What Was The Great Exhibition and Why Was It So Significant?

Alice Roberts

5 mins

30 Oct 2019

In the summer of 1851, Joseph Paxton’s glittering ‘Crystal Palace’ sprung up on the lawns of Hyde Park. Inside, it held a spectacular exhibition displaying the world’s best inventions and innovation.

Marvelled at by about a third of the British population, we cannot underestimate the significance of such an event.

So what was it, and why did it happen?

Prince Albert’s vision

Between 1798 to 1849, the ‘Exhibition of Products of French Industry’ had thrilled and delighted Parisian audiences, displaying the best products of French manufacturing. Inspired by this success, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, was determined not only to copy, but better his French rivals.

A view of the Crystal Palace from from the Knightsbridge Road.

His vision was to hold a huge exhibition in London, displaying the best inventions of the world – the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’. After striking up a surprising friendship with Henry Cole, an assistant record keeper at the Public Records Office, the two men set out to fulfil Albert’s vision.

Together, they attained government permission, whose heavy scepticism was transformed to enthusiasm when the project was declared to be self-funding. They realised it could be a beacon of a new age of peace and prosperity and a celebration of the British manufacturing boom.

After two challenging decades of political and social discord, Albert sensed this new era of prosperity, as he wrote to his cousin, King William of Prussia,

‘we have no fear here either of an uprising or an assassination’.

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Paxton’s triumph

The Exhibition needed a venue, vast enough to contain displays from every corner of the world. No such building existed in London, and a temporary design was submitted by Joseph Paxton, the famed gardener of the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

His proposal was a modified version of a greenhouse he had already built for the Duke. It was made of a cast iron-frame and glass.

Paxton had built several glass structures, including the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, built from 1836 to 1841.

This enormous glasshouse could be fabricated off site; it could be quickly reconstructed and deconstructed. Overseen by a committee including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by around 5,000 navvies, it was up in just nine months.

The structure was 1,850 feet long and 108 feet high, three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Its shimmering glass gave it the nickname, ‘The Crystal Palace’.

The Exhibition opens

The interior of the Exhibition.

Paxton’s design was delivered on schedule, allowing Queen Victoria to open the Exhibition on 1 May 1851. This wasn’t without controversy.

Many radicals, such as Karl Marx, openly condemned it as a repulsive tribute to capitalism. Would these views incite the immense crowds to become an enormous revolutionary mob? Such concerns proved needless, as the remarkable attractions seemed to overwhelm any potential for radical action.

Entry was strictly ticketed. At the start of the summer, it was priced for wealthy Londoners. However, as the parliamentary season drew to an end and this group began to leave the city, ticket prices gradually dropped to one shilling.

Thousands poured in from the industrial classes, mobilised by a new network of railway lines. Employers sent factory workers, landowners sent country villagers and schoolchildren and churches organised group outings. One old lady walked from Penzance.

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A display of ‘every conceivable invention’

Albert had organised over 100,000 objects presented by about 15,000 exhibitors.

Although the Exhibition was supposed to showcase ‘All Nations’, the exhibitors from the British Empire were so numerous that it seemed more a celebration of Britain.

The biggest exhibit was an enormous hydraulic press that had lifted the metal tubes of a bridge at Bangor. Each tube weighed 1,144 tons, yet the press could be operated by one worker.

An exhibition gallery representing India. It displayed a Royal Canopy, Embroidered Muslins from Dacca, a Stuffed Elephant with Trappings, and Cotton and Silk. Image source: Joseph Nash / CCo.

Visitors could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth. There were printing machines turning out 5,000 copies of Illustrated London News in an hour, printing and folding envelopes and making cigarettes.

There were folding pianos to be used by yachtsmen, ‘tangible ink’ which produced raised characters on paper, to aid the blind, and a pulpit connected to pews by rubber tubes so deaf parishioners could keep up.

Victoria recorded that ‘every conceivable invention’ was displayed – in pottery, ironwork, firearms, houses, furniture, perfumes, fabrics, steam hammers or hydraulic presses.

An exhibition gallery representing Guernsey and Jersey, Malta and Ceylon. Image source: Joseph Nash / CC0.

The American display was headed by a massive eagle with wings outstretched, holding the Stars and Stripes. Chile sent a single lump of gold weighing 50kg, Switzerland sent gold watches and India, an elaborate throne of carved ivory.

The Russian display was late, having been delayed by ice in the Baltic. Eventually, they brought huge vases and urns twice the height of a person, furs, sledges and Cossack armour.

A crowning glory of the exhibition was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, its name meaning ‘Mountain of Light’. It was acquired in 1850 as part of the Lahore Treaty, and in 1851 it was the world’s largest known diamond.

An enormous telescope was a popular attraction.

A four-ton fountain of pink glass, 27 feet high, helped to cool the atmosphere, and full-size elm trees grew inside the structure.

When sparrows became a nuisance, the Duke of Wellington offered a solution to the Queen: ‘Sparrowhawks, Ma’am’. Another first of the Great Exhibition were the ‘waiting rooms and conveniences’, where visitors could spend one penny to use a private cubicle.

A jewel of Victorian Britain

When the exhibition closed on 15 October, six million people had visited, equivalent to one third of the British population. Amongst this six million was Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray. Queen Victoria and her family visited three times.

A sketch depicting machines for planing, slotting, drilling and boring, including a corn-mill, a crane, a riveting machine, spinning machinery and a coining press.

The exhibition’s success was accentuated by impressive financial success. It made a surplus of over £18 million in modern money, allowing Albert to establish a museum complex in South Kensington, nicknamed ‘Albertropolis’.

This encompassed the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial College of Science, the Royal Colleges of Art, Music and Organists and the Royal Albert Hall.

Paxton’s dazzling glass design was later moved and re-erected in 1854, at Sydenham Hill, an area renamed as Crystal Palace. This was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936, and never rebuilt.