long ended and there was a chronic shortage of housing. There were widows galore, many with young children and the support for wounded and disabled veterans was rudimentary at best. Bomb sites were common, rationing was still around and a third of all homes did not have their own toilet. Four million people a week used public baths because of the inadequacies in their homes. In fact the 1951 census included five new questions to ascertain how many houses had piped water, a kitchen stove and oven, a kitchen sink and drain, an indoor toilet and a plumbed bath. Barely two thirds met these standards and in poorer, urban areas the percentage was much higher.

The Festival of Britain was promoted as a “tonic for the nation” and declared not to be a party political project but a national enterprise. Immediately after it closed, however, a general election produced a change in government with Winston Churchill returned again as Prime Minister. He recognised that what was needed was a major rebuilding and investment programme, a national convalescence period and the removal of such severe social depravation. Not so much a short term tonic as a prolonged course of powerful medicine and treatment.

Fortunately for him, the ground roots had been laid by architects, artists and industrial designers. Their early vision and many of their works live on in their buildings, interior and furniture designs, paintings and sculpture though most of them, sadly, have now passed away.