A mystery celebration

The Festival site

May 4. Exactly 100 years after the Great Exhibition, King George and Queen Elizabeth declared the Festival of Britain open. Quite what it was meant to celebrate was a mystery to millions of Britons still enduring the misery of post-war austerity.

Many criticised the £8 million cost at a time when Britain was almost broke. Some visitors complain that a cup of coffee at the Festival was ninepence (4p). But there was general admiration for the Dome of Discovery and one of the Festival's permanent buildings, the Festival Hall.

The event was sponsored by the Labour government and hailed by minister Herbert Morrison as "the people giving themselves a pat on the back." It occupied nearly 30 acres of bomb sites near London's Waterloo station and its themes of fun and colour were in stark contrast to the grim building and "make do and mend" philosophy of the real Britain.

The Festival gave the first hint of "contemporary" styling. Here, for the first time, were chairs of laminated wood and strange, angular furniture which, before long, would be arriving in fashionable homes. Towering above it all was the aluminium Skylon, reaching for the heavens with no visible means of support. Just like Britain, some said.

June 7. "Back on Monday" was the reply shouted back to a Southampton docker when two British diplomats in a hurry left their car engine running at the quayside and leapt aboard a ship that was just to pull out of harbour.

Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were not destined to return the following Monday or any other Monday. The two high-ranking officials were Soviet spies having been recruited while still at university.

They had betrayed secrets to the Russians while posted in the British Embassy in Washington and were to spend the rest of their days in Moscow.

January 28. The flash of a nuclear explosion lit up the south west of the United States when two Atom Bomb tests took place in the Nevada Desert in two days. Observers in Las Vegas were urged to stand well back - at a distance of 45 miles to be exact. In Boulder City, more than 100 miles away, people said the flash lit up whole rooms.

All this was followed by a statement from the US Atomic Energy Commission that there was no indication of "any radiological hazards". But just as a precaution they grounded all civil aircraft lights within 150 miles of the site.

May 14. South Africa ended the right of coloured - or mixed race - people to vote by removing them from the country's electoral register. The move, supported by the majority Afrikaaner Nationalist party, only went through by 10 votes. Dr Theophilus Dronges, the South African Minister of the Interior, said the action was necessary to "avoid the collapse of white civilisation in the whole of Africa". Coloured people had had the vote in the colony for the best part of 100 years.

October 26. At a time when most people have long since retired Winston Churchill was back at Number 10 to form his first peace time government. He was 77 years old and it had been more than six years since the style of leadership which had won the war was deemed unsuitable by an electorate of service people for the era of peace.

His Tory party had squeaked in with a narrow majority in an election in which the Liberals were decimated. Recriminations in the Labour camp started almost as soon as the polling stations closed with outgoing premier Clement Attlee blaming left wingers for the defeat.


In brief

February 26. An amendment to the US constitution limited American presidents to two terms only.

  March 12. Walsall Council put up the rates by 14 per cent and imposed rent increases of 1s 3d (6p). Alderman Sir Cliff Tibbits declared: "It is a lot of money but it is in keeping with the times."

March 28. An Australian Army team, trying to recruit squaddies in Birmingham and the Black Country, admitted it was an uphill task "in a centre of full employment where wages are higher than in most parts of the country."

April 19. Two Wolverhampton sailors, Ian Mackenzie and Harold Gittins were reported missing off the Isle of Wight in the stricken submarine, Affray.

April 22. Minister of Labour Nye Bevan and President of the Board of Trade Harold Wilson resigned over the introduction of Health Service charges.

April 28. Cannock Salvation Army Hall was gutted by fire.

May 9. The pensionable ages were reduced by five years to 65 for men and 60 for women after a climbdown by the government.

June 9. The last group of Nazis convicted of war crimes were hanged in Nuremberg.

June 18. Greenham Common US air base in Berkshire was given the go-ahead.

July 1. Fangio won the European motor racing Grand Prix.

August 15. Architect Basic Spence won a competition to design a new cathedral for Coventry.

September 18. King George V1 diagnosed as having lung disease.

November 24. Car firms Austin and Morris announced plans to merge and make the combined business the biggest in the British motor industry.

December 4. 23 people died when a bus ploughed into a company of marine cadets at Chatham, Kent.