Great expectations

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh takes you on a tour of the Crystal Palace

In came a flood of stuffed animals, steam-driven combine harvesters, precious stones and gold ornaments from every corner of the globe. The task of arranging for 100,000 exhibits from around the world to arrive in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a mammoth one. The dedicated organisers who pulled it all together did so without the assistance of phones, faxes or the Internet.

The result was a highly successful exhibition, which made a profit of Pounds 186,000 (almost Pounds 10million in today's money) despite the building being completed only one week before the opening day.

Then as now, exhibitions had their critics. The Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, who is responsible for the Millennium Experience, should take comfort from the fact that sceptics were around before both the 1851 exhibition and the 1951 Festival of Britain.

There were those who thought the 1851 exhibition was a scandalous waste of money - and, in a touch worthy of today's tabloids, The Times warned that it would become, "The bivouac of all the vagabonds of London."

The Times also revealed that the Royal Commission organising the 1851 event was employing four clerks on the comfortable salary of Pounds 800 a year (a pay cheque worth about Pounds 40,000 today) each.

The Millennium Experience - planned for Greenwich in 2000 - will be the third such event to be held in this country. In 1951 the Festival of Britain, though a national occasion, was largely focused on a big site on the South Bank of the Thames. This, in turn, was to some extent inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was held between May 1 and October 11, 1851 in London's Hyde Park. It was housed in one huge building designed by Joseph Paxton and built from pre-fabricated glass and steel panels. It was 1,848ft (around 563 metres) long (Paxton had aimed for a symbolic 1,851 feet but could not make the design work) and 408ft (roughly 124 metres) wide. The building was nicknamed - in an inspired turn of phrase - "the Crystal Palace" by the satirical magazine Punch.

The building incorporated a group of elm trees that stood in the park, raising the worry that birds living in the trees would damage and mark exhibits and visitors with their droppings. In a famous remark, the Duke of Wellington suggested to Queen Victoria that the organisers should, "Try sparrowhawks, Ma'am!" - a suggestion that seems to have been graciously rejected. Within the building were 100,000 exhibits from 14,000 exhibitors from all over the globe.

Today, organising such an event would generate a forest of fax paper, a storm of e-mail and a non-stop stream of calls from phones mobile and otherwise. How, though, was it done in the age of the silent office, the high desk, the big ledger and the ink-well?

The organisation of this, the first international exhibition of its kind, was a tour de force of enterprise, vision and courage in an age before telephones, and when postal services in many parts of the world were often indifferent to say the least. To start with, it was carried through by the Royal Society of Arts, and then by a Royal Commission under the leadership of Prince Albert, thehusband of Queen Victoria, who took a close personal interest in the project.

The key was a high degree of delegation to local committees and organisations. In the United Kingdom there were 330 committees, charged with contacting local industries to see if, and what, they wanted to exhibit and to get an idea of the space they needed. The Royal Commission collated their requests and discussed with the committees whether or not their requests could be accommodated - perhaps not unexpectedly, the demand exceeded the available space by half.

Within the limits of their space, the committees then selected the exhibits. The commission kept a check on possible duplications and had a mechanism for deciding who would have priority in the event of two committees choosing the same thing.

Foreign and colonial exhibitors were invited to ask for space and to let the commissioners know what they were going to send. Such were the communication difficulties, it was often not known what was coming until it arrived. One organisational masterstroke was to give the building the status of a bonded warehouse, which eliminated worries that customs duties would have to be paid on the imported exhibits.

Most impressive of all was the way that the commissioners dealt calmly with the kind of crises that today's exhibition organisers will recognise: the building was only completed a week before the exhibition opened; some exhibitors misunderstood the dimensions of the space allotted to them (phrases such as "square feet" were not always familiar to the people on the receiving end of the instructions); descriptions of what was coming were often vague and unhelpful. This may have been deliberate - some historians believe that the fear of having their ideas stolen may have discouraged some exhibitors from sending examples of their best, or most up-to-date work. All this turned the task of dividing the exhibition into coherent sections into something of a nightmare.

Exhibitors were given space to do with as they pleased; if they wanted to show moving machinery, for example, they could. Steam power was supplied in lagged pipes for those who wanted it, as was high-pressure water at the rate of 300,000 gallons a day, for which Chelsea Waterworks was paid Pounds 350 a month.

As Charlotte Bront wrote, "Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds... to the velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmiths and silversmiths and the carefully guarded gaskets full of real diamonds and pearlsI" An official report sums up the enterprise in Victorian prose: "Indeed, it may be said, that whilst almost every exhibitor desired some kind of special arrangement, convenient to himself, but inconvenient to everybody else, almost every one submitted to a curtailment of space, and a constraint on his wishes, with a patience that greatly lightened the labours of the Executive Committee. "

The exhibition turned out to be a credit to its organisers and a lasting symbol of Britain, and the world's, progress in the age of industry and science. More than six million people visited it, one-third of the population of the whole kingdom. Employers gave workers leave to attend with their families. Many came on special excursions - the Great Western Railway ran a train of 151 coaches carrying five thousand people.

This was the start of the notion of a day out in the capital city; the word "sightseer" had been coined only four years earlier, and the first clean and respectable public toilets in London were opened for the exhibition. Queen Victoria visited the Crystal Palace several times and Prince Albert was there almost every day.

Admission prices varied - season tickets were three guineas for a man, two for a woman. Later you could get in for as little as a shilling.


The 1951 Festival of Britain was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition. Coming so soon after the austerity years of the Second World War, it became a showcase for good design and technology.

Though it was nationwide in scope, the central event of the festival was the South Bank Exhibition, on a site next to the Royal Festival Hall, the only reminder of the event.

At the heart of the festival was the Dome of Discovery, (left) then the biggest dome in the world, and the only one made from aluminium. At 365ft in diameter it was three times the size of the dome of St Paul's and contained sections on the general theme of discovery - in science, exploration, technology and medicine.

Significantly - in view of the debate about the Millennium Dome - visitors to the South Bank seem to remember the buildings (the Unicorn Pavilion, the Dome of Discovery, the Transport and Communications Pavilion) but have forgotten what was in them.


Not much remains of the 1851 exhibition. The Crystal Palace was taken down and re-built near Sydenham in south London at the cost Pounds 200,000. Sadly, it burnt down in 1936. The steps and the area where it stood can still be seen. The name Crystal Palace is still used for the area and its soccer team.

There is a lasting legacy, though, in the form of the group of museums and colleges, including the Victoria Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall (below) and the Natural History Museum, all to be found on Exhibition Road in London's South Kensington, south of Hyde Park. At the suggestion of Prince Albert, who had been heavily involved in the whole idea of the Great Exhibition, the profits were used to buy the land on which the museums and colleges now stand.

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