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In 1948 work was underway to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the legendary Great Exhibition of 1851, which was to have taken place in 1951. But in 1948, the idea of celebrating seemed remote in many ways – celebrating England of 1851 seemed more the celebration of a fantasy than of real accomplishments. World War 2 was over only three years and rebuilding was earnestly underway. But in this commentary for the BBC World Service program London Letter, author, columnist and commentator John Connell approaches the subject with a goodly degree of apprehension – was England ready to celebrate an era that had all but vanished? And what would the celebration be like in 1951? It was still three years off, and in 1948 it was only in the planning stages. The anniversary celebration could not have taken place at the iconic Crystal Palace, scene of the 1851 Exhibition. It had burned down in 1936 – and it most surely would have been destroyed during the German bombings of the War.
But more importantly, it was a morale boost – one that England needed. And it would be more of a look forward than a look back. It would be a celebration of renewal and of an optimistic view of the world, in spite of a Cold War and increasing tensions brought on by political turmoil.
The Exhibition of 1851 was a celebration of Britain as an Empire – a sprawling collection of colonies to which the motto “The Sun Never Sets . . .” no long applied to the Britain of 1948. World War 2 brought about a rapid de-colonization and the former dominance on the world stage was weakening. And so this Hundredth anniversary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a mixed bag of sorts.
But as Connell explains – it was something to finally look forward to.
Here is that commentary, as it was broadcast over the BBC World Service on October 20,1948.