Today (May 3) in London History – controversies, curiosities, continuities and cost-overruns.

The 1951 Festival of Britain opened on May 3rd of that year. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


The 1951 Festival of Britain. You want it in four words: Controversies, curiosities, continuities and cost-overruns.

Anyway, today, May 3rd, is the anniversary of its opening.

At three minutes past noon King George VI broadcast to the world that the Festival of Britain 1951 was open. He made the broadcast on a dais built out between the pillars of the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

The announcement was preceded by a dedication service in the Cathedral. As the King walked through the west door to the dais at noon trumpeters of the Household Cavalry stationed on the steps sounded a fanfare. The fanfare was sounded again when His Majesty finished his remarks. And a final send-off, the bells of St Paul’s pealed as the King and his family drove away.

Then come the evening – 7 pm to be exact – the King, the Queen and Princess Margaret drove from Buckingham Palace to open the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank.

It was the King himself who had suggested that the new 2 million pound concert hall hard by the site of the Festival be named the Royal Festival Hall. And what a lot of forelock-tugging there was in the press. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, His Majesty had given his assent to the use of the prefix royal. Given his assent. Love it. We learn that the king considered the name especially appropriate because of the link between the Festival of Britain and the opening of the hall, and because every musical performance is, in a sense, a festival. 

But let’s get to our 4 Cs – curiosities, continuities, controversies, and cost-overruns.

Cost-overruns is self-explanatory. They had them – plenty of them – and they certainly contributed to the controversies.

Continuities…well, a major driver of the 1951 Festival of Britain was the desire to stage an event that would mark the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition.

And it turns out that the 3 million candle power searchlight that shone over the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain was provided by the Chance Brothers glassworks, the largest makers of lighthouse equipment in Britain, and that they had provided the 1 and a quarter-million square feet of glass for the Crystal Palace that housed the 1851 Great Exhibition. So that’s some pretty good continuity.

Controversies. Well, there was a lot of industrial unrest, strikes, that sort of thing.

There was a spirited debate about whether the amusement area of the Festival pleasure gardens should be open on Sunday. 

Personal aside here. This is something that has changed in my lifetime. I can remember back in the 1980s, when I first joined London Walks as a guide, we would always say, “well, at least we’ll do well on Sunday – theatres closed, shops closed, we don’t have any competition.” Well, those days are a thing in the past – as a stroll along Oxford Street on any Sunday – not that I would recommend it – will amply testify to.

The big one, though, was the ongoing, heated debate over whether the Festival of Britain should be taking place at all. In a time of austerity and hardship was a big party on the South Bank of the Thames a sensible use of limited resources. Let’s just park that for a minute. I’ll come back to it to close this piece out.

As for curiosities. Well, how about this. The excavation work on the Southbank site unearthed a human skeleton. A human skeleton believed to be about 2,000 years old. So, a Roman – an early Londoner.

And then there was the secret message that was found.

It was a 114-year-old message that they found in the back of a lion.

I kid you not. The Red Lion Brewery was there on site. It had to be shifted. Since 1837 a big statue of a lion – yes, a seven-ton, blushing red lion – had stood on top of the brewery. It – the lion was moved – you can see him today, he’s on the south side of Westminster Bridge (strictly speaking you’d say the east side of the bridge, because at that point the Thames plays a trick, it goes through this huge bend and at that point is flowing due north, so the far end of the bridge, the end on the other side of the river from parliament, is, strictly speaking, the east end of Westminster Bridge. It’s a good party trick this. Ask the fall guys which side of the Thames, compass-point-wise, the Houses of Parliament are on. You’ll get a uniform chorus, “don’t be silly, it’s on the north side of course.” At that point, if you’re out and about and it’s late afternoon, point at the sun and ask them, does the sun set in the North?” Good fun. They’ll feel a bit sheepish. And it’ll be an epiphany for them. A moment of revelation. Anyway, our curiosity, our lion – they moved him to the east side of Westminster Bridge. And they did some restoration work on him. Got rid of his blushes. He’s no longer red. During which restoration work they discovered a secret cavity on the big fella’s back. With a lid opened. In the cavity was a glass bottle sealed with a William IV coin. Inside the bottle was a thin card with a worse for wear message on it. All they were able to decipher was the phrase Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory.” The lion’s made out of Coade Stone, an artificial stone. Anyway, that was another curiosity the Festival of Britain project served up. Have to say, finding out about it does tempt me to somehow get up on the lion’s back, find that lid, open it up, and maybe put a London Walks leaflet in the cavity. Time machine and all that.

Other curiosities, one of the highlights of the Festival of Britain was the tortoise with a memory. A robot of tortoise who learned from stuff he ran into. Digested and processed his encounters. A 1951 example of AI.

Still another: what was billed as a smoke-grinding machine. It was apparently intended to illustrate the eccentric side of British genius.

A tortoise with a memory, a smoke-grinding machine, water frolics, a fireworks display, let’s give them their due, they were putting a brave face on it.

But you get right down to it, the Festival reflected the hard times of the day. Wasn’t much to it, really. Certainly not in comparison with the wonders of the 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. The 1951 Festival of Britain had two main structures: a Dome of Discovery and the Skylon. The Skylon was the Festival’s vertical feature. It was an elongated ellipse of aluminium and latticed steel thrusting 300 feet up into the air. The Festival publicity breathlessly described it as “this shining totem – at night a beacon of light – will beckon visitors from afar into the Exhibition, an earnest of the wonders they will find there.”

I rather like it that it came to be known as Churchill’s cigar.

One of the much-touted big attractions was the Moon Radar. It was promised that sightseers in the Dome of Discovery would be able to send radar impulses 240,000 miles to the moon by pressing a button and see the echo on a television screen 2 1/2 seconds later. What excitement. Problem was, they didn’t make the deadline. They had to pull the Moon Radar project less than a month before the Festival opened. Egg on face.

But that was maybe emblematic of the whole undertaking. As I said, there was resistance to the Festival from the get-go. And, incredibly, really, that resistance was still up to bat in the spring of 1951. Less than two weeks before the opening day the “don’t go ahead with it, pull the plug” opposition was still manning the barricades.

I think best of all was the way the controversy – the arguments for and against – was wrapped in history and whimsy – very British, this – by Sir Alan Herbert. He said he was disappointed at the gloomy talk in some newspapers which expressed doubt as to whether we should have anything to celebrate in 1951. Showing his hand, Sir Alan Herbert said, by then the country would have survived five years of war and five years of Socialist government. Surely that would be something to dance and sing about. And there were long view historic reasons why they should celebrate. He said, we will be emerging from the murky forties into the 50s. The 40s had always been a very wretched sort of date. Sir Alan recalled such historic landmarks as the hungry 40s of 100 years ago, the Civil War of 1640, and the events of the 1540s when Henry VIII was marrying too many women, executing too many men, and persecuting everyone else. Whether in 1951 we go up or down, we should be gracious, gallant and gay. That’s gay in the old sense of the word.

That, surely, is case closed – the long scythe of history elegantly lopping off the heads of all the thistles on the path ahead.

Anyway, so much for this day in London history. So much for May 3rd. 

Here’s today’s Today in London recommendation. The much-loved creperie in Hampstead has re-opened. After 44 years they’ve got a new kiosk, designed to look exactly like the old kiosk. In the words of the owner, the magnificently named Edward de Mesquita, “it looks the same but it’s not. It’s much nicer.” And Edward says there are menu changes coming up. “I’ve found some new products I’m going to be doing,” So that’s your recommendation – perhaps after the Sunday morning Hampstead Walk. I’ll see you there in the queue. 

And here we go with the sign-off, the curtain call. 

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

The reason for all those awards is the calibre of the guiding. Uniquely, with London walks you’re guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally qualified, creme de la creme Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides.

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. 

It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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