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The British Empire Exhibition of 1924

The Exhibition held in Wembley in 1924 was intended to herald a great Imperial revival - in fact, as Kenneth Walthew shows here, it was to prove an escapist delight from post-war gloom and retrenchment.

On St George's Day, April 23rd, 1924, King George the Fifth of England and Emperor of India, travelled through fog and drizzling rain from his castle at Windsor to the hitherto undistinguished north London suburb of Wembley Here, amid scenes of nearly hysterical patriotic fervour, he pressed a button on a golden globe to open the British Empire Exhibition.

Of the fifty-eight countries which at that time composed the British Empire, fifty-six were taking part, Gambia and Gibraltar being the only absentees The Exhibition was the largest and most ambitious ever staged anywhere in the world It was the culmination of five, years of delay and uncertainty, it had cost £12 million, most of which had been borrowed, and upon, it the nation had pinned its hopes for a bright future on a singularly depressing present.

Few Britons at the time foresaw the almost total dissolution of the Empire which has taken place in the past four decades The Empire, in fact, was seen as the country's one enduring and reliable asset, and the British Empire Exhibition conceived after the First World War as the first step towards a great Imperial revival But before the project had any hope of advancing beyond the realm of words, two elements, conspicuously lacking were required. One was money and the other leadership.

The wartime coalition government, surviving under Lloyd George, burdened with debts it could never pay, spoke bravely but dared do no more than guarantee the Exhibition against loss to the extent of £100,000. Even this cautious support was conditional upon £500,000 being guaranteed from other sources, Once these guarantees had been obtained, the plan was to borrow actual money from the commercial banks. The result could hardly have been more disastrous, and the loss which The Times in a sanguine editorial proclaimed as 'almost inconceivable became inevitable.

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