The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations



Bill Tonkin

Local exhibitions were not new as the Society of Arts (the present Royal Society of Arts) had started in 1756-7 with shows held in London of displays of manufactured goods. It was the French who had started holding a series of larger National Expositions at the turn of the 19th century. Prince Albert and Henry Cole were both members of the Society of Arts, Albert being made President in 1843, and it was they who made the series of Exhibitions, starting in 1847 such a success. The first one attracted 20,000 visitors, 1848 saw 70,000 visitors and the third one in 1849 reached 100,000. This success prompted them to decide to hold an even larger Exhibition in 1851. To hold an International Exhibition was an entirely new concept and it is recorded that at a meeting at Buckingham Palace on the 29th of June 1849 when asked by Henry Cole if he wanted a National or an International exhibition Prince Albert said "it must embrace foreign productions" and be an "International". In the event it was divided, half the space being allocated for Britain and her Empire, and half for foreign countries and their exhibitors.

Henry Cole was a Victorian Mr Fixer a 'one man think tank'. While his nominal position was with the Public Records Office, he had been seconded out to promote one project after another, like launching with Rowland Hill the Penny Post, worked successfully for the introduction of the standard gauge railway track, and was later responsible for the Royal College of Music, the Albert Hall, and was in overall control for the first twenty years from 1853 of the South Kensington Museum, which was eventually to become the present group which includes The Victoria and Albert, the Science, the Natural History, and the Geological Museums.

It was not however a one sided affair with Cole doing all the work, and Prince Albert getting all the praise, as might be supposed, Richard Cobden M.P. who was one of the 1851 commissioners, and was also on the finance committee, spoke most highly of Prince Albert's efforts over a long and difficult period. There is no doubt that these two men were the driving force, that got things moving, to such a successful outcome.

Prince Albert had originally suggested Leicester Square as a venue but this was not considered large enough, and it was finally decided to hold it in Hyde Park. The building was to cover 16 acres which was eventually increased to 19 acres. The Society of Arts had explored its feasibility and had made a list of 5,000 influential people who would support it. They then decided that for such an important undertaking a Royal Commission was more appropriate to organise an international event of such magnitude, the Society applied to the Government and on the 3rd of January this was granted.

A Building Committee was set up and they organised a competition to find the most acceptable design, 245 designs were sent in, all of them deemed unpractical, so the committee made up their own which was published in the Illustrated London News on the 22nd of June. This caused an uproar, the public reaction to it was so violent and derisory, that for a time the whole scheme for an exhibition was in jeopardy. Just previously a Col Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorpe a 67 year old M.P. had raised objections in the Commons because it was planned to cut down some elm trees in the park to make way for the building. He was successful in this and the plans had to be designed to accommodate the trees. All sorts of reasons were given as to why the project should not be allowed to go ahead, crime would increase, disease would spread, and as 'The Times' put it the whole of Hyde Park "will be turned into a bivouac of all the vagabonds of London". They returned to the attack a couple of days later declaring that the Park was going to be transformed into something between Wolverhampton and Greenwich Fair. The Prince was to write on the 4th of July that "the whole public, led on by The Times, has all at once made a set against me and the Exhibition". Fortunately the opponents to the scheme were not able to carry the day and after a division in the House the Government gave their blessing, so one way or another the Commissioners and Prince Albert went through a very sticky time.

It was now that another man appeared on the scene, Joseph Paxton, and although the competition closing date had expired, asked for an extension and said he would produce some drawings in nine days time. The Building Committees reaction when they saw the design can be imagined, to say it was revolutionary would be an understatement, never before had a building been made of two virtually untried materials glass and iron, and such a large building too. Paxton's only previous experience of these materials was building a conservatory and lily house to preserve the Duke of Devonshire's giant water lily 'Victoria Regia'. Four days later Paxton not a man to hang about and before the committee had had time to give a decision, sent the drawings to the Illustrated London News, these were published on the 6th of July, this time to add to the committees problems the design met with universal approval, and they found themselves being swept along on a wave of enthusiasm. Not perhaps universal approval as the professional bodies were quick to point out that Paxton had no qualifications in building or architecture, and predicted that the building would collapse with the resultant loss of life and injuries. However the famous engineer Robert Stephenson (who was on the Board of Commissioners) did appreciate it as the work of a genius. The Building Committee by now were in a cleft stick, as they had run out of time, and a week later they gave in. At the end of July the ground was given over to the contractors, and work started, The Great Exhibition was to open on May the 1st 1851 with the proviso that it must be cleared away from the site by the 1st of June 1852.

From then on it was all systems go, 39 men were employed at the begining of September, this rose to 419 in October, 1,467 in November, 2,260 in December, and an average of 2,000 from then until a month before the opening. The structure was errected by means of shear-legs i.e. two poles fixed at the top and block and tackle, a simple device that could be erected anywhere at a moments notice, and loads pulled up by man or horse power. The main structure was designed in multiples or dividends of 24ft. One problem that had to be overcome was the supply of glass. This was all made by hand, being first blown into a hollow ball, which was then rolled into a long cylinder, the end cut off, slit down the length and flattened out, it was then cut to size and trimmed into panes 49" x 10". 293,655 panes were needed and as there were not enough skilled craftsmen in this country, foreign workers were brought over to get the work done on time. 4,000 tons of iron, 600,000 cubic feet of timber, and 24 miles of special guttering, and at the end between 400 and 500 men at work painting.

The Great Exhibition was a huge success and 6,039,195 visitors of whom the bulk paid one shilling to enter ensured a large profit. With an income of £552,179 and an expenditure of £335,742 the result was a profit of £186,437 a fortune in 1851. The final accolade was to be given by 'Punch' who christened it the 'Crystal Palace', a name which will live for ever. The largest attendance in one day was 109,915 and the largest number to be in the building at one time was 93,224. The Great Exhibition closed on the 15th of October 1851, and in accordance with their agreement the building was dismantled in the summer of 1852.

Before we leave Hyde Park to follow the Crystal Palace to Sydenham a few words must be said about the 1851 Commissioners, they carried on after the 1851 Great Exhibition closed, and are still in existance today. Their first step was to purchase some 87 acres of land at South Kensington. On this site it was their intention to provide a centre for the encouragement of the Sciences and Art and the measure of their success can be seen today in the group of museums at South Kensington, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, and The Geological Museum, and among the teaching institutions the Imperial College of Science and Technology, the Royal School of Mines, the City and Guilds Engineering College, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal College of Music. All of these and others are housed on the original estate of the Commissioners. The land has either been given or leased to the various bodies often with financial assistance from the Commissioners funds. Around the begining of the twentieth century saw a change in the Commissioners policy from expenditure on capital projects to the financing of scholarhips for the promotion of science and art. Former scholars include seventy-six Fellows of the Royal Society, including two Presidents, and seven Nobel Prize winners, and it was as an 1851 scholar that Lord Rutherford came from New Zealand to Cambridge to start his career. By careful use of the profits they have been able to donate to various bodies around £1.800,000 and still retain assets of £900,000 (these are figures given in 1951)

Joseph Paxton was soon able to raise £500,000 and the Crystal Palace Company was formed to purchase the building for £70,000, it was erected at Penge Place where they bought a 200 acre area of woodland. Owing to its unique method of construction in units of 24 feet, when it was rebuilt they were able to change the shape of the building considerably. In its new role at Penge the Crystal Palace became a noted exhibition and educational centre, with its series of Courts showing the arts of many ages, the Egyptian Court, the Renaissance Court, the Pompeian Court, the Roman Court, and the Alhambra Court amongst others, there was also a 4,000 seat Concert Hall. In the central transept there was room for a Great Orchestra of 4,000 musicians.

There was also hundreds of statues, amongst which were many of young ladies, naked slave girls were the 'in thing' in 1851. There were slave girls with their hands chained in front of them, slave girls with their hands chained behind them, and slave girls wearing no chains at all.

Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (naked of course) had been on display in 1851 under a red velvet canopy, on a revolving pedastal so that the statue could be viewed from all angles. Paxton planned to have some classical Greek male statues on show, in a state of nature, but when this was anounced it was greeted with a howl of indignant outrage. It appeared that what was sauce for the goose would not do for the gander. The Directors received a letter signed by thirteen eminent persons, threatening dire consequences if something was not done, i.e. fig leaves. They must have been thirteen very influential people because the Directors gave in immediately, a mason was sent round with a hammer and chisel to remove all the offending bits. The Times was to report on the 8th of May that with only a month to go before the opening, the Directors were having difficulty finding sufficient plaster fig leaves to cover the mutilated statues.

Paxton's grand schemes soon ran through the half a million, but such was the enthusiasm that he was easily able to raise further capital and the final cost came to £1,300,000. It was a wonderful dream come true, and was opened on the 10th of June 1854 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. For many years until the turn of the century in fact, the Crystal Palace continued to thrive, until the 1880's an average of 2,000,000 people visited it each year. Two new railway lines were built to cater for travellers.

It was an ideal centre for all kind of shows, cat, dog, canary, bee keeping, rabbits even some of the early Ideal Home Exhibitions were held there, and at one point it was the home of the Imperial War Museum. In 1886 a disasterous fire destroyed the northern end of the Palace and it took two years to repair the damage done. Owing to a shortage of money the North Transept was never rebuilt.

Its earlier success unfortunately was not to be maintained, this was due in some measure to the power of the Lord's Day Observance Society who were able to ensure that the Crystal Palace was not allowed to open on a Sunday to paying visitors, although the park was not affected, but as this was free it did not help the Company who were always short of money, a problem they were never able to overcome. Also the tastes of the public changed.

Its finest hour was in 1911 when it staged the Festival of Empire and Pageant of London. At a luncheon given in the Savoy, the Lord Mayor asked the Mayors of the Metropolitan Boroughs for their support in a spectacle to be staged at the Crystal Palace in the summer. It was to consist of two parts, an Exhibition and a series of pageants. Over £250,000 had already been raised, and it was estimated that as much again would be needed. This was to have been held in 1910 but the death of King Edward VII forced its postponement. It was opened on the 11th of May by King George V and Queen Mary, and closed on 28th of October. 15,000 voluntary performers took part under the organiser Frank Lascelles. The Pageant was divided into four parts each comprised of eight scenes, with a band of 50, and a chorus of 500. The British Empire was constructed in minature in the grounds and one of the attractions was 3/4 sized replicas of the Parliament Buildings of all the Commonwealth countries. The finest of them all was the Canadian Government Building built at a cost of £70,000. The All-Red tour on a minature railway was another attraction, stopping at a South African Diamond Mine, an Indian Tea Plantation, and a Canadian Logging Camp, to name but a few wonders to be seen. The whole building and part of the grounds were devoted to an All-British Exhibition covering engineering, mining, chemistry, transport, art and the sciences, and many other industries.

The Crystal Palace Company was now in severe financial trouble, a Receiver had been appointed in 1909 and after the Festival of Empire the Court of Chancery ordered the sale of the property which was then valued at £230,000. It was purchased by Lord Plymouth who presented it to the Nation in 1913, afterwards a Lord Mayors Fund was set up to raise money to relieve him of this burden.

During the Great War of 1914-18 the Crystal Palace and grounds were used as a Naval establishment, and was not opened to the public again until 1920 when it was in a very dilapidated condition. Sir Henry Buckland was appointed as Managing Director and every effort was made to make a success of the Crystal Palace, an enormous undertaking, with huge bills to be met for refurbishing the building and grounds, gradually the crowds began to return. The firework displays started in the 1860's were still very popular, and many people alive today remember seeing them. The building was still structurally sound, a tribute to Paxton's design but by now very run down.

In 1936 well under-insured the Crystal Palace burnt down and finished as it began, a great exhibition, the glow seen from all over London and the Home Counties, and as far away as Brighton to the south.

The Exhibition Study Group would like to thank Patrick Beaver for his kind permission to use information contained in his book 'The Crystal Palace'. If any member has not read it, it can be thoroughly recomended.


© Exhibition Study Group 1992