The Great Exhibition of 1851 is widely regarded as being one of the most enduring symbols of Victorian Britain. Hosted inside a huge iron-and-glass structure in London’s Hyde Park dubbed the ‘Crystal Palace’, the extravaganza showcased some of the finest arts, crafts and industrial innovations of the era.
Although the event boasted exhibits from across the globe, more than half of the 100,000 items on display came from the host nation and its colonies alone. For the millions of visitors who passed through the turnstiles, the experience was to serve as a potent reminder of the wealth and might of Britain’s empire.
Here are eight interesting facts about the Great Exhibition – from its mid-19th century inception to the Crystal Palace’s final, fiery demise.
1. The idea was originally conceived by a London civil servant
The exhibition is commonly associated with Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who lobbied the government into setting up a royal commission to make the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ a reality.
However, the brainchild of the project was arguably a civil servant named Henry Cole (1808–82). A talented inventor, Cole piqued Albert’s attention while serving as a council member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
When Albert became the society’s president in 1843, Cole set about creating a series of exhibitions showcasing the very best of British industrial design.
However, after visiting a similar event in Paris, Cole believed he could do something even bigger – with an international scope. With Albert’s support, the concept of the Great Exhibition was born.
2. Nearly 250 venue designs were submitted – and scrapped
In 1850 it was decided that the Great Exhibition should be hosted inside a temporary venue in Hyde Park, with a competition held to find the best design. A total of 245 entries were submitted, but none of the proposed structures were deemed suitable – partly because they would be difficult to remove once the event had ended.
However, a solution was found by landscape gardener Joseph Paxton (1803–65), who had previously designed greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire.
One of the key advantages of Paxton’s structure (nicknamed the ‘Crystal Palace’ by Punch magazine) was that it could be assembled and dismantled in a relatively short space of time. Indeed, the prefabricated structure – which included 294,000 panes of glass – was constructed in just eight months.
3. Ticket prices varied considerably
When the Great Exhibition opened its doors on 1 May 1851, there was a flurry of excitement across Britain, with all sections of society clamouring to see the sights on offer.
On the first two days of the exhibition, tickets were priced £1 each, before being reduced to five shillings for the following three weeks.
The admission fee then dropped to one shilling (approximately £7 in 2020), which proved immensely popular with the general public. In fact, the one-shilling tickets accounted for more than two-thirds of the total 6 million tickets sold.
However, ticket prices still remained high – and too expensive for most visitors – on the peak days of Friday and Saturday, when they were fixed at two shillings and sixpence and five shillings respectively.
4. A star attraction turned out to be a disappointment
From steam engines and telescopes to ceramics and stuffed animals, visitors to the Crystal Palace were treated to a myriad of weird and wonderful exhibits.
However, one of the star attractions was to be found in the ‘India’ section, which contained a priceless diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor (‘Mountain of Light’) that had been presented to Queen Victoria in 1850.
Unfortunately, the gem’s dull-looking appearance was regarded to be underwhelming, with attendees disappointed by its lack of sparkle. Prince Albert personally intervened and requested that the diamond be presented in a new display cabinet containing lamps and mirrors, but this failed to do the trick, and spectators eventually lost interest.
5. Going to the toilet was a luxurious experience
A major innovation of the Great Exhibition was its ‘public waiting rooms’, which boasted flushing toilets – a feature typically only found in the homes of the very wealthy. Designed by a plumber named George Jennings, the facilities cost one penny to visit and also promised customers the use of a towel, comb and shoe shine.
Whether out of necessity or sheer curiosity, more than 827,000 attendees paid for the privilege during the time that the exhibition was open.
6. Some of the exhibits turned up late
Organising an event on the scale of the Great Exhibition was always going to be a mammoth undertaking, with thousands of priceless objects being shipped to Britain from the far-flung reaches of the globe.
Things had mostly gone to plan by May 1851, but a small number of exhibits did not arrive in time. This included items due for display on the ‘Russia’ stand, which were left stranded in St Petersburg due to an abundance of ice in the Baltic Sea.
But according to contemporary reports, it was worth the wait. When the missing shipments arrived in June, they featured a set of malachite doors bearing the handiwork of 30 men who had toiled “day and night for a whole year” to create them.
7. The Great Exhibition left a lasting legacy…
Despite the exorbitant costs of putting the Great Exhibition together, the project managed to turn a healthy profit of £186,000 (around £26 million in 2020).
This money was then used to establish the famous cultural institutions of South Kensington, notably the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
A short distance from the museums also lies the Albert Memorial, which features a gilt-bronze statue of the prince consort unveiled in 1876. Although the memorial was funded by public subscription, it bears a lasting reminder of the Great Exhibition in the form of a display catalogue, which is held in Albert’s right hand.
8. … but the Crystal Palace suffered a terrible fate
When the Great Exhibition closed its doors on 15 October 1851, the Crystal Palace was dismantled and transported seven miles away to Sydenham Hill, having been purchased by a consortium of prominent businessmen.
Over the next eight decades, the re-erected (and slightly modified) structure fulfilled a number of purposes, hosting events ranging from classical concerts to dog shows.
Unfortunately, the palace fell into decline, and on the night of 30 November 1936, a devastating fire reduced Joseph Paxton’s masterpiece to a twisted heap of burning metal.
Today, the name of the surrounding area of south London – along with its famous football club – both serve as a reminder of the structure that once dominated the skyline. Plans to resurrect the Crystal Palace were mooted as recently as 2014, but it seems likely that it will remain lost to history.