1851 London UK – Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

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1851 London

Name:Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations
Dates:1 May – 11 Oct 1851
Days:164 days – 10.5 ha (26 acres), the Palace itself was 7.6 ha
Venue:The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London
Theme:Some saw this as a celebration of Britain’s industrial might, while others it should stimulate better, competitive design
Exhibitors:14,000 (100,000 exhibits) from 38 countries
Awards:170 council and 2,918 prize medals, each class had its own jury who looked for excellence in design, cost, utility and novelty
Visitors:6,039,195 admission initially £1, later reduced to 1s
Legacy:With its profits the event it bought the land that subsequently housed the Natural History, Science and V&A museums, and it funded young scientists
Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882)

Sir Henry Cole was an inventor and civil servant. As a complete aside, he is credited with the notion in 1843 of sending greeting cards at Christmas.

He was a member of The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce and he regularly lobbied government with initiatives to improve standards in British industrial design.

Cole gained the support of the Society’s President, Prince Albert, for the notion of industrial exhibitions. The Society had already run an Exhibition of Art Manufactures in 1847 which grew in 1848 and 1849 to underline his point.

Cole visited the 1849 Paris exposition (below) and persuaded Prince Albert to make the next British exhibition in 1851 a truly international affair. This was by no means a straightforward decision because ‘free trade’ had become a feature of world trading, and the event might detrimentally expose British design to foreign competition. The notion of allowing foreign competitive products to have a showcase without the safety net of tariffs was a real concern for many. However, the British Empire had confidence, it had created an ‘entire world economy’ for itself, becoming the world’s workshop, importer, exporter, carrier and foreign investor (Hobsbawm, 1999, p.xi). That confidence is implicit in Prince Albert’s suggestion that the time had come to prepare for a great exhibition, ’not merely national in its scope and benefits, but comprehensive of the whole world.’

Symbol of the Great Exhibition

The proposals faced opposition from those fearing foreign competition. To resolve the former concern, the Designs Act of 1850, the Protection of Inventions Act of 1851 and an 1852 revision of the Patent Act were passed to offer reassurance.

Those who objected to Hyde Park being its venue were solved by the concession that this site would be only a temporary site.

A Building Committee of the ‘great and good’ announced that the design for a building to host the exhibition would be the subject for an open competition. It attracted 248 entries but the Committee did not like any of them. It decided instead to design its own approach by cherry-picking elements from the various entries.

When they published their concept in May 1850, one year before the scheduled opening, it would have required the use of fifteen-million bricks and the projected lead-time was calculated to be eighteen months. The eventual winner was not an industrialist, he was someone who would go on to cultivate the banana that is today the most consumed in the western world, the Cavendish banana.

Joseph Paxton
(Source Maull & Co, London)

Joseph Paxton was born in 1803, the seventh son of a Bedfordshire farming family. At the age of fifteen he became a garden boy at Battlesden Park, near Woburn, and at twenty moved to the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick Gardens. This was near Chiswick House, one of the estates of William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Cavendish had inherited his title and eight grand estates, some 200,000 acres – 810 sq kms (30% larger than today’s Greater Manchester). Cavendish was impressed by Paxton’s enthusiasm and skills, in 1826 appointing him as head gardener of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, responsible for implementing an early Capability Brown landscape.

Cavendish was known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’, because he never married and instead kept various mistresses. As a Whig politician he notably supported Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and reductions in factory working hours. However, advancing deafness curtailed his public ambitions and he devoted his efforts instead to horticulture and gardening.

The two (Cavendish and Paxton) collaborated on a number of projects, the rebuilding of Edensor village, creation of a 40-acre conifer arboretum and the Emperor Fountain, double the height of Nelson’s Column requiring a feeder lake with 100,000 cubic yds (76,000 cubic m) of earth moved.

Paxton became interested in greenhouse design, then in its infancy. He learned of the ‘ridge and furrow roof’ notion from the 1828 Encyclopaedia of Gardening and developed this by locating it at right angles to the morning and evening sun to maximise the light captured. He designed hollow pillars that could ‘double-up’ as drainpipes, and cross-members that acted as guttering.

Great Conservatory at Chatsworth

In 1836 Paxton began building the ‘Great Conservatory’ at Chatsworth. Completed in 1840 it was 275 ft (84m) long, 123 ft (37m) wide and 62 ft (19m) high. It used cast iron columns and beams, with arches of laminated wood. At this time the largest sheets of manufactured glass were 3 ft (less than 1m), Paxton arranged for Robert Chance to make 4 ft sheets for his project. It was then the largest glass structure in the world, Chatsworth hedges its bets by saying it was the largest in England. It was heated by eight boilers and seven miles of iron piping. The high cost of this heating meant that in WWI it was switched off. The plants died and the greenhouse was demolished in the 1920s.

Significantly the greenhouse was created without ugly pillars and other structures interfering with the working greenhouse space. Further its elements consisted of batch-produced components that could be mass-produced and speedily assembled into various shapes and sizes. It might be considered a new industrial aesthetic, the shape of things to come.

In 1848 Paxton completed the ‘Conservative Wall’, a 298 ft (91m) long by 7 ft (2.1m) wide protective cover for fruit trees, today it is called ‘The Case’. A series of flues and pipes maintain temperature in winter.

The Conservative Wall at Chatsworth (Source: chatsworth.org)

In 1849 Paxton became involved in a fad for importing and growing exotic tropical plants. In 1936 Kew Gardens had acquired from Guyana the seeds of the Victoria amazonica or Victoria regia lily but it had not prospered there. Paxton acquired a seedling from Kew and built a heated pool and the ‘Lily House’ at Chatsworth. He was later to be inspired by the lily’s structure as his inspiration, he stood his daughter, Annie, on one of its leaves to test his theories.

Paxton’s daughter, Annie, supported by a Victoria regia lily

He saw that the lily’s rigidity was created by radiating ribs that were interconnected by a series of flexible cross-ribs and so experimented with this approach. It was applied in his construction of the Lily House, a flat roofed version of the Conservatory, with a curtain wall of hanging vertical glass panels held by cantilevered beams.

Quite independently others were developing similarly spanned buildings with minimum internal supports, for market halls and railway stations.

Covent Garden market building

Covent Garden had been a market for many years and was redeveloped in 1830 as much to bring the market activity under some sort of management control. The architect for this project was Charles Fowler who bucked the trend for gothic buildings by using a neo-classical Greco-Roman approach, more about function than form. William Cubitt & Co was the building contractor. They created a wide-span market Piazza that is still in use almost two centuries later.

Euston Station

Euston station was the first intercity terminus in London. It was opened in July 1837, for the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’), its engineers were, father and son, George and Robert Stephenson. The Stephensons had been key players in the 1821 Stockton and Darlington Railway and 1830 Liverpool and Manchester Railway (‘L&MR’). They appointed Philip Hardwick as the architect to design Euston station as a two-platform 200 ft (61m) long wrought iron train shed. However, he is better known for his 72 ft (22m) high portico, the main entrance to the station, based upon his studies in France and Italy he designed it as a ‘propylaeum’, a Doric monumental archway.

Hardwick’s Euston Propylaeum

Charles Fox was a train driver for the L&MR when it opened, but went on to design innovations for railway points after Robert Stephenson appointed him to the L&BR. Fox subsequently formed Fox, Henderson & Co specialising in railway equipment, including wheels, bridges, roofs, cranes, tanks and permanent way (aka track) materials.

Joseph Paxton’s original impromptu sketch
for the design of the Crystal Palace

From these disparate origins – Chatsworth greenhouses, Covent Garden, Euston station – the team was ready and primed for the Great Exhibition’s ‘Crystal Palace’. Paxton had sketched out his thoughts and appointed Charles Fox for his expertise in structural ironwork, Cubitt became the contractor. Fox, Cubitt and Paxton would all later be knighted for their efforts, on 23Oct 1851.

The royal commission commenced on 3Jan1850, with Queen Victoria heading the subscription list by donating £1,000.

The opening of the Great Exhibition / view of Crystal Palace Nave

Construction of the Crystal Palace started on 6Sep1850. A standard pane of glass was chosen and this in turn determined the size of the modular units. Paxton’s prefabricated design enabled low cost and quick build.  In just nine months 19 acres of Hyde Park were under glass. Its tall barrel-vault transept was crossed by a long flat-roof nave. The glass illuminated its five naves, the largest of these was taller than Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral.

It was 1,851 ft (564m) long and 408 ft (124m) wide, with an extension on the north side 936 ft (285m) long and 48 ft (15m) wide. The height of the central portion was 64 ft (20m) and at the centre the transept was 108 ft (33m). The building was completed on 1Mar1851 at a total cost of £176,000. It was opened to a great fanfare on 1May1851 by the Queen.

Crystal Fountain at the heart of the Crystal Palace

The British section had six divisions – machinery, manufacturers, metallic, raw materials, textiles, vitreous
and ceramic, miscellaneous and fine arts; and there were thirty sub-classes. Access through the venue was
confused and wouldhave had no chance to pass a modern health and safety appraisal.

It was opened on schedule by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert amid claims that it was the first international exhibition of manufactured products. Certainly the opening ceremony was attended by ambassadors from many countries. As we shall see this was not truly the case, though it was the largest to-date and nonetheless proved to be influential in the development of art and design, tourism, international trade relations and the exhibitions’ industry.

Britain’s Great Exhibition was held across 164 days in 1851 from 1May-15Oct. Sources argue that there were between 14,000 and 17,000 exhibitors representing 25 to 32 countries. there were 14,000 exhibitors representing 25 to 32 different countries. While no comprehensive record of exhibits was made, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 exhibits on show.

Its site in Hyde Park covered a total 10.5 ha (26 acres) with the Crystal Palace offering 7.6 ha or 76,000 sqm of covered space. Visitors were charged between one shilling and £1 entry.

It is claimed to have attracted 6,039,000 visitors; Greater London had only a 2.4m population. There are claims that 20% of the English population visited the Great Exhibition, though this was probably skewed by multiple visits. One of the contributing factors to the show’s large attendance was railway transport, many visitors purchasing cheap excursions through Thomas Cook. On 7Oct it achieved its peak attendance of 109,915 visitors in a day. The Duke of Wellington, fearing worker unrest, stationed mounted troops nearby.

Sections were dedicated to the countries and colonies with foreign exhibitors occupying 40% of the space. Artworks tended to be arranged together while sculpture was distributed around the palace to add appeal to the venue. Machinery was also gathered together.

Some 5,084 medals were awarded. In manufacture and machinery the British received the majority of the prizes, for miscellaneous manufactures the foreign exhibitors gained more medals, while in raw materials foreign exhibitors took four times as many prizes as the British exhibitors.

Great Exhibition 1851 medals

Among the notable exhibits were a large number of gems, the most significant being the Koh-i-Noor which when first cut was a 186-carat colourless diamond. Prince Albert thought it dull and had it recut as an oval, but this removed 80 carats (43%) in the process!

The financial results showed subscriptions at £67,800, admissions at £425,000, refreshments etc at £13,200. Total income was £506,000, with expenditures of £330,000. When interest and small receipts were added the final profits were £186,436. As a result, those on the guarantee list were not called upon to fulfil their subscriptions.

As a direct legacy of the event, the proceeds with additional parliamentary grants were used to establish a Royal Commission for the advancement of the fine arts and of practical science. The Commission purchased an 87-acre estate in South Kensington between Cromwell Road and Kensington Gore, nicknamed ‘Albertopolis’. On this land it created the Royal Albert Hall, the South Kensington Museum (today the V&A), the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music. It remains to this day as the landlord of these properties.

With the residue it also established the Science Research Scholarships from 1891, each year providing eight research fellowships, nine industrial fellowships, a single design fellowship, and nine industrial design studentships. It has made awards to the British School at Athens, an educational charity, and the British School at Rome, a prestigious research academy. It also supplied funds to the National Physical Laboratory.

The Crystal Palace was sold off to a company and re-erected at Sydenham in south London, the area becoming renamed as Crystal Palace.  Original components were used to build using an enlarged plan beginning 5Aug1852, it was reopened by Queen Victoria on 10Jun1854. It was subsequently used for horticultural shows, concerts and other entertainments. On 30Nov1936 it was gutted by fire, some 89 engines and over 400 firemen fought the blaze. Winston Churchill was among the 100,000 who came to see the fire, commenting ‘This is the end of an age’.

Crystal Palace at Sydenham, before and after the 1936 fire

Britain’s 1851 ‘Great Exhibition’ had been the ‘game-changing’ event, The success of the British approach and its iconic venue, the Crystal Palace, were copied by many countries who built their versions of the palace and launched politically-motivated events, pursuing objectives for imperial brand-building and industrial muscle-flexing. These international events both reflected and drove the evolving culture of a globalising world.

It was the Americans who first coined, with typical hubris, the term ‘World Fair’. They had been called ‘exhibitions’ in Anglophone countries and ‘expositions’ in Francophone and other European and Asian locations; later the diminutive ‘Expo’ came to be used.

In 1928, the BIE, Bureau International des Expositions was founded as the governing and regulatory body for World Fairs. One part of its constitution is to ensure that an official ‘registered exhibition’ can only be organised once every five years, though they encourage one smaller exposition between each major exhibition.

This commercial decision was part of a re-focus away from the goals of nation-states and empires as an exhibition industry evolved. The BIE has defined several shows that pre-dated it as World Fairs. The BIE considers that the 1851 Great Exhibition was the very first.

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