05 July 2010

Good Times: The Great Exhibition of 1851

By Anita Davison

"It is one of the puzzles of his life that with all his [Albert's] conscientious and admirable work and his really great ability he did not make people like him." ~ Bernard Darwin, 1932

Prince Albert was President of the Committee set up to organise the 1851 Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Crystal Palace was constructed in Hyde Park. The first of the 1,060 iron columns went up in the autumn of 1850, together with 300,000 panes of glass fixed with over 200 miles of sash bars. Parts of it were high enough to enclose fully grown elm trees. The whole took less than a year to build and when completed, covered about nine acres. It was felt important at the time to show their achievements right alongside those of "less civilized" countries.

Of the 13,000 exhibits, the most popular were those housed in the machinery court where the possibilities of steam power were on display. It was a triumphant success and so many people visited it that they consumed over a million and a half buns. The initial entrance price of five shillings for the first three weeks attracted what the Times called 'the wealthy and the gently and nobly born'. Thomas Cook organised excursions by rail from Yorkshire, which boomed once the shilling entrance fees were introduced at the end of May, with profits totalling £170,000 which allowed for the foundation of public works such as the Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

By the closure of the exhibition in October, more than six million people passed through the halls, representing about a fifth of the population of Great Britain at the time. The building was divided into a series of courts depicting the history of art and architecture from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance, as well as exhibits from industry and the natural world. Among them were the Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, tools, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine from the United States.

Major concerts were held in the Palace's huge arched Centre Transept, which also contained the world's largest organ. This Transept also housed a circus and was the scene of daring feats by world famous acts such as the tightrope walker Blondin. A magnificent series of fountains, comprising almost 12,000 individual jets, the largest of which threw water to a height of 250ft. Some 120,000 gallons of water flowed through the system when it was in full play.

Once the Great Exhibition closed, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in South London and opened by Queen Victoria on June 10th, 1854. The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire on November 30th 1936.

An account of a visit to the Exhibition by Charlotte Bronte, 1851.
Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is 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, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth--as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect.

The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.
Source: The Brontes' Life and Letters by Clement Shorter (1907)