The Great Exhibition which ran from 1 May to 11 October 1851 was the idea of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert who saw it as an opportunity to promote Britain’s image around the world but as President of the Royal Commission he had to use all his influence to get it accepted chairing meetings, attending the relative debates in Parliament, and hosting dinners for those politicians less enthusiastic than himself.
Even so, some thought it little more than a vanity project that would prove a financial disasters other that it would be a misuse of the Royal Parks for commercial gain and would prove a grubby blot on the landscape of a great city but Albert and his allies remained undeterred and tenders were issued for the building of the structure that would house the many exhibits expected.
Joseph Paxton, a garden designer famous for the many glasshouses he had built at Chatsworth House the ancestral home of the Duke of Devonshire was a late applicant and other designs were already well in advance of his but he pre-empted them by having his design published in the London Illustrated News to great acclaim.
The Crystal Palace as it was to become known was a glass building reinforced with cast iron girders 1,851 feet long, 990 feet wide, and with an interior height of 128 feet. It would take only 8 months to construct and could be easily dismantled.
Intended for Hyde Park it was considered an eyesore by some an architectural wonder by others but it was its practicality and more importantly its cost that appealed to Prince Albert for at £85,800 it was only a quarter the expense of most of the other 245 entries (including 38 from abroad).
The Great Exhibition of the Works and Industry of all Nations was opened to great fanfare by Queen Victoria on 1 May, 1851. Advertised as an chance to witness in one place all the technological wonders of the world it was in reality an opportunity to show off Britain’s industrial might with its exhibits taking pride of place whilst those from the rest of the world were shunted into corners and piled up one upon the other but the exhibits were impressive nonetheless with more than 15,000 contributors providing 100,000 objects including the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, Samuel Colt’s latest revolver, the finest hydraulic machinery, and the first flushing toilet that 827,280 people paid to use, hence the term ‘spending a penny.’
It was to prove a great success selling more than six million tickets during its run the equivalent of a third of Britain’s population. Tickets were priced from three guineas to one shilling with around four million of the cheapest tickets being sold, and the average daily attendance was 42,831 reaching a peak of 109,915 on 7 October.
Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor being particularly taken by a mechanical bed that tipped its occupant straight into a pre-prepared bath. Other eminent Victorians who attended were Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll among many others.
Although it had its critics among them Karl Marx who accused it of being capitalist propaganda and commodity fetishism on a grand scale the Great Exhibition was a great success making a surplus of more than £186,000 which was later spent on establishing the Natural History, Science, and Victoria and Albert Museums. It also set the trend for other such events in other major cities and confirmed Britain’s status as the Workshop of the World.
Following the conclusion of the Exhibition the entire structure was moved to Sydenham where it continued to host events but by the time it was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936, it had long fallen into disrepair and dereliction.
It was as Winston Churchill referred to it – the end of an age.