The Great Exhibition of 1851

Title page

The Victorian era is often defined by the industrial revolution, Britain’s expansion and evolution of its manufacturing processes in the production of textiles, coal mining and iron works as well as the mass building of canals and rail roads. Although the industrial revolution first began in the mid to late Georgian period, it wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended to the throne that the impact of the industrial age began to drastically effect people’s way of life. In celebration of what was a major increase in Britain’s influence over industrial exploits, Prince Albert husband of Queen Victoria organised a grand display of new inventions, extravagant decorations, textiles and furniture to be held in a custom-built structure in Hyde Park.  

General View of Interior

The iron and glass structure known as the Crystal Palace was designed by Joseph Paxton an experienced architect who well known for constructing green houses. It took just nine months from finalising its design to the grand opening on the 1st of May 1851. At 563 metres long and 183 meters wide the Crystal Palace was a massive structure, emphasised by the fact that many of the elm trees which ordinarily would have been removed to make way for the building were left standing inside the building with the addition of several statues and fountains that were made specifically for the exhibition. Its cast iron frame and thick glass windows where made exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. The structure itself was built to show of British engineering and design. In 1854 the Crystal Palace was dismantled and re-built in Sydenham Hill, in an area which has now been renamed Crystal Palace. The structure was completely destroyed in a devastating fire in November 1936. 

Over six million people visited, with a daily estimate of over 42,000 during the exhibition. The ticket prices were often changed due to the volume of people attending. In the beginning tickets costed from £1 to £2 until it was later reduced to one shilling. This enabled many of the working classes to attend as well as raise a considerable amount of money. This profit surplus was used to help fund the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in an area of south Kensington nicknamed Albertropolis after Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert 

South Gallery

The official title for the exhibition was ‘The Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nationsas its primary objective was to celebrate modern technology from around the world, however the major motive in its creation was to showcase how British design and technology was superior to that of other countries as well as show how British design would shape the future. An official list of all of the counties represented in the exhibit were included in the official illustrated exhibition catalogue which included detailed descriptions of each of the exhibits as well as a few illustrations of the more interesting pieces. 

Some of the most popular exhibits were the Koh-i-Noor diamond, Ross’s Trophy Telescope, Minton’s Ceramics as well as the first public toilets which costed a penny to use, hence the phrase ‘to spend a penny’! Several inventors, physicists and photographers used the exhibition to show off their inventions including American photographer Mathew Brady, Firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt and Locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs. A large quantity of the exhibited items formed part of the first V&A collection when the exhibition closed on October 15th, 1851 

An image taken from the furniture court in ‘Recollections of the great exhibition’ (please see below) is on display on our Photowall, which celebrates some of our treasures. 

Furniture Gallery

By Lindsey Keeling,

Customer Services Apprentice

 

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