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1951: King George opens Festival of Britain

VIDEO : King George inaugurates the Festival of Britain

King George VI has inaugurated the Festival of Britain and opened the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank.

The festival has been organised to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It is intended to demonstrate Britain's contribution to civilisation, past, present, and future, in the arts, in science and technology, and in industrial design.

After a special service attended by the King, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and other senior members of the royal family, King George declared the festival open in a broadcast from the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

Cheering and flag-waving crowds lined the route taken by the King and Queen to St Paul's from Buckingham Palace.

At Temple Bar the procession stopped for a traditional ceremony in which the King was offered the Pearl Sword of the City.

The Lord Mayor of London, who enjoys precedence "of every subject" within the boundaries of the City of London, surrendered his sword, thus indicating the precedence of the Sovereign. The King then returned the sword and the Lord Mayor led the procession on to St Paul's.

A 41-gun salute was fired at the Tower of London and Hyde Park.

Special service at Festival Hall

Later in the afternoon, the King and Queen attended a service of dedication led by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Royal Festival Hall.

Designed by Sir Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Sir Hubert Bennett, it was built specially for the occasion on the south bank of the River Thames.

Battersea Park has been transformed into the Festival Gardens, laid out as a pleasure garden with a tree walk, fountains and a grotto.

Exhibitions of art and design are being held all over the country and 2,000 camp fires will be lit tonight across Britain.

In Context
After the devastation and resulting austerity of the war years, the Festival of Britain aimed to raise the nation's spirits whilst promoting the very best in British art, design and industry.

Some criticised the event as a waste of public money but the South Bank exhibitions attracted 8.5 million visitors in five months. The Millennium Dome built some 50 years later pulled in 6.5 million in the 12 months of its controversial existence.

Of the various buildings constructed on the South Bank site such as Skylon and the Dome of Discovery, only the Royal Festival Hall remains. But other arts venues have sprung up around it, namely the National Film Theatre (1952) and the Royal National Theatre (1963), Hayward modern art gallery (1968).

A year after the festival opened, King George died and was succeeded by his eldest daughter Elizabeth.


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