Glasgow 1938: Last exhibition of the British Empire

Stanley K Hunter, Scottish Exhibitions Study Group. Licensor The exhibition showcased the industrial power of the British Empire

It was Scotland's wettest summer in decades, but 75 years ago one Glasgow park attracted more than 12 million people through its gates.

Crowds flocked to the city for the 1938 British Empire Exhibition.

Opened by King George VI in May 1938, the event was intended to demonstrate the cooperation of Britain's territories - as a symbol of the strength and unity of the Empire.

Bellahouston Park in Glasgow was transformed into a theme park of grand avenues, magnificent pavilions, fountains and fairground rides.

But as delighted visitors revelled in the glory of Britain's achievements, behind the scenes the Empire was crumbling. With war on the horizon, Scotland would be presenting the final showcase of the British Empire.

Peaceful intentions

"It was a source of intense pride for Scotland", says historian Neil Baxter, Secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. "People loved it and came to visit from all over Britain.

The rise and fall of an Empire

1886 map of the British Empire

The British Empire began with the expansion of private trading firms overseas. In the Victorian era it covered a quarter of the world's population.

"The exhibition was full-on propaganda about Britain's strength. The programmes and exhibition material emphasised the Empire's peaceful aspirations.

"They were not conscious of the irony that it was the swansong of the Empire."

The colonial period saw many exhibitions across the world. Britain's influence stretched from Canada to Africa, to India, Australia and New Zealand. It covered a quarter of the world's population.

During the Victorian era, when the Empire was at its height, Glasgow's population ballooned from 250,000 to 750,000 people. By the end of the 19th century the city ranked among the richest in Europe.

Glasgow was valued for its shipbuilding, locomotive construction and other heavy engineering industries. Its manufacturing was in demand across the world. Glasgow earned its reputation as the second city of the Empire.

Economic boost

But Glasgow's prosperity mirrored the Empire's own strength. When Britain's finances and military power were depleted after World War I, the city suffered severely in the industrial depression.

A group of wealthy Scots industrialists, including Sir James Lithgow and Sir Cecil Weir planned the 1938 exhibition to give a much-needed boost to the economy. Glasgow had previously proved its ability as a host with great exhibitions in 1888, 1901 and 1911.

The 1938 exhibition was only the second in Britain to secure the "Empire" title. Its predecessor was held at Wembley in London in 1924. Its official name would be Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938.

Visitors on a fairground ride The fairground was run by holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin

"Glasgow chose itself for the exhibition," adds Baxter. "Its earlier exhibitions had made a profit, and the city had the base of skill and manpower to build it in time.

"Because of the downturn in shipbuilding there was a large number of people, used to riveting sheets of metal together, who could handle the work. Up to 10,000 people were employed in the construction.

"They built the equivalent of a small town in less than a year. It was incredible. You can't do that now. It would take longer just to get permissions in place."

Scots architect Thomas Tait was appointed to design the site which became a marvel of modernist architecture. In just ten months around 100 pavilions were built in the 175 acre park.

A model for the future

The architecture of the exhibition has been recreated by Glasgow School of Art in a detailed 3D computer model.

The Digital Design Studio wanted to provide a unique resource to allow the public to learn about the event.

Project Manager Ian Johnston said: "Although the Exhibition was fondly remembered by those who attended, it didn't have the attention it deserved.

"Many of Scotland's achievements, particularly its remarkable engineering and shipbuilding, are not accorded appropriate historical significance."

King George VI made his opening speech at nearby Ibrox football park on 3 May.

Spectacular tower

He described the exhibition as an "empire undertaking" and a "symbol of the vitality and initiative upon which the continual prosperity of Scotland must rest".

His words would also pre-empt the Empire's future, as he spoke of "willing cooperation" being the "hallmark of the Commonwealth of Nations".

Up to 20 million visitors were expected between May and October, although the rain helped lower this to 12.5 million. Admission cost one shilling. Nearly 900 people were employed throughout the summer.

The Tower of the Empire, nicknamed the Tait Tower, was the spectacular centrepiece of the architect's plans. Two lifts carried passengers up 300ft (90m) for views over the city rooftops.

The main water feature was a 400ft lake running along the main promenade. Its fountains shot water 100ft in the air, illuminated by floodlights of changing colours.

There was a distinct Scottish flavour to this 'British' event. The Clachan highland village was built from plaster moulds of real houses. It included a clan chief's castle, smithy and weaver's cottage.

Quickly forgotten

The pavilions had exhibits from across the Empire. Canada had a 600 sq ft illuminated map of the country, allowing visitors to light up towns at the touch of a button.

The South Rhodesia Pavilion had a working model of the Victoria Falls, while the Empire Tea Pavilion demonstrated life on the tea gardens of India and Ceylon.

Palace of Art The Palace of Art is the only 1938 exhibition building that remains at Bellahouston Park today

The largest buildings were the Palace of Engineering and Palace of Industry which showcased textiles, jewellery, furniture and other goods.

One of the most popular areas was the fairground run by holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin, who realised such entertainment was necessary to attract the crowds.

But after a single summer the exhibition was quickly forgotten. It was overshadowed by World War II which came just months after it closed. The conflict would lead to the final break-up of the British Empire.

Little remains at Bellahouston today to suggest this remarkable exhibition once stood on the site. The Palace of Art was the only building not dismantled.

The enormous Palace of Engineering was rebuilt at Prestwick Airport in Scotland, and is still in use by BAe Systems.

Bellahouston is still open as a public park, with the concrete foundations of Tait Tower still buried in the top of the hill where it was built. They are a hidden reminder that Glasgow once helped lay the foundations of the British Empire.

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