The 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition: 75 Years On

*Guest Post from Angus Mackenzie

The 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition, which opened seventy-five years ago this month, remains a significant part of the city’s folk memory, remembered as a vibrant interlude between the extended trade depression and the outbreak of the Second World War.  Conceived on a grand scale, the Exhibition site in Bellahouston Park was crammed with striking pavilions grouped around three main thoroughfares:  Scottish Avenue, Colonial Avenue and Dominion Avenue.  In addition to exhibits celebrating Scottish and Imperial achievements, some of the largest and most striking pavilions housed private firms; Shell, Dunlop, I.C.I. and the Beardmore and Colville steel firms all occupied prime sites.  Architecturally, the various buildings appeared futuristic, dazzlingly white with clean, modernist lines.  Rising 300 feet above the whole site was the Tower of Empire, floodlit at night, described in the Exhibition handbook as, ‘symbolic of all that is enterprising’ and quickly dubbed Tait’s Tower in honour of the principal architect.

There were two key aims for the Exhibition: to restate faltering links with Empire and to help support efforts to revive and rebalance the Scottish economy after almost two decades of depression.  Conceived by the business-oriented Scottish National Development Council, the event referenced successful exhibitions held in the city in 1888, 1901 and 1911.  The Development Council had enjoyed little success in attracting new industries since it was founded in 1931, however it was effective in its use of modern propaganda techniques and the 1938 Exhibition, and the boost it gave to West of Scotland, were part of a sustained attempt to inculcate a new sense of optimism.

During a period of economic uncertainty, there was a certain logic in harking back to the glory days of Scotland’s Imperial heyday.  Despite the protracted slump after 1920, the West of Scotland was still dependent on the success of the exporting trades, and with the district’s leading industrialists directing plans for recovery, there was an instinctive urge to turn to Empire.  Where there had previously been a firm belief in the merits of free trade, leading businessmen like James Lithgow and Lord Weir now advocated Imperial Preference.  More widely, Scots remained proud of their role in building the British Empire, their understanding of national identity bound up with awareness of the military and economic successes of the recent past.  The successful ‘son of the manse’ of popular fiction was rooted in the reality of generations of Scots who had prospered through the opportunities presented by Empire and the 1938 Exhibition sought to re-establish a connection which had been weakened by the Great War and the subsequent global slump.

The Glasgow Empire Exhibition was a qualified success.  Having raised the bulk of its funding through public subscription, a summer of appalling weather, together with some over-optimistic attendance projections, resulted in the event making a small loss.  Although designed to project Scotland as a modern, international trading nation, the Exhibition was overshadowed by events in Europe and the transforming, if temporary, effect of large rearmament orders on Clydeside.  However, for many Scots, the Exhibition was a high-point in an otherwise grim couple of decades.  The fact that Glasgow could stage such a bold reaffirmation of its Imperial past on the eve of the Second World War is telling, suggesting that despite a more cautious sense of national identity, Scotland’s connections with Empire still resonated.

North Cascade and Tower of Empire.  From www.empireexhibition1938.co.uk

North Cascade and Tower of Empire.
From http://www.empireexhibition1938.co.uk

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