Festival of Britain 1951
'The Festival is the British showing themselves to themselves - and the world' (Herbert Morrison)
The Festival of Britain took place in the summer of 1951 and celebrated the nation's recovery after the Second World War. Although it was a national festival, London was at its heart. Indeed one of its main creators was Herbert Morrison, the Labour M.P. for South Hackney and a former leader of the London County Council.
The most important festival site was the South Bank of the Thames at Lambeth. Here, an area of old Victorian industrial buildings and railway sidings was transformed into the site of the South Bank exhibition. New structures were built to house exhibitions exploring Britain's landscape, the British character, British industry and science. The structures included a new concert hall - the Royal Festival Hall, the Dome of Discovery and the astonishingly slender Skylon. The only existing building incorporated into the site was a tall brick shot tower, built in the early 19th century to make lead shot by dropping molten lead from a height. For the festival, it was used to house a large radio telescope and transmitter
Although the Festival took pride in Britain's past, most of the exhibits looked to the future. Science and technology featured strongly. In one of the pavilions, many Londoners saw their first ever television pictures.
The festival also took place on other sites in London. In Battersea Park, a large funfair was erected. In Poplar, east London, a new housing estate was built as a 'live architecture exhibition', a kind of model village. The Lansbury Estate was designed to incorporate all the latest thinking about architecture, planning and communities. It had a shopping precinct, a library, and high-quality housing in multi-story blocks of flats.
Over the summer of 1951, the Festival of Britain was everywhere: in shops, events, exhibitions, radio programmes and concert halls. The Trinidadian All Steel Percussion Orchestra came to play in London: the first time steel pan music had been played formally in the capital. By September 1951, over eight million people had visited the South Bank exhibition, and the event was considered a 'tonic for the nation'.
An important legacy of the festival for London was the change it made to the character of the South Bank. The festival transformed it from a site of industry to a place of culture and the arts. Although most of the festival structures were demolished at the end of 1951, the Royal Festival Hall was retained. It became the first in a group of arts-related buildings on the South Bank that, by the end of the century, included the National Theatre and the National Film Theatre.
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