The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition
Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851
The Great Exhibition 1851
The enormous Crystal Palace went from plans to grand opening in just nine months.
Exhibition interior
The front door of the Great Exhibition
Paxton's Crystal Palace enclosed full-grown trees in Hyde Park.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or The Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first in a series of World's Fair exhibitions of culture and industry that were to become a popular 19th-century feature. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, the spouse of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. It was attended by numerous notable figures of the time, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, and George Eliot.



The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was organized by Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Henry, George Wallis, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It was arguably a response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844; indeed, its prime motive was for "Great Britain [to make] clear to the world its role as industrial leader."[1] Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, was an enthusiastic promoter of the self-financing exhibition; the government was persuaded to form the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to establish the viability of hosting such an exhibition. Queen Victoria and her family visited three times. Although the Great Exhibition was a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, Great Britain sought to prove its own superiority. The English exhibits at the Great Exhibition "held the lead in almost every field where strength, durability, utility and quality were concerned, whether in iron and steel, machinery or textiles."[2] Great Britain also sought to provide the world with the hope of a better future. Europe had just struggled through "two difficult decades of political and social upheaval," and now Great Britain hoped to show that technology, particularly its own, was the key to a better future.[1]

Forgan says of the Exhibition that[3] "Large, piled-up ‘trophy’ exhibits in the central avenue revealed the organizers’ priorities; they generally put art or colonial raw materials in the most prestigious place. Technology and moving machinery were popular, especially working exhibits." He also notes that visitors "could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth. Scientific instruments were found in class X, and included electric telegraphs, microscopes, air pumps and barometers, as well as musical, horological and surgical instruments."

A special building, nicknamed The Crystal Palace, or "The Great Shalimar"[4] was built to house the show. It was designed by Joseph Paxton with support from structural engineer Charles Fox, the committee overseeing its construction including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and went from its organisation to the grand opening in just nine months. The building was architecturally adventurous, drawing on Paxton's experience designing greenhouses for the sixth Duke of Devonshire. It took the form of a massive glass house, 1848 feet (about 563 metres) long by 454 feet (about 138 metres) wide and was constructed from cast iron-frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. From the interior, the building's large size was emphasized with trees and statues; this served, not only to add beauty to the spectacle, but also to demonstrate man's triumph over nature.[1] The Crystal Palace was an enormous success, considered an architectural marvel, but also an engineering triumph that showed the importance of the Exhibition itself.[2] The building was later moved and re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenham in south London, an area that was renamed Crystal Palace. It was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936.[4]

Six million people—equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time—visited the exhibition. The Great Exhibition made a surplus of £186,000 (£16,190,000 as of 2011),[5], which was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. They were all built in the area to the south of the exhibition, nicknamed Albertopolis, alongside the Imperial Institute. The remaining surplus was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research; it continues to do so today.[6]

The Exhibition caused controversy as its opening approached. Some conservatives feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob,[7] whilst radicals such as Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities. King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover, shortly before his death, wrote to Lord Strangford about it:

The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind, and I am astonished the ministers themselves do not insist on her at least going to Osborne during the Exhibition, as no human being can possibly answer for what may occur on the occasion. The idea ... must shock every honest and well-meaning Englishman. But it seems everything is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.[8]

In modern times, the Great Exhibition is a symbol of the Victorian Age, and its thick catalogue, illustrated with steel engravings, is a primary source for High Victorian design.[9] A memorial to the exhibition, crowned with a statue of Prince Albert, is located behind the Royal Albert Hall.[10] It is inscribed with statistics from the exhibition, including the number of visitors and exhibitors (British and foreign), and the profit made.

Notable exhibits

Exhibits came, not only from throughout Britain, but also its expanding imperial colonies, such as Australia, India and New Zealand, and foreign countries, such as Denmark, France and Switzerland. Numbering 13,000 in total, they included a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine that was sent from the United States.[11]

  • The Koh-i-Noor, the world's biggest known diamond at the time of the Great Exhibition.
  • The early 8th-century Tara Brooch, discovered only in 1850, the finest Irish penannular brooch, was exhibited by the Dublin jeweller George Waterhouse along with a display of his fashionable Celtic Revival jewellery.
  • Alfred Charles Hobbs used the exhibition to demonstrate the inadequacy of several respected locks of the day.
  • Frederick Bakewell demonstrated a precursor to today's fax machine.
  • Mathew Brady was awarded a medal for his daguerreotypes.
  • William Chamberlin, Jr. of Sussex exhibited what may have been the world's first voting machine, which counted votes automatically and employed an interlocking system to prevent over-voting.[12]
  • Firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt demonstrated his prototype for the 1851 Colt Navy and also his older Walker and Dragoon revolvers.
  • The Tempest Prognosticator, a barometer using leeches, was demonstrated at the Great Exhibition.
  • The America's Cup yachting event began with a race held in conjunction with the Great Exhibition.
  • George Jennings designed the first public conveniences in the Retiring Rooms of the Crystal Palace, for which he charged one penny.
  • Gold ornaments and silver enameled handicrafts fabricated by the Khudabadi Sindhi Swarankar from Sindh.
  • C.C. Hornung of Copenhagen, Denmark, showed his single-cast ironframe for a piano, the first made in Europe.

Admission fees

Admission prices to the Crystal Palace varied according to the date of visitation, with ticket prices decreasing as the parliamentary season drew to an end and London traditionally emptied of wealthy individuals. Prices varied from three guineas (£274.13 as of 2011),[5](two for a woman) per day, £1 per day, five shillings per day, down to one shilling (£4.35 as of 2011),[5] per day. The one-shilling ticket proved most successful amongst the industrial classes, with four and a half million shillings (£19,580,504 as of 2011),[5]being taken from attendees in this manner.[13] 2,500 tickets were printed for the opening day, all of which were bought.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O'Brien. Civilization in the West. 7th Edition. Vol. C. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.
  2. ^ a b Ffrench, Yvonne. The Great Exhibition: 1851. London: Harvill Press, 1950.
  3. ^ Forgan, S. A compendium of victorian culture. Nature, 403 (6880), 596.
  4. ^ a b "The Great Exhibition of 1851". Duke Magazine. 2006-11. Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  5. ^ a b c d UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Lawrence H. Officer (2010) "What Were the UK Earnings and Prices Then?" MeasuringWorth.
  6. ^ The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. "About Us". Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  7. ^ a b Newth, A.M. (1967). Britain and the World: 1789-1901. New York: Penguin Books. p. 97. ISBN 0140803041. 
  8. ^ Van der Kiste 2004, pp. 206–207.
  9. ^ A copy of the Illustrated Catalogue is available on Google books at
  10. ^ "Memorial to the exhibition". Royal Institute of British Architects. Retrieved 14 December 2010. 
  11. ^ "The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace". Victorian Station. Accessed 3 February 2009.
  12. ^ "The Great Exhibition," Manchester Times (24 May 1851).
  13. ^ "Entrance Costs to the Great Exhibition". Fashion Era. Retrieved 3 February 2009. 

Further reading

  • Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. The Great Exhibition of 1851, London: HMSO. First edition 1951, second edition 1981.
  • Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939, Manchester University Press, 1988.
  • Leapman, Michael. The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, Headline Books, 2001.
  • Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Dickinson Brothers, London, 1854.

External links

Preceded by
World Expositions
Succeeded by
Exposition Universelle (1855)

Coordinates: 51°30′12″N 0°10′11″W / 51.5032°N 0.1697°W / 51.5032; -0.1697

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