The Shot Tower at the Festival of Britain of 1951.
It’s 21st June 1951 and at the annual Sunday Pictorial Garden Party held at Morden Hall Park 25,000 movie fans flock to see such stars as Bette Davis, Bela Lugosi, John Mills, Richard Attenborough Googie Withers and Alec Guinness. Three “starlets” parade hats based on the three best-known buildings of the South Bank’s Festival of Britain site: Pat Dainton wears a hat decorated with the unmistakeable shape of the Skylon, Joan Dowling a wide brimmed number based on the Dome of Discovery, and the 19 year-old Veronica Hurst – her film debut in Laughter in Paradise about to be released – a pill-box hat with radar scanner atop mimicking the Shot Tower . Eh? The what?
Despite its significant physical and symbolic presence in the Festival, the Shot Tower seems to have been passed over in the event’s memory, the ugly sister to the Festival’s two architectural Cinderellas. Even though, along with the Royal Festival Hall, it was the only building to outlive the Festival it is now all but forgotten: the fascinating BBC documentary made to mark the Festival’s 60th anniversary, and recently repeated to mark its 70th, included much footage of the Tower, but it made no mention of what it was or what role it played in the Festival . The same goes for much 21st Century coverage of the Festival with its focus on its game-changing design legacy. Yet it was very much part of the lived experience of the South Bank site and of how the rest of the country was presented with what the jamboree by the Thames signified – now is the time to restore the Shot Tower to its place in the Festival of Britain story.
Courtesy of the Twentieth Century Society.
North Lambeth and Southwark had been an important centre for lead shot manufacture since the late 18th Century and it was in 1826 that the last and most durable tower needed for its production was erected, just off Belvedere Road. Lead shot is made by dropping molten lead from the top of the tower into cold water at the bottom, the lead by some mysterious and magical laws of physics making perfect spheres when it cools. The Tower by Waterloo Bridge was something of a landmark - mentioned by both Dickens and Thackeray in their writings – and continued to produce lead shot right up until 1949 when the site was about to be developed for the Festival of Britain. Hugh Casson, the Festival’s Director of Architecture, in a lecture given at St John’s marking the 40th anniversary of the Festival, recalled visiting the site and seeing two workmen in the Tower, one at the top and one at the bottom: “these old boys were still at it. They never spoke to each other, like two old men in a boat”. 
The Festival site was a combination of industrial wasteland and slum dwellings and had suffered much bomb damage. The Tower cut a very sorry sight as the surroundings were cleared and it too could well have fallen victim to the wrecking ball. As Gerald Barry, the Festival’s Director General and overall inspiration later admitted: “It seemed to have little to say in terms of modern architecture and to be in danger of looking an anachronism”. But, as he went on: “I reckoned without the sentiment of the Londoner and without the Tower’s possibilities… The Londoner loved it because it was familiar”. It is a sign of the affection in which it was held at the time that it survived and, in its subsequent forgetting, of how times change. Even before construction of new buildings had begun the Tower had entered the popular imagination as a lynchpin of the Festival, a David Low cartoon in the Evening Standard in August 1949 reflecting the debates of the day over public expenditure on the Festival by depicting a “New Economical Version” of the Festival announced on a banner stretched between the Shot Tower and County Hall over a pile of rubble, a tent, a merry-go-round and a jellied eel seller. Meanwhile, Associate Lead, the Tower’s last owner, was proud of the association with the Festival the Tower provided, exploiting it to the full in the company’s marketing.
Casson himself seemed to be particularly fond of the Shot Tower seeing it as a “marvellous vertical feature already built for (the Festival)”, the many images of the site showing how its almost 200 foot elevation at the “downstream” end acts as a counterpart to the over 300 feet of the Skylon “upstream”.
The remodelling of the Tower was the only building for which Casson took full responsibility himself: “Inside we thought about having a fountain, or waterfall, but couldn’t get the pressure. In the end we had a lot of dangling balls”. It was also the home found for one of the many items offered by the public to celebrate the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition, the original impetus for the Festival, in this case a large embroidered panel on the history of the century that had passed between the two events, made by eighty women from the Twickenham area. Made from recycled materials including old uniforms and blackout fabric, the “Patchwork of the Century” is now on display near the ticket desk in the Royal Festival Hall.
It was Ian Cox, the Festival’s Director of Science, who found a practical use for the Shot Tower by mounting the dish aerial on top of it which became the feature which, as Veronica Hurst’s hat bore witness, characterised it. In the Dome of Discovery, whose many exhibits included an “Outer Space” section, visitors could on a cathode ray tube screen “watch the return of radar impulses which have been beamed from the top of the Shot Tower and reflected from the moon”. An anti-aircraft gun carriage had been mounted on the top of the Tower to hold the aerial and allow it to rotate through 360˚ and rise from horizontal to vertical, though this had been achieved not without some drama: amongst the many disasters that beset the Festival’s preparations the mounting fell from the top during installation injuring a workman and according to Casson “causing the tower to jump off its foundations – but luckily also to jump back”.
After the Festival the equipment was integrated into that of the recently established Jodrell Bank Observatory. It is somewhat ironic that the Shot Tower, the oldest construction on the Festival site by 125 years, was the base for what was perhaps the most technologically advanced exhibit, certainly one of the most significant for fulfilling the Festival’s aim of showcasing British scientific prowess and ingenuity, echoing as it did the vital contribution radar had made to the war effort. In this way the Shot Tower stands as a symbol for the Festival as a whole, marking the transition from the traditions of Britain’s industrial past to its technological future, almost literally the “beacon for change” the Festival was held up to be. At night, the Tower became a lighthouse, illuminating a London that only six years previously had been “blacked out”.
Given how present it was on the South Bank at the time, the Shot Tower’s relative neglect today is all the more surprising when its wider use in representations of the Festival is taken into account. It had been there in Barbara Jones’ striking illustrations of the Festival site under construction (for once over-shadowing the Skylon). It was there in the official Festival Handbook, not just in the panoramic view of the whole South Bank site but also as a backdrop to the Royal Festival Hall in the pages covering “the Arts in London”. It was prominent in special supplements covering the Festival, such as the Daily Mail and, in a rather more contemporary style, House and Gardens. It found its place on souvenir scarves and badges and on furnishing fabrics. And it continued to provide material for cartoonists in a way that may have resonances for our current political climate.
A vestige of the Shot Tower can still be seen in Oxford Street alongside the Royal Festival Hall in the uppermost of three reliefs on what is now the Zara clothing store. Perhaps that is all that survives of this once iconic building which was demolished in 1962 to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We can only wonder if, nearly 60 years on, when the notion of “heritage” embraces so much more than stately homes and old master paintings, whether such a fate would be so readily acceded to in 2021.
A mystery remains. In a later recollection, Gerald Barry answered the question that visitors asked as to why they could not ascend the Shot Tower’s 322 steps that wound round the interior wall to the top: “One case of vertigo or exhaustion halfway up and the scene below can be imagined…” Yet, there are oral reminiscences in archives of people visiting the Festival as schoolchildren who recall the excitement of doing just that. Can readers of this article shed any light on this? We would be eager to hear any memories of the Tower or the Festival as whole you would be willing to share.
 At the time of writing “The 1951 Festival of Britain: A Brave New World” is still available on BBC i-player (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b015d486/the-1951-festival-of-britain-a-brave-new-world) but you can also watch it on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vmzq1s7xgE&t=6s
 Casson’s lecture can be heard online at the British Library sound archive: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Architects-Lives/021M-C0467X0082XX-0001V0 ; and the two men at work are featured in a 1949 newspaper article about the last days of the Shot Tower at work in Lambeth Archives: https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/shot-tower-south-bank-waterloo/
Nick Rampley is currently researching into aspects of the Festival of Britain as part of a MA in Public Histories at Birkbeck College. He would be interested to hear from anyone with recollections of the Festival at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Rampley joined Alan Powers and Elain Harwood on an audio-tour of the South Bank, recalling how it looked back in 1951. You can have a listen here.