The Great British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1926

Posted in Architecture, Art, Arts and Crafts, Education, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 19 January 2012

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This edited article about the British Empire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 607 published on 1 September 1973.

Wembley Exhibition 1924, picture, image, illustration

The Indian Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley

On April 23rd, 1924, His Majesty King George the Fifth stood in the one-year-old Wembley Stadium and declared open the British Empire Exhibition. The 100,000 crowd heard him say: ‘The Exhibition may be said to reveal to us the whole Empire in little, containing within its 220 acres of ground a vivid model of the art, architecture and industry of all the races which come under the British flag.’

Barely had he finished speaking when the tiny figure of an immaculate telegraph boy walked smartly across the empty greensward and up to the Royal dais where, saluting, he handed a piece of paper to the King. ‘A message for your Majesty’ said the boy. He saluted again, and retraced his steps.

The telegram read ‘I have this moment opened the British Empire Exhibition. George R.I.’ At 11.49 35 sec it had been handed in at the Stadium post office. At 11.50 55 sec it was received back, having encircled the globe in one minute and twenty seconds.

This was spectacular enough, but, even more amazing to the British public, the King’s voice had for the very first time been heard in homes, shops and offices over the new-fangled ‘wireless.’

‘Wonderful Wembley,’ as they called it, was open. And wonderful it was, by far the greatest and most ambitious exhibition the world had ever seen. The last flourish, the last fanfare of trumpets for that Empire on which the sun never set, and which was later to be known as ‘The British Commonwealth of Nations.’

To most reading these words today Wembley means one thing – The Cup Final. In 1924 and 1925 Wembley was a two-summers-long wonderland of splendour and surprise, with the proud flags of thirty-three nations flying before the pavilions of ‘His Britannic Majesty’s Dominions beyond the Seas.’ It was wonderland of flowers, gardens and trees, a great lake on which electric launches purred between the trim pavilion of New Zealand at the one end, past the gigantic ‘Palaces of Industry and Engineering’ and the great colonnaded pavilions of Canada and Australia. To the far end where there stood in sugar-white oriental magnificence the building which really stole the show. This representation of a 17th Century Mogul Palace proclaimed beneath glittering domes and minarets the wealth and achievements of India, the ‘greatest jewel in the Imperial Crown’ as it was called in those high and far off days.

As was to be expected, Rudyard Kipling, that ‘poet of Empire’ was called upon to give names to the wide avenues along which 27,000,000 people wandered in the two years of ‘Wonderful Wembley.’ Drake’s Way, Anson’s Way, King’s Way, Commonwealth Way, Dominion Way, Union Approach, Pacific Slope, Atlantic Slope and the Chitta Gong Road which led by the carved pagodas of Burma, tinkle-tonkling with Temple Bells, to the gateway an image of ‘old London Bridge.’

For those who wanted to pass along the broad avenues in the easy way there was the electric ‘non-stop railway’ which was not a true ‘railway’ at all, but several series of coupled-up, rubber-tyred little open-seated coaches which cruised decorously from ‘station’ to ‘station.’ At each boarding or descending stage the tiny trains slowed down to about half a mile an hour so that passengers could hop on and off in perfect safety. But the trains never actually stopped. A famous photograph on the opening day shows King George the Fifth in a grey bowler hat and Queen Mary in a towering hat called a ‘toque’ being the first passengers on this ingenious round tour of those fabulous 220 acres of Empire.

Past India, Burma and the white-walled East African Pavilion they cruised, then on to the terra-cotta ‘walled city’ of West Africa where native drums muttered and coppersmiths and workers in brass plied their crafts in a tropical ‘market place.’ On by the Dutch-gabled South African Pavilion, complete with a pen of ostriches, past Canada and Australia by the lake and towards the red, yellow and black striped domes and minarets of Malaya. There stood decorous Southern Rhodesia, the graceful colonial architecture of the British West Indies flanked by coco-palms and the up-curled Chinese rooftops of Hong Kong with a superb Chinese restaurant inside. Then New Zealand, with its plaster friezes and gardens of native shrubs, trees and plants to the Palace of Arts with, beyond it, the Wembley Garden Club and the Lucullus Restaurant, claimed to be the finest gastronomic exercise in the United Kingdom.

It would not be true to say that there was never a dull moment at Wembley. There were plenty of pomposities, for it was, after all, a serious exhibition and not all fun and games. The life cycle of the Merino sheep in Australia, cross-sections of timber in Canada, minerals in British Guiana and maize-growing in South Africa could be fairly unexciting. And the visitor to the South African Pavilion, surfeited with diamonds and harbour works would not be blamed for having a slap-up lunch or dinner in the restaurant car of a South African train. Likewise in Canada the visitor, stunned by grain elevators and hydraulics, could stand in amused admiration before the life-size ‘statue’ of the Prince of Wales in frozen butter. This was one of the most talked-of features in the whole of Wonderful Wembley.

There were snake-charmers and jugglers in India, a full-scale bazaar, and, in the West Indies Pavilion, dusky maidens making ‘Jippi Jappa’ hats before visitors drinking Blue Mountain coffee or Rum Punch shaken by a negro mixer of exotic cocktails. In the rather stuffily named ‘British Government Pavilion’ was one of Wembley’s foremost attractions. If you had not seen ‘The Zeebrugge Raid,’ then you had not seen Wembley. This was, indeed, a spectacular working model of one of the most daring naval operations of the First World War, the storming in darkness of the German-held harbour of Zeebrugge in Belgium and rendering it totally useless as a U-boat base. The North Sea, the Harbour Mole, the sinking of the ‘blockships,’ the flash and thunder of shellfire packed the small theatre in which it was held for every performance for two years.

As for the great Stadium there was certainly never a dull moment there – chariot racing, massed bands marching and counter-marching, a reconstruction of the Great Fire of London, sheep-dog trials and a staging of the Field of the Cloth of Gold with Henry the Eighth and Francis of France meeting in a fantasy of jousting before the pennants flying from the tented pavilions. Two hundred performers assembled for ‘The Greatest Circus in the World,’ and 40 clowns cut capers for the children. In a Military Tattoo London was ‘bombarded from the air,’ and the raiders driven off by anti-aircraft fire. But the most sensational crowd-attraction of all was the importation in 1924 of a complete ‘Wild West Rodeo’ from Canada with chuck-waggon racing, steer wrestling and bucking bronco riding. London had never seen the like. Who, untrained among the audience, could stay longest upon the bucking back of an unbroken horse? Volunteers were invited to ‘try their luck,’ and ‘at their own risk.’

‘I’m Wembling at Wembley With You’ was the title of a ‘pop’ song of the ‘Twenties. All who saw the Queen’s Dolls’ House gasped with wonder at it. It can be seen to this day at Windsor Castle nearly fifty years after Wonderful Wembley.

The Queens’ Dolls’ House, designed by the distinguished architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, was an exhibition in itself of the best in domestic art and decoration to be found in Britain. Tiny paintings by leading artists of the day, a miniature library lined with exquisitely bound real books, carpets, lighting, fireplaces, glass and chinaware, panelling, upholstered furniture, bathrooms with working plumbing, a cellar full of real wine in real miniature bottles and a garage displaying a pair of scale-model Rolls Royce cars. Everything in the Dolls’ House was contributed by the leading firms and individual artists and craftsmen in their field.

What a colossal show it all was. Almost anything you might ask for was there, from a descent into a working coal mine with real coal to a ‘Trip to the Moon’ in an airship! The Moon Travellers at Wembley ‘ran the gamut of all sensations associated with air travel,’ and were rewarded at the end of their adventure by a welcome from the Goddess of the Moon and her personal guidance around her realm!

‘Tut’s Tomb’ was a reconstruction of the then recently discovered Tomb of Tutankhamen at Luxor, and hard by this seriously dramatic exhibit was the frivolity of The Golden Glide, sponsored by a famous soap company. In translucent cars shaped like soap tablets the visitor travelled up the ‘golden glide,’ through an English lavender garden, into a cave-of-soap and thence into another cave drenched with the perfume of attar of roses. Hearts in their mouths they trembled on the brink of a waterfall cascading at the rate of 35,000 gallons an hour. Only of course, miraculously to miss it.

Wonderful Wembley it was, all banners and bunting by day, floodlit and fairy-lighted by night. Dance hall, bandstands, fifty restaurants and tea-rooms and the Prince of Wales in butter. It was the big show of the ‘Twenties, and the last flourish of the British Empire.

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