The Great Exhibition opened



The world’s first international exhibition of industry was opened on the 1st May 1851 by Her Majesty Queen Victoria. It was originally planned that this inauguration would be a private ceremony because the Queen had been attacked in June of the previous year by Robert Pate, and was wary of public attention.

But again The Times thundered, its leader column stating:

What was unworthy part would these nervous advisers cause the Queen of England to play! Surely Queen Victoria is not Tiberius or Louis XI, that she should be smuggled out of a glass carriage into a great glass building under the cover of the truncheons of the police and the broadswords of the Life Guards. Where most Englishmen are gathered together, there the Queen of England is most secure!

And so again public opinion swayed officialdom, and the Great Exhibition was open to a crowd of 25,000 observers. The Police estimated that as many as 700,000 people filled Hyde Park that day.

Queen Victoria and her family at the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851

Queen Victoria and her family at the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851

The opening ceremony was full of pomp and circumstance that characterized Victoria’s reign; the Archbishop of Canterbury offered prayers, guns saluted, dignitaries and royalty read addresses, soldiers marched and a choir of 600 sang Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Gentlemen discussing the business matters

Gentlemen discussing the new machinery

On the 11th of October the exhibition closed to the public. In the course of the five and a half months that it was open over six million visitors attended. The busiest day, during the last week, saw 109,915 people pass through its doors.

The last word of technology exhibited in Crystal Palace

The last word of technology exhibited in Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was a superb exhibition space. All contemporary comment described the galleries and transept bathed in brilliant light. Charles Barry, even though a Gothic architect, paid great compliment by writing that it ‘flashed on the eye more like the fabled palace of Vathek than a structure reared in six months’. Another observer described the central court thus:

In the midst is seen the Fountain of Glass; behind it, and also in groups near the south entrance, are beautiful tropical plants, sheltered by the elm-trees which rise above them; and above all springs the light and elegant arch of the wonderful Transept. The litter of the falling waters in the gleaming light which pours down unobscured in this part of the building, and the artistic arrangement of the groups of the  objects of art and industry in the immense vicinity of the Transept, renders this a peculiarly attractive part of this immense structure.

The great interest in astronomy

The great interest in astronomy

The main avenues of the building were filled with large free-standing exhibits and decorated with colourful flags and red banners stating the name of the exhibitor in white letters. The galleries overlooking the central avenues housed hundreds of cabinets containing smaller items, and hanging tapestries. Despite being dubbed somewhat icily, ‘the Crystal Palace’ the splendid pomp of the exhibits and Owen Jones’ primary colour scheme, made the experience of visiting the Great Exhibition a colourful and exciting one. In trying to assess the impact of the exhibition on its visitors, it ought to be remembered that many had never travelled outside their own towns and villages, let alone to London and an international event of such a scale. The Queen recorded in her journal meeting a Cornish woman, aged 80, who ‘had walked up several 100 miles to see the exhibition’. On special ‘shilling’ days the lower middle classes flocked in their thousands. Thomas Cook made his fortune by taking over 160,000 people on excursions which included travel and the price of entry to the exhibition. Even The Times, initially very critical of the exhibition plans, wrote of the first day: ‘There were many who were familiar with the sight of great spectacles… but they had not seen anything to compare with this’.

The exhibition of Greece

The exhibition of Greece

An event as the fantastic as the Great Exhibition inevitably generates an accompanying mythology. Two weeks before the opening ceremony, for example, an unforeseen problem arose, when Crystal Palace became home to flocks of sparrows who threatened to redecorate the building and its visitors in somewhat less pleasant hues then those intended by Owen Jones. The Commissioner’s solution to this problem, after much deliberation, was to employ two sparrow hawks. A letter to the Morning Chronicle stated that the ‘most universal complaint’ about the Great Exhibition was that the refreshment staff serving there were unwashed, and that ‘their hands and faces would be greatly improved by a moderate use of soap’. An Admiral at Portsmouth dockyard offered to place a vessel at the disposal of the workmen, so that they could be able to visit the exhibition in the capital. Henry Cole retold the story of when the Duke of Wellington, a national hero, attended the Great Exhibition:

When at its fullest, 93 thousand present, the Duke of Wellington came, and although cautioned by the police, he would walk up the nave in the midst of the crowd. He was soon recognized and cheered. The distant crowds were alarmed and raised the cry that ‘the building was falling’. There was a rush.

The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace

Fortunately, the building did not collapse, although it appears as if the Duke of Wellington did, for Cole proceeds to describe him being carried out of the palace looking ‘pale and indignant’.

 

Other related articles you might like...




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *