The People of Britain

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Architect: H. T. Cadbury Brown ◦ Theme Convener: Jacquetta Hawkes
Display Design: James Gardner, O.B.E.

The story that has been told so far shows that, in achievement, the British are a nation of many different parts. In appearance, too, they are just as mixed – certainly one of the most-mixed people in the world. But who are these British people ? What different breeds of ancestors have contributed to the shaping of such a rare miscellany of faces as confronts the visitor in any London bus? Where did those various ancestors come from? And how did they reach this land?

These are some of the questions that the first Pavilion of the Downstream Circuit answers, so that, before the visitor passes on to the series of Pavilions which tell the story of the activities of the British people on their home ground, he may be acquainted with the origins from which these mixed and versatile folk have sprung.

The first islanders

In the beginning, Britain had been part and parcel of the Continent. Only when, eight thousand years ago, the North Sea and the Channel met and merged, was Britain carved out as an island. After a pause of several thousand years, during which primitive hunting and fishing men, equipped with flint and bone, were the only people here, the first of the series of invasions began. The first newcomers were farming folk, long-headed and lightly built. They knew how to grow corn and breed livestock, and they worked with implements of stone. It was they who initiated the marriage between the people of Britain and the land.

After Stone, Bronze. Bronze was the speciality of a tough and warlike people who invaded England and Scotland nearly four thousand years ago. They were the first to draw upon the mineral wealth of Britain. For them the people of the Western Highlands rooted tin and copper out of the earth, as materials for their implements and ornaments of bronze.

Agriculture takes root

It was the incoming Celts who gave a fresh impulse to agriculture. They were people from Northern France looking for new land. They started coming, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, at the end of the Bronze Age; and they continued to settle throughout the Iron Age. Iron axes were now brought to bear against the forests which had overlaid the most fertile of the country’s farmland; and iron ploughs, drawn by oxen, were used to etch out a permanent pattern of cultivation, of a kind that produced at last a settled peasantry in farms and villages.

But the Celts were not only enthusiastic farmers. They were enthusiastic warriors as well; and they had an artists eye for the dramatic effect of decorative military gear. The style of their war chariot throws as revealing a light on the British people’s Celtic ancestors as does the Sutton Hoo ship on their Anglo-Saxon ones.

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Roman-Britain

The Celts could not resist a war; and their intertribal feuds made things easy for the Romans when, in A.D. 43, they came, and conquered. But this was conquest of a new kind, a prelude to 400 years of occupation. This, for the Britons, was the first taste of a civilisation.

But after the Roman troops were at last withdrawn, bands of Anglo-Saxon pirates rushed in to rub out all traces of the Roman touch. When these barbarians could find no more cities to sack, they settled, turning their axes usefully against the forests which still covered the midlands and the more fertile valleys of England. Down into those cleared acres the hill-farming population now began to seep, giving a new design to the old landscape.

Christianity

Less than two hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons had settled in, St. Augustine’s mission brought a new infusion of Christianity to Britain. Their Anglo-Saxon converts mingled with those of the Celtic peoples who, from Roman times, had preserved their Christianity beyond the mountain barriers of Wales and Scotland, and, together, Celt and Anglo-Saxon saints and scholars, painters, draughtsmen and sculptors put Britain on the map of European culture.

The last invaders

When Norse and Danish Viking sea-raiders started to force footholds on the British coastline, it looked as if these seeds of civilisation were going to be grubbed up once more. But the land and the people accommodated the Vikings and absorbed them, as it had absorbed so many invaders in the past, and as it was destined to absorb the conquerors of the future – the Normans. Theirs was the last successful invasion of these islands.

The living past

Relics of all this past are now part of our island – tools, weapons, ornaments, the dead still buried in the soil, Stonehenge, great tombs of the New Stone Age, the hill forts of the iron Age Celts, the churches of the Saxons and the Normans – they are part of Britain.

But though the ancient dead are buried, it is the very blood they brought here that runs in us – yet, whether they came as conquerors or men of peace, all of them suffered a sea change on the way. They were absorbed into the life that was here before them, and themselves became islanders of a land that moulded the thoughts, the feelings, the behaviour of them all into a whole which is our British way of life and our tradition.

The Lion and the Unicorn

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Architects: R. Y. Goodden and R. D. Russell
Theme Conveners: Hubert Phillips and Peter Stucley
Display Designers: R. Y. Goodden, R. D. Russell, and Richard Guyatt
Commentary: Laurie Lee

The British People are something more than the sum of: men with ancestors, children in schools, families in homes and gardens, and patients in hospitals. They are, in addition, compositions of various particular habits, attitudes, instincts, qualities and characteristic moods. But these attributes, not being tangible, are hard to display, “in the round”, in an exhibition of tangible things.

Nevertheless, we should not like visitors – particularly those from overseas – to leave the South Bank without having seen, at least, some token and visible reminders of the British People’s native genius. So, this Pavilion offers one or two clues to their character.

The title of the Pavilion – “The Lion and the Unicorn” – serves to symbolise two of the main qualities of the national character: on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other fantasy, independence and imagination.

Language and literature

Through the English language, once upon a time, a huddle of British Islanders founded a mother tongue. Through it, to-day, two hundred and fifty million people can converse together. The English Bible is still the great beacon for the language. Into successive versions of that Bible went the pride of English penmanship and the pick of English words; out of it came a resonance and a radiance which has suffused all our later literature and speech. Then, there was Shakespeare, who took the language in his hand, and made words do things that had never been dreamed of, and enshrined his mother-tongue in monumental plays.

Long before Shakespeare and long after him, poets, from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot, have been at work with English words. As for the prose-writers, the visitor may care to assess for himself how much of lion, how much of unicorn, has gone into the making of such as Defoe, Swift, Sterne, Carlyle, Dickens, or Lewis Carroll.

But the British do not simply leave the development of their language to the professionals of literature. There is no closed shop among practitioners of the English tongue. At times, indeed, the walls of the streets of British towns can make most lively reading. The Cockney has added a local vocabulary to the national one; and every British county has contributed a proverb, or a telling phrase.

Eccentricities and humours

Another characteristic of the British people is their love of eccentric fantasy. No better summary of this exists than Tenniel’s White Knight who, mounted on his all-purpose steed, is displayed in all verisimilitude in this Pavilion.

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Skill of hand and eye

Clues to the British character are also to be found reflected in the long tradition of British craftsmanship: in their old furniture, for example, and their sporting guns and fishing tackle and tailoring. There is something deeply revealing, too, about the British view of nature as it has been expressed in landscape painting from the time of Gainsborough and Constable until the present day, and as it discloses itself in the applied arts, such as textiles, china and wallpaper.

All these are indirect and piecemeal clues. What else can be done, in an exhibition of tangible things, to throw more light on the obscurities of the national character? There is some direct visual evidence to show that, for centuries past, the British have had a continuing impulse to develop and enlarge, whenever opportunity offered, certain kinds of freedom – particularly freedom of worship, freedom of government, and personal freedom.

The instinct of liberty

Throughout their history, the British have patiently probed for the weak spot in the defences of the contemporary enemies of their freedom, and, once they have found it, they have swiftly broken through.

As long ago as seven hundred years, the principal foundations of personal freedom were established in Magna Charta. Four hundred and twenty-seven years later, the House of Commons found the soft spot in King Charles I’s defences against the people’s will, and improvised the structure of a free constitution. In 1644 John Milton wrote the pamphlet “Arcopagitica”, as a spearhead for the break-through into freedom of the press. In the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell’s plea for the Roman Catholic minority extended the freedom of worship; and the Tolpuddle farm-hands broke down the last fence of resistance to the freedom of labour. In the early years of the present century, Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes forced the break-through which at last brought British women fully into public life.

The indefinable character

If, on leaving this Pavilion, the visitor from overseas concludes that he is still not much the wiser about the British national character, it might console him to know that British people are themselves still very much in the dark about it. For them, the British character is as easy to identify, and as difficult to define, as a British nonsense rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round the town.

Some gave them white bread
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
And sent them out of town.

Homes and Gardens

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Architects: Bronek Katz and Reginald Vaughan
Theme Conveners: A. Hippisley Coxe and S. D. Coooke

The “People of Britain” Pavilion shows how the British stock was blended. “The Lion and the Unicorn” displays some facets of the British character. It is not within the scope of the South Bank Exhibition, however, to trace the course of British Social History in full.

The “Homes and Gardens” Pavilion takes the past as read, and the visitor follows the British people straight into their homes – the homes of the present time. Here, he finds himself face to face with one of the main problems of modern housing – the problem of space.

Fifty million people live on a slice of land which covers an area of less than a hundred thousand square miles – smaller than New Zealand, where less than two million people live. Eighty per cent of those people have their homes in towns where the demand for space is clamorous. The great task lies, then, in planning the towns and the houses as a whole. This subject is covered in the Festival Exhibition of Architecture at Poplar. Here on the South Bunk, our concern is with some of the units within the house itself; and in this Pavilion a picture is presented of contemporary living created by and for the British family of to-day.

British designers have been concentrating on the many problems created by the conditions in which we have to live nowadays. Of these, six in particular have been selected for new and practical solutions within this section of the Exhibition. Because the rooms of to-day must often serve more than one purpose and because of limits on space, these new proposals for design do not embrace complete rooms. They are, rather, grouped around special features within it – it may be, even, a corner.

Six groups of designers have been chosen to provide new solutions to six problems of design in the modern home:

  1. The child in the home.
  2. The bed-sitting room.
  3. The kitchen.
  4. Hobbies and the home.
  5. Home entertainment.
  6. The parlour.

The child in the home

Designers: Bronek Katz and Reginald Vaughan

The tale begins, of course, with the new-born baby; but at every stage in the child’s development he needs things that have to be designed for him. Thus, his furniture, for example, must, wherever possible, “grow up with him”. When the child goes out of doors, there are certain demands that he is entitled to make of a garden; and also when he goes abroad into the street or into the park.

These are all familiar problems, but there is still much scope for the devising of new solutions to them. The oldest, and still the most important, is the safety of the child. Most nurseries are made safe enough with window bars, fireguards and wicket gates; but where there are children in a house the whole of it should be accident proof. This depends largely on the detail of design of household accessories.

The bed-sitting room

Designer: J. D. Binns

Soon the infant becomes another person in the house. More space is needed, or, if this cannot be found, creative use must be made of the space that exists. This raises the problem of the room that can be made to serve two purposes – the bed-sitting room.

In a house which is built in a crowded city, planted on a teeming island, the space that can be used for twenty-four hours a day is more worth its keep than space than can only be used for eight. Hence, the contemporary role of the bed-sitting room.

The bed-sitting room can be designed to meet the needs of almost anyone who has passed out of childhood. Two boys of school age can share one, or a teen-age girl or a business man or an elderly maiden lady can have one that is specially suitable to their own ways of living – and a garden designed to match.

Here again, the problem is largely solved by the room’s equipment being specially designed for the purpose. Among the new features presented are specially designed beds – divans, for example, that are as successful as sofas during the day as they are as beds at night.

Another new suggestion gets over the bathroom trouble so often experienced in houses made over to bed-sitting rooms. It consists of live units which include all the essentials of a bathroom. They can be assembled in a variety of different ways within the bed-sitting room itself.

The kitchen

Designers: Clive Latimer, Nigel Walter and F. L. Marcus

The second kind of two-purpose room is founded on the kitchen as a place where you can not only store and cook food, but where you can also eat it.

More and more, in the past two decades, the housewife has been finding herself relegated to what, in the days when there were servants galore, used to be called “service quarters”. Designers have therefore been aiming to bring her back where she belongs – into the social life of the house – without interrupting her work in the kitchen. The suggested remedy depends on an easily moveable screen, and folding walls. The cooking department itself is laid out so that anything needed is close at hand. It must, of course, be easily cleaned, but the designer has had to ensure that, at the same time, the effect is pleasant enough for one to be able to sit and eat in the room as well as cook in it.

In conjunction with the kitchen, a two-purpose garden has also been devised, in which herbs that are destined eventually to please the palate are grown in such a way that, meanwhile, they delight the eye.

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Hobbies and the home

Designers: Robert and Roger Nicholson

A home always throws some light on its owners character; so do the things that he or she collects, or makes or rears as a hobby. Nearly everyone in Britain has a hobby, but it is not always brought out into the open. This section shows how, if ones hobbies are brought out into the light and their display is linked with the scheme of decoration, a very distinctive flavour can be given to any room in the house. In this way, the hobby itself can be made to live.

Hobbies can be thought of in three groups – rearing animals or plants, collecting, and actively making things. Of the outdoor hobbies, rearing is the most popular: chickens, rabbits, cabbages, hollyhocks – you can see them everywhere in the massed backyards of Britain, which, for better or worse, line the railway approaches to all our cities. How it could be “for better” is shown by the designers’ proposals for transforming these backyards into the sites where pets and domestic animals can be reared, where plants can be collected, and where a garden can be made by hand.

Among the solutions offered for the backyard or small garden are single units that house both rabbits and poultry – a flat, as it were, for each. A new type potting-shed is offered for the gardener who is pushed for space; new thought has been given to the children’s sand pit and the goldfish pond.

The collecting hobbies can contribute to the decoration of most rooms. Their use is shown throughout this section, the widely different effects that can be obtained being illustrated particularly by a countryman’s room, and the room of someone of a more reflective character, in this instance a schoolmaster.

For those whose hobbies consist in making things, there is a model workshop, suggestions for those who make lace and lampshades, and displays for those women whose hobbies and art result in making a home. And that covers most things, from dressmaking to arranging flowers.

Home entertainment

Designer: Robin Day

Entertainment at home may be either of two things – or a combination of both: one can be entertained from outside, as it were, by such devices as the radio, or one can entertain visiting friends.

In the first kind, which can be called passive entertainment, television, wireless, gramophone and the home circle all call for special methods of restricting the spread of light or sound, so that people in the home who would rather not be entertained just at the moment can get on with what they are doing without being distracted. This is a designer’s problem, as is the question of furniture that can house all the apparatus needed for this sort of entertainment in the smallest space and with the maximum convenience.

For entertaining one’s friends, suggestions are offered for a dining-room that may become a room for music when dinner is over.

The parlour

Designers: Eden and Bianca Minns

The “parlour” has long lost its original meaning as a place where people could sit and converse. To-day the very word has a frowsty sound. Yet, quite often, when architects have provided a family with a larger living-room instead of a parlour, one corner has been turned nostalgically into a token parlour-substitute. It is evident, then, that many people still feel the need for a room apart, where photographs and souvenirs can contribute memories, and where the fireplace can be treated as an altar to household gods. So the designers have shown how such a need can be met, in twentieth-century style and without any trace of frowstiness. And they have done so in several different ways, in presenting corners of seven rooms, all with a special character.

The actual homes and gardens of the whole country show more clearly than anything else the way in which a people live. The problems which form the theme of the “Homes and Gardens” Pavilion have therefore been tackled in a realistic manner, and the products which are displayed are essentially those of to-day. Nowhere in this section are there any displays of non-existent “homes of the future”. The years to come will certainly pose their own problems; for the moment, we are content to show how we are trying to solve those that face us here and now.

The New Schools

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Architects: Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew ◦ Theme Convener: B. W. Rowe, o.b.e., m.c.
Display Designers: Neville Conder and Patience Clifford

The “New Schools” Pavilion displays the kind of tools and the sort of environment that are now being devised for the schoolboy and schoolgirl, if they are to get the best out of contemporary education.

There is no room on the South Bank to project a picture that would do justice to the past history and present scope of the entire British educational system. But an introductory mural in the “New Schools” Pavilion sketches the contributions made by former generations. It was Britain that was chiefly responsible for spreading to other continents that great Mediterranean culture which, for five hundred years or more, has been civilising the world. British churches and monasteries fostered this work; British universities extended and expanded it.

With the Education Act of 1944, which empowered local education authorities to provide a full and efficient education for every child in the country between the ages of five and fifteen, new standards were set for the equipment and environment of education. This new system embraces everyone, but it gives to everyone a fair freedom of choice. The process begins with the Nursery School: so does the designer’s set of problems. His first job is to devise a classroom setting in which children between the ages of three and five will find it agreeably easy to learn to become members of their class, and to feel, however dimly, some responsibility to their fellows.

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As soon as the five year old goes to a Primary School he starts to master the general tools of learning. Now he needs fresh equipment in the way of desks and chairs and libraries; and it is time for the whole paraphernalia that will enable him to take part in physical education, and art, and drama to be placed at his disposal.

When, at the age of eleven or more, the schoolchild passes on to his Secondary School, he may choose to start specialising and his speciality will demand more new equipment, such as laboratories, crafts-rooms and workshops.

Thus, each new phase needs new tools and a fresh background. The “New Schools” Pavilion ends up with a fully furnished classroom, in which there is displayed a “Project”: that is to say, a co-operative exercise in which all members of a class or group of classes take part. First, the children are given a subject to investigate, a subject on their own. They go out into their town or their countryside and seek to uncover all the facts they need. Then they come back to the classroom, analyse the facts, shape their conclusions, and present them in the form, not only of essays, but of charts and models.

In this way, a “Project” easily enlists a childly natural curiosity; it stimulates him into trying out in practice all the skills that he has learned – and it impels him to pool his surmises and discoveries with those of his fellows. In fact, the “Project” is a fair sample of the trend of modern education in Britain to-day.

Health

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Theme Conveners: Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley, k.c.b., f.r.s., and Nigel Clayton ◦ Display Designer: Peter Ray

The “Country” Pavilion and “Homes and Gardens” together show what is being done in two quite different spheres to make the best and most pleasant use of the small amount of space that is available for living purposes in Britain. The “Health” Pavilion deals with another aspect of the peoples well-being; it shows what is being done to make the small span of life of the individual as fit and fruitful as it can humanly be.

“Humanly” is important. The thing which has always distinguished British work in medicine, surgery, public health and nursing is the recognition that every patient is an individual human being. It follows, then, that the patient peculiar needs and happiness must be ensured before the “scientific” part of medical treatment – operations, inoculations, and so on – can become really effective. “Care of the patient” in this sense is still something for which Britain is famous.

Knowing your body

A mechanic cannot repair an engine until he knows the way that engine works. Similarly, the great achievements of surgeons and doctors in recent times would be impossible without the knowledge passed on to them by the pioneers who first discovered how the body works, and the scientists who are still revealing the secrets of its many mechanisms.

In such research, the British have played a leading part. What is more, the renown in the names from the past can very often be equalled by that of our men of science in the present time. Hughlings Jackson, Sherrington and Adrian are world-famous in matters relating to the nervous system. It was Harvey, 300 years ago, who first discovered the circulation of the blood; Barcroft and Haldane in our own time have added much to our knowledge of the blood itself and respiration. In nutrition, Hopkins and Mellanby were foremost in recognising the nature of vitamins. In the control of the bodily machine Bayliss and Starling have added greatly to knowledge, while Banting and Best are the benefactors of all sufferers from diabetes by discovering the role of insulin.

The human body, then, is like a land rich in prizes for its explorers, and British initiative here has been characteristically active.

On knowledge follows development. What we have done with what we know is told in the remaining sections of the Pavilion which describe the research, skill and organisation that exists in Britain to maintain the health of fifty million individual human bodies. Mental health is, of course, equally important, but it does not lend itself to display in an exhibition.

Safe water, good drainage and the right food

Much as we differ, as individuals, in our idiosyncrasies, there is a number of requirements common to us all, if the nation is to be secure in health. Three of these in which the British have been pioneers are: safe water, good drainage, and the easy supply of the proper foods, so that there shall be no malnutrition. In all of these, the British way has been to put the emphasis on prevention, as being better than any cure. Our most recent example of this was the scientifically based organisation of mass feeding on a nation-wide scale during the war.

Prevention rather than cure

Safe water and safe drainage are now accepted without a thought by most people in Britain. There is, however, another specific form of prevention of disease in which Britain has led the world, of which the individual is fully conscious because he plays an active part in it. This is vaccination and immunisation. The efficiency of these in maintaining the nation’s health would be altogether vitiated if the individual citizen did not himself make the voluntary act of being vaccinated or inoculated, and of ensuring that his children are similarly protected.

It was Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor, who started mass immunisation a hundred and fifty years ago, when smallpox was a familiar scourge throughout the country. Later, Wright and Leishman did pioneer work on the enteric fevers, such as typhoid, which becomes particularly menacing in times of war.

Biological standards

i75Some of the more important substances used in medicine, such as anti-toxins for controlling infectious diseases, drugs needed for treatment, and so on, occur as a small part of a complex mixture, and the proportion varies from one sample to another. If treatment is to be successful, therefore, it is vital that the amount of this “active principle” present in any sample shall be precisely known. This is now measured in terms of international units accepted throughout the world. Charged with maintaining these international units and standards for all substances that come within the international scheme, Britain shares the honour with Denmark. Among these substances are the anti-toxins for diphtheria; hormones such as insulin for diabetes; drugs for the heart such as digitalis; vitamins and penicillin.

Penicillin

This, the century’s most important discovery in clinical medicine, sprang from the historic work of Fleming and Florey. The discovery of penicillin has stimulated the search for similar therapeutic substances.

Restoration of health

Since the days of Hunter, whose influence established surgery as a science in Britain, and of Lister, the greatest surgeon of all time, British surgeons have given new principles and technique to the world in various specialised fields – in Thoracic Surgery, whereby operations on the heart and great blood vessels and lungs are now possible; in Orthopaedics, now becoming more and more the surgery of broken bones; and in Plastic Surgery, whereby many sorts of deformities due to wounds and burns have been so effectively repaired.

No scientific surgery at all was possible before the two great discoveries of asepsis and anaesthesia, and, until the recent extensive use of blood transfusions, numbers of deaths continued to result from surgical shock and loss of blood. In all these three saving developments, British research has played a part.

Nursing

Finally, there is one essential factor in the successful cure and rehabilitation of the sick; that is, the human factor of good nursing. All British progress in medical treatment bears the additional stamp of a superb tradition of nursing – the Nightingale tradition. It is through the British nurse of to-day that the community’s care for its sick and injured is focused on to every individual patient in the land.

Sport

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Architects and Designers: Gordon and Ursula Bowyer ◦ Theme Convener: B. W. Rowe, o.b.e., m.c.

 

The “Health” Pavilion dealt with the physical well-being of the British people. The “Sport” Pavilion deals with their games and open-air recreation.

The British are possessed of a gift for inventing their own games and for adapting other people’s. They have inherited the sports and sporting traditions of many strenuous races; and once a game has come their way, they have been adept at working out the rules, regulations and manners that will suit it best. They have been the great codifiers of sport; and, once they have got a game codified, they have carried it with them overseas, where the people of other nations have then found themselves solemnly playing it according to British rules.

Thus, certain quiet-spoken bodies, which govern the conduct of various games in Britain, have found themselves invested with an unquestioned international authority. What the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Lawn Tennis Association say, is law — all over the cricket-talking and tennis-playing world.

Nature herself furnished the British Isles sumptuously with peerless turf for games and priceless ground for field sports. The tools and instruments of sport have for hundreds of years been developed and perfected by dedicated British craftsmen.

If British players no longer lead the world in the playing of the five greatest British games — cricket, golf, tennis, rugby union football and association football — that is not now widely considered to be a matter for heartbreak. The important fact is that more and more people in the British Isles are taking part in organised sports and games, because they enjoy doing so.

No question of world championship intrudes into the playing of the pub-games, such as darts, shove ha’penny and skittles, in which the British take a peculiar delight, or the classic sports of the British countryside — hunting, shooting and fishing.

In the world of yachting, the British still contrive to make the best of both worlds. Their yards turn out full-grown yachts of championship quality; while their lakes and meres and ponds give hospitality to hundreds of Model Yacht Clubs, where thousands of owners of model yachts or hydroplanes compete in local regattas—under the same sort of conditions as can be seen on the South Bank Exhibition Model Pool.

After the Model Pool, the Boat Pool — where lie life-size the finest products of British builders, whose yards line our coasts and rivers. Among them are the punt, the child’s paddle boat, and the rowing boat which all British men, women and children start to covet as soon as they catch a sight, or a smell, of the sea.

Seaside

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Architects and Designers: Eric Brown and Peter ChamberlinTheme Convener: A. Hippisley Coxe

 

Whenever the British feel the need to relax — either after a heavy week in their industrial cities or a hard year on their land — they tend to head for the seaside. Nowhere in the island is more than 80 miles from it. So, too, the visitor who has wound his way round the whole of this Exhibition may himself feel inclined to relax in the Seaside Section.

The seaside that rims the whole of Britain is of three main kinds. There are the small working ports; the large pleasure resorts; and the stretches of undeveloped coast which lie between. These three types of scene offer three different kinds of holiday to an island people who do like to be beside the seaside.

The seaside at work

The fascination of the small working port draws townsmen and countrymen alike. Here, at last, they have time and inclination to stand and stare. At their feet lies a small painted world of tar and limewash, peopled with characters who seem to do their own share of standing and staring, like the old angler who, rain or fine, is always to be seen contemplating the universe from the end of every English pier.

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An unfamiliar world that demands not only to be stared at, but to be explored. A world strangely furnished, for purposes that are at first mysterious, with bollards and sea-anchors, nets and capstans, storm-cones and buoys; in fact, with all the gear of those who gain their living on and off the shores of Britain.

A reminder of the fact that such a living is not gained easily is to be found in the presence of the lifeboat, a craft designed with all that modern skill can provide to counter the ancient hazards of the sea. Water-tight engines; a cabin made of aluminium alloy; a mast of the same material which carries the exhaust well clear above the heads of the crew; equipped with searchlight, line-throwing gun, radio telephone and a loud hailer. A lifeboat that cannot be sunk.

The seaside at play

On Margate beach, where the sick one roams And the sentimental reads;
Where the maiden flirts and the widow comes — Like the ocean — to cast her weeds.

Thomas Hood wrote that a hundred years ago; but it is no longer the plain quest for health that, on any public holiday, sends the British people streaming in all directions to the sea. “We do a lot of things at the seaside that we can’t do in town.” And the pleasure resort supplies us with the equipment — the peepshows, the souvenir kiosks, the cockles and whelks, the sand castles and the sticks of rock — with which to do those things.

For a start, every single stick of rock contains an ancient mystery. On the top of each of these pink and white sugar cylinders is inscribed the name of a particular seaside town. You bite the top off the rock; you bite on and on to the sticky end — but at each stage the lettering remains embedded in what is left of the rock. How the letters get inside, and how they go all the way with you, is a question which has puzzled most people since their childhood. The answer can be found in a stall in the Seaside Section where you can see how this miracle is manufactured.

All this bright and breezy business with magic rock and funny hats and period peepshows, is conducted here against the background of a characteristically British “seafront”: a medley of Victorian boarding-houses, elegant bow-fronted Regency facades, ice-cream parlours, pubs, and the full and friendly gaudiness of the amusement park.

The sea coast

It seems a far cry from this free and easy holiday fantasy to the third type of British seaside — the coast that lies between the working ports and the pleasure resorts. The long indented coastline of Britain is rich in contrasting scenery, and it harbours a wonderful variety of plant and animal life. On the South Bank, samples of five stretches of Britain’s coast are made to speak for the whole range of the island. Here the visitor can observe the birds that turn and wheel above our shores, and can see the animals and plants of the rock pools which the ebbing tides reveal.

The seaside, whether it be at a resort, a port, or the open coast, always remains a place for the British to explore. It is also a likely place for the overseas visitor to explore the British. Give the British “a mile of warm sea-scented beach”, and they don’t feel, or seem, so sad and frigid, after all. Rather do they betray a deeply concealed belief in what Robert of Gloucester wrote six hundred years ago:

England is a right merry land, of all on earth it is best,
Y-set in the end of the world, as here all in the West,
The sea goeth it all about, it stands right as an isle.

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