“The Empire at the Palace”: The Parliamentary Pavilions of 1911
The Australian and New Zealand Pavilions. Postcard. Bender and Lewis c. 1911.

Robin Skinner
Architectural Historian
Victoria University of Wellington

In August 1910 it was announced that in the following summer there would be a Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Described as an imperial “at home,” this event aimed to increase mutual understanding and goodwill, and strengthen bonds across the British Empire. Five states now had dominion status: Canada (1867), Australia (1901), Newfoundland (1907), New Zealand (1907) and the Union of South Africa (1910). Their pavilions that would be facsimiles at two thirds scale of each respective settler colony’s parliament building. The festival organising committee’s plan effectively called the dominions together, paralleling the gathering of the prime ministers at the contemporaneous Imperial Conference of 1911. Connected by a miniature railway, the parliamentary simulacra can be read as a metonym for the web of empire. A model of the Clock Tower of the British Parliament Buildings rose above the other legislatures, radiating the Westminster system to the far corners of the world.

Despite official support for the event including Canada’s impressive £70,000 exhibit, there were complications. Exhibits were late arriving. When Australia and South Africa refused to fund pavilions, the festival council chair, Lord Plymouth, paid for them at his own cost. Making an ironic reference to some of the colony’s early edifices, an Australian politician later informed his fellow senators that their “disgrace” of a display was housed in “a wattle and daub structure.” Lower-than-expected attendance resulted in a large financial loss. While this exposition appears to suggest that the empire was then divided in some matters, three years later —in response to rising political tension in Europe—the governments and people from the far reaches of the realm would join together to wage sustained world war.

November 23, 2020