Today (May 28) in London History – the Festival Gardens

The Festival of Britain’s Festival Gardens opened on May 28, 1951. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

The headlines tell the story.

Headlines like:

Should the Festival Go Ahead

£9m Bill for Festival

£572,000 Loss on Festival

Festival Gardens May Lose £1 1/2 Million

Festival Gardens Work a Month in Arrear

Inquiry into Festival Gardens Expenditure

Festival Garden Delay

Inquiry into Festival Cost Extended

1,250 Strike at Festival Gardens

Compensation for Delay

Battersea Confusion

M.P.s’ Questions Today on Festival Food Prices

Fun-Fair men’s Dispute

Skylon Roped off for Hour “By Mistake”

Festival Meal Queues to be Ended

They make grim reading, don’t they.

Not much question about it, it was a shambles. 

And if there’s a lesson to be learned here – a moral to this story, to use that old fashioned term – it’s this: bad things happen when there’s not enough money.

Ok, let’s get all this into focus. It’s the spring of 1951. The war’s been over for six years. Britain and her allies won the thing. But the hard times, they’re still a coming. For one thing, there are the enormous war loans owed to the United States. Britain’s only just started paying them off. The first annual repayment was made in 1950. The last payment will be made on December 31, 2006. Yes, just over fifteen years ago.

And in 1951 there’s still rationing. If anything, it’s worse now than it was during the war – because once the war was won the Yanks turned off the tap.

So it wasn’t just a bad few years. It was a bad many years. And those hard times are going to be around for quite a while yet. Which is why they gave themselves a party – the Festival of Britain. They wanted to cheer themselves up. But as those headlines attest – it was a party got up under extremely straitened circumstances. They didn’t know at the time but there was a brief respite coming – just two years in the future. The coronation of their beautiful young Queen – and on that same day the news coming through that Mount Everest had been climbed. In the event, that was much more of a national tonic than the Festival of Britain. But of course in 1951 they had no idea that that was just 24 months ahead of them.

So they battled on. Gamely. Showed some of the pluck that got them through the war. Overcame the odds, overcome their straitened circumstances – put on their Festival. 

It was in two places. The Festival on the South Bank was the more important of the two venues. It’s still remembered – not least because of the permanent memento of the Royal Festival Hall.

This podcast is a nod to the other, the now largely forgotten venue – the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park.

And, yes, today’s the day. After all those troubles – the long uphill slog – the Pleasure Gardens opened on May 28th, 1951. Yes, they were three weeks late but given those headlines that’s hardly surprising. 

So let’s the rest of this just be an act of conjuring up the Festival Pleasure Gardens, an act of remembrance – a reaching out to the British greatest generation doing the best it could with its limited means. 

The press did its bit to gee things up. It spoke of the Gardens’ “beauty, fun, thrills and entertainment.” And to be sure, it wasn’t the same old. There were lakes and flowers and Regency style shops and pretty girls in period costumes and an open-air stage and twelve restaurants and three beer gardens and a dance pavilion and a cinema and a Playland for kids and a grotto and a pre-fabricated theatre by the river and an amphitheatre and illuminations at night and a fireworks display. 

And not forgetting the Festival Clock. In the words of Illustrated London News, “when the quarters strike, roundabouts spin, acrobats ring the chimes and surprising things happen.”

But let’s be honest, It was putting a brave face on things. The most telling measure, for me, of the whole down-at-heels, rather sorry affair was the performance that night of Handel’s Water Music. It was mounted in the 1300 seat amphitheatre. The admission charge was fourpence. There were 22 people in the audience. It won’t do, though, to have that grim little statistic be our last look at the Festival.

No, let’s end on a high note. Let’s end looking up at Johnny Caroff doing his acrobatics in the sky. Balancing on his head for ten minutes at the top of a 150-foot high television aerial. 

That’s the Festival of Britain ghost I want to see whenever I walk through Battersea Park.

And that, a trip to Battersea Park – in the circumstances a trip there especially to visit the Peace Pagoda – that’s this podcast’s Today in London recommendation. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The London Walking tour company that, uniquely, fronts it walks with accomplished, barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians etc.

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that always agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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