Festival of Empire

The 1911 Festival of Empire (or Festival of the Empire) was the biggest show ever to be held at The Crystal Palace in London. It opened on 12 May and was used to celebrate the coronation of King George V. It was described at the time as ‘a social gathering of the British family’ encouraging the ‘firmer welding of those invisible bonds which hold together the greatest empire the world has ever known’.[1] It has since been described as the ‘ultimate imperialist propaganda showcase’.[2]

View from the Canadian replica Parliament Building of the Festival at the Crystal Palace
Map of the event


The 1911 Festival of Empire was one of many imperial propaganda events staged in the early twentieth century, following the 1909 Imperial International Exhibition at London’s White City and running parallel to the 1911 Delhi Durbar in India. The 1911 Festival of Empire was staged at The Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill and had similar aims as the Great Exhibition, for which the palace was initially built. The Great Exhibition was a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, and on which Britain could prove its own superiority. The 1911 Festival of Empire was designed to fulfil similar aims on a grander scale for a modern audience.

Festival DesignEdit

The 1911 Festival of Empire exploited all the latest technology of the time to create a simulation of the British Empire that the British public could experience on home ground. When simulating the colonies, exoticism played an integral role, especially in the way that colonised peoples were depicted.

The colonial exhibits familiarised British men and women with Britain's "newly acquired and distant outpost". Metaphorically, it took British men and women to places they had never seen and, in all likelihood, would never see, as one observer enthused “the East Indian exhibits had the effect of impressing every visitor with the importance to such possessions of Great Britain”.[3] The use of the term "British possessions" [4] by the Festival organisers at the time is indicative of the extensive control and coherence that encapsulated and penetrated deeply throughout the British Empire and its colonies.


New Zealand replica Parliament Building (based on old New Zealand Parliament Buildings)
Canadian Building (replica of the original Centre Block in Ottawa)
South African Building (based on Houses of Parliament, Cape Town)

At the 1911 Festival of Empire, exhibitions of products from the countries of the Empire were displayed in three-quarter size models of their Parliamentary buildings erected in the grounds, including:[5]

The buildings were constructed of timber and plaster as they were meant to be temporary.[6] They were linked by an electric tramway called the 'All-Red Route' on which open-sided cars took the visitor on a circular tour of the Dominions with typical scenery of each country around the buildings listed above. There were also many other exhibits within the Palace itself.

Reports also document there being a scale replica of the parliament building in Delhi, the capital of the British Raj, as well as an Irish cottage village and an attraction named ‘Empire Caves’.[7]

Exhibits on The All-Red Route Train RideEdit

The buildings of the 1911 Festival of Empire were linked by an electric tramway called the 'All-Red Route' on which open-sided cars took visitors on a circular tour of the ‘Dominions’ with typical scenery of each country. Some scenes included mannequins to represent some of the people of those colonies, designed in a way to reinforce notions of primitivism.[8] The route is shown in red on the map; the colour red and pink were used to denote the British Empire and its dominions on maps at that time.

Bridges over small lakes represented sea voyages between the countries. Some of the cars may be seen in pictures included on this page. Scenes along the route included a South African Diamond Mine and an Indian Tea Plantation, photos of which are included below. There are also reports of their being "a Malay village on stilts, a Jamaican sugar plantation, an Australian sheep farm... a jungle ‘well stocked with wild beasts’ and a Maori village".[9]

Context surrounding these scenesEdit

The diamond industry became a chief source of export earnings and the key to the economic transformation of South Africa. British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes capitalised from this as he co-founded De Beers Consolidated diamond Mines at Kimberley. The discovery of diamonds  exacerbated the colonisation of the region, increased the rate of African disposition of land, and led to the political domination of black South Africans. Cheap African labour was central to the success of Kimberley diamond mining and as many as Thirty thousand black labourers toiled away.

The history of colonial plantations in India promulgated momentous exploitation and environmental destruction. The British government acquired lands forcibly from Indigenous communities to set up tea estates and resettle immigrants on them permanently, further cementing black tea consumption in the British empire.[10]

Although slavery was banned in the British Empire in 1833 the East India company found a cunning alternative to use indentured labourers, free men and women who signed contracts binding them to work for a certain period. The less that companies spent on labor, the higher their personal margin of profit would be. This example reinforces how British tea companies cut costs and exploited their workforce, which in turn led to an increase of disease, malnutrition, and mortality.[11]

Pageant of LondonEdit

A pageant, organised by 'Master of the Pageants' Frank Lascelles, dramatising the history of London, England and the Empire was held.[12][13] The first performance of the pageant was on 8 June 1911; in four parts, performed on separate days, it celebrated the ‘magnificence, glory and honour of the Empire and the Mother Country’. Music was provided for The Pageant of London by 20 composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge,[14] Cecil Forsyth, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Edward German and Haydn Wood. This was performed by a military band of 50 players and a chorus of 500 voices,[15] directed by W.H. Bell.[16] The Pageant was so successful that performances were extended from July, when they were due to end, to 2 September.[17]

All Red Route South Africa Diamond Mine- Image courtesy of the Crystal Palace Museum from their collection
All Red-Route Indian Tea Plantation - Image courtesy of the Crystal Palace Museum from their collection

Inter-Empire ChampionshipsEdit

As part of the festival, an Inter-Empire sports championship was held in which teams from Australasia (a combined team from Australia and New Zealand), Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom competed in five athletics events (100 yards, 220 yards, 880 yards, 1 mile and 120 yards hurdles), two swimming events (100 yards and 1 mile), heavyweight boxing and middleweight wrestling.[18] This is regarded as a forerunner of the British Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games), held from 1930.

Famous competitors included Stanley Vivian Bacon (from Great Britain), Harold Hardwick (from Australia), Malcolm Champion (from New Zealand), George Hodgson and John Lindsay Tait (both from Canada).

The limited event schedule and four-nation format came in for criticism by the correspondent in the Auckland Star, who described it as not worthy of the title of Empire.[19]

Event Gold Silver Bronze
Heavyweight boxing[20][19]   Harold Hardwick (AUS) Undefeated   William Hazell (GBR) (lost to Hardwick in 2 and a half minutes)[21]   Julius Thompson (CAN) (lost to Hardwick in first round after 2 minutes, 35 seconds)
100-yard swim[20][22]   Harold Hardwick (AUS) 60.6   John Derbyshire (GBR)   Johnson (CAN)
One-mile swim[20][22][23]   George Hodgson (CAN) 25:27.6   Sydney Battersby (GBR) (30 yards behind)   Malcolm Champion (NZL) (retired due to fatigue)
Middleweight Wrestling[20]   Stanley Vivian Bacon (GBR) Undefeated   George Walker (CAN) (defeated Smythe, lost to Bacon)   William Smythe (AUS) (retired after first round defeat to Bacon)


Results source.[24][25]

The team championship in athletics was decided on a points basis, with the countries' finishing position in each race totalling up a combined score. Canada won with the lowest score with eight points, having topped the podium in three of the five events, and was awarded the Inter-Empire trophy by Lord Lonsdale. The United Kingdom ended with nine points and Australasia were third with 13 points. The Australasia team combined New Zealand and Victoria athletes. Three scratch competitions were held alongside the championships proper: a 3/4-mile race, a 300-yard race and a two-mile team race.[26]

All Red-Route Australian Vineyard - Image courtesy of the Crystal Palace Museum from their collection

Ron Opie ran in both sprints as his teammate, William A. Woodger, took ill before the event and could not compete.[27]

Event Gold Silver Bronze
100-yard dash   Frank Halbhaus (CAN) 10.4 [28]   Duncan Macmillan (GBR) (one foot behind winner)   Ron Opie (NZL) (one yard behind runner-up)
220-yard dash   Frank Halbhaus (CAN) 23.0[28]   Ron Opie (NZL) (inches behind winner)   Ernest Haley (GBR)
880-yard dash   Jim Hill (GBR) 1:58.6 [28]   Dad Wheatley (VIC) (two yards behind winner)   Mel Brock (CAN) (two yards behind winner)
Mile run   John Tait (CAN) 4:46.2 [28]   Eddie Owen (GBR) (one yard behind winner)   Guy Haskins (NZL) (six yards behind winner)
120-yard hurdles   Kenneth Powell (GBR) 16.0 [28]   Frank Lukeman (CAN) (half a yard behind winner)   Frank Brown (VIC) (six yards behind runner-up)
1320 yards (scratch) Richard Yorke
London Athletic Club
3:21.2 minutes Arnold Knox
(eight yards behind winner) Albert Hare
Herne Hill Harriers
300 yards (scratch) Algernon Wells
Herne Hill Harriers
23.4 W. T. Wettenhall
Cambridge Athletic Club
(two yards behind winner) F. J. Hoskin
Herne Hill Harriers
(one yard behind runner-up)
Two-mile team race (scratch) Herne Hill Harriers 7 pts South London Harriers 19 pts Essex Beagles 20 pts

Critical appraisal of the FestivalEdit

Controversy surrounds the 1911 Festival of Empire, as it does other such colonial events, regarding their depiction of the colonies and colonised people. This has been critically examined in relation to the 1851 Great Exhibition and the way in which it ‘Othered’ colonised Ethnic groups to strengthen British national identity.[29]

Although the 1911 Festival of Empire claimed to be an opportunity to admire and seek amusement in “the charms, the wealth and the wonders of the Empire that girdles the globe[30]”- As written in the official flyer. In recent years questions around the mode of ethics in which it showcased the “dominions” have been questioned. It was an event promoting “Firmer welding of invisible bonds which hold together the greatest empire in the world”, yet other accounts recognise that there were underlying tensions and antipathies and that the festival did little to bridge the gap between the classes.

An advertising promotion for the Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace, running from May to October 1911. The Festival features the Imperial exhibition, the Pageant of London, and many more spectacles, displays and entertainments.

The 1911 Festival of Empire, and other such events at the Crystal Palace, served to both integrate and segregate as it reflected and reinforced hierarchies[31] not only within British society, but also served as a facilitator to the upholding of primitivism and the inaccurate representation of people from the "orient", the continent of Africa and Oceania.

The use of exhibitions where “Human models were arranged into visual narratives that Latham deemed representative of their ethnic traits”, promoted and reinforced ideas of what it looked like to be from Africa or India, and these people were commonly described as primitives and Cannibals being “saved” by the act of colonisation. As written in ‘Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display’,[32] the visitors “were encouraged to compare themselves with the peoples on display and note their progress from the relatively lowly states of the human race”.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Festival of Empire, 1911 | Making Britain". www.open.ac.uk. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  2. ^ mark (29 July 2016). ""Let's go to the Colonies!": The Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace, 1911". In the Jungle of Cities. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  3. ^ McAleer & MacKenzie, John & John (2015). "Cultures of Display the British Empire" (PDF). Cultures of Display the British Empire: 1–18.
  4. ^ McAleer & MacKenzie, John & John (2015). "Cultures of Display the British Empire" (PDF). Cultures of Display the British Empire: 1–18.
  5. ^ "Victorian Station". Victorianstation.com. Archived from the original on 14 April 2017. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  6. ^ "1911 Crystal". Studygroup.org.uk. Archived from the original on 8 January 2016. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  7. ^ Finding, Susan (1 December 2011). "London 1911 : celebrating the imperial". Observatoire de la société britannique (11): 21–37. doi:10.4000/osb.1178. ISSN 1775-4135.
  8. ^ McAleer & MacKenzie, John & John. "Exhibiting the Empire - Cultures of Display and The Empire" (PDF). Exhibiting the Empire - Cultures of Display and the Empire.
  9. ^ McAleer & MacKenzie, John & John (2015). "Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire" (PDF).
  10. ^ Cunliffe, Sydney. "British Imperialism and Tea Culture in Asia and North America". British Imperialism and Tea Culture in Asia and North America.
  11. ^ Cunliffe, Sydney. "British Imperialism and Tea Culture in Asia and North America". British Imperialism and Tea Culture in Asia and North America.
  12. ^ "Crystal Palace Park". Cocgb.dircon.co.uk. Archived from the original on 24 September 2016. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  13. ^ D.S. Ryan 'Staging the imperial city: the Pageant of London, 1911' in Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity, eds. F. Driver & D. Gilbert, Manchester University Press, 1999, pp. 117-135
  14. ^ Hindmarsh, Paul (1982). Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue, 1900–1941. London: Faber Music. pp. 69–70.
  15. ^ Mitchell, Jon C. (2001). A Comprehensive Biography of Composer Gustav Holst with Correspondence and Diary Excerpts, Including His American Years. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-7734-7522-2.3
  16. ^ Richards, Jeffrey (2001). Imperialism and music: Britain 1976-1953. Manchester University Press: p. 190
  17. ^ Richards, p. 193
  18. ^ Commonwealth Games Medallists. GBR Athletics. Retrieved on 2014-05-31.
  19. ^ a b EMPIRE SPORTS. Auckland Star, Volume XLII, Issue 198, 21 August 1911. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  20. ^ a b c d New Zealanders in — The Empire Games — Specially written for the “N.Z. Railways Magazine”. The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March 1, 1938.). Retrieved on 2014-05-31.
  21. ^ Commemorative Medals. Baldwin Auctions. Retrieved on 2018-03-24.
  22. ^ a b FESTIVAL OF EMPIRE. The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954). Mon 3 July 1911. Page 5. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  23. ^ EMPIRE SPORTS. Feilding Star, Volume VI, Issue 1533, 3 July 1911. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  24. ^ Inter-Empire Championships at the Festival of Empire, Crystal Palace, London, On June 24. Otago Witness (16 August 1911), pg. 45. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  25. ^ THE EMPIRE SPORTS. Dominion, Volume 4, Issue 1199, 7 August 1911. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  26. ^ Inter-Empire Championships. The Nicola Valley News (1911-07-14), pg. 4. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  27. ^ ATHLETICS–TRACK AND FIELD OLYMPIADS AND EMPIRE GAMES. Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 2018-03-24.
  28. ^ a b c d e Commonwealth Games Medallists - Athletics (men). GBR Athletics. Retrieved on 2014-05-31.
  29. ^ Grasme, Tamina (2018). "How the display of 'otherness' at the Great Exhibition in 1851 created a national identity in Britain". How the Display of 'otherness' at the Great Exhibition in 1851 Created a National Identity in Britain.
  30. ^ "Mary Evans Picture Gallery". Mary Evans Picture Gallery.
  31. ^ Auerbach, Jeffrey. "The Great Exhibition and Historical Memory" (PDF). The Great Exhibition and Historical Memory.
  32. ^ McAleer & MacKenzie, John & John. "Exhibiting the Empire - Cultures of Display" (PDF). Exhibiting the Empire - Cultures of Display.
  • Festival of Empire: the Pageant of London (1911, Bemrose & Sons, London) (souvenir book, 163 pages, edited by Sophie C. Lomas; master of the pageants Frank Lascelles),

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 51°25′16″N 0°04′19″W / 51.421°N 0.072°W / 51.421; -0.072