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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

The Great Exhibition of 1851

Updated: Mar 11

172 years ago today, London opened its doors to the rest of the world for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The Exhibition remained open until October 11th that year and was visited by over six million people in the space of six months. The grand opening was a huge success, with Queen Victoria herself opening it, along with the attendance of the British people, members of the Royal Commission and their families, and notable figures from the government. While this had initially been planned as a private event, it had been an incredibly popular idea with the public, and so it was decided that it should be opened to the public. Tickets cost three guineas and allowed ticket holders exclusive access on that first day. The below image demonstrates how popular the opening was, with Queen Victoria on the stage that was set up in the Crystal Palace.

Eugene-Louis Lami, The Opening of the Great Exhibition 1851 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III 2024

After visiting an exposition in France in the early 1840s, Henry Cole returned to England with the idea of hosting a similar event in Britain. After attempting to convince many people, the Society of Arts held significantly smaller expositions in 1847, 1848 and 1849. As these expositions went on, they became increasingly more popular, and the idea of holding one on a much larger scale seemed likely. As a result, Queen Victoria set up the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, with Prince Albert acting as President for the Commission. The formation of this group of men allowed for serious planning for the Exhibition to begin.

The aim of this Exhibition was to display the works of industry and manufacturing from countries all over the world. There were four main sections that influenced the displays: raw materials, manufacturers, machinery, and fine arts (which included sculpture and architecture - but not paintings). It was open for six months and was visited by millions of people - including some famous people such as Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Charlotte Bronte.

The Great Exhibition was housed in what quickly became known as the Crystal Palace. This was a building made up entirely of glass and ran 1848 feet long and 408 feet wide. The Crystal Palace was a design created by Joseph Paxton. His original design was created on a sheet of pink blotting paper as he sat in a board meeting for the Midland Railway Company. In the space of two weeks, it became a fully functional plan and only took nine months to construct.

British Library (BL), MS 35255, Western Manuscripts, A MEMORIAL of the Great Exhibition, 1851.'

While it was advertised as an Exhibition for the world, it very much had a British focus. The Official Catalogue for the Great Exhibition stated that: "The building has East and West and is intersected by the Transept running North and South. The Western half is appropriated to the productions of the United Kingdom, India and the Colonies. The Eastern half to Foreign Countries." While it was an opportunity for the rest of the world to show off their inventions, it was the perfect opportunity for Britain and its colonies to demonstrate what they had to offer and the ways they were advancing for the time.

The Foreign Department Viewed towards the Transept, Victoria & Albert Museum

Some of the popular displays included Osler's Crystal Fountain, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, a Canadian Fire Engine and 'The Greek Slave' statue created by Hiram Powers. With over 100,000 individual exhibits, there was no shortage of items for people to be in awe of.

The Great Exhibition 1851: Glass Fountain by Osler, © Royal Collection Trust / HIM King Charles III 2024

The Great Exhibition closed its doors to the public on October 11th 1851 before officially closing on October 15th. In the six months it was open, it was visited by six million people and made a profit of €185,437 (totalling around £26,475,849.38 in todays money). The Crystal Palace remained in Hyde Park until May 1852 and was then moved to Sydenham and officially opened in 1854.

The Rebuilding at Sydenham 1852-1854, Crystal Palace Foundation

This Crystal Palace remained open for 82 years and saw a number of exhibitions and concerts take place as well as becoming a home to cinemas and a shopping centre. It remained open until it fell into disrepair in the 1930s and eventually burned down as a result of a fire in 1936.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was an incredibly popular event - not only did it encourage further exhibitions to take place throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, its profits set up institutions that still remain today. The Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are clear reminders of the success this groundbreaking event had for Britain. The Albert Memorial also stands as a reminder of the successes of the Exhibition, and the importance of it to Queen Victoria, as Prince Albert can be seen holding the catalogue for the Exhibition - an important reminder of the triumphs of Henry Cole, Prince Albert and the Royal Commission.

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