Black Country Objects at the 1951 Festival of Britain

by Simon Briercliffe and Dr Jenny Gilbert, BCLM Researchers

The Festival of Britain opened on London’s Southbank on 4th May 1951. The Festival was a nationwide celebration of British identity, industry and innovation. In addition to the main festival site, there were two travelling exhibitions: the Land Travelling Exhibition that visited Birmingham in August, and the Festival Ship Campania which sailed around the coastline, visiting port cities. You can find out more about the Festival and its impact on the Black Country by visiting BCLM and heading to our own “Festival of the Black Country” at Festival Park.

The exhibitions included plenty of objects manufactured in the Black Country, showing the valuable contribution the region made to the creative and industrial life of the nation. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Festival, BCLM researchers Simon Briercliffe and Jenny Gilbert have selected their top ten items from the exhibitions.

1 Dome of Discovery – Horseley Bridge & Thomas Piggot Ltd., Dudley Port

The heart of London’s South Bank featured the famous Dome of Discovery – at 111m in diameter and 27m high, the largest dome in the world. Its architect, Ralph Tubbs, described it as a “mathematical poem” – but it was down to a Black Country firm to bring the poem to life. Horseley Bridge Co. (most famous for their Victorian cast-iron canal bridges) were engineering experts, and their engineers JD Vaughan and John Allen supervised the fabrication and erection of the 232 tons of aluminium and 133 tons of steel. It housed a space-age exhibition of British exploration and discovery, but the Dome demonstrated the industrial expertise of the Black Country just as well as its contents.

The festival of britain 1951

Advertisement for Horseley Bridge & Thomas Piggott, showing the Dome of Discovery (BCMTL)

Saddle – Jabez Cliff, Walsall

Saddlery, fancy leather goods and Noddy Holder are amongst Walsall’s most famous outputs. So renowned is the town’s saddlery trade that the local football team, Walsall FC, are still known as “The Saddlers”. Jabez Cliff, one of the town’s most successful saddle makers, had been trading in the town since 1873. They provided a saddle, bridle, football and rugby ball for the Festival Land Travelling Exhibition. The 1950s were a tough time for the Walsall leather trade as the market became flooded with artificial leather goods. However, the demand for hand crafted and high-quality bridles and saddles has remained. Whilst Jabez Cliff ceased trading in 2014, a small but world-beating saddlery and bridle trade continues in the town.

3 Personal weighing scales – Geo. Salter & Co., West Bromwich

Salter was one of the big names of post-war Black Country industry. They were founded in the eighteenth century in Bilston, but by the end of the nineteenth-century had settled into West Brom, where their ‘Strollers’ football team evolved into West Bromwich Albion. They manufactured springs of every kind, for every purpose (though whether the Baggies’ “boing boing” chant really stems from this is still up for debate). Their bathroom scales featured in a display designed to show off modern bathroom design, a reminder of the emphasis on personal health which ran throughout this exhibition.

Bathroom displaying from the ‘Child in the Home’ exhibition, featuring Geo. Salter & Co. scales (Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives)

4 Cocktail Shaker – Elkington & Co. Ltd., Walsall

The glamorous rattle of ice in a cocktail shaker might not be a sound typically associated with Walsall but the town’s Elkington & Co. provided a bit of Black Country sparkle to the Festival of Britain. The catalogue gives little away in terms of what the cocktail shaker featured in the exhibition looked like but chances are that it was silver-plated. Elkington had pioneered the electro-plating of silver during the 1830s and 1840s and enjoyed huge success at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Originally based in Birmingham, by 1951 they had moved to a new site in Walsall. Elkington’s shiny wares can today be found in the collections of the V&A, showing that Black Country design and manufacture is up there with the world’s greatest.

5 Brandy Glasses – Stevens & Williams Ltd, Brierley Hill Glassworks, nr. Stourbridge

Whilst Walsall were busy mixing the drinks, they were most likely being poured into a piece of glassware from Stourbridge or nearby Brierley Hill. A special exhibition of glass was organized at Stourbridge Town Hall in June 1951, celebrating 350 years of glass making in the town. Stourbridge glass also featured prominently in the Southbank exhibition, with a display in the Power and Production Pavilion. Novelty items were produced to showcase the skill and talent of the town’s glassblowers and engravers. 

Steven & Williams were awarded a Royal Warrant for glass from King George V in 1919. From that point on, they produced glass branded as Royal Brierley Crystal as well as Stevens & Williams. Other Black Country glassmakers featured in the Festival included Thomas Webb & Sons and Stourbridge Glass Co..

Stourbridge glassware on display in the ‘Power & Production’ pavilion at the Festival of Britain (Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives)

Golden Arrow Pullman carriages – Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Co., Smethwick

Smethwick’s BRC&W built seven new cars for a special Festival Golden Arrow service. The Golden Arrow was the only way to travel to France in 1951, complete with luxury bar and dining cars, connecting to the French Flêche d’Or via the first-class ship CanterburyBRC&W built a new set of high-end Pullman carriages and gave their workforce a special preview – most never saw a completed train leave the works. The Smethwick Telephone reporter heard one undercarriage painter’s wife remark, “I didn’t realise you turned out such marvellous work!” The service ran until 1972 – Cynthia Burgin, whose newsagent forms part of our Forging Ahead project, took the train on her honeymoon in 1959. The ‘Carina’ kitchen car now runs on the Bluebell Railway in West Sussex.

Javelin – Accles and Pollock, Oldbury

Oldbury’s Accles and Pollock specialized in producing tubular metal, so their production of javelins makes a certain kind of sense.  During the 1950s, javelin construction was shifting away from wood with metal tips towards the entirely metal designs used by competitors today.  The Black Country javelin featured in the ‘People at Play’ zone of the Land Travelling Exhibition. Accles and Pollock also contributed a fly-fishing rod and archery bow and arrows to the exhibition. The company was also famous for their tubular bike frame components.

8 Gas cooker – Cannon Iron Foundries, Coseley

Cannon Iron Foundries, of Deepfields, Coseley, began life as a foundry making pots and pans in the 1820s, and diversified into gas appliances, including radiators, cookers and ‘Gas Miser’ fires later in the century. The market took off during the housebuilding boom of the 1930s, so by the 1950s Cannon was one of the biggest names in domestic manufacturing. Their design team introduced exotic innovations like the rotisserie spit and the Foldaway High Level Grill on their A125 model – “the cooker that every woman wants” according to the Cannon Cookbook. Ernie Timmins, who worked at the West Bromwich gas showroom, remembered Cannons being the very best available, and a Cannon cooker formed part of a ‘Homes and Gardens’ display at the Festival.

Cookers on display at the Festival of Britain, including a Cannon on the right-hand side. *(Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives)

9 Shot Tower Lighthouse – Chance Bros., Smethwick

Alongside the futuristic new buildings on the South Bank stood a much older one – the Lambeth Lead Works Shot Tower, built in 1826. It became home to a radio telescope designed to communicate with the moon (although being the early days of the Cold War, the government actually made sure it pointed to outer space for global security reasons); and a specially-made 3,000 Watt lighthouse, beaming the light of three million candles 45 miles across London. It was built by Britain’s largest optical glass manufacturer, Chance Brothers of Smethwick. As the guidebook noted, this was a nod to Great Exhibition of a century earlier: Chance produced all of the plate glass for the Crystal Place. The lighthouse ended up in Trinidad, one of hundreds of Chance lighthouses all over the world.

10 Porcupine – Basil Matthews Studio, Wolverhampton

And finally, a ceramic porcupine because, well, why not a ceramic porcupine? Basil Matthews was a self-taught potter, working out of studios on Darlington Street, Wolverhampton. He was renowned for his animal figurines and his work was reportedly much admired by none other than Queen Mary. His ceramic animals have a cute and playful 1950s quality to them, though some may find them a bit kitsch. But if ceramic pugs, poodles and pandas are your thing then you are in for a real treat! (Note: no porcupines have been spotted in the Black Country, except at Dudley Zoo).

Just as the Victorian Great Exhibition had been built of Chance glass (and structural iron from the Cochrane foundry in Dudley), the Black Country was at the heart of the Festival of Britain. It had reputation for grimy industry and metal-bashing, but as these objects show, it was at the innovative forefront of Britain’s manufacturing economy and led the recovery from World War Two. Precision engineering and craftsmanship meant that the Black Country would go on to play a crucial part in the economic boom of the following twenty years.