The Railways and the Great Exhibition

Shauna Ralph

1851 saw the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park open its doors for the world to explore the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations – a world fair organised by Henry Cole, Prince Albert, and many other notable figures from the Society of Arts.

It saw a staggering six million people visit in the six months that it was open and a large majority of those were able to visit thanks to the use of the railways. In today’s modern world, it is easy for us to jump on a train from one part of the country to another for events, concerts, and even holidays. In the 1800s, this was something that was being slowly introduced and tried out by people all over the country and by the mid-1800s was becoming increasingly popular. The notion of using the railways as a holiday was something that came about in the years leading up to the Great Exhibition and encouraged many to visit the Crystal Palace in 1851 via the use of travel clubs and excursion trips. David Wragg states ‘in an age that still knew few public holidays, the excursion trains to the Great Exhibition were the first examples of mass holiday travel.’ It was these excursion trips and the increasing use of the railways, therefore, that saw a large number of people coming from all over the country to visit this enormous world fair and helped contribute to its success.
The Railways and the Great Exhibition
Locomotive Engine on display at the Great Exhibition

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The Railways and the Great Exhibition
Queen Victoria's Royal Carriage

Railways in the 1800s

The railways slowly started to develop from the 1830s onwards, with many lines being opened around the country: • 1830 – Liverpool to Manchester line was opened • 1838 – London to Birmingham line was opened • 1841 – London to Bristol line was opened • 1848 – London to Glasgow line was opened Although the first railroad to use a steam locomotive was opened in 1825, the 1830 line was the first to carry both passengers and freight making it not only popular with people wanting to travel, but those wanting to expand their businesses. The Liverpool to Manchester line was also the first to carry paying passengers so it started to spread the idea of travelling from one part of the country to the next in this way. Once more people started to use the railways, the 1844 Railway Act was passed meaning railway companies were expected to sell cheaper tickets to allow more people to use the trains. Queen Victoria herself made history in 1842, becoming the first member of the royal family to use trains. Her journey from Slough to Paddington lasted 25 minutes but encouraged further use of the trains for her and her family – something Prince Albert himself was already passionate about. In a letter the following day, Victoria wrote ‘we arrived here yesterday morning, having come by the railroad, from Windsor, in half an hour, free from dust and crowd and heat, and I am quite charmed with it.’ Becoming the first British monarch to use the trains, Victoria’s first journey from Slough to Paddington would have helped highlight the significance of the developing railways in the country and will have encouraged the general public to make use of trains.
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Commercialisation of the railways and its significance for the Exhibition

By the time of the Great Exhibition, the use of railways was on the rise and there was a huge demand for this type of travel around the country. This only increased at the end of May when the entry fee for the Exhibition went down to a shilling. With the Great Exhibition becoming much more accessible to those in the lower classes, the need to get to London grew, along with the demand for cheaper travel. This is where the country started to see the use of railway excursions to get people from all over Britain to London so that they could visit the Crystal Palace. Excursions on the railways were not set up as a result of the Great Exhibition, but they played a huge part in getting people there and this is something that can often be overlooked when taking the event and its popularity into consideration. One company that quickly realised the significance of the railways was Thomas Cook. In 1841, Cook organised a one-day trip from Leicester to Loughborough for 500 people and, in 1845, Thomas Cook & Son was formed. By the time of the Great Exhibition, Cook’s company was a popular travel choice and after the price of the Exhibition went down, they started to introduce excursion trips to London for this world fair. These excursions often started in York and allowed people from all over the country to board these trains so that they could attend the Exhibition. As JRC Yglesias states, these trips organised by the company ‘often included board and lodging in London and his firm sold 165,000 excursion tickets for the Exhibition.’ Tickets being low in price for both the Exhibition and the railways meant that this was an event that could now be accessible by people in the working classes, rather than just the upper and middle classes as was the case in the first month of the Crystal Palace being opened. These excursions meant that working fathers could now bring their family down to London on one of these trips and it could be a family holiday. The development of the railways in the early 1850s, tied in with the Exhibition itself, helped to put on display to the world how rapidly Britain itself was modernising and how things such as the railways could help with both travel and commerce. Jeffrey A. Auerbach helps to put into perspective the significance of the railways for the country by the time the Great Exhibition opened, stating that ‘there were only 3036 miles of railway track in 1846, less than half the amount that existed only five years later at the time of the Exhibition.’ The railways were incredibly significant for the Great Exhibition and part of its success can be given to the fact that so many people were able to visit as a result of train travel. Both the cheap entry to the Exhibition, along with the cheap day/week/month tickets on the trains, meant that people from all classes were able to attend this event and it wasn’t just limited to the upper classes who could afford events such as this. While it is difficult to give an exact number of visitors to the Great Exhibition that made use of the railways, it is clear that a significant number of labourers from around the country attended by utilising railway travel and it is down to this that a large percentage of its overall success can be credited to.
The Railways and the Great Exhibition

Shauna Ralph

I’m Shauna, a Visitor Experience Apprentice at my local museum. Between 2016 and 2022, I completed both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in history after being a history lover for as long as I can remember. My postgraduate degree was a Masters by Research where I got to write my thesis ‘The Purpose, Impact and Legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851’. I am passionate about Victorian and Tudor Britain, in particular the reigns of Queen Victoria along with Prince Albert and the reign of Henry VII and of course, the wonder that is the Crystal Palace.
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