The Great Exhibition of 1851

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Queen Victoria and Prince Regent Albert.

There were many exciting events happening around the world in the same year gold was discovered in Ballarat. In 1851 powdered milk was invented, the New York Times newspaper was printed for the first time, the movement to end slavery in the USA was building in strength, and the famous novel about a white whale –Moby Dick– by Herman Melville was published. Louis Daguerre, the inventor of photography died in 1851, the Great Potato Famine in Ireland was at its deadly peak, and Isaac Merritt Singer patented the sewing machine, which radically transformed people’s lives. However, the biggest event, dominating newspapers the world over for nearly 6 months, was “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” held in London in 1851.

As the heart of the 1750-1900 Industrial Revolution, Britain by 1851 was the most powerful nation on Earth. Technological advances, in particular the invention of coal-powered steam engines which drove cotton mills, potteries, ships, and trains, had given Queen Victoria’s people cheap clothing and homewares, and access to all corners of the globe. What better way to celebrate Britain’s achievements than by holding a huge show of the latest local and international goodies and gadgets!

The idea for an exhibition came from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and it was managed by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Many believed then, as many still do today, that the royal couple were visionaries. Prince Albert explained his motivation for The Great Exhibition:

We are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end – to which all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind … Gentleman, the Exhibition of 1851 is to give us a true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions.”

Victoria and Albert believed they were leading the world towards peace, comfort and cooperation by celebrating technology through their Great Exhibition.

The first part of the plan was to design a grand building to showcase all of the world’s weird and wonderful inventions – Albert chose Sir Joseph Paxton’s design which was later dubbed “The Crystal Palace” because it was made of cheap cast iron and strong, cast-plate glass which had only been invented in 1848. This amazing structure was 1,851 feet long (equalling 564m) to celebrate the year of the Exhibition, and built in London’s Hyde Park. It was so cleverly designed that it was built over some huge trees, which provided shade – inside the building – on warm days. The Crystal Palace was easily accessed by visitors travelling on the new steam trains and as a result, over 6 million people (a quarter of England’s population!) attended this gigantic festival of all things machine and machine-made.

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The State Opening of The Great Exhibition in 1851. Colour lithograph, England, 19th century. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Among the thousands of items displayed, visitors could see the cotton weaving looms that had transformed the manufacturing of clothing, gas cookers, fabrics of all colours and materials, farm equipment, electric clocks, newly discovered gold from Australia, a carriage drawn by kites, a ‘pocket’ knife with precisely 1851 blades, a submarine, a two person piano, miniature towns, giant diamonds from India, strange taxidermy, and fountains of perfume. Not only was this the first time such wonderful objects and inventions had been seen in public, for many people from the British countryside, this was their first visit to London. A visit which involved not only a train trip, but also seeing so many marvels of the modern world – this would have been a mind-blowing experience for many of Britain’s country folk!

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A Great Exhibition pull-out poster from the famous Illustrated London News, 1851.

On the topic of the Great Exhibition, the poet Lord Alfred Tennnyson wrote: … lo! the giant aisles
Rich in model and design;
Harvest-tool and husbandry,
Loom and when and enginery,
Secrets of the sullen mine,
Steel of the sullen mine,
Steel and gold, and coal and wine,
Fabric rough or fairy fine …
And shapes and hues of Art divine!
All of beauty, all of use,
That one fair planet can produce.

The Great Exhibition was such an incredible success that with the huge amount of money made from it, Victoria and Albert were able to set up The Natural History Museum, Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum which to this day remain some of the most fascinating places to visit in London. The spirit of The Great Exhibition continued to encourage technological development: by 1862 steam trains linked Ballarat to Melbourne and Geelong, and not long after that Ballarat started building factories to create its own steam engines and machine parts (called foundries).

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The steam train arrives in Ballarat! (1862) Australian steam trains can be identified by their strange conical chimneys, called “spark arrestors”, which stop the trains from starting bush fires. Ballarat Historical Society Photograph Collection.

Due in large part to the discovery of gold, Victoria’s population grew rapidly and people invested their gold money in industry and real estate. As one of the richest communities in the world, Victoria held an Exhibition in 1880 in the purpose-built Royal Exhibition Building (in Carlton next to the modern Melbourne Museum). It attracted around 1.5 million people at a time when Melbourne’s population hadn’t even reached 300,000.

Since 1851, many cities around the world have held international Exhibitions along the same lines as Britain’s, but none have rivalled it in size or legacy.

Links and References

Horrible Histories on The Great Exhibition and Victoria and Albert’s love for each other: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flaLHJCKy3I

These websites explain the major events of 1851: http://www.historyorb.com/events/date/1851 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1851

Great student-friendly website about Queen Victoria: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/famouspeople/victoria/

Wikipedia on The Great Exhibition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Exhibition

Two great short videos about the Great Exhibition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRvOHOltp_w https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqM6PXyp5MA

Timeline of work undertaken by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce: http://www.thersa.org/about-us/history-and-archive/rsa-history-timeline

Interactive game teaching about the Great Potato Famine: http://www.irishpotatofamine.org/flash.html

The history of international exhibitions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World’s_fair

A fantastic book all about The Great Exhibition is: http://www.crystalpalacefoundation.org.uk/shop/great-exhibition-1851/the-world-for-a-shilling 

One response to “The Great Exhibition of 1851

  1. Fabulous post ! JJ

    Sent from my iPhone

    JEREMY JOHNSON

    CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

    The Sovereign Hill Museums Association 39/41 Magpie Street | Ballarat Victoria 3350 Australia tel 03 5337 1100 | direct tel 03 5337 1110 | fax 03 5333 5663 Email JJohnson@sovereignhill.com.au http://www.sovereignhill.com.au

    [Visit Sovereign Hill]

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