Festival beginnings

IN a letter to the Times published in September 1945, John Gloag of East Sheen called for a Great Exhibition of 1951 to showcase Britain’s industrial art, which could also mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Shortly afterwards, the editor of the News Chronicle, Gerald Barry, made a similar plea to Sir Stafford Cripps, then President of the Board of Trade.

The newly elected Labour Government liked the idea. The Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison declared that the Festival would be “a tonic to the nation.”

Gerald Barry was appointed Director-General of the Festival and Hugh Casson was appointed Director of Architecture. It was Hugh Casson who appointed the Festival’s architects and designers.

The Festival had its own emblem, “Britannia,” the creation of graphic designer Abram Gaines, and its own typeface called “Festival,” the creation of graphic designer Phillip Boydell.

Although the centrepiece of the Festival was to be the South Bank Exhibition in London, it was intended that entire country should participate. And so a Land Travelling Exhibition was created which was to visit Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham. A Sea Travelling Exhibition held aboard the aircraft carrier Campania, would take the Festival to several of our major coastal towns.

Leeds Festival Exhibition night lights

TOP PICTURE: The crowd in the Headrow, Leeds on Saturday 23rd June. BOTTOM PICTURE: The bandwagon in the Rag Dat procession. ("Yorkshire Post" pictures)


The Land Travelling
Exhibition in Leeds

IN 1948, Leeds had been chosen to be one of just four cities that would host the Festival’s Land Travelling Exhibition. The council initially considered Roundhay Park and Temple Newsam as sites for the Exhibition, but eventually ruled them out in favour of Woodhouse Moor; the part now known as Monument Moor. A large sum was spent preparing the site. The Festival organisers later said that the site was best of the four sites to host the Travelling Exhibition. Congratulating the city council on its choice of site and on the work that had been done to prepare and beautify it, the Festival’s Director General Sir Gerald Barry said that the city would always have the site as a memorial to the time it had hosted the Festival of Britain Land Travelling Exhibition.

THE Festival was declared open by King George VI on the 3rd May 1951. In a speech given from the entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral, he declared the Festival to be “a visible sign of national achievement and confidence.”

Later that day, the King attended a service of dedication at the Royal Festival Hall. Designed specially for the Festival by Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Hubert Bennett, the Royal Festival Hall is the only structure built specially for the South Bank Exhibition to survive.


The South Bank Exhibition opened the following day and was toured by the King and Queen, and other members of the Royal Family. Spread across 27 acres, the Exhibition consisted of several pavilions hosting displays of various aspects of British life. For many, the Exhibition’s most memorable features were the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon. At the end of their tour, addressing Mr Morrison as “Lord Festival”, the King said, “We have enjoyed it very much, and we hope to come again.” Afterwards, Mr. Morrison told a reporter, “I am very thrilled, This is a great day. I am very pleased with everything.”


The Exhibition was opened by the Princess Royal on the 23rd June 1951 and marked the start of three weeks of celebrations. These included a funfair and various exhibitions on Woodhouse Moor; including demonstrations of tanks being loaded onto tank transporters on Woodhouse Moor, a Lancaster bomber and Vampire jet on Woodhouse Moor. There was a firework display and parachute jumping from a balloon in Roundhay Park; outdoor plays and ballet held at Kirkstall Abbey and Temple Newsam; and a series of concerts of British music held at the Town Hall. In the shops, there was a spotting competition with 766 prizes.