The Empire Exhibition: 80 Years On

Hailed at the time as ‘Britain’s greatest Exhibition since Wembley, ‘(Imperial Review No.5), The Empire Exhibition of 1938, which began 80 years ago this month, provided an opportunity to showcase Britain’s place within the Empire, all at a cost of 25s  for an adult season ticket (3rd May-29th October) and 12s.6d for children. This enterprise is perhaps even more fascinating when one learns that it was conceived when ‘the clouds of depression were still heavy over the country’ (Imperial Review No.5). Such an event, to the modern reader with the power of hindsight, provides an interesting glance into the nature of national pride,of the yearning to solidify a sense of cultural identity after the ravages of the First World War, and of the need to establish a sense of cohesion between communities- particularly pertinent in light of the Second World War which was to follow.

Queen Mother and George VI

Arrival of the King and Queen to Empire Exhibition (UGD 212/9/1)

With all these aspirations in mind, the 1938 Empire Exhibition was opened on the morning of the 3rd of May, by George VI at Ibrox Stadium, with the King’s statement that it was the ‘symbol of vitality and initiative upon which the continued prosperity of Scotland must rest.’ (Imperial Review No.5)

Indeed, the following quotation details this eloquently whilst displaying a distinctly nationalist rhetoric: ‘Above the distracting noises of a confused world there rings out from this Exhibition a clarion call to the scattered family of the British Commonwealth of Nations to come together and talk as a family over the old days and ways and see the achievements in science, art and industry and in other spheres of two decades peace.’ The Exhibition featured 100 pavilions, representing Ireland, Canada (pictured below), West Africa, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, the West Indies and New Zealand, Hong Kong and many others, promoting the interests of the British Empire.

Crowd at Canadian Exhibition

The Canada Pavilion (ACCN 4190)

The aims of the Empire Exhibition were summarised in the numerous advertisements for the event, particularly in the Official Guide pictured below- to illustrate the ‘progress of the British Empire at home and overseas,’ to show the ‘resources and potentialities of the United Kingdom,’ to ‘stimulate Scottish work and production and to direct attention to Scotland’s historical and scenic attractions, to ‘foster Empire trade’ and to ‘emphasise to the world the peaceful aspirations of the peoples of the British Empire.’

The task of creating such an all-encompassing exhibition was no mean feat, a fact acknowledged by architect Thomas Tait in 1937, when the Empire Exhibition was in its embryonic stages. He described it as ‘the kind of job architects dream about…instead of having one building to erect, in a street planned and built long since by somebody else…you have what amounts to a whole city on your hands.’ (STA Kc Box 8/3).


Plan of Exhibition (Sp Coll Mu.Add 118)


Bellahouston Park was chosen as the ideal venue for an event of such magnitude with 175 acres of land available- fit to host the 20 million visitors expected to venture to the Empire Exhibition over its 6 month opening period. With £750,00 in funds to spend on representing the interests of the British Empire at the time, it became an event which demanded a detailed infrastructure- with 50 park attendants on duty at any one time and new bus routes instigated, catering solely to the area.

Indeed, such a task, and the completion of it, is even more impressive when one considers that it was completed in the ‘short space of 10 months’ (Imperial Review No.5). Among these building feats, one of the more unusual and innovative features of the Exhibition (pictured below) was in the building of the Tower Restaurant which retained the living trees, seen thrusting their way through the floor, indeed, forming quite a unique setting for afternoon tea!

Tower Restaurant-UGD21291

Tower Restaurant with real trees! (UGD212/9/1)

A sense of patriotism (and a distinctly Scottish one at that!), was emphasised in the Imperial Review No.5, May-June 1938,  which described the Empire Exhibition as a ‘genius of organisation…not the genius of any one man but that of the Scottish people who, having made their minds what is to be done, pursue their objective with a singleness of purpose that is undeterred by obstacles or difficulties.’

United Kingdom Pavilion

The United Kingdom Pavilion-separate from the Scottish Pavilions (Sp Coll Mu.Add 118)

With this in mind, it is fascinating, looking over the numerous papers which remain in the archives, that a sense of national pride- indeed, a distinctly Scottish sense of identity- is so prominent. This theme resonates to this day, writing this piece 80 years later in the present, after much political change has occurred when similar provoking questions functioning to strengthen and sometimes challenge our relation to a national Scottish identity, has ensued.

This need to define a sense of Scottish identity in the Empire Exhibition was particularly evident in one of the papers of the Exhibition Association dated 22nd March 1937, (ACCN 2270/8/4). Here, it was felt that ‘the British Gov Pavillion […] will doubtless concentrate on exhibiting the development of services which are common to the United Kingdom as a whole and will not therefore include a survey of subjects which are peculiarly and characteristically Scottish.’ ‘The Clachan’ (pictured) Scotland-Corner of the Clachan and the North and South Scottish Pavilions  became highly popular exhibits (on the first day, 52,000 people visited the Clachan), stemming directly from this need to make Scotland distinct from the United Kingdom. An Clachan, the Highland village (pictured), sought to ‘raise many memories’ and give ‘some impression of the real old Scotland […] the Scotland that is fast passing before the relentless rush of modernity.’ (ACCN 2270/8/4).  Plaster casts were taken from actual walls in order to reproduce cottages typical of those of Argyll, Skye and the Outer Isles. According to the Official Guide, a ‘gaelic-speaking population (occupied) the Clachan,’ with men mending nets, making creels and women spinning yarn on the wheel’ and a recreation of a mountain burn flowing through the Highland Village into a Loch 150 feet long!

As well as nostalgia for glorified times past, the Empire Exhibition sought to demonstrate the successes of the present and look to the future, with a Shipbuilding, Coal and Iron and Steel Hall dedicated to ‘bring home to the visitor the immense contribution that British Science and Industry have made to world knowledge’  in the United Kingdom Pavilion.

View South of Tower

View South of Tower (Sp Coll Mu.Add 118)

In lieu of this aim to highlight modernity, one of the most striking features of the Exhibition was the presence of a 300ft Tower designed by Mr. Thomas Tait (F.R.I.B.A) serving as the natural focal point in the park. On (admittedly somewhat rare, clear days) the Tower, sitting atop Bellahouston Hill, allowed for an 80 mile view, spanning ‘the peaks of the Highlands to the north, the estuary of the Clyde to the West, and the street and factories of Glasgow to the South.’ The Tower proved popular and on the first day of opening approximately 35,000 people had visited it!

The Tower was hailed as ‘Glasgow’s New Landmark.’ One reporter in ‘The Bellahouston News, December 1937,’ memorably recounted that during a tour of Bellahouston Park, when the Empire Exhibition Tower stood at 248ft, they began an ascent of the tower. Before climbing however, they were shown ‘a four-inch bolt (lying) half-buried in the hard clay at the base of the Tower’ which had fallen from ‘150 feet with a velocity, at the moment of impact of more than 60 miles an hour!’

ACCN2270-8-4-Bellahouston News December 1937 No.3

A Terrifying Ascent: Construction of the Tower (The Bellahouston News No.3, December 1937, ACCN 2270/8/4)











Although not a financial success by any means (there was a deficit of approximately £128,000), nevertheless, the Empire Exhibition was one of the most successful events, in terms of attendance numbers, of its time. Indeed, on the first day of the Exhibition 145,960 people attended, compared to Wembley’s Exhibition in 1924/1925 which saw 64,1331 in attendance ! (ACCN 2270/8/4). As we in Glasgow look forward to hosting another international event in August- the 2018 European Championships– it serves us all well to look back, reflect and learn from previous events such as this which have left an indelible mark on the city’s history.

If you would like to find out more about our diverse projects and collections you can search our on-line catalogue, visit our website, follow us on twitter and Instagram, or contact the Duty Archivist at

006-1938 Dick arrival for Glasgow World Fair

Glasgow welcoming the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the Empire Exhibition (ACCN 4190)


From Archive:

UGD 212/9/1 -Special edition of ‘Scotland’ Magazine for Empire Exhibition

-ACCN 4190 -Pictures of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Pavilion)

– ACCN 2270/8/4 -Papers of Lord Elgin (includes ‘The Bellahouston News No.3, December 1937 and The Imperial Review No.5, Vol V, May-June 1938)

Special Collections:

Sp Coll Mu.Add 118 -Empire Exhibition, Scotland – 1938, Bellahouston Park, Glasgow : official guide.

STA Kc 8/3-  Empire exhibition: planning the exhibition

External Sources:

House for an Art Lover, ‘The Empire Exhibition 1938′

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. what an amazing undertaking –

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