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The Great Exhibition

Related subjects: British History 1750-1900

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Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851.
The Great Exhibition 1851
The enormous Crystal Palace went from plans to grand opening in just nine months.
Exhibition interior
The front entrance of the Great Exhibition
Paxton's Crystal Palace enclosed full-grown trees in Hyde Park.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, England, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first in a series of World's Fair exhibitions of culture and industry that were to become a popular 19th-century feature. The Great Exhibition was organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the spouse of the reigning monarch, Victoria. It was attended by numerous notable figures of the time, including Charles Darwin, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, and George Eliot.


The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was organized by Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Henry, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It can be argued that the Great Exhibition was mounted in response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, was an enthusiastic promoter of a self-financing exhibition; the government was persuaded to form the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to establish the viability of hosting such an exhibition. Queen Victoria and her family visited three times.

A special building, nicknamed The Crystal Palace, was designed by Joseph Paxton (with support from structural engineer Charles Fox) to house the show; an architecturally adventurous building based on Paxton's experience designing greenhouses for the sixth Duke of Devonshire, constructed from cast iron-frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick, it was an enormous success. The committee overseeing its construction included Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The massive glass house was 1848 feet (about 563 metres) long by 454 feet (about 138 metres) wide and went from its initial plans of organisation to its grand opening in just nine months. The building was later moved and re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenham in south London, an area that was renamed Crystal Palace; it was eventually destroyed by fire on November 30, 1936.

Six million people—equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time—visited the exhibition. The Great Exhibition made a surplus of £186,000, which was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, which were all built in the area to the south of the exhibition, nicknamed Albertopolis, alongside the Imperial Institute. The remaining surplus was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research and continues to do so today.

The exhibition caused controversy at the time. Some conservatives feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob, whilst radicals such as Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities. In modern times, the Great Exhibition has become a symbol of the Victorian Age, and its thick catalogue illustrated with steel engravings is a primary source for High Victorian design.

Notable exhibits

Exhibits came, not only from throughout Britain, but also its expanding imperial colonies, such as Australia, India and New Zealand, and foreign countries, such as Denmark, France and Switzerland. Numbering 13,000 in total, they included a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine that was sent from the United States.

  • Alfred Charles Hobbs used the exhibition to demonstrate the inadequacy of several respected locks of the day.
  • Frederick Bakewell demonstrated a precursor to today's fax machine.
  • Mathew Brady was awarded a medal for his daguerreotypes.
  • William Chamberlin, Jr. of Sussex exhibited what may have been the world's first voting machine, which counted votes automatically and employed an interlocking system to prevent over-voting.
  • The Tempest Prognosticator, a barometer using leeches, was demonstrated at the Great Exhibition.
  • The America's Cup yachting event began with a race held in conjunction with the Great Exhibition.
  • George Jennings designed the first public conveniences in the Retiring Rooms of the Crystal Palace, for which he charged one penny.
  • The Koh-i-noor, the world's biggest known diamond at the time of the Great Exhibition.
  • The Gold Ornaments and Silver Enameled Handicrafts fabricated by Khudabadi Sindhi Swarankar from Sindh.
  • C.C. Hornung of Copenhagen, Denmark, showed his single-cast ironframe for a piano, the first made in Europe.

Admission fees

Admission prices to the Crystal Palace varied according to the date of visitation, with ticket prices decreasing as the parliamentary season drew to an end and London traditionally emptied of wealthy individuals. Prices varied from three guineas per day, £1 per day, five shillings per day, down to one shilling per day. The one-shilling ticket proved most successful amongst the industrial classes, with four and a half million shillings being taken from attendees in this manner.

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