When you are confident that you are the best in the world, the natural reaction is to show off your talents to anyone who will come to watch. So it was in the mid-nineteenth century, when British success in engineering, inventing, science and the arts was displayed to huge acclaim in a massive temporary exhibition. Even the building that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a marvel of engineering.
The Great Exhibition was remarkable right from the start, as it was put together in a very short time. It was the brainchild in 1848 of civil servant Henry Cole, a member of the Society of Arts, but took off when it gained support from Sir Robert Peel. Once Cole got Prince Albert’s backing and royal consent in January 1850, he encouraged the belief that it had been the Prince’s idea, as a way of attracting exhibitors and visitors.
The building to house the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was designed by Joseph Paxton. Paxton had been chief gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s country home, Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The iron and glass structure was based on his novel greenhouse designs, but was much bigger at a symbolic 1851 feet (564 metres) long. It covered 10.5 hectares (26 acres) and even housed two trees growing on the plot. Despite the innovative design, it was built in only nine months and cost just £80,000. Once built, it was nicknamed ‘Crystal Palace’ by Punch magazine.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert conducted the first ever royal walkabout on the opening day of the Great Exhibition, 1 May 1851. Inside, visitors were treated to 100,000 exhibits from around the world. Displays included industrial inventions, medical artefacts, labour-saving devices, arts, such as photography, and all kinds of novelties. Visitors could gawp at tinned foods, a stuffed elephant and a locomotive, as well as the massive Koh-I-Noor diamond and an envelope-folding machine. Scientist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault even hung a pendulum from the roof to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
During the six months that it was open, over 6 million people visited the Great Exhibition, including many from abroad. Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, even joining the huge crowds attracted by the one shilling tickets sold from 24 May. Visitors were catered for with refreshment courts and the novel public lavatories, which cost a penny to use.
After the exhibition closed, the building was taken down and re-erected at Sydenham in South London. Although the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, the Great Exhibition left several legacies. The building’s nickname lives on as the name of the area where it stood for over 80 years and a London football club. Separately, the proceeds from the Exhibition were used, along with public money, to buy land in South Kensington. Later, this became the site for the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum (where you can see a modern-day Foucault pendulum) and the Royal Albert Hall.