The 1951 Festival of Britain remembered

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Southbank Centre’s origins date back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. One of the landmark UK cultural events of the 20th century, it celebrated arts, science, industry and design, and marked the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. More than eight million people paid to visit the festival site located on the south bank of the Thames throughout its five-month run, but thousands of other events were held all over the country under the Festival of Britain banner.

Today, the only building that remains from the main festival site is our largest auditorium, Royal Festival Hall. Throughout its foyers, however, you can find some fascinating artefacts from the festival, which are well worth a visit (especially as it is free to do so!).

The Story of 51

It’s hard to stress the importance of the 1951 Festival of Britain on everything from urban architecture and interior design to the regeneration of London’s South Bank. If your curiosity is piqued, we suggest you take a look at our small but perfectly formed exhibition The Story of 51.

There you can find some really interesting photography of the Festival of Britain site along with a 3D model, loads more information about its origins and realisation, and memories of some of the visitors who were here in 1951.

There’s also a couple of cabinets giving you an idea of the vast range of memorabilia inspired by the Festival, from homewares to toys and a silk scarf.

The remains of the original Festival Star are also displayed at the exhibition, along with birds that were suspended from the ceiling of one of the domes. The Story of 51 exhibition was created by Hemingway Designs and you can find it in the Level 2 Foyer, Blue side at Royal Festival Hall near the Southbank Centre shop.

Patchwork of the Century

Located near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall, this incredible piece of history features 100 individual, hand-sewn patches, commemorating an event or achievement for every year from 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition – to 1950.

Among the patches is one about women’s suffrage, one about the advent of television and another to mark the opening of the Forth Bridge.

Eighty women from the Twickenham area created the work in just two months, using recycled materials including old uniforms and blackout fabric. It was designed and assembled by Lilian Dring, an artist and illustrator who also created works for London Underground, as well as children’s books.

Click here for details of every patch

The Sunbathers

Peter Laszlo Peri’s striking sculpture The Sunbathers adorned the exterior wall of the Waterloo Station exit of the Festival of Britain for five months in 1951, and then all but disappeared for six decades.

In 2016, Historic England asked Brits if they had any idea where certain lost artworks might be found and sure enough, someone recognised The Sunbathers as a sculpture they had seen in a hotel in Blackheath.

After extensive restoration, Peri’s sculpture has now come back home – indoors this time – and can be seen near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall.

find out more

The Foundation Tablet

From The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, head down the Blue Side stairs and stop on the landing, where you’ll see the exact spot where King George VI stood on 3 May 1951 to declare Royal Festival Hall open. The external doors you can see from the landing were originally the main entrace to Royal Festival Hall, with a box office located outside.

And one object you won’t see. . .

THE STORY OF 51 by INDIA ROPER-EVANS023

Ever wonder why the restaurant on Level 3 of Royal Festival Hall is called Skylon? It comes from the name of a striking sculpture created for the Festival of Britain, which was situated on the south bank of the Thames, soaring nearly 90 metres (300 feet) into the air.

Although a popular feature of the festival, the Skylon was deemed too costly to preserve and move and was therefore taken away in 1952 with the rest of the exhibition. Its fate remained a mystery for almost 50 years until the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discovered that the sculpture had been bought by a west-London scrap metal dealer, with a few fragments turned into souvenirs.

The Museum of London has in its collection a brass ring plate featuring the names of Skylon’s creators – Architects Powell and Moya, Consulting Structural Engineer F.J. Samuely. It was originally mounted beneath the sculpture. The sculpture’s wind cups are the only other bit known to have survived, but they are owned by a private collector.

take a tour

If you want to find out more about our history or our architecture, why not book a place on one of our fascinating tours, led by an expert guide.

uncovering our archive

Southbank Centre is in the process of digitising its vast archive of materials as well as making it available to the public for the first time in our Archive Studio.