‘THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A NATION is presented for the first time in this Festival of Britain and millions of the British people will be the authors of it, displaying through every means by which Man expresses his nature how we have honoured our stewardship and used our talents. Conceived among the untidied ruins of war and fashioned through days of harsh economy, this Festival is a challenge to the sloughs of the present and a shaft of confidence cast forth against the future.’
So began the introduction to the Festival brochure.
The first record of the idea of a Festival of Britain is to be found in 1943, at the point of the Second World War when victory, although challenging, at last seemed possible. The Festival was to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition, and many had in mind a similar exhibition of the nation’s products. This made sense, for a good number of such exhibitions had followed that of 1851 and business liked them.
The Festival, as its plans emerged under the directorship of journalist, Sir Gerald Barry, and chairmanship of Churchill’s right hand man, Lord Ismay, looked rather different. I quote from the first of three talks Sir Gerald gave to the Royal Society of Arts in 1952:
‘We were going to tell a story not industry by industry, still less firm by firm, but the consecutive story of the British people in the land they live in and by… each type of manufacture and each individual exhibit would occur in the setting appropriate to that part of the story in which it naturally fell e.g. steel knives and sinks in the home part of the story, steel machines in the industry part of the story, steel chassis in transport, and so on…each industrial exhibit will be chosen by the exhibition organisers themselves in consultation with manufacturers and trade associations.’
A stock list was compiled of some 20,000 items from 5,000 manufacturers, only half of which could be exhibited in the space available. Design was key, and was overseen by the still relatively new Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council). “The exhibits ranged from locomotives to lipsticks and in value many thousands of pounds to a few pennies.”
I have traced the exhibits that I have so far found to the origins of the relevant manufacturer, in some cases back to the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
My great grandfather exhibited in 1851 and I begin my forthcoming book, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World, with a survey of the 1851 exhibition catalogue.