The festival of Britain

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Britain. 1950.

Cities are still pock-marked by rubble-filled bomb sites. The country is peppered with disused airfields and military bases. There is still rationing, and compulsory military service. The Cold War is heating up. The Morris Minor is the family car of choice.

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The Labour government, which is about to lose out to Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in the 1951 general election, has nationalised the rail networks and the coal mines. British Airways is under government control. King George VI is sits on the throne, and will rule for two more years before being succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth. As well as being King of England, he is the head of a shrinking empire that still includes many African and Middle Eastern countries.

The first commercially available programmable computer won’t be launched for another year.  The first email won’t be sent for a decade. No one has heard of rock and roll – Paul McCartney is 8 years old. The first commercial mobile phone is more than 20 years away from launching.

The government decides to fund a celebration of all things British – the Festival of Britain. And, in Twickenham, a group of women put together a tapestry consisting of 100 squares, each square with a picture and text representing a year from 1851 to 1950.

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Detail of the tapestry

Some years were easier than others to assign. 1914 to 1918 was dominated by the Great War, with events like the invention of the tank and Armistice Day. Technology and transport feature heavily, with the Wright Brothers, Louis Bleriot and Amy Johnson each getting a square (see above). 1928 celebrates equal voting rights for women.

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Just two years after its inception, the square for 1948 is given to the “National Health Act”, with the word “FREE” dominating the square. It’s clear that people recognised the nascent NHS as something special, even when it was only two years old.

Of course, predicting the future is a tricky business. The decision to give 1948 to the NHS may be uncontroversial in retrospect, but the square for 1949 was allocated to the Brabazon, a huge propeller-powered airliner designed to revolutionise trans-Atlantic travel. There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of it – only one prototype was ever built, and development was quietly abandoned in 1952. The prototype was sold for scrap.

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Brabazon prototype

The NHS has aged better than the Brabazon – it is approaching its 70th birthday. It’s not in such bad nick, for a near septuagenarian. Let’s hope it has many more years to live.

The tapestry is on display and can be viewed for free in London’s Royal Festival Hall foyer.

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