The 1951 Festival of Britain in Birmingham and the English Midlands

Martin Packer

Note: Martin Packer here continues his comparisons of the festivals and fairs of 1851, 1951, and 2001 with a retrospective account of the Festival of Britain, which took place a century after the Great Exhibition. [GPL]

An estimated eighteen million people visited the two thousand local events which comprised the national celebrations known as the 1951 Festival of Britain; compared to the Millennium Experience held at The Dome in Greenwich during last year, it was hugely successful. What very few people appreciate fifty years on was the truly national scale on which the Festival of Britain operated, with some 55 principal events mainly exhibitions and arts festivals all over England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The paid admissions alone to the six main exhibitions were approximately 10.25 million in London and 16 other U.K. cities and towns in only five months from May to September; this does not even take account of the 22 Arts Festivals, alphabetically from Aberdeen to York, plus the London Season of the Arts. (By comparison, the Millennium Dome received only 5.5 million paid visitors last year.)

Birmingham and Britain itself in 1951 with its post-war rationing and austerity were very different places to that of 2001; what should be remembered is that the Festival of Britain was literally "a tonic to the nation" only six years after the end of the Second World War, taking place at the same time as the Korean conflict, to which British troops had been committed as part of the U.N. force.

However this article is intended to focus on what happened during 1951 in Birmingham and the Midlands. Birmingham received a visit from the Land Travelling Exhibition at Bingley Hall from August 4th to 25th. The Land Travelling Exhibition described in the Official Handbook of the Festival of Britain as "a story closely related in the industrial design and production aspects to that being told in the South Bank Exhibition" had started in Manchester on May 5th, only two days after the formal Opening Ceremony at St. Paul's Cathedral. The 35,000 square feet of Exhibition and the 3,000 objects arranged in six sections stayed in Manchester's City Hall until May 25th, before moving onto Woodhouse Moor, Leeds between June 23rd and July 14th. After Birmingham, the Land Travelling Exhibition finally arrived at Nottingham's Broad Marsh and was displayed between September 15th and October 6th. (The South Bank Exhibition in London had already formally finished on September 30th and all of it was subsequently demolished!)

At Leeds and Nottingham where there were no permanent buildings in which the Exhibition could be displayed, a rigid frame structure covered by 100,000 square feet of canvas was erected to contain it. The whole exhibition was transported by a massive fleet of 100 lorries. In the Corridor of Time section, 16 large pendulums, swinging over the heads of visitors, illuminated and demonstrated the development and progress of the British nation throughout the ages. The exhibition's designer was Richard Levin.

The six sections of the Land Travelling Exhibition according to the Official Handbook were:

MATERIALS AND SKILL: the "display (of ) the development of Man's skill in handling materials throughout the ages" ; DISCOVERY AND DESIGN: "how today in a world of machines the traditions of British craftsmanship have been supplemented by scientific knowledge and new techniques in the production of such things as domestic equipment and the objects made from plastics"; PEOPLE AT HOME showed "how, in all rooms of an ordinary house, the designer and the scientist can combine to solve many domestic problems, in furniture and floor coverings, light fittings and other essentials." Also "The House of the Future" "there will be a guess at what our future homes may look like." PEOPLE AT PLAY was "devoted to sports and pastimes, field sports, camping, indoor and outdoor games and recreations, toys and hobbies, with a section on clothes for leisure wear. PEOPLE AT WORK covered "the story of the gas turbine engine, its invention by Sir Frank Whittle, its development and production" serving "as a symbol of the enterprise of (our) industries, the skill of (our) engineers and the scientific research which lies behind their efforts". Finally PEOPLE TRAVEL showed "the story of passenger travel by rail from 1830 to the present day", with "the story of the omnibus and (our) achievement in every form of ocean travel from liners to yachts."

According to "The Times" Festival of Britain Supplement (quote) "it is not unnatural that an exhibition that will be shown exclusively in the main manufacturing towns of Britain should concentrate largely on industry and production. Although the Festival of Britain travelling land exhibition will draw on the theme of the South Bank Exhibition, it will be distinct and individual in its character." So while the North of England and the Midlands were not to get the new Sculpture, Painting and Design enjoyed at the South Bank Exhibition or the delights of the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park unless their populations travelled to London, which a significant proportion of them did of course. Since the level of car ownership in 1951 was significantly lower than today, public transport moved many thousands of people to London, in particular with six trains from Rochdale with 3,000 passengers on May 19th (which might logically have visited nearby Manchester) and 10 trains with 4,500 passengers from Nottingham on May 26th, which equally logically could have waited until the autumn for the Land Travelling Exhibition to come to them. However with over 8 million people visiting both the South Bank Exhibition and Battersea Park, London was really the place to be in that summer!

A lady called Mrs. Bea North from Nottingham, actually managed to visit the South Bank Exhibition in London as well as seeing the Festival Ship Campania in her own home town of Birkenhead followed by the Land Travelling Exhibition in her late husband's home town of Nottingham; a remarkable "Festival of Britain" hat-trick! The Festival Ship Campania carried yet another exhibition in three sections only (similar to the South Bank Exhibition) to some ten coastal cities and towns from May 4th to October 6th.

Outside the Birmingham area, the Festival of Britain included Arts Festivals at Cheltenham (between July 2nd and 14th), Worcester (between September 2nd and 7th) and the lengthy Shakespeare Festival at Stratford-Upon-Avon from March 24th to October 27th. Cheltenham was the home of the Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary Music begun in 1945, Worcester was the 1951 home to the Three Choirs Festival begun in 1717, while Stratford-Upon-Avon devoted most of its season to a cycle of Shakespeare's History plays: Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, with a new production of "The Tempest". So within very easy travelling distance of Birmingham was a good choice of music and drama in the Midlands, as well as in the Town Hall and at the "Rep"!

Finally Birmingham's local industry contributed immensely to the exhibits displayed in the Land Travelling Exhibition, at the South Bank Exhibition, London and on the Festival Ship "Campania". The Midlands motor industry in particular was well represented with the latest cars from Birmingham's "Austin Motor Company" and "singer Motors" ; the world's first experimental gas turbine car was displayed by "Rover Company", Solihull. Various other Birmingham-based manufacturers contributed exhibits, including the "B.S.A." guns; the "Bulpitt" aluminium hotwater bottle; "Chad Valley" chess set, dolls, toy tractor, watering can; the "Creda Comet" electric cooker, and "Valor" oil convector heater - all in the Land Travelling Exhibition. In addition at the South Bank Exhibition, there were "Alldays & Onions" smithy equipment, "Dunlop" tyres, bicycles from "Dawes", "Parkes" and "sunbeam", cricket bats by "Quaife and Lilley", motor cycles from "Ariel", "BSA" and "James" ("Red Hunter", "Bantam" and "Comet" models) plus "I.M.I." sporting ammunition. So all in all, Birmingham's manufacturing industry was well represented at the Festival of Britain. Birmingham played a significant part in the 1951 Festival of Britain and coincidentally John Cobb's World Land-Speed Record Car (for many years displayed in the old Science & Industry Museum) which appeared in 1951 under the eaves of the Dome of Discovery in the South Bank Exhibition, will be back on display again at the "Think Tank", Digbeth (Birmingham) this September.


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Last modified 2003