The Great Exhibition of 1851 – A Talk by Geoffrey Kay

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Geoffrey back to the Parish Room last Wednesday night to tell us all about the Great Exhibition of 1851. As we were confident he would, Geoffrey enthralled the forty plus audience with a passionate and detailed account of how this magnificent Victorian showcase building and exhibition came into being, giving us all a flavour of what the exhibition itself must have seemed to the many visitors that passed through its doors.

He began by introducing us to the Iron Bridge over the river Seven in Shropshire. Opened in 1781 it was the first arch bridge in the world built of cast iron, and greatly celebrated because of its innovative use of this new material. We heard that its structure is comparable to something that a carpenter would construct, comprising standardised sections that were created offsite for easy assembly on site; something that would come to the fore seventy years later in the Crystal Palace.

The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

Geoffrey then introduced us to Sir Henry Cole, or Old King Cole as the press referred to him – a civil servant involved with public records and the postal service. Through membership of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), Cole lobbied for support for his campaign to improve standards in industrial design. With the backing of Prince Albert, a royal charter was granted to the RSA in 1847. Cole organised a successful Exhibition of Art Manufactures in 1847 and enlarged exhibitions in 1848 and 1849. He then visited the 1849 Paris Exhibition, noticing the lack of an exhibition for international participants and seeing that the RSA’s planned exhibitions for 1850 & 1851 could be changed into a larger international exhibition. He secured Queen Victoria’s backing, and in 1850 a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was established, under the Presidency of Prince Albert, with Henry Cole as its chief administrator.

Sir Henry Cole

Sir Henry Cole

We heard it was decided the entire project would be funded by public subscription. An executive Building Committee was formed to oversee the design and construction of the exhibition building, chaired by William Cubitt and comprising Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Stephenson, the Duke of Buccleuch, architects Charles Barry and Thomas Donaldson and the Earl of Ellesmere. By 15 March 1850 submissions were invited, which had to conform to several key specifications: the exhibition building had to be temporary, simple, as cheap as possible, and economical to build within the short time remaining before opening, which was scheduled for 1 May 1851.

Geoffrey told us that within 3 weeks the committee had received some 245 entries, including 38 international submissions from Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Hanover, Switzerland, Brunswick and Hamburg. Unbelievably we then heard the committee rejected them all, although two were jointly awarded a second prize. As a last resort the committee came up with a standby design of its own, but this was widely criticized and ridiculed when published in the newspapers. The site for the Exhibition was also still unconfirmed!

Geoffrey then introduced Joseph Paxton, a renowned gardener who became interested in the project, and with enthusiastic backing from Henry Cole, agreed to submit his own design. Paxton was chiefly known for his celebrated career as head gardener for the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, where he had experimented extensively with glasshouse building; he created many novel techniques for modular construction using combinations of standard sized sheets of glass, laminated wood and prefabricated cast iron. The Great Stove conservatory at Chatsworth, built in 1836, was the first major application of Paxton’s famous ‘ridge-and-furrow’ roof design, then the largest glass building in the world covering around 28,000 square feet. A decade later, with the availability of the new cast plate glass, he developed his techniques with the Chatsworth Lily House, built specifically to house the giant Victoria amazonica waterlily recently discovered by botanists. The lily and its house led directly to his design for the Crystal Palace and he later cited the huge ribbed floating leaves a key inspiration; this featured a flat-roof version of his ridge-and-furrow glazing, with curtain walls for hanging vertical bays of glass from cantilevered beams.

Paxtons' great conservatory at Chatsworth House

Paxtons’ great conservatory at Chatsworth House

We heard Paxton left a 9 June 1850 meeting with Henry Cole fired with enthusiasm, immediately going to Hyde Park to walk the site earmarked for the Exhibition. Two days later, while attending a board meeting of the Midland Railway, Paxton made his concept drawing, doodling on a sheet of pink blotting paper. This rough sketch, which is now in the V&A Museum, incorporated all of the basic features of the finished building, and it is a mark of his ingenuity and industriousness that detailed plans, calculations and costings were ready to submit in less than two weeks.

Paxton's concept drawing of the Crystal Palace

Paxton’s concept drawing of the Crystal Palace

The project was a major gamble for Paxton, with the Exhibition opening less than a year away! His design fulfilled and surpassed all requirements, proving significantly faster and cheaper to build than any other form of building of comparable size. The submission budgeted a remarkably low cost of £85,800, about 2-1/2 times that of the Chatsworth Great Stove. This was just 28% of the estimated cost of Richard Turner’s second place design, whilst promising a footprint of more than 770,000 sq ft (approx 19 acres), or roughly 25 times the ground area of its progenitor. Impressed by the low bid for construction submitted by engineering firm Fox, Henderson and Co, we heard the commission accepted the scheme and gave public endorsement to Paxton’s design in July 1850. Paxton now had less than 8 months to finalize his plans, manufacture the parts and erect the building in time for the Exhibition’s opening, scheduled for 1 May 1851.

Paxton designed and built the largest glass structure yet created, in less than a year, completing it on schedule and on budget, despite altering the design shortly before building began. This was to add a high barrel-vaulted transept across the centre of the building, to enclose several large elm trees that otherwise would have been felled, thus resolving a controversial issue and major sticking point for the vocal anti-exhibition lobby; it also kept the Queen happy.

Allied Iron Founders supplied the iron castings and Chance Brothers the glass panels; both companies survive to this day and the crystal palace was successfully completed over a very hard winter; sadly five men were killed during its completion, which was low as 2,000 men completed the enormous structure in just eight months. The building was simply colossal, being 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide and 108 feet high to the central transept, having required 4,500 tons of iron, 60,000 cubic feet of timber and more than 293,000 panes of glass, which also eliminated the need for any internal lights. By way of example, the Tropical Biome, largest of the Eden Project domes, is 180 foot high at its centre but just 328 feet wide and 656 feet long – tiny in comparison.

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The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was then opened by Queen Victoria, ran from 1st May to 15th October 1851; it became an enormously popular and financial success. Six million people (eight million separate visits because many season tickets were sold) came to view 100,000 exhibits from 14,000 exhibitors within the 990,000 square feet of space. Victoria was evidently amused, as the following extracts from her journal (held in the V&A) show:

1st May 1851

This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives. It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness. The Park presented a wonderful spectacle, crowds streaming through it – carriages and troops passing. The Green Park and Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour. Before we neared the Crystal Palace, the sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying. The sight as we came to the centre where the steps and chair (on which I did not sit) was placed, facing the beautiful crystal fountain was magic and impressive. The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decoration and exhibits, the sound of the organ; all this was indeed moving.

22 May 1851

Went with our guests to the Exhibition. This time we went to the Indian Courts, visiting those on both sides and the beautiful things in the nave. The jewels and ornaments are quite magnificent.

29 May 1851
To the Exhibition. We went up to the Gallery on the south side and stood at the end of the Transept, to watch people coming in, in streams, there must have been 120,000, all so civil and well behaved, that it was a pleasure to see them.

Admission to the exhibition varied by date of visit, with prices reducing as the parliamentary season drew to an end and London traditionally emptied of wealthy individuals. Prices ranged from three guineas (approx. £384 today) (two guineas for a woman) for a season ticket, or £1 per day, for the first two days, then reduced to five shillings (approx. £30.50 today) per day until May 22. The admission price was then further reduced to one shilling (just £6.00 today) per day, except on Fridays, when it was set at two shillings and six pence, or Saturdays, when it remained at five shillings. The one shilling ticket proved most successful amongst the industrial classes, with four and a half million shillings (£27,500,000 today), being taken from attendees, and by the end of the summer, there were more than one hundred thousand visitors each day. Many people set up local clubs so that members could save up and then arrange excursions to the Exhibition as a group, negotiating cheaper train fares and lodgings. Some working men’s associations set up similar schemes, as did railway agents including Thomas Cook; more than 150,000 people from Yorkshire and the Midlands, including a party of 3,000 children from Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, travelled to London under Cook’s arrangements, who later made a successful business from such excursions.

All exhibits at the Great Exhibition were fully described in an illustrated catalogue, including:

  • The Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light and the world’s largest known diamond in 1851. One of the most popular attractions of the India exhibit, acquired in 1850 as part of the Lahore Treaty. It weighed 793 carats uncut but Victoria’s gem was finally cut down to just 105.6 carats on the instructions of Prince Albert, who was unhappy with its dull and irregular appearance.
  • The Daria-i-Noor, or Sea of Light, a rare pale pink and one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, weighing an estimated 182 carats.
  • The early 8th-century Tara Brooch, from circa 700 AD, in 1850 generally considered to be the most impressive of over 50 elaborate Irish brooches to have been discovered – the finest Irish penannular brooch. Now displayed in the National Museum of Ireland, it was exhibited by the Dublin jeweller George Waterhouse, along with a display of his Celtic Revival jewellery.
  • A huge hydraulic press that was designed by Stevenson that had lifted the metal tubes of the Britannia bridge near Bangor invented by Robert Stephenson.
  • A pen knife with 75 blades by John Rogers of Sheffield, official cutler to the royal family.
  • The recently invented Bell telegraph.
  • Alfred Charles Hobbs demonstrated the inadequacy of several respected locks of the day.
  • William Chamberlin Jr. exhibited what may have been the world’s first voting machine, which counted votes automatically and employed an interlocking system to prevent over-voting.
  • Firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt demonstrated his prototype for the 1851 Colt Navy.
  • C. Hornung of Copenhagen showed his single-cast iron frame for a piano, Europe’s first.
  • A swarm of more than 200,000 bees was enclosed in a large glass case.
  • Folding pianos, designed to be used on yachts.

Crystal Palace also had the first major installation of public toilets – George Jennings “Monkey Closet” flushing lavatory. The toilets were originally for the use of gentlemen, but were later also made available to ladies. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny to use them (£3,447 then, £420,534 now), for which they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine – almost certainly responsible for the euphemism “spending a penny” meaning to go to the toilet.

After the Great Exhibition closed, Paxton was knighted and public opinion clamoured, without success, for the Crystal Palace to remain in the park. Nine businessmen came to the rescue and purchased the complete structure from Fox Henderson, the contractors who erected and owned the building. In the summer of 1852 a new site was found for the now redesigned Crystal Palace, on Sydenham Hill in south-east London, and reconstruction commenced. Reopened in 1854, the Crystal Palace provided a national centre for the education and enjoyment of the people, the building featuring courts depicting various periods of architecture as well as courts of art and manufacture. The grounds of the palace contained magnificent fountains, an unrivalled collection of statuary, many fine specimens of trees and shrubs and full size models of prehistoric animals, which were to become world famous. In 1856 the magnificent fountains and Brunel’s great water towers were commissioned. Later firework displays, ballooning, cycle racing, football cup finals, funfairs, motor racing, concerts by Handel and many other events took place in the grounds. During WW1 the Crystal Palace and grounds were taken over by the Admiralty, becoming HMS Victory VI (informally HMS Crystal Palace) for the duration. Unhappily, the Crystal Palace was completely destroyed in a spectacular fire in November 1936.

The Crystal Palace in its new home in Sydenham

The Crystal Palace in its new home in Sydenham

Plan of the Sydenham park

Plan of the Sydenham park

In October 1851 a Royal Commission was founded as a permanent body to spend the exhibition profits in order to realise Prince Albert’s ambition to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”. Commissioners purchased 87 acres of land in South Kensington, stretching from Kensington Gore to Cromwell Road, where they aided establishment of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall and Imperial College, as well as the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music. This legacy and unique cultural estate became known as Albertopolis, and the Commission still acts as landlord for much of the site, playing an active part in its continuing development. When this huge undertaking was largely complete, sufficient funds remained to set up an educational trust perpetuating the Commissions’s aims. Starting from 1891 with the award of Science Research Scholarships, emphasis switched to supporting individuals, though the Commission also made occasional awards to promote other educational ventures of national importance, including the British School at Athens, the British School at Rome, the Commonwealth Institute and the National Physical Laboratory. Today the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 awards some 25 postgraduate Fellowships and Scholarships a year, for advanced study and research in science, engineering, the built environment and design, a brilliant enduring legacy from a fantastic Victorian exhibition of the world’s finest manufactured objects.


At our next talk, Michael Rimmer will introduce us to the Angel Roofs of East Anglia and reveal the history and development of these fascinating works of art. As he notes in his book of the same name (highly recommended by the way) “Nowhere outside England can be found such a series of magnificent timber roofs as those of which Westminster Hall and the angel roofs of East Anglia are examples”.

Between 1395 and about 1530, several hundred were built in England; more than 140 survive to this day, almost exclusively in churches, predominantly in East Anglia and particularly in Suffolk and Norfolk. More than 90% of England’s figurative medieval art was obliterated during the Reformation and it is incredibly fortuitous that angel roofs were simply too high to reach.

Michael’s outstanding photographs will unveil to us all the astonishing detail and remarkable visual quality of these fantastic ecclesiastical objects, which date from Tudor times and before. This talk will make a great introduction to the festive season, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room on Wednesday 7th December for what is going to be a most wonderful introduction to this fascinating piece of our shared heritage.



2 Responses to “The Great Exhibition of 1851 – A Talk by Geoffrey Kay”

  1. Good read and nice looking website.

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