Monday 1 January 2024

Guest post: Why we should commemorate the British Empire Exhibition in 2024

New Year Greetings to Wembley Matters readers with hopes for peace in the year ahead. 

We start the year with a guest post by local historian Philip Grant. I remember celebrating Empire Day as a pupil at Kingsbury Green Primary School in the 1950s. It became Commonwealth Day on May 24th 1958. The British Empire is now part of contested history so please note Philip's invitation at the end of his article to comment or submit a blog post. Many people in Brent, or their parents' generation will have had direct personal experience of the Empire in one way or another. 

Let the debate begin...

This article as with all guest posts and letters represents the writer's own views.



Happy New Year! It’s 2024, one hundred years on from 1924. This year will be the centenary of the British Empire Exhibition (“BEE”) at Wembley Park. I’m aware there are some who don’t want the word “Empire” to be mentioned in today’s diverse multicultural Brent, but I believe we should commemorate one of the most important events in Wembley’s history. It was a spectacle that brought people from around the world, to show-off their countries and cultures to around 17 million visitors. We can learn from it what the world was like then, and use it as a starting point for discussion of what the past of “Empire” has meant from different perspectives.


Postcard showing an aerial view of the Exhibition site, from the west.
(Brent Archives – Wembley History Society Collection)


The 216-acre Exhibition site at Wembley Park was chosen in 1921, because it was close to London, with good railway access. A number of local roads had to be improved and widened to make it more accessible for lorries, cars and buses. Construction began on the “Empire Stadium” in January 1922, and although that was completed in time for the F.A. Cup Final in 1923, the rest of the BEE buildings were only just finished in time for the Exhibition’s opening ceremony on 23 April 1924. In his opening address, King George V described it as: ‘… a graphic illustration of that spirit of free and tolerant co-operation which has inspired peoples of different races, creeds and ways of thought to unite in a single commonwealth and to contribute their varying national gifts to one great end.’  (You may think otherwise!)


A plan of the Exhibition site in 1924. (Brent Archives – WHS Collection)


I hope to write more about the Exhibition itself, and share many more illustrations from it, later in the year. As well as the individual “pavilions” showcasing the 56 nations taking part, there were large “palaces” promoting the arts, industry and engineering achievements of Britain itself. Improving trade throughout the Empire was an important aim of the BEE. Another was: ‘to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other.’ (I think that was a step forward.)


A newspaper cutting from late March 1924. (Brent Archives – WHS Collection)


King George V had visited much of the British Empire, first as a young prince serving in the Royal Navy, then on a tour as Prince of Wales, as well as a long visit to India during his first year as King. Imperialism was ingrained among in British society by then, with the ruling classes seeing this country as superior in civilisation and culture, and entitled to exploit the resources of its colonies. King George, however, did view the Empire as a family of nations, with Britain as the parent, the four large Dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) as daughters, and the other nations as cousins.


Gramophone record label for messages from the King and Queen, played to children on Empire Day.
(Photographed from the collection of the late Alan Sabey in 2014)


“Empires” have existed for thousands of years, as has slavery. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the southern part of the British Isles was added to the Roman Empire by conquest, and those tribal kingdoms, which made up what is now this country, that did not submit to Roman rule were overcome by force, and many of their people enslaved.


Britain did not set out to establish an empire, but it was one of several European nations which gradually built one. From the late 16th century onwards, overseas colonies were established by British traders, or companies issued with a Royal Charter. By the 17th century, colonies in the West Indies and the Americas were importing slaves from Africa to work on agricultural plantations, with Britain at the forefront of this Atlantic “trade”. 


I studied history at school up to “A” level, but in the 1960s we were not taught much detail about how these European empires were built up through a succession of wars, against each other and the native people of the lands they stole. I’m still learning now, most recently through the BBC series “The Australian Wars”. By the mid-19th century, the British Government had taken control over what was now regarded as the British Empire, with the different countries administered by appointed Governors. It was an Act of Parliament in 1876, not any rulers of its many states, which awarded an additional title to Queen Victoria: Empress of India!


A Queen Victoria penny coin from 1897. (Penny image from the internet)


I will use what appears to be a rather bland photograph, taken inside the British Guiana Pavilion at the BEE in 1924, as an example of how the Exhibition can help to illustrate a more realistic, and uncomfortable, history of the British Empire. It shows a display of sugar crystals, one of the nation’s main exports at the time, but it is the name “Demerara” which triggers memories of British Guiana’s past.


A BEE photograph by Harlesden photographer, Fred L. Wilson. (Brent Archives – WHS Collection)


Las Guayanas was an area on the north coast of South America, “discovered” and named by the Spanish, and first settled on a small scale by them and the Portuguese. Demerara was colonised by the Dutch West Indies Company in the 17th century, and by the mid-18th century there were also English settlers there, moving in from Barbados to develop larger sugar cane plantations, using African slave labour. A treaty signed during the Napoleonic Wars transferred “ownership” of part of the Guianas, including Demerara, to Britain, alongside the Dutch and French Guianas.


In 1812, businessman John Gladstone bought several plantations in the new British Guiana. Although Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807, ownership of existing slaves continued, and those in Demerara were worked hard to produce sugar, and profit, for the plantation owners. Abolitionists in Britain continued to argue for better working conditions (a 12-hour working day, Sunday as a day of rest, no flogging of women slaves), and although these were approved in Westminster, plantation owners in British Guiana refused to implement them.


1823 saw a slave “rebellion” in Demerara, led by Jack Gladstone (the same surname as his “owner”), seeking the improvements they had heard about from British missionaries. It was a largely peaceful protest by the slaves, but it was violently put down by British forces and the colony’s white militia. Emancipation of the slaves finally came in 1834, with their owners receiving substantial compensation from the British Government for the loss of their “property”.


How did the plantation owners keep their sugar cane fields profitable without slave labour? I didn’t know the answer until the 1990s, when I was working in an office in Wembley. One of my colleagues, Rafique, was born in British Guiana (called Guyana, since its independence in 1966). In researching his family history, he found the names of his grandparents as passengers on a ship from Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1890s. They were Bengali Muslims, being transported to British Guiana as “indentured labour”.


Within weeks of emancipation, a British firm in Calcutta was recruiting local unemployed Indian men to work on plantations in Mauritius. They put their mark on a contract (that most of them couldn’t read), which bound them to work overseas for five years for a few rupees a day. John Gladstone heard of this, and in 1838 he asked the firm to recruit ‘young, active, able-bodied labourers’ to work on his estates. 


Indentured workers from India in the West Indies, 1880. (The National Archives)


Between then and 1917, when the practice was ended, nearly 240,000 indentured workers from India were shipped to British Guiana. Less than a third of them were repatriated. Even though their contracts promised free passage home, the plantation owners often found ways to deny this to them. They were given new contracts, and when re-indenture was prohibited in the 1870s, they were encouraged to settle in Demerara, and offered work for low wages.


How Britain got its Demerara sugar is history. We can’t change the terrible injustices which took place for centuries across the British Empire, but nor should we try to hide them. Brent, and Britain, will be a better place if we all understand, and acknowledge, the wrongs (and a few slightly more positive aspects) of the British Empire. 


The centenary of the BEE provides a great opportunity for learning what people with their roots from across the former Empire feel about its history, especially if they can share more widely the views of earlier generations, passed down by word of mouth or in writing. Brent Archives contains a lot of information on the BEE, from a British perspective, and that can be used as a starting point for discussion.


Some of the residents of the BEE’s Nigerian village in 1924. (Brent Archives – WHS Collection)


The photo above, from an album donated to Wembley History Society in 1964, shows some of Nigerians who lived and worked at the BEE for seven months. I used illustrations from the album in an online article and a talk during the 90th anniversary year. The “village” they lived in was recreated in the BEE’s West African Walled City, where they displayed their crafts, and sold the goods they had made, to visitors. They were silversmiths, leather workers, weavers, potters, wood carvers and a bead polisher, from across Nigeria.


Bala and his brother Mamman, from Kano, featured in a postcard on sale at the BEE.
(Brent Archives – Wembley History Society Collection)


When I gave a talk on “Wembley’s Nigerian Village, 1924” to the Society in 2014, a Nigerian man came. He had seen it advertised, and could hardly believe that there had been people from his home country in Wembley ninety years earlier. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to ask him for his views on what he had seen and heard.


I’ve set out my thoughts on why we should be commemorating the British Empire Exhibition’s centenary, and using it as a chance to share different views. One writer has already done that with a letter about the “Decolonising Wembley” project, and Wembley History Society will be welcoming him as a speaker at its meeting on 16 February.


Now it is over to you! With Martin’s permission, I’m issuing an invitation to anyone reading this, with their roots in countries from the former British (or other) Empire(s), to contribute comments below, or guest posts for publication on “Wembley Matters”. Please share your perspective on Empire, and particularly any stories you know from relatives about what it was like living in one of the 56 nations represented at the BEE.

Philip Grant.


Anonymous said...

Bent councillors don't give a dam about history, except when it's their own personal PR photographs and the dour phalouses that they call homes

Anonymous said...

Looking back at the British Empire Exhibition's centenary, it's clear we must reconsider our approach to history. Even commenorating the celebration of an empire often overshadows the suffering and exploitation it caused, like the painful stories associated with the sugar industry in colonies like Demerara.

Rather than commemorating an era marked by oppression, I propose renaming Wembley to a word symbolising survival from former colonies. This change is not about erasing history but acknowledging the resilience of communities that endured under imperial rule. For instance, renaming Wembley "Jubilo," meaning resilience in Swahili, would reflect a commitment to moving beyond the imperial legacy.

We might also think about the plight of indentured workers from India, shipped to British Guiana between 1838 and 1917. These individuals faced adversity, yet their stories of survival and adaptation deserve recognition. Renaming Wembley to a term like "Sankofa," meaning to go back and get it in Akan, would signify a collective effort to reclaim and understand our shared history, transcending the imperial narrative.

We can focus on renaming Wembley not as an act of erasure but as a step towards a more inclusive and survivor-centric narrative. By choosing a word from former colonies that embodies resilience and triumph over adversity, we honour the strength of those who endured the darker chapters of history, whilst putting memories of exhibitions like this in this bin.

Anonymous said...

Why would we change the name of Wembley? Its been called Wembley for centuries.

By evening suggesting a name change you insult those who live and work here, making their home here and building our diverse community - my own family members came here and were proud to be Wembley residents.

Philip Grant said...

As I've said in another comment, I don't think that changing the name of Wembley is appropriate, but Anonymous (1 January at 17:42) has explained the thinking behind their comment, and I don't believe it was intended to be disrespectful.

I'm glad to read that your family members, Anonymous (2 January at 16:55), were proud to have come to live in Wembley. If you don't mind me asking, did they come from a Commonwealth (or former "Empire") country? If so, I'd be pleased if you could share at least a brief version of their story, both before coming here, and their experiences when they first arrived in Wembley.

I have an illustrated talk, "When Wembley Welcomed the World", which starts with some of the people from overseas who came here for the BEE, but then goes on to look at how our diverse community was built up since 1924. I am hoping that people in Wembley will have the chance to see and hear it, for free, later this year.

Ali said...

I enjoyed reading this post. You probably already know it, but I recommend Sathnam Sanghera's 'Empireland' especially the opening chapter which describes his thoughts on what he calls 'Empire Day 2.0'

Philip Grant said...

Thank you for your comment and suggestion, Ali. I have reserved a copy of "Empireland" through Brent Libraries, so that I can read it.

Philip Grant said...

I've eventually borrowed a copy of "Empireland", and am now reading it. I did find the opening chapter on "Empire Day 2.0" very interesting and informative!

The copy I am reading came from Hammersmith and Fulham Libraries, because Brent did not have one. That is now being put right!

Brent Libraries will soon have a number of copies of the latest edition of Sathnam Sanghera's "Empireland", and I can recommend it to you.