90th Anniversary of the British Empire Exhibition 1924 – 1925
Don R. Knight
Staging a British Empire Exhibition was first talked about in 1913, when there were three exhibitions sites to choose from. These being the Crystal Palace, Earls Court and the White City Shepherds Bush. These ideas came to a sudden stop due to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In 1919 after the war talks started up again and with a committee formed they selected a parked area at Wembley, famous for its partly constructed tower known as Watkins Folly.
The site was to cover 216 acres and was to be served by the Metropolitan line trains and a main line from Paddington a journey of just 10 minutes. Members of the British Empire were invited to come to the Wembley Exhibition first planned to open in 1923. On the 10 January 1922 at an official ceremony the first sod of soil was cut by the Duke of York (later to be King George VI). This was on the site on which the Famous Wembley Stadium and its Twin Towers was to stand.
The British Empire Exhibition Company 1922 had agreed with the Football Association that the stadium would be ready for the Football Association Cup Final in 1923. The Empire Exhibition had been delayed until 1924, so when the first cup final in the stadium between Bolton and West Ham was played on the 28 April building work was going on all around the stadium. The cup final admission was pay on entry, so led to some 126,047 spectators getting into the stadium by paying or using ladders to gain entry.
The British Empire Exhibition was declared open in the stadium by King George V on 23 April 1924, St Georges Day. His message was to be heard all around the British Empire by radio.
Two special commemorative postage stamps were issued by the Post Office and were only on sale at the post office counters in the exhibition. This lead to the many philatelic dealers having a field day producing First Day covers, Harmers sent these to all its customers with a note saying they might be of some value one day. This has proved to be correct as collectors have to pay anything from £100 to £500 for one, the two stamps cost one penny and one and half penny, (into days money two pence). Four pre stamped postcards were also issued.
The exhibition was open Monday to Saturday from the 23 April until 1 November 1924, over 16 million visitors paying one shilling and six pence (7p) adults and nine pence (4p) children. 1924 was a very wet summer but still attracted visitor from all over the world. Schools bought children on day trips as did many companies bringing employees by train and coaches.
The largest pavilion was the Palace of Engineering, which was six times as large as London’s Trafalgar Square. Next was the Palace of Industry, alongside of this was the Palace of Fine Arts in which visitors could see the Queens Dolls House. Today it can be seen in Windsor Castle. Members of the British Empire had their own pavilions, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa, East Africa, Ceylon, Bermuda, Newfoundland, Hong Kong. The Government Pavilion showed a map of the world high lighting the areas of the British Empire, along with other aspects of the empire.
Not only could the visitors enjoy the displays in the exhibition halls, they could travel on the never-stop railway, with its stations around the eastern side of the exhibition. The train was propelled along the railway lines by what was described as a continuous cork screw which would become closer as the train entered the station. With the train slowed down passengers could get on and off. The Amusement area drew lots of visitors with the Scenic Railway, Jack and Jill’s Hill the Helter Shelter and many other attractions. There was also a children’s play area where visitors could leave their children while they went round the exhibition.
Visitors would have bought a guide book, picture postcards, pieces of souvenir china and leaflets given away at the exhibition stands, not to forget the postage stamps. The Exhibition closed on Saturday 1 November 1924 and with some changes reopened on the 9 May 1925.
© Exhibition Study Group 2014