The 1951 Festival of Britain remembered
The seed of the Southbank Centre was planted at the 1951 Festival of Britain, one of the landmark cultural events of the 20th century.
A hundred years after the 1851 Great Exhibition, it celebrated arts, science, industry and design.
More than eight million people paid to visit the festival site, located on the south bank of the Thames, throughout its five-month run. 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, the 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 1951 Festival of Britain had a huge influence 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 photography of the Festival of Britain site, a 3D model, loads more information about its origins and realisation, archive film clips, and memories of some of the visitors who were here in 1951.
Some of the cabinets give you an idea of the vast range of memorabilia inspired by the Festival, including gems from homewares to toys and a silk scarf.
A rare example of the original Festival Star signage is also displayed at the exhibition, along with replicas of the doves that were suspended from the ceiling of the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion, symbolising imagination and freedom.
The Story of 51 exhibition was created in collaboration with Hemingway Designs and includes loans from the Festival of Britain Society and the estate of Abram Games. You can find it in the Level 2 Foyer, Blue Side in the Royal Festival Hall.
This 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.
You can find it near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of the Royal Festival Hall.
See if you can spot the patch about women’s suffrage, the patch about the arrival of television and the patch that marks the opening of the Forth Bridge.
Eighty women from the Twickenham area created the work in just two months. It’s made out of recycled materials including old uniforms and blackout fabric.
The Patchwork of the Century was designed and assembled by Lilian Dring, an artist and illustrator who also created works for London Underground, as well as children’s books.
Starting in The Clore Ballroom, head down the Blue Side stairs and stop on the landing. Here you’ll see the exact spot where King George VI stood on 3 May 1951 to declare the Royal Festival Hall open. The external doors you can see from the landing were originally the main entrance to the Royal Festival Hall (with a box office located outside).
Have you ever wondered why the restaurant on Level 3 of the Royal Festival Hall is called Skylon?
It comes from the name of a striking sculpture created for the Festival of Britain. Placed on the south bank of the Thames, it soared nearly 90 metres (300 feet) into the air.
Although it was a popular feature of the festival, the Skylon was deemed too costly to preserve and move. It was 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 established that it had been melted down by a London scrap metal company, along with the aluminium roof of the Dome of Discovery.
Some of this metal was then turned into paper knives and other limited edition 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. This was originally mounted beneath the sculpture.
A handful of other pieces are known to have survived in private collections, including the sculpture’s wind cups.