170 Years on: The Great Exhibition of 1851

Shauna Ralph

This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives

‘This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives, with which, to my pride and joy the name of my dearly beloved Albert is forever associated!’ Queen Victoria’s journal, May 1st 1851 May 1st, 1851 marked the beginning of a monumental event for the Victorian period. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was opened 170 years ago by Queen Victoria and ran for six months before closing to the public on October 11th. The event was visited by six million people – including a few famous guests such as Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Charlotte Bronte, and Lewis Carroll – and was a huge success. Exhibitions to display works of industry were not a new phenomenon during this period. In the first half of the nineteenth century, national exhibitions had been taking place all over Europe – most notably, France. And it was the French exhibitions that largely inspired the events that would take place in England in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Henry Cole, a civil servant and key player in the arts during this time had been inspired by the exhibitions he saw in France and wanted to host something similar in Britain. He immediately began to persuade members of the Society of Arts. However, failing to get their support for an event on the scale he was hoping, it was decided they’d test the water with smaller-scale, local exhibitions. Three exhibitions were then hosted in London in 1847, 1848 and 1849. Much to the surprise of the members in the Society, they grew in popularity and by the third, plans began to be put in place for a much larger exhibition to take place in the capital. In order to make this a reality, Cole worked hard at getting Prince Albert onboard – although he was initially hesitant to lend his support to this event, by 1849 he no longer needed convincing and became a huge part of the planning process. Albert is often credited for the idea of the Great Exhibition but it is through Cole’s persistence that he became a part of this project. By the beginning of 1850, Queen Victoria officially formed the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851. This group were responsible for the dealing and organisation of this event. One of the key decisions they made would become one of the most recognisable features of the event, and Victorian Britain itself: the building.
170 Years on: The Great Exhibition of 1851
Eugene-Louis Lami, ‘The Opening of the Great Exhibition 1851’,

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170 Years on: The Great Exhibition of 1851

They opted for a completely different design altogether

Although the Commission had hosted a design competition for the Exhibition building, they opted for a completely different design altogether. The design of their choice had been created by Joseph Paxton – largely known for his glass conservatory at Chatsworth. Paxton had found himself bored in a Board Meeting for a railway company when he drew his now very famous design on a piece of blotting paper. Within a couple of weeks of it being accepted by the Commission, the design became a well developed plan and took around nine months to build. Made up mainly of glass, the building became famously referred to as the Crystal Palace in the well-known satirical magazine, Punch, and it is now the name we associate the event with most. The building, perhaps to mark the year that it would be on display, was 1851 feet long and around 128 feet high. One of its main features was its arched transepts that accommodated the famous Hyde Park elm trees – something that had concerned many when the initial proposal for this building was put forward. The Great Exhibition opened its doors to the public on May 1st, with a huge opening ceremony headed by Queen Victoria herself. Although initial plans did not include Victoria being present at the opening, in mid-April, Albert was finally persuaded and agreed for her to open the event. The opening was attended by members of the Royal Commission, parliament and those who had been able to get their hands on season tickets for the Exhibition along with general members of the public. Displayed as an event of All Nations, the use of the Crystal Palace was an incredibly important aspect. Whilst it was advertised as an event for countries all over the world, it is clear that this was very much a British-headed event to show British superiority. The Palace covered just over 900,000 square feet, and one entire half of this was dedicated solely to Britain and the Empire whilst the rest of the world were squeezed into the other half of the building. Displays were divided amongst the four main categories proposed by the Royal Commission: Raw Materials, Manufacturing, Machinery and Fine Art. One of the central features of attraction at this Exhibition was Osler’s Crystal Fountain (seen in the bottom left of the above image), one of the first things people would see when entering the Crystal Palace from the Southern Entrance. A Birmingham company, F & C Osler, established in 1807 became well known for their crystal chandeliers and fountains, and they were commissioned to create a piece for the Great Exhibition. The fountain was twenty-seven feet high, weighed four tons and was made entirely of crystal glass – a perfect feature to go alongside the Crystal Palace. It was from the point of Osler’s Crystal Fountain that visitors of the Exhibition faced a difficult decision, where to go first? To the west side of the building, they would be greeted by British exhibits, to the east, the rest of the world… There was certainly no shortage of displays to be amazed by at the Exhibition, and one visit simply would not have been enough. To be able to visit everything, a person would have needed to visit at least two or three times to truly make the most of the 100,000 objects from over 14,000 exhibitors from across the world. One of the most notable exhibits at this event was that of the Indian display. India sent a throne carved from ivory, along with a howdah and trappings for a rajah’s elephant – this was put on display on a stuffed elephant that was loaned from a British museum. Possibly one of the Exhibition’s most famous objects was also part of the Indian exhibit – the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Given as a loan from Queen Victoria’s personal collection, the Koh-i-Noor was the world’s largest diamond at the time and was the exhibit that many people often found themselves rushing to find. Nevertheless, although incomplete until June as a result of ice in the Baltic causing delays, the Russian exhibit also proved incredibly popular. Their displays included vases and urns made of porcelain, furs, sledges and Cossack armour.
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George Jennings, had designed the first public toilets

As well as many exhibits on display, there were also some very useful parts to the Crystal Palace. George Jennings, for example, had designed the first public toilets to be used in the Retiring Rooms of the Palace. He charged one penny for this – nice to see some things never change… The event closed to the public on October 11th, before an official closing ceremony hosted by Prince Albert and other members of the Commission on October 15th. The event had been a huge success – in the six months it was open, it had over six million visitors and generated a profit of £185,000. The event may not have been such a success had the Commission not, three weeks into May, decided to change the prices of their tickets. Towards the end of May, only 200,000 people had visited – mainly the middle and upper classes. It was clear that the working classes simply could not afford to buy the tickets, and the Commission, expecting a lot more visitors by this point, began to shift their focus towards the working classes. As a result, they introduced Shilling Days – during the week, tickets became just one shilling and it was probably one of the biggest contributing factors to the overall success of the Exhibition in terms of visitors and money made with over four million people visiting on those days. Upon its closure, many people were disappointed at the fact that the Crystal Palace was now going to be closed and taken down. As a result, the Palace was demolished with the intentions of reconstructing it at a new site in Sydenham. It took two years for the new Crystal Palace to be constructed, with Joseph Paxton making it much bigger and better than its predecessor. The Palace was opened in June 1854 by Queen Victoria to a crowd of 20,000 people. The new Crystal Palace at the Sydenham site became a central hub for entertainment – here it was used for festivals, concerts, and circuses. It was this palace that kept the legacy of the Exhibition going and it remained at its site in Sydenham until 1936. Unfortunately, part of the building caught fire and they were unable to save it. Today, some of its remains lay in Crystal Palace Park and allows a slight insight into the wonders that once were. We can also see the legacy throughout other parts of London today. The profits of the Exhibition were used to purchase land in South Kensington, with some of London’s famous institutions being linked back directly to the Exhibition. Famous sites such as the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Science Museum and Imperial College London – all in the ‘Albertopolis’ area of London – are all direct results of the profits of the Exhibition itself. Although Albert had sadly passed away in 1861 and was not around to see these buildings erected, many of these were set up with the intentions he had after the Exhibition had closed. In the August of 1851, Albert had stated that he wanted to use the profits of the event to set up educational institutions and they are now some of London’s most visited sites. We can also see the legacy of the Exhibition with the famous Albert Memorial sat in Hyde Park. Although not something you can see looking from a distance, the book that Albert is seen to be holding is in fact the Official Catalogue for the Exhibition. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a hugely significant event for the Victorian era as we know it. It helped to highlight the strengths of Britain and the Empire and introduced many to the creations of the rest of the world. It helped encourage and increase interest in industry, science and the arts and the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 still exists today to help encourage development in science. The Victorian period is known for many things, and many people, but this event in particular was a fantastic contribution to the nineteenth century and the work that was done to encourage the development in industry.
170 Years on: The Great Exhibition of 1851

Shauna Ralph

Shauna is a historian who wrote for edition 3
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