A Talk by Geoffrey Kay

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Geoffrey back to the Parish Room, this time to tell us all about the 1951 Festival of Britain, which occurred exactly 100 years after the huge success of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, as he previously told us all about.

Geoffrey began by asking whether anyone had any memories of the festival, to which four guests put their hands up. Their memories of the festival of course differed, but all agreed how dour and grey everyday life was back then - the country was hugely damaged from devastation left by the war, rationing was still in place and everyone was basically just worn out. One remembered climbing up to the elevated railway line to see the new Britannia class steam loco, clearly much more interesting to little boys than the festival itself, but the overriding memory of one little girl was “not being allowed to go on the funfair” - probably due to the extra cost. Adult tickets were five shillings each (25p in decimal, equal to £7.50 in today’s money) and programmes cost half a crown (2 shillings six pence or 12.5p), which as she said, was probably five rides missed out on - something clearly and indelibly etched in her memory.

To set the scene, Geoffrey showed us a number of mainly black and white pictures taken during the years after the war, clearly illustrating everything recalled by our guests: people generally looked sad and unhappy, there were bombsites across the countries in cities and towns, whilst clothes were drab and utilitarian - not a happy time. There was a desire to remodel and rebuild, in a new and bold style, though this was much hampered by the sheer lack of raw materials such as steel, concrete and wood - something that seriously affected the building of the festival itself. Geoffrey illustrated the new thinking with before and after pictures of Coventry cathedral, of the first pedestrianised shopping precinct built in the country, also in Coventry. There was of course much necessary house building across the country, many of which were Prefabs, manufactured off site and quickly erected on site. Intended as stop gap homes for 20 or so years, 60 to 70 years on, many still exist because residents loved them. On a more sombre note, Geoffrey then showed pictures of a London smog; a type of air pollution originally named for the combination of smoke and fog, which at the time originated from the large amount of coal burning in the fires of city residents.

In September 1945, just a month after the war, the ‘Council of Industrial Design’ announced a national exhibition of design in ‘all the main range of consumer goods’. Held at the V&A museum, empty at the time as exhibits were evacuated during the war, and undamaged, the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition ran from September to November. A popular reaction in the press termed it "Britain Can't Have It" because wartime austerity measures were still in force whilst the goods on display were intended for export.

Geoffrey then introduced us to (Sir) Gerald Barry, our hero for the evening. In 1944 he wrote an open letter to Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps (SSC), calling for ‘a great trade and cultural exhibition in the next few years’, pointing out the ‘significance of 1951 as an anniversary’. He also suggested that there were strong arguments for holding it ‘in the Empire’s capital’. It seems SSC was a bit sniffy, saying only that “it might be a good idea”; happily he was replaced by Herbert Morrison who was much more enthusiastic and thought it “worth pursuing”, additionally suggesting that “everyone needed a tonic”.

Prime Minister Attlee then asked Lord Ismay to become Chairman of the Council of the Festival of Britain, which he officially became on 10 March 1948. Ismay helped ensure the festival would be truly national by calling together all the mayors in Britain in June 1949 to discuss the festival, the first such meeting since 1916. Ismay also publicly defended the large cost of the festival, emphasising its historic nature by saying that "we are consciously and deliberately determined to make history”. When approached the King and Queen were enthusiastic and Princess Elizabeth was a real enthusiast - the project had legs at last.

Gerald Barry was given operational charge of the festival; being energetic and optimistic, he had an eye for what would be popular and a knack for how to motivate others. Barry gave preference to young architects and designers who had collaborated on exhibitions for the wartime Ministry of Information, and it clearly worked. There was little money, with many people believing the £11 million (about £360 million today) cost to put on the exhibition wildly frivolous, but with enthusiasm and a ‘make do and mend’ attitude, they succeeded.

A model of the main exhibition structures was created and work commenced during the awful winter of 1950. It was due to complete in May 1951, which very nearly didn’t happen because of the disruptive power of the on site unions; to illustrate this, Geoffrey told of an artist painting a large mural which continually required him to move a ladder and lights to see by as he progressed - something apparently in breach of the Electrician’s Union ‘work to’ rules in force at the time - Geoffrey didn’t tell us how this was resolved - most probably by having an electrician on hand simply to move the lights every 15 minutes or so!

The main festival site was constructed on 27 acres of the South Bank, left untouched since bombing during the war. Gerald Barry appointed Hugh Casson, a young architect of just 38, as Director of Architecture by, who then appointed other young architects to design its buildings - it proved to be a perfect time to showcase the principles of urban design that would feature in the massive post-war rebuilding of the country.

The main site featured the largest dome in the world at the time, 93 feet tall, a diameter of 365 feet (said to be easy to remember) and with a dramatic entrance via a long escalator; it was a remarkable technological achievement later tragically demolished by vengeful politicians. An early challenge was to design a structure that kept the total number of parts to a minimum and which could be prefabricated, transported and erected with great ease, speed and efficiency. Architect Ralph Tubbs more than met the challenge by developing an extraordinary system of geometry which determined its form and the design of its structural members. Constructed out of aluminum, a most futuristic material at the time, it was a kind of mathematical poem according to Tubbs. At the centre of the site was a brass pin, from which all dimensions were measured and from where the dome's diameter was fixed. Eccentric smaller circles centred on a similar pin 29 feet away determined the edges of the internal galleries and generated the asymmetrical form of the aluminium apron. The internal galleries later held exhibitions on many of the themes of discovery, including:

  • The Land
  • The Earth
  • The Polar regions
  • The Sea
  • The Sky
  • Outer Space
  • The Physical World
  • The Living World

Adjacent to the Dome was the Skylon, a breathtaking, iconic daring and most futuristic-looking monument. It was a vertical cigar shaped post-tensioned cable alumininium clad tower giving an impression of floating above the ground, almost invisibly suspended by just three cables; it had no functional purpose other an anemometer at the tip of its 300 foot high spire. Once the whole structure was assembled, a system of hydraulic jacks beneath the three smaller pylons were pumped up to raise the pylons, putting tension into all the cables so the whole thing became a stressed structure. This reduced the number of wires needed to anchor Skylon and halved the amount of oscillation in the structure; the apparent lack of support made the structure look tremendously hazardous, and because people then felt there weren't enough supporting wires, it was tremendously exciting to all.

Architect Leslie Martin led the Festival Hall project, a 2,900 seat concert hall which hosted concerts conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. An early sketch was of an egg in a box, which name subsequently stuck. Its strength was its arrangement of interior space; the central staircase has a ceremonial feel, moving elegantly through different levels of light and air, and because public spaces (foyers, bars and restaurants) were built around the auditorium, these also insulated the Hall from the noise of the adjacent railway bridge.

The hall was built with modernism’s favourite material, reinforced concrete, alongside more luxurious elements such as beautiful woods and Derbyshire fossilised limestone. The exterior was bright white, intended to contrast with the blackened city surrounding it, whilst large areas of glass on the façade meant light coursed freely throughout the interior; at night the glass let the light from inside flood out over the river, in contrast to the darkness which befell the rest of London after dusk.

The Shot Tower was originally built in 1826 and in operation until 1949, and was the only existing building retained on the Festival site. In 1950, a gallery chamber at the top was removed and a steel-framed superstructure added, to provide a radio beacon for the festival. After the festival, it was demolished to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Other facilities included a new wing of the Science Museum being built, an exhibition of Live Architecture hosted nearby at Poplar. Pleasure Gardens were created in Battersea Park, to include:

  • A pier where boats docked bringing visitors from the South Bank piers;
  • The Parade - the shopping area of the Festival Gardens with access to all other spaces and events;
  • The Grand Vista - a view of towers and arcades, lakes and fountains, eating and drinking, and the location of the evening fireworks;
  • Oyster Creek - the Rowland Emett designed railway that ran between the festival gardens stations of Oyster Creek and Far Tottering;
  • The Fun Fair;
  • Lawn and Flower Gardens; and
  • Specific areas for children such as the Punch and Judy and Zoo.

The festival was a also nationwide affair, with exhibitions in many towns and cities throughout Britain, including: the Industrial Power (heavy engineering) exhibition in Glasgow, the Farm and Factory (linen technology and science in agriculture) exhibition in Belfast, land travelling exhibitions and the festival ship Campania, which journeyed from town to town around the country. Festival Pleasure Gardens were also set up in Battersea, three miles up river.

The Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion attempted to show and explain the British character, the Lion and the Unicorn apparently symbolising two of the main qualities of the national character - on the one hand realism and strength, on the other fantasy, independence and imagination. The main British characteristics showcased in the pavilion were: Language and Literature, Eccentricities and Humour, Skill of Hand and Eye, and the Instinct of Liberty. On entering visitors would see, high on a side wall, very large straw figures of the Lion and Unicorn, set in front of the legend “We are the Lion and the Unicorn, twin symbols of the Briton’s character. As a Lion I give him solidarity and strength, and with the Unicorn he lets himself go“. It is though this thoroughly confused many visitors, as acknowledged by the guide-book as the closing paragraphs for the pavilion read:

If, on leaving this Pavilion, the visitor from overseas concludes that he is still not much the wiser about the British national character, it might console him to know that British people are themselves still very much in the dark about it. For them, the British character is as easy to identify, and as difficult to define, as a British nonsense rhyme:

The lion and the unicorn,

We’re fighting for the crown,

The lion beat the unicorn

All around the town.

Some gave them white bread,

And some gave them brown;

Some gave them plum cake,

And sent them out of town.

Always planned as a temporary exhibition, the Festival ran for 5 months before closing in September 1951. It had been a success; it turned over a profit as well as being extremely popular. The month following closure, a new Conservative government came to power, and it is believed that incoming PM Churchill considered the Festival socialist propaganda, a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and of their vision for a new Socialist Britain. An order was quickly made to level the South Bank site and remove almost all trace; the only feature to remain was the Royal Festival Hall; now a Grade I listed building and the first post-war building to become so protected, it still successfully hosts concerts today.

Geoffrey then proceeded to delight his audience with many pictures that showed:

  • The main site under construction;
  • The opening and visitors to the exhibition;  
  • Many iconic buildings, both under construction and during the exhibition;
  • Many of the various posters and programme images;
  • Images of 1950s house and interior design;
  • Modern white and other goods just available, for the wealthy; and
  • Battersea funfair.

 

To conclude, in his delightfully low key way, Geoffrey gave everyone a really lovely trip down memory lane, including those not old enough to remember the festival itself! His presentation was a masterpiece and thoroughly enjoyed by everyone present, and we can’t wait until we invite him back again.

Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

18th April:

Linda Sexton will tell us how the Women’s Institute helped communities cope in the aftermath of the devastating 1953 East Coast Floods. Looking back, its hard now to understand the scale of the disaster, but with 307 people killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, and with more than 2,500 fatalities across Europe (mainly the Netherlands), the scale tragically become clear.

16th May:

Pip Wright will present a picture history of Margaret Catchpole – the story of a Suffolk adventuress & chronicler transported for stealing a horse – using paintings by Rev Cobbold. Margaret is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as one of the few convicts with an excellent memory and a gift for recording events, so given Pip’s extraordinary story telling ability, this tale should be absolutely fascinating.

 

Andy Sheppard                                                                                     18th March 2018

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