Human zoos. It is an inhuman, barbaric concept that has been implemented time and time again to degrade and humiliate those that were seen to be inferior to the white man. One of the first instances of the exhibition of ‘exotic’ people to the public for entertainment purposes was the case of South African Saartjie Baartman, who became known as Hottentot Venus. She was born around 1780, and in 1810 was brought to London to be put on display. She suffered from “a genetic characteristic known as steatopygia – extremely protuberant buttocks and elongated labia – which evidently delighted the cabaret-goers of the British capital.”. She was also displayed in Paris where she was “analysed by the budding racial anthropologists”. Saartjie sadly died in poverty, and her skeleton was displayed in Paris in the Museum of Mankind until 1974. It was only in 2002, 87 years after her death, that she was final buried in South Africa after her remains were repatriated. Even in death she was not given the respect she deserved.
Throughout its long, shameful history these zoos were never used to benefit those that they exhibited like mere objects for the amusement of the supposedly superior race. And yet on the 23rd of April 1924, the British government opened the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, complete with its very own human zoos filled with people brought over from British colonies who lived on the grounds of the exhibition during the entire time it was in operation. What was their justification for doing such a thing? That it would benefit all those who were a part of the Empire.
British Empire Exhibition (BEE)
When I first found out about this exhibition, I had a lot of questions, such as why was this exhibition created? Why do I know nothing about it? How did anyone involved in the planning and execution of this event even think that displaying colonial subjects in an exhibition and making them live on the grounds was a remotely good idea???
And the more I found out about it, the more disappointed I was.
The apparent aim of this misguided exhibition was “to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other”. After reading this blog you’ll find out why this aim was completely absurd and how it backfired on the British government.
So, let’s start with why this exhibition was created. Let’s set the scene, its post-WW1 Britain, the British public are still battling with the horrors of the Great War, the economy is in a slump, so how can the British government raise everyone’s spirits? By holding a huge fun exhibition of course. But as you can tell from my previous blogs, Britain never does anything without any ulterior motives. The Great War was a dark moment in history, countries were fighting each other, and many lives were lost. But what it showed to Britain, or at least what Britain took from it was that when they needed them, the colonies in the Empire came to its imperial leader’s aid to help them fight in the war (as if they had a choice). The involvement of the empire during the war made Britain believe that “building a greater imperial unity seem possible”. And so, in 1919 the idea of the British Empire exhibition was first proposed. Those that supported the exhibition had hoped that “’empire development’ would enable Britain to retain a global position made uncertain by the war and increasing international competition.” And how would they do this? Through imperial consolidation which was seen “as a solution to supposed problems of cultural degeneration and the declining fortunes of the ‘British race’”.
And that is how an exhibition spanning over 220 acres, which included “commercial, technological and artistic displays, national pavilions, an amusement park, restaurants, cinemas… an artificial lake.”, and the architectural focal point of the entire exhibition which was the Empire Stadium, was born. King George V opened the British Empire Exhibition in the Empire stadium, stating that the British Empire was a “family of nations”. This large ‘family’ consisted of “’white’ settler dominions like Australia and Canada; dependent colonies, such as Kenya and Uganda in British East Africa; protectorates, like Palestine and Malta; and India, whose partial self-government under the 1919 Government of India Act confirmed the sub-continent’s ambiguous political status within the Empire as falling somewhere between a dominion and a colony.”.
Some colonial participants used the British Empire Exhibition as a way to “present a distinct national identity in pursuit of greater autonomy from Britain”, such as Canada and India who initially did not want to participate but only did so solely for this reason. This shows that while the exhibition was created to show how united and harmonious the empire was, in reality the empire was completely disjointed.
‘Races in residence’ aka human zoos disguised as an educational tool for the viewers of this exhibition and apparently a great opportunity for those who were brought over from their homes and had to participate and live in the exhibition to show the British that they were now much more civilised thanks to the British Empire
This was the most racist aspect of the BEE. Imperial subjects who lived in the British Empire were brought over to Britain to show to the audience that the Empire was in fact really useful since it had ‘tamed these savages’, taught them civility and improved their lives overall. There were 20 Malays, 30 Burmans, 160 Hong Kong Chinese, 60 West Africans and 3 Palestinians who lived on the grounds of the exhibition in 1924. There were also “Indians, Singhalese, West Indians, and natives of British Guiana, who live(d) outside the exhibition, but attend(ed) their respective pavilions daily”. In total this meant that 273 colonised people lived on the exhibition grounds. This was the most controversial and yet the most popular aspect of the exhibition, which I think says a lot about British society at the time.
After WW1 the British public didn’t want their money to be spent on colonial subjects but rather on themselves, which didn’t sit well with the government. In an attempt to change the mind of the British public and convince them of the benefits of the empire they used the BEE to stress “the economic resources of the colonies and presented the benefits of colonial rule for the indigenous populations of the colonies”, presenting the public as the white saviours of these poor ‘savages’. In fact, Godfrey Lagden, a colonial administrator, reported in great detail of supposed racial ‘progress’ that was occurring amongst areas under British control such as Asia, Africa, America and even Oceanic populations. This racist piece of work was part of a 12-volume series on the “growth, development, and future potential of the British empire” and guess who was delighted by it? That’s right the BEE. In fact, “the management of the British Empire Exhibition welcomed the (publishing) scheme as supplementing from the intellectual side what the Exhibition was doing from the material aspect.”. In other words, this was a classic case of racists supporting racists. The appearance of the pavilions also played into this idea that those under British colonial rule were inferior as they were designed to look primitive which would have invoked “images of traditional societies…before colonialism” in the eyes of the viewer. For instance the West African exhibition featured “a walled village copied after the northern Nigerian city of Kano” and had “dried brick huts with workshops” housing native workers. This appearance was a huge contrast to British and dominion structures that were designed to look modern and grand and show off the architectural prowess of these more developed nations.
Pavilions created for the BEE of different countries in the British Empire, click the images for a better view.
This contrast between dominions and dependant colonies is also prevalent in the way in which they represented themselves at the BEE. This is because representatives from dominions, such as Canada, were in charge of setting up their pavilions and any other displays. This meant that they ““presented themselves at Wembley exactly as they were: essentially independent countries in charge of their own vibrant economies.” Unfortunately and unsurprisingly this was not the case for dependant colonies like “Nigeria and Sierra Leone (who) were not represented how the indigenous populations saw themselves, but how the British viewed them.”
Amber Schneider stated that “one of the most blatantly racist exhibits was…the South Africa building”. She describes how the ethnographical exhibit that was displayed in the building reduced the native population to mere specimens in the eyes of the audience. This along with the fact that this display was placed right next to another display showing “the progressiveness of South Africa’s British settlements.”, meant that the audience would undoubtedly create assumptions that the natives were an inferior and uncivilised race. Something that I’m sure the BEE would have been very happy about despite its official stance that it was not being racist but rather somehow portraying the colonial subjects in a flattering light, as people who had been modernised and civilised by the British.
H.J. Braunholtz, “Ethnographical Exhibition in the South African Pavilion, British Empire Exhibition,” Man 24 (1924):129-131.
The ‘Races in residence’ aspect not only portrayed colonial subjects in a racist, demeaning manner, but it also exacerbated or brought to light existing racial views that existed in so called ‘tolerant’ Britain at the time. The Daily Chronicle had to print an article requesting their readers to treat Indian visitors of the BEE with respect:
“Whatever you do, when you go to Wembley, don’t call our coloured fellow-subjects ‘natives’. Do, please, drop your insular habit of labelling everybody except your British selves for ‘foreigners’ or ‘natives’, according to whether their skins happen to be either white or brown. The ‘natives’ don’t like it. The other day an amateur photographer, looking for picturesque subjects, walked up to a turbaned figure in the Indian courtyard and asked, ‘Have you got any natives here’? With the demeanor of a prince—which he happens to be when he happens to be at home—and in the English of Oxford, the wearer of the turban pointed to a group of British workmen levelling a road and said, ‘Yes, sir, there are some ‘‘natives’’!’ So please when you visit India or Burmah, don’t point a finger and explain ‘Look at the natives’! Say, if you like, ‘Look at the Indians’, or ‘Look at the Burmese’. Remember at Wembley it is you who are the ‘natives’.”“A King’s Son,” Daily Chronicle, May 19, 1924.
This plea along with many others, did not do much at changing the racist abuse that Indian visitors faced. Sir Tirubaliyangudo Vijayaraghavacharya the all-India Commissioner who oversaw the planning and arrangement of the Indian display heard about Indian visitors being barred from entering hotels and so began calling “several hotels in South Kensington, enquiring about vacancies.”. These hotels told him over the phone that they did have available rooms and so he went straight away to visit them in person. Once he was physically at these hotels and they saw the colour of his skin, suddenly all of these rooms were filled up as if by magic. African visitors also faced this same situation as many were turned away from hotels solely due to the colour of their skin. The racial discrimination people of colour experienced was a far cry from the claims of a united empire that the British preached over and over again.
Newspapers and journals from the time also spread racist and incorrect facts about people of colour. In fact, Punch created a racist cartoon of an infantilized Indian man who spoke broken English (seen below), while “several derogatory articles, racist cartoons and misleading descriptions of life in West Africa…appeared in the British popular press in 1924”.
Videos of the BEE give us an insight into how Britain viewed and treated their imperial subjects. I should warn you before watching the video, their treatment of their colonial subjects might make you sick.
In the video there are many scenes (which are all the scenes that include people of colour) that stand out for all the wrong reasons. At around the 1.12 mark of the video, we can see two men of colour displayed in full uniform silently standing to attention as if they are inanimate objects while the white audience which consists of King George V, Queen Mary, dignitaries and policemen shake hands with and greet each other while passing by these individuals without even acknowledging them as they enter the Sierra Leone display. The 2.34 mark is especially sickening as we see women of colour being made to prostrate themselves in front of these royal visitors, many of whom have a big smile on their faces while others point at these women. This portrayal of women of colour indicates that they were viewed to be subservient and inferior to their white colonial rulers. While it is hard to see, at around the 3-minute mark the King, Queen and their entourage walk through this exhibition while bare chested African men hold up large parasols above them. This accentuation of African masculinity by portraying these men like this hints at the belief or view that they are inferior and wild compared to the white man as they wear less clothes and parade around like ‘animals’ while the white entourage are completely covered wearing uniforms and medals and bowler hats, indicating a sense of civility that they want the British public to believe is not held by these African men. The difference in the way men and women of colour are portrayed is very telling as well. In the Sierra Leone exhibition, the men are portrayed as being soldiers or warriors, while the women are portrayed as weak and submissive. You should also remember that this exhibition was created by a white committee and not by people of colour from Sierra Leone, so the portrayal of these people of colour is created from how they are viewed by the white community.
After watching this video and reading about this disgusting exhibition and its “crude portrayal of the indigenous populations of the colonies”, it’s no wonder that there were so many misconceptions created about them that “contributed to racist views that would linger for years”. In fact, modern historians even argue that this was a factor which contributed to racism and racist views well into the 20th century.
The exhibition may have been forgotten by history, but sadly its consequences still exist today.
Women at the British Empire Exhibition
While the BEE was an opportunity for the British government to convince the British public of the benefits of imperialism, women also utilised this opportunity for their own benefit. Many women’s organisations had pavilions and held events at the BEE to educate and spread their message to the exhibition goers. Their audience would have consisted of the British public, and also visitors from all over the globe who came to witness the BEE. However, the contributions of white women compared to women of colour in the BEE was vastly different.
Women of colour contributed to the BEE by fulfilling the view that the government wanted to portray of these women being submissive, needing guidance from their colonial masters, and being skilled at work that was deemed to be feminine and outdated like weaving and loom making. White women however contributed to the BEE by not being human exhibitions like their colonial counterparts, but by attracting more visitors to the BEE due to their campaigns for suffrage and other causes.
The following newspaper extract talks about the International Council of Women which had its own pavilion at the event and held talks about education, international peace, and other questions affecting women’s interests. The extract also mentions how “National Councils of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, and Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are co-operating with them, and members of each of these councils are expected to be at Wembley throughout the exhibition.” These countries are all ‘white’ settler dominions which indicates that while the organisation says that they will be talking about issues that affect women, it is most likely they are referring to white women. Also, in this article it mentions how women from these areas will be coming from their countries to work at the exhibition and will be there for the entire duration of its run. This provides a stark comparison with women of colour who are also coming from their countries to work at the exhibition. However, the only difference is that these white women have a certain degree of freedom while carrying out their roles, while women of colour do not.
This fact is further compounded by the extract below which is looking for voluntary workers to work at the conferences organised by the N.U.S.E.C. This extract shows that white women had the opportunity to choose to work at the exhibition and unlike women of colour they would only work certain shifts.
This difference between the roles of white women and women of colour who worked at the exhibition, shows that while Britain claimed the exhibition portrayed unity and equality between the nations of the empire, this was clearly not the case.
The forgotten story of Halimah Binti Abdullah
If you look at the British Empire Exhibition Report on the Malayan Pavilion, 1925, buried within the footnotes, you’ll find the name Halimah Binti Abdullah. Halima was from Johor, Malaya (now known as Malaysia) and she was “an expert weaver- most probably of textiles”, a trade which she demonstrated to members of the audience at the BEE. She was around 60 years old when she came over to Britain, and she “lived with 19 other Malayans” in the Malayan Pavilion. Halimah never left Britain, because shortly after she arrived here, she contracted pneumonia and died.
There isn’t much information about why she died, in fact there is barely any information about her at all, but it is assumed that she contracted pneumonia “due to her first winter experience” shortly after which she passed away at Willesden Green Hospital. She was buried in an unmarked grave belonging to the Woking Mosque, a plot of land that can no longer be found as “the deed number of her plot no longer relates to contemporary numbering systems”.
Halimah’s death shines a light on the life of those from the colonies who lived in the exhibition. Rather than housing the colonial staff in accommodation or hotels outside of the exhibition, the British created accommodation for them within the grounds of the exhibition. The document below describes the ‘housing’ that was created for the Malayans after they protested about their initial accommodation which would have “quarter(ed) them in the same compound, far distant from the Pavilion, as contingents from other races of the Empire.”.
As you can see from the document the British spared no expense at constructing this ‘state of the art’ accommodation for less than £150 out of the BEE’s £4.5+ million cost:
- A 60 ft long by 20 ft wide recycled officer’s mess hut that was divided into five and heated using paraffin stoves and “lit by petrol incandescent lamps”
- Three recycled old war stock circular huts with a diameter of 15 ft, that became a kitchen and a men and women’s lavatory
For an exhibition that wanted to show how the British had modernised and improved the lives of its colonial subjects, it’s a bit weird that the accommodation they created was made from recycled old war stock and didn’t have any electric lights despite the fact that they were able to build grand structures of buildings from their colonies. I guess they only wanted to present this image of modernisation and the improvement of life to the British public, rather than practising what they preached. The British claimed that the British Empire was beneficial to all those that were included in it, and yet one of their own imperial subjects died while in their service.
Gerald Spencer Pryse, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Poster, 1924, V&A, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O767097/poster-pryse-gerald-spencer/.
—British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Poster, 1924, 1stdibs,
— British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Poster, 1924, invaluable,
— British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Poster, 1924, artnet,
Vadac, British Empire 1921, Map, 2008, wikimedia commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Empire_1921.png.
 Ibid., 165
 Stephen, The Empire of Progress, 1.
 Clendinning, “On The British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25”
 Clendinning, “On The British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25”
Chicago Press, 1993), 64.
 M. Stephen, “Brothers of the Empire?,”, 181.
 Ibid., 134-135
 F.A Swaine, New Zealand pavilion, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Photograph, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-484&R=DC-ARTS-PC-484.
 Campbell Gray, Malaya from the lake, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Photograph, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-473&R=DC-ARTS-PC-473.
 Campbell Gray, Canadian building from the lake, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Photograph, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-483&R=DC-ARTS-PC-483.
 Campbell Gray, East African building, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Photograph, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-475&R=DC-ARTS-PC-475.
 Campbell Gray, Rock garden and Australia, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Photograph, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-482&R=DC-ARTS-PC-482.
 Ernest Coffin, Burmese pavilion, British Empire Exhibition, 1924, Illustration, 1924, Toronto Public Library, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-479&R=DC-ARTS-PC-479.
 August, The Selling of the Empire, 134.
 Schneider, “More Than Meets The Eye,” 15.
 Ibid., 23
 M. Stephen, “Brothers of the Empire?,” 183.
 Clendinning, “On The British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25” see also Stephen, Daniel M. “‘The White Man’s Grave’: British West Africa and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-1925.” Journal of British Studies 48 no. 1 (2009): 102-128.
 Daniel M. Stephen, “‘Brothers of the Empire?’: India and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25,” Twentieth Century British History 22, No. 2 (2011): 184.
 Schneider, “More Than Meets The Eye,” 4.
 Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, and Sandrine Lemaire, “From Human Zoos to Colonial Apotheoses: The Era of Exhibiting the Other.” Africultures, accessed April 6, 2019, http://www.africultures.com/anglais/articles_anglais/43blanchard.
 Erica Tan, “What we know…,” theforgottenweaver, accessed April 3, 2019, http://theforgottenweaver.blogspot.com/?view=classic.
 British Empire Exhibition Report on the Malayan Pavilion, 1925 found in Erica Tan, “Living conditions,” theforgottenweaver, accessed April 3, 2019, http://theforgottenweaver.blogspot.com/?view=classic.
 Tan, “What we know…,”
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 British Empire Exhibition Report on the Malayan Pavilion, 1925 found in Erica Tan, “Living conditions,” theforgottenweaver, accessed April 3, 2019, http://theforgottenweaver.blogspot.com/?view=classic.
 Gabay, Imagining Africa, 49.
 John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, 1.
Braunholtz, H.J. “Ethnographical Exhibition in the South African Pavilion, British Empire Exhibition.” Man 24 (1924):129-130.
British Empire Exhibition, Official guide, 1924.
G. August, Thomas. The Selling of the Empire: British and French Imperialist Propaganda, 1890-1940. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
H. Gunn, ‘Introduction to the Series’, in A. Balfour and H. H. Scott, The British Empire: A Survey in 12 Volumes: Volume IV, Health Problems of the Empire (New York, 1924), xvi.
Lagden, G. ed., The Native Races of the Empire. London, 1924.
Burton, Antoinette M. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Gabay, Clive. Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Mark Stephen, Daniel . The Empire of Progress: West Africans, Indians and Britons at the British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25. London, New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.
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Rydell, Robert. World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
M. Stephen, Daniel. “‘Brothers of the Empire?’: India and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25,” Twentieth Century British History 22, No. 2 (2011): 164-188.
Daniel M. “‘The White Man’s Grave’: British West Africa and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-1925.” Journal of British Studies 48, no. 1 (2009): 102-128.
Killingray, David. “’A Good West Indian, a Good African, and, in Short, a Good Britisher’: Black and British in a Colour-Conscious Empire, 1760-1950.” Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History 36, no. 3 (2008): 363-381.
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Clendinning, Anne. “Anne Clendinning, ‘On The British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25’ | BRANCH.” Branchcollective.Org. Accessed April 3, 2019. https://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=anne-clendinning-on-the-british-empire-exhibition-1924-25.
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Bamboo raft, Malay pavilion, British Empire Exhibition 1924. Postcard, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-471&R=DC-ARTS-PC-471.
Coffin, Ernest. Burmese pavilion, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Illustration, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-479&R=DC-ARTS-PC-479.
Gray, Campbell. Canadian building from the lake, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-483&R=DC-ARTS-PC-483.
— East African building, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-475&R=DC-ARTS-PC-475.
— Indian pavilion, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-478&R=DC-ARTS-PC-478.
— Malaya from the lake, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-473&R=DC-ARTS-PC-473.
—Rock garden and Australia, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-482&R=DC-ARTS-PC-482.
Maxwell, Donald. Wembley By Day. Illustration, 1924. Branchcollective. http://www.branchcollective.org/?attachment_id=2173.
–,Wembley By Night. Illustration, 1924. Branchcollective. http://www.branchcollective.org/?attachment_id=2174.
Pryse, Gerald Spencer. British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Poster, 1924. V&A. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O767097/poster-pryse-gerald-spencer/.
–– British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Poster, 1924. Artnet.
— British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Poster, 1924. Invaluable.
—British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Poster, 1924. 1stdibs.
Swaine, F.A. New Zealand pavilion, British Empire Exhibition, 1924. Photograph, 1924. Toronto Public Library. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-ARTS-PC-484&R=DC-ARTS-PC-484.
Vadac. British Empire 1921. Map, 2008. Wikimedia commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Empire_1921.png.
Dissertation and PDF
“British Empire Exhibition,” The Women’s Leader, April 18, 1924.
“A King’s Son,” Daily Chronicle, May 19, 1924.
“Wembley Exhibition. Women organising for an active part,” The West Middlesex Gazette, January 12, 1924.
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Empire Exhibition (1924), Youtube (Pathe newsreels, 1924).