November 1949: planning the Festival of Britain

Dripping with patriotism, The Engineer’s coverage of the Festival’s South Bank site shows Britain still wanted to seem pre-eminent in many areas

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The Festival of Britain in 1951 changed London’s landscape completely, with the building of what we now know as the South Bank arts complex — the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, the British Film Institute and the National Theatre. Yet despite its current status as the epicentre of the Capital’s (and arguably the nation’s) cultural life, the site started out with engineering, science and technology at its centre. In 1949, The Engineer reported on the genesis of the Festival of Britain and what its instigators hoped to achieve.

Image from the National Archives showing the Festival site, with the Dome of Discovery, Skylon spire and the Festival Hall.

Although the Festival is now perhaps associated with the new beginnings symbolised by the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in 1952, it was intended to mark the centenary of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition and to instill some optimism during the dreary years of post-War austerity.

The article drips with the sort of patriotic fervour which is rare in today’s more cirucumspect, and perhaps more cynical times. ‘The South Bank Exhibition will be mainly concerned with those contributions to science, technology and industrial design in which Britain’s prestige stands highest,’ it says.

It’s striking how prominent mentions of Britain’s history of exploration and discovery are. Britain was still an imperial power in 1949, but the Empire was crumbling — India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of Victoria’s Empire, had achieved independence two years previously. But the Exhibition’s most striking building and perhaps the most notable absence from today’s South Bank, the Dome of Discovery (the largest dome in the world at that time), centred around exploration and, as The Engineer said, aimed to tell a story of ‘British pre-eminence in discovery and exploration, not only by land and sea, but into the very nature of the living world and the universe.’ One section would ‘display the latest knowledge of the structure and nature of matter, culminating in a display of nuclear energy,’ and ‘in all sections, it will be made clear how the initiative in exploration and discovery remains with the British, who continue their researches aided by new ideas and new tools largely provided by science.’

Elsewhere on the site, visitors could see displays on natural resources, ‘British raw materials, resources of greater variety than can be found in any area of comparable size; industry, covering the conversion of raw materials into finished products ‘not by the display of any [single industry] in its entirety, but by the selection of outstanding processes, machinery and techniques from several groups of industries’; the sea and ships, which would ‘display many aspects of our marine supremacy from shipyards to fisheries’ — Britannia still ruled the waves; and transport, including numerous full-sized locomotives and aircraft and working models of docks and airports, as well as displays on telecommunications and broadcasting which would now surely demand a dedicated pavilion. ‘To ensure the proper representation of science and technology, a great number of our leading scientists, industrialists, engineers and technologists have been consulted,’ the article concludes.

It’s a historical irony that one of the first actions of Churchill’s incoming Conservative government in 1952 was to level the lot, apart from the Festival Hall, possibly because of its strong association with the post-war Attlee government.

We’d be delighted to hear readers’ memories of the Festival of Britain, especially if it sparked an interest which culminated in a STEM career.