March 14, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Posted in Art, Film, History, United Kingdom | Leave a comment










The British movie classic, “This Happy Breed”, 1944, directed by David Lean, based on a Noel Coward script, makes mention of the 1924 Wembley empire exhibition.

British Empire Exhibition

The British Empire Exhibition was a colonial exhibition held at Wembley, Middlesex in 1924 and 1925.[1][2][3][4]

It was opened by King George V on St George’s Day, 23 April 1924. The British Empire contained 58 countries at that time, and only Gambia and Gibraltar did not take part. It cost £12 million and was the largest exhibition ever staged anywhere in the world – it attracted 27 million visitors.[5]

Its official aim was “to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other”. Maxwell Ayrton was the architect for the project. The three main buildings were the Palaces of Industry, Engineering and Arts. The Palace of Engineering was the world’s largest reinforced concrete building, a building method that allowed quick construction.

A special railway loop line and station were built, to connect the site to London Marylebone station.[6] The various buildings of the site were linked by several ‘light railways‘, including the screw-driven ‘Never-Stop Railway’.[7][8]

Most of the exhibition halls were intended to be temporary and demolished afterwards, but at least the Palace of Engineering and the British Government Pavilion survived into the 1970s, if only because of the high cost of demolition of the huge concrete structures. The Empire Pool became the Wembley Arena, and at the suggestion of the chair of the exhibition committee, Scotsman Sir James Stevenson, the Empire Stadium was kept; it became Wembley Stadium, the home of Football in England until 2002 when it was demolished to be replaced by a new stadium.

The Exhibition was also the first occasion for which the British Post Office issued commemorative postage stamps. Two stamps were issued on 23 April 1924: a 1d in scarlet, and a 1 12d in brown, both being inscribed “British Empire Exhibition 1924”; they were designed by H. Nelson.[9] A second printing, identical to the first apart from the year being changed to 1925, was issued on 9 May 1925.[9] A List of Great Britain commemorative stamps gives further details of British commemorative postage stamps. Envelopes, letter cards, postcards[10] and many other souvenirs commemorating the event were produced as well.

A grand “Pageant of Empire” was held at the Exhibition in the Empire Stadium from 21 July 1924, for which the newly-appointed Master of the King’s Musick, Sir Edward Elgar, composed an “Empire March” and the music for a series of songs with words by Alfred Noyes. However, a later speaking engagement by Prince Albert at the exhibition on 31 October 1925 proved to be highly embarrassing due to the Prince’s pronounced stammer, which prompted him to consult speech therapist Lionel Logue for treatment.

The management of the exhibition asked the Imperial Studies Committee of the Royal Colonial Institute to assist them with the educational aspect of the exhibition, which resulted in a 12-volume book “The British Empire: A survey” with Hugh Gunn as the General Editor, and which was published in London in 1924.

The Palace of Engineering hosted the fencing events for the 1948 Summer Olympics.[11]

Railway exhibits

Several railway companies had display stands at the Exhibition; in some cases they exhibited their latest locomotives or coaches. Among the exhibits in the Palace of Engineering was the now famous railway locomotive, LNER no. 4472 Flying Scotsman; this was joined in 1925 by GWR 4079 Pendennis Castle. Several other railway locomotives were exhibited: in 1925, the Southern Railway exhibited no. 866 of their N class, which was brand new, not entering service until 28 November 1925.[12] The 1924 exhibition included a Prince of Wales class 4-6-0 locomotive of London and North Western Railway (LNWR) design, which had been built for the exhibition by the Scottish locomotive manufacturer William Beardmore & Co. Beardmore’s had previously built similar locomotives for the LNWR, which in 1923 had become a constituent of the newly-formed London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS); when the exhibition closed in November 1924, the LMS bought the locomotive from Beardmore.[13][14] In 1924, the Metropolitan Railway displayed one of their latest Inner Circle cars, a first class driving trailer which had been built in 1923.[15] In 1925, in the Palace of Housing and Transport, the Metropolitan displayed electric locomotive no. 15, with some of the panelling, doors and framework removed from one side, to allow the interior to be viewed; it had been built in 1922. A few years later, it was named Wembley 1924 in honour of the exhibition.[16][17]

London defended

From May 9 to June 1, 1925 No. 32 Squadron RAF flew an air display six nights a week entitled “London Defended” Similar to the display they had done the previous year when the aircraft were painted black it consisted of a night time air display over the Wembley Exhibition flying RAF Sopwith Snipes which were painted red for the display and fitted with white lights on the wings tail and fueselage. The display involved firing blank ammunition into the staduim crowds and dropping pyrotechnics from the aeroplanes to simulate shrapnel from guns on the ground, Explosions on the ground also produced the effect of bombs being dropped into the stadium by the Aeroplanes. One of the Pilots in the display was Flying officer C. W. A. Scott who later became famous for breaking three England Australia solo flight records and winning the MacRobertson Air Race with co-pilot Tom Campbell Black in 1934.[18][19]


1. British Pathe (agency) Film of British Empire Exhibition, reel one

2. British Pathe (agency) Film of British Empire Exhibition, reel two

3. British Pathe (agency) Film of British Empire Exhibition, reel three

4. British Pathe (agency) Film of British Empire Exhibition, reel four

5. Sunday Tribune of India (newspaper) Article on exhibition (2004)

6. Wembley Stadium loop line

7. British Film Institute Never-Stop Railway

8. British Pathe (agency) Never-Stop Railway film (probably 1925)

9. a b Jefferies, Hugh; Brine, Lesley (April 2008) [1986]. Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalogue (23rd ed.). Ringwood: Stanley Gibbons. pp. 38–39, S.G. 430–433. ISBN 978 0 85269 677 7. 2887(08).

10. Wembley British Empire Exhibitions stamps on The British Postal Museum & Archive website

11. 1948 Summer Olympics official report. p. 45.

12. Bradley, D.L. (April 1980) [1961]. The Locomotive History of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (2nd ed.). London: RCTS. p. 90. ISBN 0 901115 49 5.

13. Cook, A.F. (1990). Greenwood, William. ed. LMS Locomotive Design and Construction. Locomotives of the LMS. Lincoln: RCTS. p. 59. ISBN 0 901115 71 1.

14. Baxter, Bertram (1979). Baxter, David. ed. Volume 2B: London and North Western Railway and its constituent companies. British Locomotive Catalogue 1825-1923. Ashbourne: Moorland Publishing. pp. 282, 285. ISBN 0 903485 84 2.

15. Snowdon, James R. (2001). Metropolitan Railway Rolling Stock. Didcot: Wild Swan. p. 113. ISBN 1 874103 66 6.

16. Day, John R. (1979) [1963]. The Story of London’s Underground (6th ed.). Westminster: London Transport. p. 68. ISBN 0 85329 094 6. 1178/211RP/5M(A).

17. Benest, K.R. (1984) [1963]. Metropolitan Electric Locomotives (2nd ed.). Hemel Hempstead: London Underground Railway Society. pp. 35,36,38,41,102. ISBN 0 9508793 1 2.

18. Scott, C.W.A. Scott’s Book, the life and Mildenhall-Melbourne flight of C. W. A. Scott, London : Hodder & Stoughton, 1934., Bib ID 2361252 Chapter 3, Aerobatics

19. London Defended Torchlight and Searchlight spectacle, The Stadium Wembley May 9 to June 1, 1925 official programme. London: Fleetway Press


  • The Lion Roars at Wembley, Donald R. Knight & Alan D. Sabey, privately published by D.R. Knight, New Barnet, 1984. ISBN 0950925101.
  • Geppert, Alexander C.T., ‘True Copies. Time and Space Travels at British Imperial Exhibitions, 1880-1930’, in The Making of Modern Tourism. The Cultural History of the British Experience, 1600-2000, eds. Hartmut Berghoff et al., Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 223–48.
  • Geppert, Alexander C.T., Fleeting Cities. Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

A colonial exhibition was a type of international exhibition intended to boost trade and bolster popular support for the various colonial empires during the New Imperialism period, which started in the 1880s with the scramble for Africa.

The British Empire Exhibition of 1924–5 ranked among these expositions, but perhaps the most notable was the rather successful 1931 Exposition coloniale in Paris, which lasted six months and sold 33 million tickets.[1] Paris’ Colonial Exhibition debuted the 6 May 1931, and encompassed 110 hectares of the Bois de Vincennes. The exhibition included dozens of temporary museums and facades representing the various colonies of the European nations, as well as several permanent buildings. Among these were the Palais de la Porte Doree, which today serves as the Cite Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, as well as the Musee Permanente des Colonies, designed by architect Albert Laprode.[1]

An anti-colonial counter-exhibition was held near the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, titled Truth on the Colonies and was organized by the French Communist Party. The first section was dedicated to the crimes made during the colonial conquests, and quoted Albert Londres and André Gide‘s criticisms of forced labour while the second one made an apology of the Soviets’ “nationalities’ policy” compared to “imperialist colonialism”.

Germany and Portugal also staged colonial exhibitions, as well as Belgium, which had a Foire coloniale as late as 1948. Human zoos were featured in some of these exhibitions, such as in the Parisian 1931 exhibition.[2]

Colonial exhibitions

Exhibitions which may be described as colonial exhibitions include:


1. a b Blevis, Laure; Lafout-Couturieur, Helene; et al. (2008). 1931: Les Etrangers au temps de l’Exposition Coloniale. Paris: Gallimard.

2. “From human zoos to colonial apotheoses: the era of exhibiting the Other” by Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, and Sandrine Lemaire


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