On the Road for the Festival of Britain

Seventy years ago a national celebration, the Festival of Britain, was officially opened by King George VI. Held in 1951, exactly one hundred years after the Great Exhibition which showcased Victorian Industry, the Festival of Britain was designed to boost post-war morale in the UK. Curator of the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection Angela Willis takes a look at how the Club and its members celebrated this unique occasion, and the lasting impact it has had on the caravan holiday to this day.

In 1951, as London prepared for an influx of tourists to the Festival of Britain, the then Caravan Club (today known as the Caravan and Motorhome Club) joined forces with the then Camping Club to offer a temporary caravan site close to the Capital. Numerous Festival exhibitions and events were held across the country which celebrated the nation’s arts, design and industry, but the key attraction was located on the South Bank in London. Built to regenerate twenty-seven acres of land devastated by Second World War bombing, the South Bank attraction alone welcomed 8.5 million visitors in five months. To accommodate some of these visitors the Club’s very first official site was opened at Crystal Palace, becoming the first in a vast network of sites enjoyed by members today. Also known for many years as ‘Caravan Harbour’, the Crystal Palace site celebrates a milestone anniversary in 2021.

Page of a magazine advertising a caravan site
Advert for the then temporary Crystal Palace Caravan Site for the Festival of Britain, 1951.

Only a year before the Festival, petrol rationing which had been in place since the beginning of the war in 1939 was finally lifted. The Festival of Britain was the perfect opportunity for motorists and caravanners to venture far and wide without restriction, for the first time in over a decade. Many planned motoring tours of the UK, taking in popular sights on the journey to the Festival’s attractions giving a huge boost to tourism. In the Capital, car parks were created especially for the event, while London Transport greatly strengthened their bus services for the impending visitors.

From 7 May 1951 caravans ‘of good appearance’ were welcomed to the Caravan Harbour at Crystal Palace for a sum of 4 shillings a night or £1 per week. In a time when some privately-owned caravan pitches were still little more than a field with no facilities, visitors to this temporary site were met with modern home comforts of a lavatory block with wash basins and waste water points. Milk, bread and daily newspapers were delivered while regular bus and train services provided a link to the South Bank. The popularity of the site quickly proved to be so great that it was clear London would benefit from a permanent facility. London County Council granted permission for the site to continue operating after the Festival year and the current Club Crystal Palace Site is located only a short distance from the original Caravan Harbour.

A programme and map relating to a 1950s caravan rally event
Map and programme produced for the Club’s 1951 Festival Caravan Rally at Overstone Park.

To mark the Festival year, the Club also held a celebratory National Rally (today known simply as the National). Over the course of a long weekend in May, Overstone Park in Northamptonshire became a temporary city of nearly 2000 caravanners. As the Festival spirit swept Britain a record number of Club members travelled to the event. Due to the end of petrol rationing, the award for the caravanner who had towed the longest distance from his home to the rally was reinstated for the first time since 1939. One couple travelled 350 miles from Edinburgh in the former motor home of land speed record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell.

After suffering a period of conflict and years of post-war restrictions, it is easy to imagine the freedom felt by the British public as it explored all that the Festival of Britain had to offer in 1951. Seventy years on, as we are now living through restrictions ourselves, this story brings hope that one day very soon we will be safe to explore once more.

A flag in red, white and blue featuring the London skyline
A rare commemorative pennant for the Caravan Harbour site at Crystal Palace, 1950s.

Find out more about the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s Collection here.

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