“Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I love London so. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I think of her wherever I go. “Hubert Gregg, English songwriter, BBC broadcaster, author and stage actor. (1914-2004)
I read this post from Monica’s Tangled Web and immediately was transported back in time to 1951. This was shortly after the Second World War ended and Britain and her people were badly in need of some cheering up.
Large areas of London were still in ruins and redevelopment had hardly begun. The powers that be thought a festival would give Britons a feeling of recovery and progress. Labour Deputy Leader Herbert Morrison one of the instigators of the Festival, described it as a ‘tonic for the Nation”.
“As we look forward to the year 1951, each of us can share in the anticipation of an event which may be outstanding in our lives. The motives which inspire the Festival are common to us all – pride in our past and all that it has meant, confidence in the future which holds so many opportunities for us to continue our contribution to the well-being of mankind, and thanksgiving that we have begun to surmount our trials.” King George VI, 1949
The south bank of the Thames was decided as the perfect place for the Festival as large areas had been demolished during the Blitz and building began to take shape. Much was written and told about the wonders. And to a very young girl they were wonders.
I clearly remember the Skylon. A futuristic-looking, slender, vertical, cigar-shaped steel structure seeming to float above the ground. All that held it in place were those thin wires. We all thought it was magical.
But it was controversial with some claiming it to be dangerous and apparently, questions were asked in Parliament regarding the danger to visitors from lightning-strikes to the Skylon, and the papers reported that it was duly roped off at one point, in anticipation of a forecast thunderstorm.
I think the Dome of Discovery was the centrepiece of the Festival and it dominated site. Together with the needle-like Skylon it became the instant visual symbol of the Festival.
King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and their daughters the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret rose attended the opening of the Festival with 14,000 invited guests. The Festival was opened to the public the next day. Here is a British Pathe recording of the day. It’s very crackly but if you can ignore that it really is a piece of history.
In spite of its popularity with the public, the cost of dismantling and re-erecting the Skylon elsewhere (£30,000—£642,979 as of 2011) was deemed too much for a government struggling with Post-War austerity.
The exhibition was dismantled in 1952 and the Skylon was removed and common lore has it that it was thrown into the River Lea. However, after a public outcry it was revealed that both the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery were dismantled and sold for scrap. In any event a truly ignominious end to such symbols of our future.
And this year the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain is being celebrated. According to the Guardian Newspaper “To pay homage to the event that helped usher London and the rest of Britain out of the postwar doldrums, the Southbank Centre is hosting a four-month jamboree boasting everything from gardens sprouting from the concrete buildings to a museum chronicling the original festival.”
How clear it all is in my memory. And how exciting for the young children who had known only the deprivations of living through a war. Suddenly there were celebrations and excitement. Wonderful.
“But now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of my years and I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs. It pours neat and clear. It was a very good year.” So sang It was a very good year.–