It was a time of austerity following long years of struggle and sacrifice; but the nation, and the values it stood for, had survived and, together with our allies, had achieved a hard-won victory over tyranny, injustice and oppression.
A Labour government had been unexpectedly elected in a landslide victory in the 1945 election promising reform and change – we had won the war, now let us win the peace and celebrate freedom, but ‘not the freedom to exploit others, to pay poor wages or push up prices for private profit’.
However, the nation’s exertions in prosecuting the war had resulted in Britain’s pre-war industrial strength being weakened. Rationing, which had been introduced at the beginning of 1940 and included restrictions on sugar, bacon and butter, had continued after the end of the war; indeed, its restrictions had deepened and extended: barely three weeks after VE Day, cuts were made to the basic rations, and even bread, which had not been rationed during the war, was placed on ration in 1946 and remained there for two years; the scheme of rationing would last for another eight years, ending in the middle of 1954; what had been seen at its introduction as a measure of fairness and equity – in a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit – rationing came to represent, whether fairly or not, a failure of political and economic will on the part of the political classes. What could be done to dispel the despair and pessimism and lift the spirit of the people? What else but a party, a party on a national scale.
1851 had been the year of the Great Exhibition. 1951 was approaching and with it the centenary of the celebration of the apotheosis of Victorian, and Britain’s, cultural, industrial and scientific greatness. What an opportunity for the nation not only to look back to its glorious past but also to look to its future; and so the idea of a festival of Britain was conceived. Although the Festival of Britain was envisaged as a nationwide celebration (17,000 celebratory events took place in towns and villages across Britain), it was centred on London.
Like many towns and cities across the land, London bore the still-raw scars of the destruction that had rained down from the skies. The festival was largely the brainchild of Herbert Morrison, Labour MP for South Hackney and a former leader of the London County Council, who promoted the festival as ‘the people giving themselves a pat on the back’. The area chosen for the location of the main elements of the festival was a 27 acre site of old Victorian industrial buildings and railway sidings on the south bank of the Thames at Lambeth.
The bomb-ravaged site was cleared and, in 1949, Prime Minister Clement Attlee laid the foundation stone on the site of the former Lion Brewery. New structures were built to house exhibitions exploring Britain’s landscape, character, industry and science: the Dome of Discovery, 93 feet high and with a diameter of 395 feet, described as ‘a squat, mushroomed-shaped mass of concrete and steel’, housed an exhibition that had as its theme discovery – the New World, the Polar regions, the Sea, the Sky and Outer Space; the Telekinema was a state-of-the-art, 400 seat cinema operated by the British Film Institute and had the technology to show films and a large television screen - it was here that many Londoners saw their first television pictures; the Royal Festival Hall, a 2,900 seat concert hall, is the only building on the site to have a life after the festival, being the centre of a group of arts-related buildings that, by the end of the century, included the National Theatre and the National Film Theatre; but the festival’s most striking construction was the Skylon, a breath-taking, iconic, futuristic-looking sculpture; the Skylon was supported by cables that gave the impression that it was floating above the ground, and this gave rise to the fashionable joke that the structure mirrored the British economy of the time in having no clear means of support.
In addition to a new wing at the Science Museum, a few minutes away by boat from the main festival site a fun-fair – including pleasure gardens, rides and open-air amusements – was established in Battersea Park. With the festival determinedly focused on the future, and with the aim of promoting the feeling of recovery and regeneration, a large measure of attention was given to architecture.
In keeping with the principles of the festival, a young architect aged 38, Hugh Casson, was appointed Director of Architecture. As the commissioning architect for the festival, Casson, in turn, appointed only young architects. As a result of the wartime bombing and demographic changes (in the years 1945 – 1950, an ‘extra’ million babies were born above the expected rate (The Bulge), which imposed additional demands on school places, medical care and housing), there was a severe housing shortage. At Poplar, nearby the main festival site, was located the Exhibition of ‘Live’ Architecture. This was made up of the Building Research Pavilion, the Town Planning Pavilion and a building site showing houses in different stages of completion. The Lansbury Estate was to showcase the latest thinking about architecture, planning and communities: as well as high-quality, multi-storey flats, it had a shopping precinct and a library; it was a kind of ‘model’ village. The ‘Festival Style’ much influenced architecture, interior design and topography, manifesting itself in the new towns and office blocks of the Fifties. Many architects, especially those working for local government, copied its forms and materials with an evangelical zeal but with, perhaps, little consideration of their appearance and durability, which had some undesirable consequences for social cohesion in later decades.
Although the main festival site was in London, the festival was a nationwide affair with exhibitions and events held in many towns and cities throughout Britain. As well as major exhibitions in Glasgow and Belfast, there were the Land Travelling Exhibitions and the Sea Travelling Exhibitions that travelled from town to town and city to city around Britain, with the festival ship, HMS Campania, visiting Plymouth as one of its ports of call.
Despite it provoking controversy and being condemned as a waste of money (it cost £8 million, around £200 million in today’s terms), the Festival of Britain was opened by King George VI on 4th May 1951, its legacy, as described in the guide book to the festival, ‘…to leave behind not just a record of what we have thought of ourselves in the year 1951 but, in a fair community founded where once there was a slum, in an avenue of trees or in some work of art, a reminder of what we have done to write this single, adventurous year into our national and local history’. Always intended as a temporary exhibition, the festival ran for five months, closing in September 1951 having brought ‘fun, fantasy and colour’ into a drab post-war Britain. In spite of the complaints and criticism, the festival proved to be a great success, with over 8 million visitors attracted to the main site; the popularity of the festival meant that it made a profit.
In the October ballot of 1951, a Conservative government was elected to office. The festival proving to be a far bigger success than its critics had prophesied, a piqued and disgruntled Churchill had the site cleared, viewing the festival as a piece of socialist propaganda and a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and its vision for a Socialist Britain; the incoming Prime Minister even balked at the erection of the Skylon elsewhere.
The 1950s were considered by some to be the best of times, by others to be the worst of times: some recalled full employment, steady material progress and a widely shared sense of certainty and continuity; others saw it as a time of stifling respectability, deference and conformity; but there was change on the horizon.
To many the halcyon days of the Fifties were coming under threat: the rapidly expanding wage packets of those who had left school and were working were raising concerns about the moral welfare of young people; there was a moral panic over the antics of the ‘cosh boys’ and ‘Teddy boys’ who, in their actions, seemed to reveal a lack of parental control, and showed up the fallacies of a ‘liberal-minded’ psychology, that was producing a generation of delinquents; adult anxiety increased with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, a youth culture that was perceived to diminish self-discipline and increase the disrespect displayed by its adherents. Although Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and their like received only limited airplay on the BBC, the work and influence of rock ‘n’ roll artists were being widely disseminated through the big, coin-operated jukeboxes in the coffee bars of the Fifties.
The concerns of an older generation found a voice in an official report about the young people who were conscripted into National Service. The report described many of the recruits ‘as having poor physique, poor education and lacking religious knowledge, self-discipline, initiative and a sense of responsibility’. Some observers saw the rise in post-war adolescent delinquency attributable to the disrupted and unnatural conditions of family life during World War II. Yet, at this time, discipline was invariably strict: boys were regularly caned and girls rapped on the knuckles in primary school. Few people disagreed with corporal punishment. A survey conducted in 1952 found that 90% of teachers wanted corporal punishment to be retained; more surprisingly, a similar percentage of schoolboys felt the same: in its execution, corporal punishment was brief and swift; the alternative punishments, such as the withdrawal of privileges, seemed to generate greater resentment.
The belief that the Fifties were more law-abiding times than now is not, according to statistics, a nostalgic delusion: crime declined markedly during the first half of the Fifties, only beginning to rise, slowly, from 1955.
Many commentators have, in retrospect, viewed the much-heralded Festival of Britain not as a demonstration of the nation’s strength but as a product of post-war weakness, and of raising an unsteady hand pointing to further decline. At the beginning of 1952, the nation and the Commonwealth mourned the death of King George VI. However, in 1953, the mood of the nation received an injection of optimism with the coronation of a young queen Elizabeth; some inveterate optimists were even emboldened to express the hope that with Elizabeth’s accession and coronation it might be the start of a second Golden Elizabethan period.
So, sixty years on, where do we find ourselves? We seem to be back where we started: we have received a firm shove in the back and been pushed across the threshold into another period of austerity – well, for most of us that is; but this time we don’t have the justification of surviving a world war with which to excuse ourselve