Great Exhibition

Great Exhibition


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The idea of an international exhibition in London was first suggested by Henry Cole. The idea was fully supported by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, who a keen interest in the arts and sciences. Albert presided over the Royal Commission that raised the money for the Great Exhibition held in London's Hyde Park between May and October, 1851.

The exhibition was housed in a specially constructed Crystal Palace, a vast glass and iron structure designed by Joseph Paxton. The 13,000 exhibits were seen by 6.2 million people who came to London to celebrate Britain's successful industrial achievements.

The profits of this successful venture was used for educational purposes. This included the building of the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music and Imperial College of Science and Technology and the museums in South Kensington.


Victorian Britain

If you took an omnibus along London's Knightsbridge in the summer of 1851, you would see an astonishing sight. Glittering among the trees was a palace made of glass, like something out of the Arabian Nights. It was as tall as the trees, indeed taller, because the building arched over two of them already growing there, as if, like giant plants in a glasshouse, they had been transplanted with no disturbance to their roots. A shower of rain washed the dust from the glass, and made it glitter all the more. Nothing like this had been seen in London, ever. It was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.

The Great Exhibition was the brain-child of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Britain was at peace. The Chartists had meekly delivered their Petition to the House of Commons in three cabs, and gone home. Albert could write to his cousin King William of Prussia, that &lsquowe have no fear here either of an uprising or an assassination. England was experiencing a manufacturing boom. This was the time to show off, on the international stage.

Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

'General View of the Exterior of the Building' of the Great Exhibition.

The exhibits

There were some 100,000 objects, displayed along more than 10 miles, by over 15,000 contributors. Britain, as host, occupied half the display space inside, with exhibits from the home country and the Empire. The biggest of all was the massive hydraulic press that had lifted the metal tubes of a bridge at Bangor invented by Stevenson. Each tube weighed 1,144 tons yet the press was operated by just one man. Next in size was a steam-hammer that could with equal accuracy forge the main bearing of a steamship or gently crack an egg. There were adding machines which might put bank clerks out of a job a ‘stiletto or defensive umbrella’– always useful – and a ‘sportsman’s knife’ with eighty blades from Sheffield – not really so useful. One of the upstairs galleries was walled with stained glass through which the sun streamed in technicolour. Almost as brilliantly coloured were carpets from Axminster and ribbons from Coventry.

Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

The British contribution to the Great Exhibition.

There was a printing machine that could turn out 5,000 copies of the popular periodical the Illustrated London News in an hour, and another for printing and folding envelopes, a machine for making the new-fangled cigarettes, and an expanding hearse. There were folding pianos convenient for yachtsmen, and others so laden with curlicues that the keyboard was almost overwhelmed. There was a useful pulpit connected to pews by rubber tubes so that the deaf could hear, and &lsquotangible ink&rsquo for the blind, producing raised characters on paper. A whole gallery was devoted to those elegant, sophisticated carriages that predated the motorcar, and if you looked carefully you could find one or two velocipedes, the early version of bicycles. There were printing presses and textile machines and agricultural machines. There were examples of every kind of steam engine, including the giant railway locomotives&hellipIn short, as the Queen put it in her Diary, &lsquoevery conceivable invention&rsquo.

Canada sent a fire-engine with painted panels showing Canadian scenes, and a trophy of furs. India contributed an elaborate throne of carved ivory, a coat embroidered with pearls, emeralds and rubies, and a magnificent howdah and trappings for a rajah&rsquos elephant. (The elephant wearing it came from a museum of stuffed animals in England.)

The American display was headed by a massive eagle, wings outstretched, holding a drapery of the Stars and Stripes, all poised over one of the organs scattered throughout the building. Although the general idea of the Exhibition was the promotion of world peace, Colt&rsquos repeating fire-arms featured prominently, but so did McCormick&rsquos reaping machine. The exhibit that attracted most attention had to be Hiram Power&rsquos statue of a Greek Slave, in white marble, housed in her own little red velvet tent, wearing nothing but a small piece of chain. This was of course allegorical.


Religion and the Great Exhibition of 1851

New research challenges the standard portrayal of the Great Exhibition as a manifestly secular event confined to celebrating the success of science, technology, and manufacturing. This innovative reappraisal demonstrates that the Exhibition was widely understood by contemporaries to possess a religious dimension and generated controversy among religious groups. To popular acclaim Prince Albert bestowed legitimacy on the Exhibition by proclaiming it to be a display of divine providence. Others, however, interpreted the Exhibition as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. With anti-Catholic feeling ru . More

New research challenges the standard portrayal of the Great Exhibition as a manifestly secular event confined to celebrating the success of science, technology, and manufacturing. This innovative reappraisal demonstrates that the Exhibition was widely understood by contemporaries to possess a religious dimension and generated controversy among religious groups. To popular acclaim Prince Albert bestowed legitimacy on the Exhibition by proclaiming it to be a display of divine providence. Others, however, interpreted the Exhibition as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. With anti-Catholic feeling running high following the recent ‘papal aggression’, many Protestants roundly condemned those exhibits associated with Catholicism and some even denounced the Exhibition as a Papist plot. Catholics, for their part, criticized the Exhibition as a further example of religious repression, as did many secularists. Jews generally welcomed the Exhibition, as did Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists, and a wide spectrum of Anglicans—but all for different reasons. This diversity of perception is explored through such sources as contemporary sermons and, most importantly, the highly differentiated religious press. Several religious organizations energetically rose to the occasion, including the Religious Tract Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society, both of which mounted displays inside the Crystal Palace. Such evangelicals considered the Exhibition to be a divinely ordained opportunity to make converts, especially among ‘heathens’ and foreigners. To accomplish this task they initiated a range of dedicated activities including the distribution of countless tracts, printing Bibles in several languages, and holding special services. Taken all together these religious responses to the Exhibition shed fresh light on a crucial mid‐century event.


The Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was the first international exhibition of manufactured goods, and it had an incalculable effect on the course of art and design throughout the Victorian Age and beyond. It was modelled on successful French national exhibitions, but it was the first to open its doors to the world.

Prince Albert's Project
The Exhibition's chief proponent and cheerleader was Prince Albert. The Prince Consort envisaged a self-financing event, and encouraged a reluctant government to set up a Royal Commission to oversee the exhibition, to be held in Hyde Park, London.

The Commission called for architectural submissions for the exhibition hall, which was to cover an area of over 700,000 square feet. Over 200 submissions were received, but the Commission rejected them all in favour of its own plan, which was universally reviled as ugly and expensive. This latter objection proved all too true, for when the Commission called for tenders for the materials alone, they were appalled to learn it would cost up to £150,000.

Paxton's Crystal Palace
Then another plan surfaced, by Joseph Paxton. Initially, the Commission rejected Paxton's plan, but he took out newspaper ads to raise public support, and the Commissioners were forced to bow to public pressure. Paxton's innovative design called for a glass and steel structure, essentially a giant greenhouse, made of identical, interchangeable pieces, thus lowering materials cost considerably. Paxton's design was adopted, with the addition of a dome to allow space for some very tall trees in Hyde Park.

Jump testing
Rival architects claimed that the building was unsafe, and would collapse from the resonance set up by the feet of large crowds. So an experiment was set up. A model structure was built, and workmen walked back and forth in time and then haphazardly. Then they jumped up in the air together. No problem. As a final test, army troops were called in to march about. The test building passed the trial, so work proceeded on the real thing.

The numbers. Some quick facts and figures about Paxton's amazing creation:

  • The main building was 1848 feet long and 408 wide, enclosing 772,784 square feet (19 acres), an area six times that of St. Paul's Cathedral
  • The structure contained 4000 tons of iron, 900,000 feet of glass, and 202 miles of sash bars to hold it all together.


The Exhibition
Amazingly, the building, dubbed the "Crystal Palace", was ready on time and on budget. In fact, due to the presale of tickets, the exhibition was ensured a profit before it even opened on May 1, 1851. There were 17,000 exhibitors from as far away as China, and over 6 million visitors viewed goods ranging from silks to clocks, and furniture to farm machinery. The French were the big winners in terms of awards, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the British press.

The profit from the exhibition was used to purchase land in Kensington, where several museums were built, including the forerunner of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which carries on the spirit of the exhibition in its displays devoted to art and design. In fact, the road where several of these museums were built was called Exhibition Road.

As for the Crystal Palace itself, it was dismantled at the end of the exhibition and reassembled in Sydenham, South London. There it stayed as a tourist attraction until it burned down in 1936. If you want to get a sense of what this amazing building was like, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and take a look at the Palm House.


The Great Exhibition: Commerce & Christianity

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was not only a celebration of Victorian Britain’s scientific and economic pre-eminence but also a hymn to the religion that underpinned it, argues Geoffrey Cantor.

The scene depicted in the painting above shows Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Albert and other dignitaries, at the opening of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations on May 1st, 1851. Surrounding the raised platform stand members of the Royal Commission and others responsible for mounting the exhibition, together with a number of eminent guests, including acting commissioners representing several countries. Albert presented the commissioners’ report to the queen. After her brief response, the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed ‘with great fervency of manner’ for God’s blessing on the exhibition. The ceremony in the Crystal Palace ended with a massed choir singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. As the royal procession departed, the large crowd cheered enthusiastically.

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The Great Exhibition 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the idea of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Its full title was ‘The Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations’ but why was it necessary to stage such an expensive and exhaustive exhibition?

The reign of Queen Victoria is seen as one of great growth for the British economy but in the early years of her reign the country was rumbling with the threat of dissident groups who saw an even greater need for social reform. The last thing Britain or indeed any part of Europe needed in the late 1840’s was further revolution and unrest. As fortune would have it, Britain saw an upturn and the start of a period of economic growth. The Industrial Revolution, begun in the previous century had made possible an industrial and manufacturing scene to rival anywhere in the world. With vast natural resources to exploit and trading markets all over the globe, Britain was wonderfully placed to out trade all comers. However the French and American markets were fierce competitors and perhaps what the British lacked was the fire in the belly to promote the goods they were producing.

The idea for the exhibition came quite possibly from discussions between Prince Albert and Henry Cole of the Royal Society of Arts. A Royal Commission was appointed and the views of many parties was sought.

The Great Exhibition would become a show case for all the astonishing goods that British designers and manufacturers were producing. The show case itself must be a grand building, capable of housing the biggest display of goods ever brought under one roof and it had to be able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors. This was an enormous task, finance had to be raised, land procured, the building designed and the general public had to be involved if there was to be a successful outcome.

    • On 1st May 1851 over half a million people massed in Hyde Park in London to witness its opening.
    • Prince Albert captured the mood of the time when the British considered themselves to be ‘the workshop of the world’.
    • The exhibition was to be the biggest display of objects of industry from all over the world with over half of it given over to all that Britain manufactured. It was to be a showcase for a hundred thousand objects, of inventions, machines and creative works.
    • The ‘works of industry of all nations’ was to be a combination of visual wonder, competition (between manufacturers with prizes awarded) and shopping.
    • The main exhibition hall was a giant glass structure, with over a million square feet of glass. The man who designed it, Joseph Paxton, named it the ‘Crystal Palace’. In itself it was a wonderous thing to behold and covered nearly 20 acres, easily accommodating the huge elm trees that grew in the park.

    The success of the exhibition was astounding with over six million visitors attending in the five months it was open. This is an amazing figure given that the British population at the time stood at only 20 million.

    Another measure of its success was that the profits were used to help fund the building of some of our most iconic London landmarks, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


    The Great Exhibition of 1851: a Nation on Display

    A scholarly history of the Great Exhibition these days is both a welcome and a brave undertaking. Welcome, because despite the fact that the event has been a commonplace of school history teaching and a recognisable landmark for historians of the nineteenth century, it has not been appreciated in a three-dimensional manner. The hagiography of contemporary accounts, the generational revolt of mid-twentieth century historians, and post-colonial distaste for things Victorian have all prevented this - despite valiant corrective efforts by Asa Briggs, Paul Greenhalgh, and Utz Haltern. Brave, because the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, to give it its full title, was just that: a huge and monumental enterprise, of importance in art, science and technology, of political, economic and social significance, and involving not just a huge swathe of British society, but elements from just about the whole globe. To bring the Exhibition back to us in all its glory (and perhaps ugliness) is an exercise of vast complexity and scope.

    Jeffrey Auerbach's superbly packaged and well-researched book represents a significant step towards reappraising the Great Exhibition and recapturing its true meaning. Its main remit is to explore and identify the Exhibition's cultural value. This it does, in a way that is erudite, sensitive to detail, and yet also accessible and even entertaining. Divided into three general sections devoted to the making, experience and legacy of the Exhibition, Auerbach's account is drawn from archival material held at the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Commission of 1851, the private correspondence of Royal Commission members, newspapers and journals, and countless literary and private sources. It argues persuasively, that the Great Exhibition was given a multiplicity of meanings both by its organisers, as a way of achieving support for the event, as well as by its audience. The Great Exhibition's success - it becomes clear - owed in part to the great conversation that it caused.

    In this respect, Auerbach's book is helpful. Rather than portraying the Exhibition simplistically as a grand demonstration of national prowess fuelled by vanity, or as a covert imperialist plot, or even as a piece of bourgeois propaganda in the face of grinding poverty, it shows that a whiff of all of these characteristics and also many others surrounded the event in Hyde Park. Faced with the uphill prospect of generating support for the Exhibition - Auerbach counters the notion that it was popular from the start - and funding difficulties, a situation not dissimilar to the Greenwich Dome, the organisers of the Great Exhibition carefully chose to accommodate public concerns and anxieties to a great degree. The original desire of the group at the Society of Arts, which came to include Henry Cole, Charles Wentworth Dilke and John Scott Russell, to raise the standard of design of Britain's industrial produce in an artistic and scientific sense, was soon accompanied by Prime Minister Lord John Russell's concern to celebrate commercial liberalism and Free Trade, the liberal view of the advantages of the British political and social model, the East India Company's conviction of the wealth of the empire in terms of raw materials, the Church's belief in God's benevolence, and so on.

    The result of this situation was a display with a variety of purposes and often containing discordant themes. Hence, the Exhibition could incorporate elements of patriotism and even bigotry while trumpeting the value of internationalism and universal peace. The original intentions of the close circle round Prince Albert were overlaid by those involved in the Exhibition's wider organisation. Further interpretations were offered by press and public, and were not rejected but instead tolerated and even courted by the Royal Commission. As Auerbach concludes, the meaning of the Great Exhibition can not be reduced to one explanation alone. Another result was the popularity of the Exhibition: while observers disagreed with each other, the compromises of the Royal Commission ensured that people talked about it. Negative reactions were also valuable in rooting the Exhibition in the national consciousness.

    The heart of Auerbach's argument is that the variety of interpretations put forward and the discussion that took place regarding them was a major event in the formation of a British national identity. A nation, as he puts it, was on display. There were a variety of ways in which the Exhibition provoked further disintegration and partition in British society. For example, Auerbach shows how class-consciousness became more defined as a result of contact at the Exhibition and London's difference from the provinces was revisited during the process of its organisation. Certain sectors of British society were excluded from the discussion - notably the radical working classes and much of Ireland. Protestants and Catholics renewed old antipathies in their critiques of Gothic furniture or their commentaries on differences between southern and northern European exhibits. And, as mentioned, contradictions abounded in the message broadcast from the Crystal Palace in its original setting. However, despite all this, in general, the Exhibition and the discussion surrounding it helped create and disseminate a loosely defined set of values. A consensus of sorts about what was British was the result.

    Auerbach's book has many strengths. In terms of content, it pays due regard to the process of organisation of the Exhibition, often shirked by historians, perhaps on the (erroneous) assumption that the subject is a dry one. As Auerbach shows, local committees were sometimes in danger of being hijacked by Chartists, included women's fund-raising activities, and were played off each other by the Royal Commission in its attempt to drum up support via local rivalry. The archival correspondence on this subject provides an intriguing spotlight on local politics and issues, and the way in which local elites were exploited by the Royal Commission to drum up support for the Exhibition. The comparison of local committee fund-raising with electoral returns is useful in showing the umbilical link between the Exhibition and political liberalism - even while the Exhibition organisers tried to paint the event as a non-partisan, national affair. The process of organisation is, as Auerbach shows, important in terms of dictating the way the Exhibition finally looked. This also extends to the subject of funding, which is also given consideration, and the fact that, order to avoid accusations of sleaze, the Royal Commission had to throw the whole project upon public charity, which, in turn, meant allowing the public a say.

    The book is highly illustrated, and the images are apposite and fascinating. They include, for example, razor sharp cartoons from Punch, which drew much inspiration and mirth from the Exhibition's hypocrisies, but was generally won over to the event, maps showing how the Exhibition's success depended to a degree on recently-constructed railway lines, beautifully coloured reproductions of the display from Dickinson's and other picture books, examples of Crystal Palace memorabilia, demonstrating the Exhibition's imprint in a commercial sense, and photographs showing the smouldering remains of the building after its destruction by fire in 1936.

    Overall, the work contains a great deal that is of value in terms of research on the Great Exhibition, and also provides a fascinating read for the general reader. Auerbach has provided more detail than perhaps any other writer so far on the public discourse in relation to the Exhibition's organisation and its reception. The central thesis, that the Exhibition provided an opportunity for the British to discuss themselves, and to air views on moral, social and political questions, with the result that there was some overall integrative effect, is useful and thought-provoking. It carries forward with detailed literary and cultural research ideas raised by Walter Benjamin, Utz Haltern, Ingeborg Cleve and others.

    Putting forth a historical thesis and substantiating it always involves the danger of selectivity or over-emphasis - the reduction of the three- dimensionality of an event - especially if a book is still supposed to be marketable and readable: providing all angles on a topic and simultaneously presenting an argument with its requisite evidence is a tough task, and this is particularly the case with such a multifaceted event as the Great Exhibition. It would also, perhaps, be unfair to criticise Auerbach's book for not being something the author never intended: this, after all, is a look at the Great Exhibition's value as an exercise in self- reflection on the part of the British. It is to this purpose most of the book's structure is directed. This is the point of much of the evidence that is provided. Finally, it has to be said that Auerbach has made a brave effort to encompass as much in the way of explanatory background as feasible. His discussion of, for example, the aesthetic debates of the mid-century, or the possibility of a second industrial revolution, is appreciated.

    Yet one does feel that the momentum of the book allows certain contextual elements to appear as undeveloped and that, in some cases, a more defined treatment of these would aid rather than hinder Auerbach's thesis. Take, for example, the social question. In the first half of the book, the reader is given a detailed history of the organisation of the Exhibition and the way in which the guiding forces of aesthetic reformers, the Society of Arts, Prince Albert and the Government came together. While this is certainly contextual information, the question is somewhat allowed to hover in the reader's mind as to what the driving force was which brought these actors together. Later on, it becomes clear that concerns about the social divide arising from industrialisation were an important part of this. However, an initial discussion of the social and political context in Britain might have helped. Aesthetic reformers were afraid of the social consequences of declining standards of design, and were convinced that aesthetic education bred social harmony just as increased profits would put food on the table. The governments of Peel and Russell faced an ugly social situation in the 1840s, and were desperate to rebuild respect among the masses for government and to dispel the rift that had opened between the manufacturing classes and the landed interests. The continental revolutions in 1848 created a real sense of paranoia in political circles in Britain, and concentrated many minds on the value of an event that could uplift and unify the whole country.

    One figure to whom the social question was apparent was Prince Albert. Auerbach correctly notes Albert's reluctance to become involved in the Exhibition at first - in contrast to the popular wisdom of its being his project. Yet this stemmed not just from a finely tuned sense of the fragility of his own position in British constitutional life but also a conviction of the situation of weakness of the monarchy as an institution in Britain. A well-rounded depiction of Albert's position was rather needed, and one wonders if this had to do with the omission of the Royal Archives at Windsor from an otherwise impressive list of archives visited. The Royal Archives collection held at the Royal Commission of 1851, which was used, though it is voluminous, is essentially the weeded- out official material. Albert's personal thoughts are recorded in the private correspondence at Windsor. Certainly, behind Albert's apparently flippant responses to the fears of Frederick William IV of Prussia that the Exhibition might spark off revolution lay an acute awareness of the political message his involvement in the project was sending to the people, as well as to absolutists abroad. Once the Exhibition's popularity was assured, he moved to support it openly, in the knowledge that this would constitute a new venture for the monarchy, and that this was an urgent necessity in Britain at this time. The monarchy would be seen to be dirtying its hands in industry, and working for the good of the masses. This would extend beyond the symbolic to a personal involvement quite repugnant to foreign monarchs: Queen Victoria's presence at the opening ceremony, walking unprotected before thousands of people, caused a sensation abroad because it was a death- defying show of confidence of the monarch in her people as well as a demonstration of the unity of the monarchy with industry.

    Another subject, which might have been given earlier priority, and firmer treatment, was Free Trade. Auerbach is right to point out the equivocation on this subject of the Exhibition organisers. They were keen to include all sections of Britain in the project, for financial reasons as well as to help calm social differences, and so resisted connections of the Exhibition with Free Trade in their rhetorical pronouncements and any official correspondence. Still, one senses an ambiguity in Auerbach's own identification of the Exhibition as a Free Trade exercise. Indeed, the early stages of the book tend to deny the link, whereas the latter affirm it. Perhaps this arises from a reluctance to accuse the Exhibition organisers brazenly as dishonest on this score - as arguing that the Exhibition had nothing to do with Free Trade, when it obviously did. Auerbach points out, for example, that notable protectionists were included on the Royal Commission. However, here again it feels rather as if the bull is not being grasped by the horns. The mere facts that Peel was not only involved from the start, but also served as an important back-room fixer in the early stages of the Exhibition's organisation point to a concrete connection with Free Trade. Peel also served as a conduit to Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, who was seriously worried by the danger of a protectionist backlash at this time, and was keen to see something done which would consolidate the Free Trade legislation of 1846-8. Yes, the Royal Commission included Lord Stanley for the non-Peelite conservatives. But it has to be said that Stanley's protectionism was weak, and his credentials as a spokesman for landed interests were already being publicly questioned. The Exhibition would serve for him, as well as for many others conservatives (including Disraeli), as the scene of his conversion to Free Trade. Auerbach is right to point out the efforts the Exhibition's organisers undertook to include all parties, but what Peel, Russell, and even Albert, were aiming for was a new consensus in the wake of the transition to Free Trade in other words, to perpetuate it.

    The social question and Free Trade are two dimensions of Auerbach's book which might have been confronted more squarely, had the work not been configured so strongly round its integrative thesis. The same reason appears to have caused another aspect to have been dropped altogether: namely, the international angle. The book does talk about foreigners. However, the discussion revolves solely round the image British people had of foreigners, with a view to showing how they felt they differed from them. In other words, the aim of showing how British prejudices and views on foreigners helped forge a sense of national identity, which Auerbach fulfils superbly, drives the treatment of foreign involvement in the Exhibition: how foreign countries arranged their exhibitions, what foreigners thought of the event, and the impact it had abroad, are omitted. This is rather unfortunate, perhaps, as it tends to support one of long-held popular notions about the Exhibition that it was a British affair. Readers today have to be reminded that half of the building was devoted to foreign goods, even a large part of the British section consisted of imperial produce. The Exhibition's organisers - and Albert particularly so - were concerned not just that British manufacturers should see foreign artistic produce, but that the Exhibition should have an economic and political message abroad, and thus they went to great lengths to involve foreign countries. The post- revolutionary economic and political circumstances in North America and Europe, arguably, meant the Exhibition had results there greater than might otherwise have been the case - for example in terms of technology transfer or the stabilisation of regimes. The title A Nation on Display is apposite in terms of Britain's view of itself and the formation of a sense of 'Britishness'. But it might equally have encompassed foreigners' perceptions of this moderately liberal, industrialised and commercially permissive country. Indeed, Auerbach might have acknowledged Haltern's argument that while it served as a spring-board for internationalism in many forms, and was arguably an important milestone in the process of globalisation, the Great Exhibition also did much to solidify senses of national unity and divergence abroad, and not just in Britain.

    One or two other elements fell prey to the need to argue the Exhibition's integrating value. The Exhibition's classification system is given some solid treatment, though the way it arose from the London committee of selection is not. The jury system is not treated in great detail, possibly because it of its complicated nature, possibly because it constituted one of the most concrete examples of international collaboration, and may have clouded the issue. Beyond a brief discussion of the technology revolution, economic aspects of the Exhibition are downplayed - though this is a common feature of historical literature on exhibitions, where economic results are hard to quantify. The treatment of the political legacy of the Exhibition, in terms of its success in securing exactly what Albert, Peel and Russell had hoped - a new liberal consensus - could be more biographically detailed.

    To some extent, then, Auerbach's book does not allow the Exhibition to speak for itself. However, it more than succeeds when it comes to arguing its case that the Exhibition was an important stage in the development of a British national identity. Here it is a solid, thought provoking and satisfying piece of scholarly work, and should attract the attention of cultural and political historians of the nineteenth century. It is also destined to reach a wide readership. Its thesis will help the re-evaluation of the Great Exhibition after 150 years of partial treatment.


    This unit is relevant to teachers following National Curriculum History - Breadth Study: Unit 11a: Victorian Britain.

    • A study of the impact of significant individuals, events and changes in work and transport on the lives of men, women and children from different sections of society.
    • Knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past.

    Pupils should be taught: to identify and describe reasons for, and results of, historical events, situations, and changes in the periods studied.


    The Great Exhibition transforms Britain

    Traditionally, the Crystal Palace has been seen as the starting point of a great Victorian era of peace, industry and empire &ndash and so it was, though we now know that it was also something much more. This spectacular centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, opened by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851 and straddling the year until it closed its doors officially on 11 October, celebrated with more than a touch of complacency the peaceful triumph of Britain&rsquos unique compound elite, part-aristocratic, part-capitalist. Britain had escaped the revolutions that had plunged continental Europe into social division and civil war in 1848, and the planning and execution of the Great Exhibition in 1851 was naturally timed to remind the world of that fact.

    The festival celebrated Britain&rsquos industrial supremacy, both in its form and its content. A vast shed &ndash a blend of greenhouse, railway terminus and museum, half again as long as the Millennium Dome built 150 years later &ndash the Crystal Palace was constructed from prefabricated and interchangeable parts made of the most modern materials, iron and glass. It was deliberately filled with products of great size and ingenuity to shock and awe &ndash huge blocks of coal, the largest steam locomotives, hydraulic presses and steam-hammers, a scale model of the Liverpool docks with 1,600 miniature ships in full rigging sewing machines, ice-making machines, cigarette-rolling machines, machines to mint medals and machines to fold envelopes.

    If the exhibition was open to all nations, the results were confidently expected to demonstrate British superiority. The aim was to show the global dominance that Britain had achieved not by rapine or conquest but by virtue and hard work &ndash steam engines and cotton-spinning machines were held up by the novelist Thackeray as &lsquotrophies of her bloodless wars&rsquo.

    But that complacent picture does not capture the sheer exuberant messiness of the Crystal Palace, or the full range of excitements through which it prefigures the modern life that we live today. Though responsibility for the Great Exhibition was vested in a Royal Commission crammed with the great and the good, and led by the prince consort, a free press kept up a loud and rowdy running commentary, and every segment of a diverse and disputatious public opinion &ndash including the large majority who were formally excluded from political representation &ndash offered up its own views. When after three weeks of more exclusive viewing by the &lsquorespectable&rsquo public the Crystal Palace was opened to &lsquoshilling tickets&rsquo on 26 May, the floodgates were opened and six million people poured through them in the next four months.

    In fact, the Great Exhibition gave a decisive push to physical mobility &ndash travel to it has been called &lsquothe largest movement of population ever to have taken place in Britain&rsquo &ndash and it can be said to have kick-started the entire apparatus of the modern tourist industry: the railway journey, the package holiday, the hotel (or at least the B&B) and the restaurant were all to be transformed from elite into popular experiences. Thomas Cook alone brought 165,000 people to the Crystal Palace from the Midlands on cheap excursion trains.

    To orient these strangers, street signs of the modern type had to be invented. To comfort them, public lavatories were for the first time installed. London, which had been used to dominating national attention in the eighteenth century but had had to share the spotlight with the great cities of the north in the early nineteenth, once again became the nation&rsquos cynosure. In the following years, it increased its share of the national population and began to resume a stature that it has never since lost.

    What had the masses come to see, and what did they make of it? Undoubtedly they were awed by the great machines and demonstrations of power. They would also have been aware of the formidable police presence &ndash anything from 200 to 600 policemen. On the other hand, they had a huge variety of sights to choose from &ndash there were 100,000 exhibits &ndash and could gravitate freely to those that pleased or intrigued them. These were often trinkets and gadgets on a human scale that people could relate to, could imagine in their homes: consumer goods of paper and glass, new styles of furniture, brands of toothpaste and soap.

    A visit to the Crystal Palace was not supposed to be a shopping expedition. Exhibitors were not allowed to display prices or to sell over the counter. But supply and demand could not be so easily kept apart. Brochures, posters, trade cards and price sheets proliferated. Outside the Crystal Palace, the rest of London did its best to capitalize on the visitors. Historians now think that the modern age of advertising was opened by the Great Exhibition &ndash the primitive shop signs, handbills and small-print newspaper adverts of the eighteenth century were gradually transformed by a panoply of new technologies, leading to the billboard, the illustrated display advertisement, the department-store window. Among the visitors in 1851 was a 20-year-old draper&rsquos apprentice from Yorkshire, William Whiteley, who was inspired to move his theatre of operations to London and who in the 1860s expanded his draper&rsquos shop in Westbourne Grove into Britain&rsquos first department store, Whiteley&rsquos, the Universal Provider.

    These surging crowds and their clamour for goods and thrills drew snooty criticisms of vulgarity, and we have long been familiar with comments such as John Ruskin&rsquos &ndash he called the palace &lsquoa cucumber-frame between two chimneys&rsquo &ndash and William Morris&rsquo &ndash he called it &lsquowonderfully ugly&rsquo. The likes of Ruskin and Morris were offended because the palace&rsquos projectors had portrayed it as a chance to refine popular tastes, whereas they saw only crowd-pleasing cheapness.

    Thanks to the railway, visiting the Crystal Palace was not only a national but an international phenomenon. Rail connections between Paris and London had been completed just prior to 1851 and in the year of the exhibition the numbers of travellers between France and England nearly doubled to 260,000. The international nature of the exhibits gave visitors a powerful sense of a newly wide world &ndash and, with steam facilitating travel both by land and by sea, a shrinking world.

    The British Empire was literally at the centre of the Crystal Palace, with an Indian Court filled with fine materials and finished goods meant explicitly to strengthen trade between metropole and empire. These were hardly trophies of bloodless wars. But there was a strong streak of idealism present, an idealism that did see free trade between equals as the civilized substitute for war. Exhibits from America drew special attention to an emerging power, now seen less as rebellious offspring, more as a potential trading partner. Sensationally, the Americans&rsquo McCormick reaping machine beat its British rivals in a competition, harvesting twenty acres of corn in a day.

    Visitors of 1851 got a glimpse of what we call globalization. The telegraph was on display &ndash used to communicate from one end of the giant structure to the other &ndash and contemporaries were well aware of its potential use for global communications, talking of a forthcoming &lsquonetwork of wires&rsquo and a &lsquonever-ceasing interchange of news&rsquo. In about twenty years, that network would span continents in about fifty it would span the world.

    We are now also better aware that the Crystal Palace had an afterlife, reconstructed on a new site in south London &ndash and serving for another eighty years as the &lsquoPalace of the People&rsquo, responsible among other things for inaugurating the dinosaur craze (the life-size models are among the few fragments of the Victorian period to survive on the site) and for pioneering a dizzying range of commercial entertainments, from high-wire acts to aeronautical displays. Even if we confine ourselves to the year 1851, the Crystal Palace can be seen as a pivot on which swings a door that opens on to the modernity we enjoy today.

    What we can see more clearly now than people could then was that the generally optimistic hopes of projectors and visitors, while realized to an extraordinary extent, also cast darker shadows &ndash the 100,000 exhibits have multiplied a hundred thousand-fold in our consumer society, for ill as well as for good the number of police have multiplied too internationalism and the shrinking globe did not betoken world peace and just imagine the carbon footprint left by all those machines . . .

    The country in which the Crystal Palace was built in 1851 was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland &ndash as it had been since 1801, when the Union with Ireland was inaugurated, and would be until the partition of Ireland after the First World War. The great social and economic changes of the Industrial Revolution had bonded Wales, Scotland and England more firmly together South Wales, Lowland Scotland and the north of England, in particular, had all become more urban and industrial in character, more liberal in politics, and more nonconformist in religion.

    Nationalism was not a potent force in any of these areas. But Ireland had been an exception in all these respects earlier in the century, and by 1851 had become even more so. Hit by the holocaust of the Irish famine in the late 1840s, Ireland&rsquos population would dwindle over the rest of the century as emigrants poured out of the country. Between 1841 and 1901 Britain&rsquos population grew from 26.7 million to 41.5 million Ireland&rsquos dropped from 8.2 million to 4.5 million.

    While living standards were rising in the second half of the nineteenth century for most of the population, these rises were distributed unequally &ndash probably more unequally than at any other point in British history. The top 0.5 per cent of the population accounted for 25 per cent of the nation&rsquos income. In comparison, the same share is earned by the top 10 per cent today. Wealth was distributed still more unequally. There was a class of super-rich, known as the &lsquoupper ten thousand&rsquo, comprised mainly of landowners and bankers. Three-quarters of the population would have been employed in manual working-class occupations, most of the rest as shopkeepers and clerks.

    Opportunities for social mobility were severely limited, and living conditions for most remained cramped and unhealthy. As a result, it was not only the Irish who emigrated &ndash emigration from all parts of the British Isles escalated steeply over this half-century, especially to the United States, Canada and Australia.

    However, Britain was very far from a nation in decline in this period. Its share of world manufacturing output held up remarkably well, at just under a fifth of the total in 1900, practically where it had been in 1860. The advent of universal, free and compulsory education in the 1870s and 1880s meant that literacy became nearly total by the end of the century.

    Despite extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884, however, not even all adult males were entitled to vote, and some adult males had more votes than others. The United Kingdom in this period was in many respects &lsquofree&rsquo but still unequal.

    OTHER KEY DATES IN THIS PERIOD

    1854 The Crimean War begins. Despite the high hopes expressed at the Crystal Palace, the second half of the century was not a period of unbroken peace. The Crimean War pitted Britain and France against Russian expansion into the Ottoman Empire. It lasted two years, left contemporaries with a big bill and an inquest into military disorganization, and bequeathed to posterity Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade (at the battle of Balaclava) and, indeed, the balaclava (the headwarmers knitted for British troops to guard against cold Russian nights).

    1857 Indian Mutiny. Only a mutiny, of course, from the British point of view &ndash now more frequently called a &lsquorebellion&rsquo. Sepoys &ndash locally recruited soldiers &ndash protested against conditions in the East India Company&rsquos army. A direct result was the end of East India Company rule and the incorporation of India into the formal empire.

    1867 Second Reform Act. Although this Act gave the vote to only about a third of adult males in England and Wales, it marked the point at which the United Kingdom began to think of itself as a democracy. But it also underscored the inequitable treatment of Ireland, where fewer than a sixth of adult males got the vote in a separate Act.

    1869 Origins of women&rsquos suffrage. Often overlooked in the shadow of the Second Reform Act, a reform of the municipal franchise in 1869 gave the vote in local elections to unmarried women who were heads of households. This betokened a growing role for women in social and political affairs below the parliamentary level.

    1884 Third Reform Act. A further extension of the franchise to adult males, it was followed by a Redistribution Act that created equal electoral districts, more or less the electoral system as we know it today.

    1889 London Dock Strike. Although the Trades Union Congress can be dated back to 1868, the London Dock Strike brought trade unionism into the centre of public life for the first time, largely because it demonstrated that &lsquoordinary&rsquo workers could strike as well &ndash not only skilled workers seeking to protect their trade privileges.

    1896 Origins of the tabloid press. The Harmsworth brothers (later lords Northcliffe and Rothermere) founded the Daily Mail, the first of a new breed of cheap and cheerful newspapers. It cost a halfpenny &ndash half the cost of the standard cheap newspaper &ndash and specialized in shorter human-interest stories and a vigorously populist editorial tone.

    1899 The Boer War breaks out. The decades of &lsquopeace&rsquo since the Crimean War had been marred by repeated colonial wars however, these had required little British manpower. This colonial war &ndash against Dutch settlers in southern Africa&ndash required a serious mobilization and, like the Crimean War, it left behind a bitter taste in human and financial costs, as well as concerns about Britain&rsquos war-fighting capacity.


    The opening ceremony took place on 1 st May 1851. A thousand carriages passed through the gates of Hyde Park, plus two and a half thousand cabs and other vehicles. There were over half a million spectators, filling Hyde Park and Green Park. Thirty thousand people who could afford season tickets were given privileged access into the Crystal Palace. Ambassadors from many nations stood in the centre, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London, the aged Duke of Wellington and many dignitaries. It was reported that a Chinese man was amongst them dressed in traditional costume. No-one knew who he was but it was assumed he was important, perhaps even the Chinese emperor, so he was placed beside the Archbishop and the Duke of Wellington. (It later transpired that he was an imposter). A model frigate floated on the Serpentine to fire a salute, while the balloonist Charles Spencer was ready to ascend as soon as the exhibition began.

    Victoria and Albert arrived for the opening accompanied by the Prince of Wales and Princess Royal. A thousand-voice choir sang the National Anthem to the sound of a 4,700-pipe organ made by Henry Willis. Albert gave a report on the exhibits and prizes to be awarded and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus was sung. Paxton and Fox then headed a tour of inspection. Victoria declared the exhibition open, repeated by Lord Bredalbane as Lord Steward. The salute was fired across the Serpentine.

    William Makepeace Thackeray celebrated the Great Exhibition in his May-Day Ode of 1851:

    From Mississippi and from Nile —
    From Baltic, Ganges, Bosphorous,
    In England’s ark assembled thus
    Are friend and guest.
    Look down the mighty sunlit aisle,
    And see the sumptuous banquet set,
    The brotherhood of nations met.
    Around the feast!

    Swell, organ, swell your trumpet blast,
    March, Queen and Royal pageant, march
    By splendid aisle and springing arch
    Of this fair Hall:
    And see! above the fabric vast,
    God’s boundless Heaven is bending blue,
    God’s peaceful sunlight’s beaming through,
    And shines o’er all.

    That night Victoria wrote: “This is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives, with which, to my great pride and joy, the name of my dearly beloved Albert is for ever associated!”. That week’s issue of the Illustrated London News, which described the opening, sold over 200,000 copies, more than double its normal circulation.

    Unusually, it was an international event. Equal space was given over to exhibits from Britain and the colonies, which were housed at the western half of the Crystal Palace, and other countries in the eastern half. Each country was allowed to choose how they presented their exhibits. Organiser of the exhibits was Dr. John Lyon. From Europe, France was the largest foreign contributor. Other exhibitors included Russia, Belgium, Spain, Turkey and Greece. Various German and Italian states had exhibits because they had not yet formed as unified nations. Some South American countries, the United States, Egypt, Persia, Morocco, and Egypt also attended.

    There were 100,000 exhibits, from over 15,000 contributors, stretching for more than ten miles of frontage. They included many inventions, pieces of engineering, and curiosities. The British half consisted mainly of machines and other inventions, while much of the foreign half of items of an artistic type. The most popular sections were the Machinery Courts. The official catalogue came in three volumes. The world’s largest diamond, the 186-carat Koh-i-Noor, (‘Mountain of Light’) was displayed in a special cage and later incorporated into the British Crown Jewels. Objects that were too large to fit inside the Crystal Palace were displayed on the outside. They included the statue of Richard I by Carlo Marochetti that now stands outside the Parliament building. Medals and prizes were awarded to those judged the best. The French composer Hector Berlioz was one of the judges for musical instruments and stayed in London for the duration of the exhibition.

    In the middle of the central transept stood a great fountain. Prince Albert had seen a pair of candelabra at the showroom of Follett Osler on Oxford Street that had been ordered by the Egyptian leader for the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed at Mecca. It gave him the idea of commissioning the company to create the Crystal Fountain. It weighed four tons, stood 27 feet high, and was made of crystal glass. It was so evident to every visitor that it became the point of rendezvous for anyone wishing to meet friends, or for those separated from their party.

    The exhibit from sanitary engineer George Jennings were his ‘Monkey Closets’ in the ‘Retiring Rooms’, the exhibition’s public toilets. Public toilets were such an innovation that they aroused great interest. Over 800,000 visitors relieved themselves during the course of the exhibition, each paying one penny for the privilege, creating the euphemism “to spend a penny”.


    Watch the video: The Great Exhibition