The summer of 2012 has, through political and media demand for soundbites, come to be known as Britain’s golden summer of sport: a celebration of competition, diversity and equality, and that thing called Britishness that no-one seems quite able to define agreeably. Alongside England’s World Cup victories of 1966 and 2003, their near miss in 1996, and that perfect expression of Cool Cymru during the Rugby World Cup of 1999, the 2012 Olympics will be remembered as an outpouring of national enthusiasm through sport. Whether it will be remembered as an outpouring of uncontested Britishness, though, it is too soon to say.
The Festival of Britain, which took place in the summer of 1951, was much less ambiguous. Consciously marking the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, that unrestricted celebration of the Victorian technological revolution, the Festival of Britain gave us a new exhibition centre on the South Bank, a dome of discovery (no prizes for guessing the grandfather of the Greenwich one!), and the Skylon – the Festival’s enduring icon. Amidst economic turmoil and the continuing imposition of rationing, the Festival of Britain offered a diversion and a celebration of art, science, technology, and history. Strongly linked with the post-war Labour government – especially Herbert Morrison who was the chief organiser – it offered a portrait of British democratic socialism’s success.
One feature of the Festival of Britain that is most often overlooked is that of sport. Across the country, in a variety of different disciplines from soccer to speedway, Festival of Britain competitions were organised to promote one of the great gifts the British had bestowed upon the world. But this was also a Festival that celebrated opportunities and in an era when women had far fewer chances to play sport, let alone on an organised basis, the mushrooming of competition during the Festival summer offered new avenues and saw teams, such as this one from Stow Hill in Treforest, formed to take advantage of them.
Sport was never intended to be a major feature of the Festival of Britain – which is why it has so often been overlooked by historians – but outside of official pageants, exhibitions, and concerts, it flourished and was a vital way for people living far from the centre of celebration in London to contribute that summer. If the golden summer of 2012 is to have an even greater legacy, then ordinary people will have to make it themselves. Just as the young women of Treforest did in the summer of ’51.