The Great Exhibition: Optimism and Collaboration in the Victorian Era
Updated 15 February 2022
By Hannah McCann
On 1 May 1851, nestled between the elm trees of Hyde Park, a 564m long and 33m high glass structure was about to open to the public. This creation (later known as the Crystal Palace) housed something even more astounding than the building itself. Inside the glasshouse was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Six million people would visit the exhibition in the coming months - one-third of the population of Britain.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had created an exhibition of inventions, art and precious stones to encourage international cooperation and trade. As a German and an outsider in Victoria’s court, he saw that Britain was deeply divided by class and was wary of foreign visitors. As a result, he wanted to host an event that would bring Britain and the world closer together.
There were 100,000 exhibits from many nations inside the Crystal Palace. Some of the inventions displayed included a rapid printing machine, ‘tangible ink’ for the blind and early versions of the motorcar and bicycle. Sheffield sent a sportsman’s knife with eighty blades. Each country had their own display, albeit some were more impressive than others.
The Canadians displayed a fire-engine while the Americans sent a majestic stuffed eagle perched on an organ. There was a white marble statue of a Greek slave, Russian fur coats and sledges, Swiss golden watches and a Chilean 50kg piece of gold. Germany sent a collection of stuffed animals, arranged like they were having a tea party - which was immensely popular with the British public.
Another very popular display was India’s. They sent a grand carriage to be carried on the back of an elephant - although an elephant had to be found in an English taxidermy museum to display it. There was also the Koh-I-Noor diamond from India, one of the largest diamonds in the world. It now forms part of the British Crown Jewels. Never before had there been this level of international collaboration and unity. The Great Exhibition inspired more world fairs - with the next Expo to be held in Dubai in 2021.
These international exhibits were viewed by all types of people in Britain. There were many upper-class visitors but also many poorer ones. From 24 May, the ticket prices were dropped to one shilling per person to allow entry to even those in the lowest class. People came from across Britain making use of the new railway network. A third-class return from York was only sixty pence.
Churches took their parishioners, employers sent their workers and teachers took their school children - even from the poorest areas. An old lady walked from the furthest edge of Cornwall to witness the Great Exhibition which was over 270 miles away. The many classes of Britain co-existed under the glass roof, meeting friends by the 27-foot-high pink glass fountain, enjoying drinks from Messrs Schweppes and lounging in the summer sun on the grass of Hyde Park. Those from lower classes and famous visitors (such as Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë) were equally in awe of their surroundings.
Brontë described the exhibition as ‘a wonderful place - vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there… it seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.’
The £186,000 profit generated from the exhibition, or £18 million in today’s money, was used to build the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. After the Great Exhibition finished in October 1851, the glass building was moved to an area of Kent called Sydenham. Unfortunately, the structure no longer stands but its legacy lives on. The area of Sydenham, now in South London, came to be known as Crystal Palace.
After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria commissioned the Albert Memorial - to be built in Kensington Gardens. A golden statue of Prince Albert holds a copy of his beloved exhibition’s catalogue - his legacy of optimism and international collaboration preserved forever.
British Library article about the Great Exhibition
Royal Parks blog about the Great Exhibition
Blog about Charlotte Brontë’s experience at the Great Exhibition
Article from the V&A museum about the building of the Crystal Palace
Article about the Great Exhibition from Historic UK
Article about the Great Exhibition from Londonist
Article about the archaeological remains of the Crystal Palace
Royal Parks blog about the Albert Memorial statue