A post-war festival was first put forward by the Royal Society of Arts in 1943. It would be a trade fair to be held on the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the war a campaign to hold an event was instigated by Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle. The Labour party under Clement Attlee had won a landslide victory in July 1945 and appointed its deputy leader, Herbert Morrison, to take the idea forward with Barry as Director General. They invisaged it would be a 'tonic for the nation' and give a feeling of recovery and progress after WWII.

The site chosen occupied 27 acres on the south bank between Waterloo Bridge and County Hall, bisected by Hungerford Railway Bridge. It was an area of wharves and works, backed by housing which had been badly bomb damaged. It included riverside Lead Works (including a shot tower) of 1826 and the Lion Brewery, founded in 1843.

In 1948 construction began on the Royal Festival Hall to replace the bombed Queen's Hall with Robert Matthew as the chief architect. This was required to stage the opening concert for the Festival of Britain so the proposed north and south elevations were truncated to meet this deadline.

Control of realising the Festival was given to Hugh Casson who was joined by Leslie Martin and Peter Moro. They were to design 42 temporary pavilions including the Dome of Discovery (365' across) and the 300' Skylon. The theme for the upstream area would be 'Land' and the downstream area 'People'. A recommended circulation route would tell a story with captions by Laurie Lee. The Bauhaus Theories of 'colour directly influences the soul' and 'form follows function' were taken into account. The Arts Council, created in 1944, commissioned artwork by John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicholson. The site featured 30 sculptures and 50 murals. Besides the south bank site there was a science exhibtion in South Kensington, the Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park and the Lansbury (model housing) estate in Poplar. There were also regional events and two travelling exhibitions, one on the converted aircraft carrier, Campania.

The Festival was open between May and September 1951 in which time over 8 million people visited. It was never intended to be a permanent feature but when the Tories won the general election in October the spectacle associated with Labour was hastily cleared to become a derelict site once more. Structures and components were auctioned and much of the material went for scrap.

The popular Telecinema led to the opening of the National Film Theatre on the site in 1952/58. The Royal Festival Hall was completed and re-opened after an 8 month closure in 1965. The shot tower, which had been a feature of the Festival, was demolished in the 1960s to be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room (1967) and Hayward Gallery (1968). South of the railway bridge is now Jubilee Gardens and the area east of Belvedere Road was built on, with much of the site used by Shell.

In the 1980s there was a GLC initiative to open the Festival Hall foyers to everyone during the day, when previously they had only been available to concert goers. The latest refurbishment was carried out by Allies & Morrison. Shops and restaurants were added to the ground level river frontage and a new building against the railway. This also provided office accommodation thereby freeing up space in the main building.

Points of interest inside:
The two sides of the RFH were originally red and green, the colours for port and starboard. Red has now become blue.
The 'Net & Ball' carpet was designed by Peter Moro (net) and Leslie Martin (ball).
Some surfaces are made of fossilied Limestone from Derbyshire. This is 150 million years old and features numerous sea creatures.

A flagpole was re-erected on the site and a ring nearby marks the position of the Skylon.
The two piers, Rodney & Nelson, which served the site are now the Festival Pier and site of the London Eye.

Images from Lambeth Landmark Collection [
Enter 'Festival of Britain' in description, Select 'Waterloo' from place drop down and '1926-1950' & '1951-1975' date range
Find out about events and facilities on the website


london-footprints.co.uk 2011

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