Records of the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition, international trades fair, Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

  • Cash books 1937-1941
  • Space rents 1937-1938
  • Season tickets 1937-1938
  • Daily statements 1938
  • Realisation accounts 1938-1940
  • Other accounts 1937-1942
  • Correspondence and receipts 1937-1942
  • Printed material 1938

Administrative / Biographical History

The Empire Exhibition , held in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, Scotland, from May to October 1938  was a large scale International Trade Fair. Its timing was by no means unplanned. Scotland was slowly emerging from the deep economic crisis of the early 1930s  . The West of Scotland had suffered greatly from the Great Depression and many companies were choosing to relocate to the south of Great Britain. Although by the late 1930s  conditions were improving, Scotland's recovery was lagging behind the rest of Britain. Sir James Lithgow (1883-1952), chairman of Lithgows Ltd, shipbuilders, Port Glasgow, Inverclyde Scotland, one of the prime motivators behind the Empire Exhibition , advocated the exhibition in order to boost Scotland's commercial and industrial interests. The executive committee of the Empire Exhibition consisted of other prominent Scots, such as the engineer Cecil Weir (1890-1960), and Sir Alexander Steven Bilsland (b1892) and also aristocratic patronage such as the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine who was president. The exhibition's objectives went beyond that of economic promotion, its objectives stated that is was to illustrate the progress of the British Empire, both at home and abroad. Secondly, the Exhibition was to show the resources and potentialities of the British Empire. The third objective was to stimulate Scottish industry and to promote her culture and heritage. The fourth objective was to foster Empire trade and a closer friendship between the peoples of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Fifthly, the Empire Exhibition was to emphasise to the world the peaceful aspirations of the peoples of the British Empire.

Bellahouston Park was selected as the site for this enterprise. The park gave the organisers a large open space and a commanding view of the city. The park was also already well served by public transport. The enterprise was financed by subscriptions. Amongst the largest subscribers were companies such as J & P Coats Ltd, cotton thread manufacturers, Paisley, Scotland; Fairfield Shipbuilding Co Ltd, shipbuilders, Glasgow; and Imperial Tobacco Co Ltd. The largest of all the private donations was £20,000 from Lord Nutfield. By 1937  , more then £600,000 had been raised in guarantees. There was additional funding from the British government and those of individual colonies and companies who paid for their own pavilions. Thomas Smith Tait, of the London firm of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, was appointed as architect and Captain S J Graham from the Exhibitions Division of the Department of Trade was appointed manager of the Empire Exhibition .

In spring 1937  , the Countess of Elgin turned the first sod at Bellahouston Park, and construction began. The two largest buildings were the Palace of Engineering and the Palace of Industry. These two imposing buildings faced each other, separated by the Dominion's Avenue and the Colonial Avenue. Both these palaces sought to promote and display Britain's resources, whilst the two avenues advertised the resources of the Empire. The Dominion Avenue contained the Pavilions of Australia, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Whilst Colonial Avenue contained the exhibits of Malaya, The West Indies, Cyprus, Malta, Ceylon, and Hong Kong amongst others. Scotland had her own Avenue, as did the United Kingdom. There were also numerous individual pavilions belonging to companies and businesses, such as the BBC Pavilion, and the Times Pavilion. There was also entertainment pavilions, such as the Palace of Art, the Concert Hall and the Cinema, not forgetting the attractions in Butlin's amusement park. The Clachan, a lifesize model of a Highland village also proved to be a great attraction. However, it was the Tower of the Empire that became the symbol of the whole exhibition. Although it was no more then a lift shaft, with viewing platforms, its height at three hundred feet dominated the site and its distinctive vane provided a motif that was repeated throughout the architecture.

On the 3 May 1938  , the Empire Exhibition was formally opened by King George VI and Queen Mary. On the first day some 150,000 visitors came through the gates. Admission was 1 shilling or 6d for children. The organisers optimistically hoped that the exhibition would draw some 20 million visitors. Despite these high hopes when the exhibition closed on 29 October 1938  the total number of visitors was only 12,593,232. Fears about the developing situation in Europe was a factor, as was the lack of international advertising. The underlying factor though was the weather, the summer of 1938  proved to be cold, wet and windy. The guarantors of the exhibition lost 3s 5d in the pound much to their surprise and indignation. Overall, it is estimated that the Empire Exhibition lost approximately £128,000. Plans to reopen the exhibition in 1939  were quashed. Despite this financial loss the Empire Exhibition remains one of Glasgow's greatest exhibitions.

Crampsey, Bob,The Empire Exhibition of 1938: The Last Durbar ( 1988  , Edinburgh )

Kinchin, Perilla and Kinchin, Juliet,Glasgow's Great Exhibitions ( Oxon )


This material has been arranged into eight series, which are described in the scope and content note

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Mclay, McGibbon & McAllister, Chartered Accountants : April 1985 : ACCN 0063

Other Finding Aids

Digital file level list available in searchroom

Manual file level list available at the National Registers of Archives in Edinburgh (NRA(S) 2643) and London (NRA 12501)

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use & condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with normal procedures

Custodial History

Acquired directly from creator


None expected

Related Material

GB 248 ACCN 2270: Papers of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine. President of Empire Exhibition (Scotland) 1938

GB 248 ACCN 4190: Papers of Constable Richard Dale Robertson. Robertson was part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police delegation who visited Glasgow in 1938 to represent Canada at the Empire Exhibition

GB 243 TD 1196 Papers, including printed memorabilia 1938 (Glasgow City Archives)

GB 247 Mu Add f17, 124 - 128 Printed memorabilia 1938 (Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department)

For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the Archon repository search page


No known publications using this material

Additional Information

This material is original

Revised by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 9 July 2002

Corporate Names

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