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British Empire Exhibition

Exhibition poster

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


  • History 1
    • Railway exhibits 1.1
  • London defended 2
  • In popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • External links 7


The Palace of Industry building being used as warehousing before it was partially demolished in 2006.[5] The remainder of the building is used for warehousing and small industrial units.

A world tour headed by Major Ernest Belcher in 1922 that lasted 10 months was mounted to promote participation, with Agatha Christie and her husband among the participants.[6]

It was opened by 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.[7]

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.[8] The various buildings of the site were linked by several 'light railways', including the screw-driven 'Never-Stop Railway'.[9][10]

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.[11] A second printing, identical to the first apart from the year being changed to 1925, was issued on 9 May 1925.[11] A List of Great Britain commemorative stamps gives further details of British commemorative postage stamps. Envelopes, letter cards, postcards[12] and many other souvenirs commemorating the event were produced as well.

A grand "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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15][16] In 1924, the Metropolitan Railway displayed one of their latest Inner Circle cars, a first class driving trailer which had been built in 1923.[17] 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.[18][19]

London defended

"London Defended" 1925 Official Programme

From 9 May to 1 June 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 fuselage. The display involved firing blank ammunition into the stadium 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.[20][21]

In popular culture

The Exhibition is a key location in the P.G. Wodehouse short story, 'The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy', in which Sir Roderick Glossop describes it as "the most supremely absorbing and educational collection of objects, both animate and inanimate, gathered from the four corners of the Empire, that has ever been assembled in England’s history." Bertie Wooster is somewhat less impressed, remarking that "millions of people, no doubt, are so constituted that they scream with joy and excitement at the spectacle of a stuffed porcupine-fish or a glass jar of seeds from Western Australia – but not Bertram" and sneaks off to the Planters’ Bar in the West Indian section.

In Sir John Betjeman's celebrated Metro-Land (1973) the poet recalls his childhood experience of the exhibition in the 'Wembley' segment.

See also


  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. ^ "Engineer's Way - The Locations Guide to Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures". Retrieved 28 August 2010. 
  6. ^ Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition. HarperCollins, 2012 ISBN 000744768X
  7. ^ Sunday Tribune of India (newspaper) Article on exhibition (2004)
  8. ^ Wembley Stadium loop line
  9. ^ British Film Institute Never-Stop Railway
  10. ^ British Pathe (agency) Never-Stop Railway film (probably 1925)
  11. ^ a b Jefferies, Hugh; Brine, Lesley (April 2008) [1986]. Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalogue (23rd ed.). Ringwood:  
  12. ^ Wembley British Empire Exhibitions stamps on The British Postal Museum & Archive website
  13. ^ 1948 Summer Olympics official report. p. 45.
  14. ^ Bradley, D.L. (April 1980) [1961]. The Locomotive History of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (2nd ed.). London:  
  15. ^ Cook, A.F. (1990). Greenwood, William, ed. LMS Locomotive Design and Construction. Locomotives of the LMS. Lincoln:  
  16. ^ 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.  
  17. ^ Snowdon, James R. (2001). Metropolitan Railway Rolling Stock. Didcot: Wild Swan. p. 113.  
  18. ^ Day, John R. (1979) [1963]. The Story of London's Underground (6th ed.). Westminster:  
  19. ^ Benest, K.R. (1984) [1963]. Metropolitan Electric Locomotives (2nd ed.). Hemel Hempstead: London Underground Railway Society. pp. 35,36,38,41,102.  
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ 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 0-9509251-0-1.
  • 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.

External links

  • Unofficial site
  • Remains of the British Empire Exhibition
  • British Empire Exhibitions 1924-1925 - Exploring 20th century London
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