The Great Exhibition

Remembering the Great Exhibition: advertisement for Huntley & Palmer Biscuits. Illustrated London News, (12 May 1951), from The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A.Auerbach (1999)

The Great Exhibition was set up in 1851 in Hyde Park. The Crystal palace which housed it was designed by Joseph Paxton, who had been the head gardener at Chatsworth. The idea for a large scale exhibtion of industrial design had first been proposed by Henry Cole but the moving spirit ws Prince Albert. The first of the 1,060 iron columns went up in the autumn of 1850 and the speed at which it was built was astonising. It was made of standardised components and there were 300,000 panes of glass which were fixed with over 200 miles of sash bars. Parts of it were high enough to enclose fully grown elm trees. It took a good deal less than a year to build and when completed it covered about nine acres. What made it possible was railway transport, steam power and the use of prefabricated parts. In some ways it was very like those modern buildings which consist of frames filled in with screens rather than load-bearing walls. It’s worth remembering that in a sense there were two Crystal Palaces, the original in Hyde Park, and a second in Sydenham where the original, much enlarged and using twice as much glass was moved in 1854. Although the Great Exhibition was not the first, there had been one in 1798 in France, it was the largest and the first to invite contributions from all over the world confident that British manufactures could well sustain competition. It was also intended to stimulate British manufacturing.

It was opened on May 1st by Queen Victoria, but not everyone approved. Ruskin called the rebuilt version at Sydenham ‘a cucumber frame between two chimneys’ (The London DorĂ© Saw, Eric de MarĂ©, 1973). Many others however thought of it as the eighth wonder of the world. More than 20,000 people visited it on its opening day and in the months that followed people from all classes and regions flocked to see it. It was ‘the’ event of its time and set the standard for all future exhibitions.

The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park viewed from the South. The Great Exhibition of 1851, C.H.Gibbs-Smith (1950)

The so-called 'areonuatic view' of the Crytal Palace from the north-west The Great Exhibition of 1851, C.H.Gibbs-Smith (1950).

The Crystal Palace from the north-east. Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London 1854), from The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A.Auerbach (1999)

The streets outside the Crystal Palace. Camille Pissaro. The Crystal Palace (1871) The Art Institue of Chicago, from The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A.Auerbach (1999)

There were 100,000 exhibits from all across the world and the object of the exercise was to try and weld Art and Science together in an effort to stimulate industrial design. Fine Art objects were not permitted unless they also revealed some techinical expertise. The collections were remarkably diverse, some beautiful, but others rather strange. The most popular exhibitions were those housed in the machinery court where the seemingly limitless possibilites of steam power could be seen. It was a triumphant success and so many people visited it that they consumed over a million and a half buns.

The initial entrance price of five shllings for the first three weeks attracted what the Times called ‘the wealthy and the gently and nobly born’, but at the end of May the price was dropped to a shilling and by the time the exhibtion closed in October more than six million people had visited it; a number representing about a fifth of the population of Great Britain at the time. John Tallis, who wrote a guide to the exhibition, suggested that

All social distinctions were for the moment merged in the general feeling of pride and admiration at the wondrous result of science and labour exhibited in the Palace of Glass. Never before in England had there been so free and general a mixture of classes as under that roof.

Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851,
John Tallis & Co., 1852, from The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A.Auerbach (1999)

The scene outside the Main Entrance on one of the shilling days. It illustrates the popularity of the undertaking among every class of people. The Great Exhibition of 1851, C.H.Gibbs-Smith (1950)

The classes and the masses. Punch (14 June 1851)

This picture illustrates the insistence that all classes of society were equally intent on visiting the exhibition.

Those from outside London travelled by train. Thomas Cook organised excursions from Yorkshire and rail traffic boomed once the shilling entrance fees had been introduced. One historian has suggested that this was, ‘the largest movement of population ever to have taken place in Britain’, The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A.Auerbach (1999). So many people visited from the industrial north that Cruickshank showed its consequences for both Manchester and London in Henry Mayhew’s 1851, or, The Adventures of Mr. And Mrs. Sandboys.

The supposed effects of the Great Exhibition. The entire population of Manchester has gone to visit the Exhibition in London.
Prince Albert was very keen that the exhibition should be self financing and so successful was it that its profits were responsible for several other museums in Kensington. The reformers in mid century saw the Great Exhibition as an exemplar of, and an encouragement to, free trade.

Tallis also describes how industrialists and factory workers scrutinised the latest machinery, women examined the cloths and handicrafts, and fashionable sociaty virtually ignored the exhibits altogether, preferring instead to remain in the transept of the Crystal Palace ‘to see and be seen’. Tallis’s comments, which were echoed by many of his contemporaries, encapsulate some of the ways in which the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace served both to integrate and to segregate Victorian society along social, regional, occupational, and gender lines. The organisers of the Great Exhibition sought to bring together all sectors of British sociaty under one roof. Yet, at the same time, the arrangement of exhibits, admission prices, patterns of attendance, and latent fears about the working classes reflected and reinforced hierarchies and divisions within Victorian society.