The Festival of Britain was the first occasion after the privations of the Second World War when Britain felt able to put on a showcase to the world. The 1948 Olympic Games had been a valiant effort, but things had been done on a shoestring. These were the Austerity Games, when we were short of everything and wartime rationing was still in force. In fact the deprivation was greater than had existed during the war. Some things (but not all) were off ration by 1951. Things were looking up.


To inaugurate the Festival there were a number of events for civic dignitaries from across the land. King George VI opened the Festival on May 3rd, 1951 followed by a service of dedication at St Paul’s Cathedral. The assembled mayors and provosts attended. Next day a Dinner was held at the Mansion House by the City Livery Companies. There were 21 Lords Mayor (Lords Provost in Scotland) in 1950, and well over a hundred boroughs in the kingdom each headed by a mayor. With seats for the mayor and mayoress of all these councils they would have needed the 400 places the Egyptian Hall at the Mansion House has the capacity to hold. Among the guests were my Aunt Ruth Hardy, the Lord Major of Norwich and her daughter Marion the Lady Mayoress. This menu here illustrated was inscribed to the city of Norwich, and no doubt all the boroughs had a similar  welcome.

The time was seven for half past and the guests were entertained by orchestral music during the meal. The pieces were of light music from various parts of the world, some of which I already knew, such as Moonlight on the Alster (from Germany); some I have been able to play on Youtube, like Becucci’s jolly Italian piece Tesoro Mio. But some of the music appears to have vanished from the repertoire. The meal ended appropriately enough with a rendition of the International (we must remember this was a government that was proud to call itself Socialist).

The Toasts were held in a number of fine wines and spirits. Obviously Hock was not then held in not then held in the disdain that it has since acquired. It still had the cachet that it held from queen Victoria, one of whose favourite wines it was. The 1937 Champagne and the 1906 brandy sound quite special, especially so at the time.  Then was still a period of shortages, with  sugar and meat both only available on ration, although rationing did not apply when eating out.

The food was very typical of the day and the cuisine was American rather than French; Lobster Neuberg for example was first served in New York. The meal started with green turtle soup; not a popular dish anymore I fancy, with people worrying about devouring threatened species. Tastes have changed in the intervening 60 years. Of course all this fine food and wine was not for the ordinary Festival goer – they just had the exhibitions and concerts to attend.

The Festival of Britain was intended to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition, and as the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park had characterised that national event, the Festival had the Skylon as its symbol on the South Bank of the Thames. This was a cigar-shaped steel pylon that appeared to float above the river. It was demolished in 1952 by the incoming Conservative administration. It was said that they disapproved of the Socialist future that the Skylon stood for.

In East Anglia there were two local festivities which formed a part of the Festival of Britain; one was the Triennial Festival which had been a regular event (except in World Wars) since 1824. The other was the Aldeburgh Festival, which was rather more recent in origin, having been founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in 1948. The base of the Festival in London was on the bank of the Thames. The Festival Hall was built as the main venue for concerts and was opened in 1951. Since then it has become the heart of the Southbank Centre.

As you can see Herbert Morrison has written “Good Luck to Norwich!” on the front of the menu – he must have wished luck to so many cities up and down the land that his writing fingers must have ached. Herbert Morrison was a prominent member of the Labour Government, serving both as Deputy Prime Minister to Clement Attlee, and Foreign Secretary following the move of the desperately ill Ernest Bevin. He is best remembered today as the grandfather of Peter Mandelson.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: