11. The Festival of Britain in 1951

In June 1951, sixty years ago, there was a lot of negative talk about Witham’s forthcoming carnival. There were very few entries for the procession and for the competitions, and hardly any decorations were on view. But fortunately everything turned out very well in the end.

Two days before the event, the Braintree and Times gossip columnist noted that the number of entries had increased somewhat, but that only one shop in Newland Street was displaying any bunting. That was the Co-op.

It was to be a very special carnival. To begin with, it was the first one for twelve years. Carnivals had flourished during the 1930s, raising money for the hospitals, but were suspended when War broke out. Their resumption would celebrate the return of relatively normal life after all the years of fear and austerity.

Furthermore, this 1951 carnival was being held to celebrate the Festival of Britain. The Festival was a nationwide event, marking the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The latter had been an extremely spectacular show, organised by Prince Albert and others in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

The new Festival of 1951 was centred on the South Bank of the Thames in London, with breathtakingly modern structures such as the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and the Festival Hall. But the rest of Britain was urged to join in too. Hence the plans for Witham’s carnival and for two weeks of other activities.

The front cover of Witham's Festival of Britain programme
The front cover of Witham’s Festival of Britain programme

The fortnight began with an opening ceremony and the crowning of the Carnival Queen (Miss Janet Meekings) by Mrs Elaine Strutt, in the Park. This was followed by a display of folk dancing by children from the Church Schools (see the photo). In the evening there was a crowded dance at the Public Hall, with the New Bohemian Dance Band.IMAG1143 mono folk dancingThe extra activities included an art exhibition at the Public Hall, an “Old Folks Tea” and Music Hall, and three one-act plays (whose actors included Helen Wheaton, Irene Northfield, and Christopher Pettican). The exhibition of “Local Industry and Handicraft” was especially popular, as people found it fascinating to see what happened inside Witham’s few factories. There was also a “Comic Football Match”, a Tug of War, a bowls tournament, more dances, and an evening concert in the Park by the British Legion band.

The carnival procession had seventy entries in the end, and was half a mile long. The first prizes were awarded as follows. Children under 8, Tony Holt of Newland Street (barrow boy). Children over 8, Annette Harris of Rickstones Road (salvage). Adults, Frank Smith of Chalks Road (Eastern Lady). Decorated pedal cycle, Christine Rose of Lawn Chase. Tableaux, C of E Youth Club (their float had a patient undergoing an operation conducted with a hammer and chisel). Tradesmen’s vehicles, Adams and Mortimer, builders, of White Horse Lane.

The aforementioned newspaper columnist reported that in spite of his doubts, the event had been “a great success”, and one of his colleagues wrote that it had “surprised the cynics”.

In the same newspaper it was announced that Witham’s Whitehall cinema was going to close. So soon everyone was pre-occupied with a new topic.


A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in June 2011

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