Great Exhibition opens

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Great Exhibition opens

Crystal Palace, London The 1st of May 1851 AD

In the mid-19th century Britain was probably at the apogee of its industrial and colonial greatness. Queen Victoria was firmly established on the throne and in spite of occasional grumblings about her German consort Albert, her family life was coming to be seen as the model for decorum, fecundity and goodness. The railway age was shrinking the country and the globe, and engineers like Brunel were creating modern wonders of the world to rival the ancient versions. It was time to celebrate and demonstrate British achievements.

On a less grandiose note, it was also time to catch up with the French, who were already masters of the exhibition. In 1844 Paris had hosted an industrial exposition that proved of great worth to her manufacturing industry. Another in 1849 was equally successful.

The driving force behind the Great Exhibition was Prince Albert , who worked to overcome the reluctance of Parliament which was worried at the costs and the difficulties of staging such an event. He succeeded, and the government set up the Royal commission for the Exhibition of 1851. His aims were grand indeed: “A new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions.” This was in marked contrast to the more parochial French efforts, and the exhibition itself would be on a scale undreamt of by Britain’s Gallic rivals.

The Commission first met in January 1850. It mobilised efforts from across the country by holding a grand dinner for every mayor in the land. It succeeded in attracting public contributions and selling commercial rights to finance the costs of an architectural competition to design the exhibition building: Schweppes paid £5,500 to supply mineral waters, the printers Spicer and Clowes gave £3,200 for the catalogue concession.

The architectural competition was the one farcical element in the planning. Architects submitted their designs, but the committee already had its own, created to fit a tight budget. It asked for bids for the contract, and in the end this went to Fox and Henderson whose design, by Joseph Paxton , bore no resemblance to the committee’s. But it was impressive, and at the right cost. Paxton had experience designing glasshouses for the Duke of Devonshire. His plans used 900,000 square feet of glass, held together by girders and frames that could be made in huge numbers and assembled in modular form, some 550 tons of wrought iron. His ‘Crystal Palace’ was 1,848 feet long, and 408 feet wide, providing 19 acres of exhibition space.

Exhibitors from all over the world came to show their wares, and their art and treasures. The British Empire provided glories like the Kohinoor diamond. France, Russia, the USA, Switzerland, Prussia, Spain (including the Spanish Queen’s jewels), Tunisia, Italy, Malta, Portugal…the whole world was under one roof. Britain could show off Sheffield steel, lead mining, Birmingham ’s machinery, Lancashire textiles, and pieces from the greatest sculptors and designers of the day.

Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition on May 1 1851. It is itself a marvellous demonstration of Victorian capability, and one from which modern Britain could learn, that the vast building and the equally impressive park with its 12,000 jets of water, the highest reaching 250 feet in the air, should have been readied in less than a year from plans to opening ceremony.

More than six million visitors attended between May 1 and the closing date, October 15 1851, able to see the 13,000 exhibits that opened their eyes to new worlds, prompting a surge in technological thought and artistic design. And another legacy was created by the Great Exhibition: The Victoria and Albert Museum , The Science Museum , and the Natural History Museum were all founded with help from the profits made by the event, around £186,000. Those involved in the Millennium Dome fiasco should hang their heads in shame.

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On this day:
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