Sport and Leisure History
Sport’s Role in 1951’s Festival of Britain
Iain Wilton (Queen Mary, University of London)
19 March 2012


England vs Argentina 1951

The Festival of Britain held in 1951 is generally described as a rather insular affair focused on Britain without much consideration beyond the borders.  Most of the landmarks created for the festival were soon afterwards destroyed (apparently for ideological reasons by Churchill’s government), although the Royal Festival Hall survived, as did the Miss World competition (then properly entitled the Festival Bikini-girl competition).  It is not to these aspects, however, that Iain Wilton looks.  Instead he examines the generally unmentioned role of sport during the festival and how such a study suggests that the festival was not so inward looking as is generally claimed.

Although there is barely any mention of sport in the official festival report (written soon after the end of the festival) there was nevertheless a variety of matches and events played across the country as part of the festival.  Some of these, such as cricket and woman’s netball were indeed insular affairs, focusing only upon England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, perhaps with some input from Australia.  Other games, however, were more international.  Women’s Hockey included several European nations outside of the Empire, while cycling events included seven other nations.  Football included the local derby’s’ but also held English club matches against foreign clubs, as well as truly international matches.  In the late 1940s England had time and again shown to be a lacklustre force in international football, largely because of its focus on playing European teams.  However, the festival offered them an opportunity to put themselves against teams further afield.  For example, 1951 saw the very first encounter between England and Argentina (Wilton doesn’t mention the final score, although I’m sure many football fans will already know that England won 2-1).  Scotland too played various matches and performed well.

The Argentina game might also have been arranged in-part for political relations.  1950s Britain was still a rationed nation whilst the Argentine market promised cheap meat exports.  Iain Wilton suggests that the match was therefore partially organised to build relations.  In all, Wilton argues that sport is the missing piece of the 1951 Festival of Britain that truly makes it a national event and suggests that not all elements of the festival were as inward looking as is often suggested.

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