Festival of Britain
The Historic England Archive holds a collection of images from the Festival of Britain capturing this important event.
Two important historic buildings have had their listings upgraded today and seven others have been “relisted” to mark their connection with the Festival of Britain, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this summer.
Christ Church in Coventry and Calvary Charismatic Baptist Church in Tower Hamlets have been upgraded from Grade II to Grade II* by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.
Other sites, including London’s Royal Festival Hall and Barbara Hepworth’s famous Contrapuntal Forms sculpture, now in Harlow, Essex, have had their list entries updated to officially recognise their connections with the Festival.
The Festival of Britain, which ran from May to September 1951, was a national exhibition and fair promoting British design, science, technology, architecture, industry, and the arts.
Still struggling from the devastation caused by World War II, the country was in desperate need of a moral and economic boost. The Festival’s fun, colourful exploration of British ingenuity and creativity was an inspirational and optimistic look towards the brave new world of the future and helped foster a national sense of recovery.
The Festival’s centrepiece was held on London’s South Bank, with events also taking place in Poplar, Battersea, South Kensington and Glasgow.
From Cardiff to York, celebrations happened at over 2000 locations across the country. Iconic highlights from the Festival included the Dome of Discovery - which housed displays focusing on Britain’s pre-eminence in exploration, scientific discovery, weather forecasting, biological research, astronomy and outer space – the futuristic sculpture Skylon, and the Royal Festival Hall, which is still popular today.
The Festival’s legacy is the continuing success of the South Bank as a centre of culture and the arts, as well as its enduring contribution to modernism in architecture and design that can be seen across the country.
The Festival of Britain was the first time most Britons experienced a whole townscape of modern buildings, whether on the South Bank, at the Battersea Pleasure Gardens or at Lansbury – the first bit of London’s East End to be rebuilt after the war. The attention to detail in the architecture, planning and landscape was exceptional. The Festival was the last great national event before the advent of mass television, so people had to go and see it for themselves, and it is still fondly remembered.
The Festival of Britain was such an important event in our national calendar, welcoming over 8 million people to London during the summer of 1951. It raised the spirits of the British people following the austerity of World War II and show-cased Britain’s innovation to the rest of the world. The Festival had a major influence on design and architecture and its legacy can still be seen today in our buildings and public artworks. We are delighted to be able to celebrate the Festival as it reaches its 70th anniversary and we hope that people will continue to appreciate its legacy for years to come.
The 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain is a reminder of Britain’s thriving design and arts industries. These listings and an investment of £120 million in Festival 2022 will showcase the UK’s creativity and ensure the legacy of the Festival of Britain lives on.
The Royal Festival Hall is a living monument to Southbank Centre’s Festival of Britain heritage. The post-war cultural moment provided a 'tonic for the nation' for millions of people who attended events at the main Festival site on London's South Bank, and the events held across the UK. Our Archive preserves thousands of stories from people who have connected with our buildings and artistic programme over the past 70 years and our unique architecture continues to inspire a spirit of creativity, innovation and hope for the future.
The Calvary Charismatic Baptist Church in Tower Hamlets, London (originally known as the Trinity Congregational Church) was built in the 1950s as part of the ‘live' architectural exhibition of the Festival of Britain.
Designed by Cecil Handisyde and D Rogers Stark, the church sits around a courtyard alongside a church hall and offices.
As is common of the ‘Festival style’, the three buildings are made from brick, concrete and copper cladding, combining modernism with whimsy and Englishness. As an early example of an English non-conformist Church designed in the modern style, with recreational facilities and meeting rooms to supplement the main worship space, the site was widely renowned and became a model for subsequent churches of many denominations.
Christ Church, Coventry was designed in 1953 by Alfred H Gardner and built between 1956 and 1958. Directly inspired by the Festival of Britain, the building has a concrete frame with large areas of self-supporting brickwork, and is covered with a lightweight vaulted, copper roof.
The lavish interior is considered one of the most eclectic of its era, making it very rare. The Architects’ Journal (1953) described it as “Pleasure Gardens pastiche”, no doubt inspired by the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park that ran alongside the South Bank exhibitions which was based on fun fairs like Copenhagen’s Tivoli.
Some of the church’s notable architectural features include the hanging birdcage light fittings, likely inspired by the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion from the Festival of Britain, whose overall form the building resembles, and the chequerboard pattern used on the window and tower that is also repeated across the walls in purple and gold.
The Royal Festival Hall was designed by the London County Council Architect's Department as part of their contribution to the Festival of Britain. The building was completed on 3 May 1951, just in time for the Festival opening, with further additions made during the 1960s.
The style of the building is best described as ‘in the spirit of the Festival of Britain’, as highlighted by its concrete, curved profile. It was the first post-war building to become listed at Grade I (in 1987) and is considered an iconic landmark of London’s South Bank, as well as one of Britain's premier concert halls. Its ‘egg in a box’ plan was considered a novel and remarkable idea at the time as the multiple foyers not only provided space for audiences to gather, but also helped to shield the concert hall from outside noise.
The interior has hardly been changed since 1951 and the original panelling, stone finishes, internal fittings and fabrics (like the wooden and bronze handrails in the main foyer and cantilevered red boxes along the auditorium walls) survive remarkably well, as well as some hangings and sculptures preserved from the Festival itself.
Barbara Hepworth's Contrapuntal Forms sculpture was commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain. The sculpture was designed to symbolise ‘the spirit of discovery’ and stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the South Bank during the Festival, before being presented to the new town of Harlow, Essex in 1953. The semi-abstract figures, made from Irish blue limestone, were listed at Grade II in 1998.
Barbara Hepworth was an English artist and sculptor and was a leading figure in the colony of artists who resided in St Ives during World War I and II. Her work exemplifies modernism and both Contrapuntal Forms and Turning Forms (her other sculpture commissioned for the Festival) are perfect examples of this.
Newbury Park Bus Station Canopy in Redbridge, London was designed by Oliver Hill in 1937 but was not built until after the war. The high arched, open structure with its copper vaulted roof and concrete arches belongs architecturally to the modernist ‘Festival style’. It is an unusual design for a bus shelter and won a Festival of Britain Award, which is marked with one of the iconic Festival of Britain plaques.
The Church of St John, located just off Waterloo roundabout in London, was originally built in 1822. The church was commissioned by the government following the Napoleonic Wars as part of a programme to provide additional churches to the expanding population.
During World War II, the Church was struck by a bomb and remained damaged until 1950 when Thomas Ford was contracted to remodel the interior in a neo-Georgian style for the Festival of Britain. The design features brick with sandstone dressings, a Portland stone spire and columns and a double decker pulpit.
The building was listed at Grade II* in October 1951 following the Festival. The Church’s role during the Festival was to provide normal services, as well as to host concerts and choirs from across the country who performed at the Festival.
The Citizens of Battersea War Memorial, Battersea was built as a dedication to the people of Battersea who lost their lives during World War II and is one of the borough’s contributions to the Festival of Britain.
The memorial is carefully designed, with its crescent-shape and sheltered, open-fronted seating providing the local community with a place to rest and reflect. The memorial was listed at Grade II in 2015.
The Susan Lawrence and Elizabeth Lansbury Schools in Tower Hamlets, London were first opened between 1913-14 as the Ricardo Street Schools but were bombed during World War II and replaced as part of the Festival of Britain’s ‘live architecture’ exhibit. The schools were named after Elizabeth Lansbury (1859-1940), wife of former labour leader George Lansbury and Susan Lawrence (1871-1947), MP for East Ham who was described as a “zealot in the cause of education.”
The area of Lansbury needed rejuvenation following the war and so was chosen for development for the Festival of Britain. The buildings have a distinctive Festival of Britain style, as highlighted by the open well staircases, an exterior steel frame clad in concrete panels, the use of brick and stone materials and a copper roof finish. Of all the Lansbury Exhibition buildings, the Festival were particularly pleased with the Schools, believing they represented the standard of architecture expected and appreciated at the Festival.
The Church of St Mary and St Joseph in Tower Hamlets, London was completed in 1856. Following World War II, it was rebuilt as part of the Lansbury Estate live architectural project for the Festival of Britain, which demonstrated British redevelopment post-war in real time.
Designed by English architect Adrian Gilbert Scott, the Grade II listed church has a distinctive style with its short concrete spire and copper roof making it different to that of the more traditional lead church roof. The building became one of the first Roman Catholic Churches to be rebuilt post-war and has since been recognised for its rare, ambitious design and beautiful workmanship.
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