Planned in 1947, the 1951 Festival of Britain was organised and financed by central government. It was made up of a nationwide programme of events that celebrated the British way of life. 187 thematic events ran simultaneously throughout the country. The themes included art, architecture, agriculture, science, industry, music, theatre, religion and the everyday life of the British people.
In 1949 the Festival 1951 Office appointed Basil Spence as the co-ordinating architect for the Exhibition of Industrial Power, Glasgow and architect of the Sea and Ships pavilion, South Bank, London. King George VI opened the Festival Of Britain on 4 May 1951.
The Exhibition of Industrial Power was held at Kelvin Hall from May to August 1951 and told the story of Britain’s contribution to heavy engineering. Spence worked on the exhibition with a team of five architects including J Hardie Glover (later partner in Sir Basil Spence Glover & Ferguson) and Jack Coia. Spence was responsible for the general layout of the exhibition, as well as the detailing of the Hall of Power and the Hall of the Future. The central theme was man’s conquest of water and coal and how these are used to power heavy industry. The exhibition was divided into a sequence of six halls. The first was the Hall of Power where the visitor was introduced to the themes of water and coal. Two main features dominated the Hall - a vast sculpted mural of a coalface by Thomas Whalen (which was the largest piece of sculpture in the Festival of Britain), and a 20,000-gallon waterfall, which flowed over a glazed walkway. The final hall was the Hall of the Future. This included a 1,000,000-volt lighting machine that was used to explain the theory of nuclear fission and a mural by William Crosbie depicting nuclear power.
The Sea and Ships Pavilion formed part of the 27-acre site at the South Bank, London. The festival ran form May to September 1951 and told the story of Britain’s achievements in science, technology and industrial design. It was divided into three parts – The Land of Britain, The People of Britain and Discovery. The Sea and Ships Pavilion was in The Land of Britain section.
The Pavilion was on the bank of the Thames in front of the Dome of Discovery. It was 350 feet long and made up of 17 lattice steel frames. The interior was divided into six sections, some of which were enclosed and others opened out onto the Thames. Key features included a floating dock, a full size reproduction of a clipper ship and a 4,000-ton merchant ship.