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The Great Exhibition, 1851
The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked a time when Britain was one of the richest nations of the world, with a supportive Empire behind her, protected by the world's strongest navy. Britain was reaping the benefits of being the first country to industrialise. But many British people lived in poverty, in overcrowded cities, due to that very industrialisation.
The idea of having an exhibition of the achievements of British Arts and Industry was first proposed in 1848 by The Society of Arts, which was aware of similar, smaller scale versions by French factories. The Society realised that Royal patronage would make their work easier and approached Prince Albert, the husband of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. He immediately saw the potential benefits to Britain, and wanted to widen the scope of the proposed exhibition considerably. It was, he wrote, to be an:
‘Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all the civilised Nations of the World',
which would celebrate:
‘the realisation of the unity of mankind.'
A Royal Commission was set up to deal with the finances – and hoped for profits – and subscriptions began to come in.
Prince Albert argued that the Great Exhibition would:
‘give … a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived … and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their future exertions.'
Not everyone saw the exhibition's potential, however. Critics described the possible outcome as a cross ‘between Wolverhampton and Greenwich Fair' which would bring ‘vulgar commerce' to its proposed site in Hyde Park, introducing ‘among us foreign stuff of every description'. Those who wanted to protect the primacy of British industry were against the whole idea, as they opposed free trade. They felt the open markets showcased by the exhibition would bring disaster to British industry.
More opposition arose when the size and scale design of the building which would hold the exhibition was decided. Various groups predicted the building's collapse, a shortage of food for visitors, the reintroduction into England of the Black Death and ‘all the scourges of the civilised and uncivilised world', drawing down the vengeance of an offended God.
The design of the exhibition hall
A competition was held to find the most appropriate design to contain, and reflect, the Great Exhibition. The winning design was submitted by Joseph Paxton, who worked for the Duke of Devonshire. This was said to be influenced by the strength of a type of water-lily leaf recently introduced into England. Paxton realised that it could support the weight of a five year old girl. Although not an architect, he had already designed the Conservatory at Chatsworth which the Queen and Consort had admired.
Paxton's new design made use of the relatively new iron girders to form a prefabricated frame which would support over 200,000 panes of glass. The poet John Ruskin described it as, ‘a cucumber fame between two chimneys'. This building, which was high enough to hold Hyde Park's mature elm trees in situ, covered an area more than three times the size of St. Paul's Cathedral. It was soon dubbed the ‘Crystal Palace'.
The Great Exhibition was opened on 1st May 1851 by Queen Victoria. Contrary to all the critics, it was a great success. Nearly fourteen thousand exhibits were on show, seven thousand of which were from Britain and the colonies of her empire. These were divided into four categories:
- Raw materials
- Machinery and mechanical inventions
- Sculpture and Plastic Art.
Nearly three quarters of a million people attended the opening ceremony. During the five months the exhibition ran, it was visited by around six million people (about a third of Britain's population). Many were able to do so because of the new excursions being run by Thomas Cook, using Britain's recently constructed railway network.
Admittance prices ranged from 6d to £1. Refreshments were available: soda waters by Schweppes, biscuits from Carlisle – and hampers from Fortnum and Mason. The first public toilets in Britain were in use, at a cost of 1d. Exhibits were greatly varied, ranging from the latest industrial machines, sometimes actually in operation, through watches, sledges, china to fine materials.
The success of the Exhibition encouraged Prince Albert and the Commission to use some of the profits to buy land in an area of London known as Kensington Gore. This was for four Institutions corresponding to the four categories of the exhibits. Today, the complex of buildings on this site includes:
- The Imperial College of Science
- The Royal Colleges of Music and Art
- The Science Museum
- The Natural History Museum (incorporating the Geological Museum)
- The Victoria and Albert Museum (of Applied Arts and Design).
The Royal Commissioners still administer a fund which provides grants to research students from the Commonwealth.
The Crystal Palace itself was dismantled and moved to a site at Sydenham, with its own railway branch line. Here, it attracted many visitors until it burned down in 1936, by which time it had been enveloped in London's suburbs.
In 1951, after emerging from the restrictions of the Second World War, Britain sought to echo the success of the original Great Exhibition by mounting the Festival of Britain.
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