70 years ago, when Britain’s citizens were still coping with the aftermath of war and austerity, a national event was conceived by the government to boost morale and look forward to a period of recovery and prosperity. It was no coincidence that 1951 marked the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 which celebrated Victorian ingenuity. Initially proposed in 1943 to give the country “something jolly … something to give Britain a lift”, the Festival of Britain in 1951 was designed to celebrate Britain and its achievements in the arts, science and engineering and promote a culture of optimism among the public.
The main Festival site was constructed on a bomb-scarred 27 acres on the South Bank of the Thames in London but events and mini festivals were held in towns and cities throughout the country: the Industrial Power Exhibition in Glasgow, the Farm and Factory Exhibition in Belfast as well as the Land Travelling Exhibition. There was also the Festival Ship Campania that visited ten coastal towns and cities around Britain.
Cheltenham held an official exhibition at the Museum celebrating Cotswold Craftsmanship and The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon staged a cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays. Here in Chipping Campden, although not an official site, the Dover’s Games were revived to celebrate the event.
A team of young architects and designers was commissioned to design pavilions and structures such as the Dome of Discovery and the 91-metre high futuristic Skylon to showcase the latest innovations in domestic and industrial design, science, engineering, and architecture. The Land Travelling exhibition focused on discovery and design, homes of the future, work, play and travel in post-war Britain. The Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea offered hours of fun and relaxation, and souvenirs of all sorts were available to the public: brochures, books, stamps, bus tickets, items of clothing, pottery and more.
The Festival had its critics, not least former prime minister Winston Churchill, but crowds flocked to sites throughout the land during the summer of 1951 to experience all that was new, fresh and optimistic. The Festival’s material legacy was somewhat diminished by the razing of much of the site in London, but it can be seen as a catalyst for a new design ethic in Britain and a coming together out of adversity which may be relevant for us today, seventy years on.