The Great Exhibition of 1851

Before I begin, I would first like to wish a Happy New Year to anyone who happens to be reading this blog! I have written blogposts on a fairly regular basis for the past couple of years, but there was a seriously slack period at the end of last year which has meant no new posts since September 2012. This is now in the process of being rectified, mainly due to my New Year’s resolution, which is to write at least one new blogpost every month.

I very much enjoy writing and sharing my posts and have missed doing so recently. If you have read any of mine before, thank you and I hope you enjoy this one just as much! If you haven’t read any of my posts before, welcome and I hope you choose to read a few more!

This month’s topic is the Great Exhibition of 1851, which most people have probably already heard about in some form or another. I remember being told about it when we did the Victorians at school, but I don’t think it was elaborated on to any great extent and I didn’t really take much further interest in it. However, I recently started listening to Bill Bryson’s “At Home” audiobook, which is basically a history of domestic life, and it begins with a description of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition which I found absolutely fascinating. I also discovered that today’s date (11th January) is the same as that on which the first meeting of the Great Exhibition committee was held, in 1850. This therefore seems a fitting date on which to publish this blogpost.

The story starts with a man called Henry Cole, who was a civil servant and also an inventor. He visited the Paris exhibition of 1849 and was so excited by it that he became fired with enthusiasm to do the same thing here in the UK, but on a much grander scale. The Paris exhibition had been limited to French manufacturers, but Henry’s vision was to feature exhibits from all over the world. He persuaded several important people, including Prince Albert, of the value of his idea and the first committee meeting was held on 11th January 1850. The opening was planned for the 1st May 1851, giving them just sixteen months to “design and erect the largest building ever envisioned…fit out restaurants, restrooms, employ staff, sort out insurance and police protection and publicise the event, in a country that wasn’t at all convinced it wanted such a costly and disruptive production in the first place.” On hearing this, I could not help being reminded of last year’s Olympic Games, which was also viewed with a similar level of contempt and cynicism by most of the UK, right up until the Opening Ceremony!

The organisers held an open competition to decide who would design the building that would house the Great Exhibition for the six months of its duration. 245 entries were submitted, all of which were deemed to be completely unworkable. Seeing as they were considerably short of time and still had absolutely no suggestion of a hint of a building design, the committee decided to set up another committee for the express purpose of solving the issue, which was named “The Building Committee of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations”. Surely such a snappily-titled group could hardly fail to come up with a decent and workable design??

The group consisted of Matthew Digby Wyatt, a young architect who had yet to build anything and was currently earning his living as a writer, Charles Wilde, who was an engineer and had actually built things, (although the objects he had concentrated on constructing had hitherto consisted solely of boats and bridges), Owen Jones, who was an interior designer and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous engineer, who was capable of stunning brilliance, but was also worryingly inconsistent regarding the quality of his output, as we shall see.

This new committee came up with a “vast low dark shed of a building” with an iron dome 200 feet in diameter (designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel) on top of it. Apart from its staggeringly unattractive appearance and prohibitively low light levels, it would take thirty million bricks to build, and it was not certain whether such a vast number of bricks could even be sourced in time, let alone made into a building! In addition, the dome itself could not be constructed until the one-storey building beneath it was complete, which would cause further delay to the whole project.

In the wake of the design committee’s total and abject failure to come up with a workable design and with only ten months to go before the opening day, there did not seem to be much hope left for the Exhibition ever taking place at all. The project was saved by a singularly unlikely figure, that of a gardener named Joseph Paxton. He came from a poor farming family and was apprenticed as a gardener from the age of 14. Clearly having found his vocation, six years later he was running an experimental arboretum for the Horticultural Society. Whilst working there he happened to meet the Duke of Devonshire who was apparently particularly impressed with his strong clear voice – the Duke himself was hard of hearing and “appreciated clarity of speech”. He was promptly hired as head gardener on the Duke’s Chatsworth estate – at the tender age of 22!

The list of Paxton’s achievements even before he started working on the building for the Great Exhibition are so long that I fear I risk becoming unpardonably dull if I mention them all here. To give some idea of his genius for creation and design, I will describe only two of them. First, he designed the world’s first municipal park at Birkenhead (how he got involved in that project I have no idea), which Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux later used as the basis for Central Park in New York. Second, and more relevant to the Great Exhibition project, he had designed a huge tropical hothouse on the Chatsworth estate called The Great Stove, which was large enough for Queen Victoria to ride around in her horse-drawn carriage when she came to visit. If you have seen pictures of the Crystal Palace, you may have already guessed where Paxton got his inspiration from. Having heard about the design issues surrounding the building that was supposed to house the Great Exhibition – it had to be a solid, stable building capable of holding an enormous number of exhibition stands and people whilst also being relatively simple to remove once the Exhibition was over – he came up with a plan that was very similar to the hothouses he had already designed for the Duke’s tropical flowers.

As well as requiring a mind-boggling amount of glass to build, Paxton’s design actually broke almost all of the competition rules, including the fact that it was submitted after the deadline and made use of enormous quantities of wooden flooring – combustible materials were forbidden. It was also uncertain whether the design would even work, no building that big had ever been built before, let alone out of such an apparently flimsy and fragile material as glass. There was a serious concern that the building would overheat or that the beams supporting the structure might expand in the heat and send huge panes of glass crashing down onto the visitors below. However, the organisers had little choice in accepting Paxton’s design, it was either that or admit total defeat and abandon the project altogether.

The building was constructed in five months and required no bricks, mortar or even foundations. It was simply sheets of glass bolted together, thus providing an ingenious solution to the problem of a strong but temporary structure. It required a million square feet of glass, a figure which represented about a third of all the glass usually produced in Britain in a year. The recent invention of plate glass in France, closely followed by the even cheaper production of sheet glass, combined with the abolition of the Windows Tax in 1851 and also the Glass Tax meant that the cost of glass production virtually halved, just when such a vast amount of glass was needed. This was indeed a fortuitous concatenation of circumstances, without which the project may well have gone far over budget, or possibly not even been finished at all.

Paxton also developed several building innovations that speeded up construction considerably, designing a special platform that allowed workmen to move along the structure and install 18,000 panes of glass a week and a machine to enable them to put up 2,000 feet of guttering a day – twenty miles of it were required in all. The finished building was 1851 feet long (a figure deliberately chosen to match the year), 408 across and nearly 110 feet high. It contained 293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron trusses and four St Paul’s cathedrals could have fitted inside it – large enough to entirely envelop an avenue of elms (otherwise destined to be felled in order to make way for the new building). The official title of the building was ‘The Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’, but it was nicknamed the Crystal Palace by a Punch columnist called Douglas Gerald and the name stuck. The final cost of the structure was £80,000, remarkably low and due in no small part to Paxton’s ingenious and time-saving construction methods.

As Bryson notes, the building would have been an awe-inspiring sight based on its size alone, but in addition to this, such a large quantity of glass had never been used in construction before and the spectacle of such a magnificent building glittering in the spring sunshine would have been something entirely new to the visiting public. It was a fittingly impressive setting to hold the greatest exhibition the world had yet seen.

The Great Exhibition consisted of over 100,000 objects from over 15,000 contributors. Britain’s exhibits took up half of the space, being sourced from the home country itself and also the other countries that made up its Empire. These exhibits included a steam-hammer “that could with equal accuracy form the main bearing of a steamship or gently crack an egg”, adding machines, a ‘defensive umbrella’ and a printing machine that could churn out 5,000 copies of The Illustrated London News an hour. France had the next largest exhibition, featuring tapestries, Sevres porcelain, silks and furniture, plus examples of the machines used to make such materials. India contributed a magnificent howdah for a rajah’s elephant, which was displayed on a stuffed elephant taken from an English museum. Chile sent a single lump of gold weighing 50kg and Switzerland sent a collection of gold watches. Two of the most popular exhibits were the Koh-i-Noor diamond (later to form part of the Crown Jewels) and a collection of stuffed animals arranged in various attitudes (e.g. a group kittens having tea) which was sent from the German Customs Union (Germany was still a small collection of states at that time). The famous diamond was apparently something of a disappointment as it had not yet been cut properly and thus had not been revealed in all its sparkling splendour, although people still flocked to see it.

Much like our 2012 Olympics, the Great Exhibition soon proved to be an enormous success with the British public. It was opened on May 1st by Queen Victoria, who herself visited the Exhibition several times. The initial prices were £3 for gentlemen and £2 for ladies – I have no idea why it cost less for women, particularly as the size of their dresses probably meant they took up more space! On 24th May the price was lowered to a shilling so that the general public could visit. There had been genuine fears among the more well-to-do portion of the population that working-class visitors would somehow spoil the event for others, but in fact there were only a handful of arrests for crimes such as pickpocketing. This was all the more remarkable when you consider that Hyde Park, where the Crystal Palace was built, was virtually a hotbed of crime at this time, so much so that people tended to walk through it in groups, simply for protection.

The Great Exhibition closed on the 11th October, by which time six million people had gone through its turnstiles. Far from making the loss that many had predicted, the Exhibition actually made a profit of £186,000! This sum was then used to start the South Kensington museums and other educational institutions, including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Victoria & Albert museum and the Royal College of Music, among others. The Albert Memorial, opposite the Royal Albert Hall, even features a statue of Prince Albert holding a copy of the Exhibition catalogue. All in all the Great Exhibition was an unprecedented success and must surely have exceeded even the wildest dreams of Henry Cole, the man who had an idea which became the event of the century.


Quotes are taken from Bill Bryson’s “At Home” (audiobook) and the British Library’s online notes for the Great Exhibition:

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2 Responses to The Great Exhibition of 1851

  1. Dale Matt--@lisztnut says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this blog entry and, as always, appreciate your well crafted prose and research efforts… Thanks! Wasn’t the Crystal Palace disassembled after the exhibition and re-assembled in another location? When was it finally torn down?

    • Alan says:

      Yes it was moved to Sydenham hill in South London which then became known as the district of Crystal Palace, and still is. It was mostly destroyed by a fire, wooden floors after all, what was left was finally removed during the 2nd world war when it was realised German pilots were using it get bearings to London. Some remains are left although not publicly accessible including an underground railway complete with train and parts of the gardens.

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