The Festival of Empire


[W]hen I was young affixed to the classroom wall of my primary school was a giant map measuring 5 foot wide by 4 foot high. It depicted the world with each country picked out in a colour denoting its governance. Proud to be pink was the order of the day – stretching across the entire map – for pink denoted countries belonging to the British Empire.

It was said by the English that the sun never set on its Empire, Indians from the sub-continent were given to remark: That God didn’t trust the English in the dark. Little did we know it then but just after the Second World War it really was the remains of the day for Britain’s Empire and the sun was indeed setting – those little pink shapes would be changing colour one by one.

It was rather different 100 years ago on 12th May 1911 when King George V opened The Festival of Empire at Crystal Palace, a rather self congratulatory piece of theatre. ‘The Festival of Empire, Imperial Exhibition and Pageant of London: Crystal Palace’ to give it its formal title was originally due to open in 1910, but his father King Edward VII after only nine years on the Throne managed to eat himself to death.

With a budget of £½ million the Festival of Empire would stay open until 28th October 1911, giving visitors two main entertainments:

The Great Pageant of London and the Empire gave the Empire’s glorious development from the “Dawn of British History” to a Grand Imperial Finale, in which visitors from the Dominions joined with the English performers to provide a wonderful “living picture” illustrating the vastness of the British Empire. Upwards of 15,000 performers with music accompanying the scenes performed by a band of 50 and a chorus of 500. The Pageant gave visitors various scenes including: The Dawn of British History; Roman London; King Alfred and London; Danish Invasion; The Norman Conquest; Return of Richard I; Edward I; and The Days of Chivalry.

While the All-British Exhibition offered a cut down version of The Great Exhibition devoted to British Arts and Industries. The following sections were amongst some of those that were represented: Applied Chemistry; Pianos; Mining; Engineering; Shipping; Transportation and Motive Power; Decoration and Furnishing; Arts Crafts; Home Industries; Photography; British and Colonial Agriculture; Forestry; Fisheries; Sports; and Imperial Industries.

To reinforce the perception of Britain’s power and might the British Empire was constructed in miniature in the Palace grounds, complete with three-quarter size replicas of the Parliament buildings of all the Commonwealth countries. These replicas, their exteriors architecturally complete to the smallest detail, were built of timber and plaster. They depicted the Parliament Building of the Union of South Africa, the Government Building of Newfoundland at St. Johns, the Parliament Building of New Zealand at Wellington, the Federal Government Building of Australia at Melbourne, and at a cost of over £70,000 the building of the Government of Canada. For tuppence ha’penny a miniature railway would take the visitor around the exhibition to view a South African diamond mine, an Indian tea plantation, and a Canadian logging camp.

Unfortunately the British were celebrating the last gasps of Empire, three years later the Great War would see a generation of young men die in the trenches, the Wall Street Crash would help destroy Britain’s wealthy families, and in 1936, the venue, Crystal Palace burnt to the ground.

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