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The Great Exhibition

Review of the talk by Dr Prasannajit de Silva
on February 26th 2020
Dr Prasannajit de Silva

On a number of occasions during Dr de Silva’s talk memories were stirred of our visit in 1951 to the “Festival of Britain” on the South Bank of the Thames.  It was such an exciting time for both children and adults who had travelled to London to view the national exhibition and fair which was held to commemorate the centenary of the “Great Exhibition”.

Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace from the northeast
from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851

Rewind the clock to the summer of 1851 and Dr de Silva gave us a fascinating account of what it would have been like to join some of the six million people, one third of the population, who viewed the exhibits on display under the 300,000 sheets of glass which made up the sparkling “Crystal Palace” in Hyde Park.  The huge structure, 1,850 feet long and 108 feet high, had been designed by Joseph Paxton.  Remarkably his initial idea had been a mere doodle on his blotting pad.  The result was an engineering triumph that reflected the importance of the Exhibition itself.

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition
Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition

It was opened by Queen Victoria on May 1st and visitors came from all walks of life.  Many of them took advantage of the discounted tickets which enabled them to travel on the new railway lines which had sprung up all over the country.  Charles Darwin, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carol and Charles Dickens might have rubbed shoulders with overseas visitors, children, agriculturists and those on church and works outings.  A Punch cartoon had the caption “Whoever thought of meeting you here?”

The cost of their entry ticket depended on which day they visited.  We were shown “The Five Shilling Day” from The Illustrated London News.  Some bought a season ticket for three guineas but you only paid two if you were a woman!  They bought refreshments, ate enormous quantities of sausage rolls, drank from over a million Schweppes bottles, bought souvenirs and would have had to pay a penny fee to use the toilets.

elephant and Howdah exhibited by her Majesty in Great Exhibition

Although the idea for “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” has often been attributed to Prince Albert, praise should also be bestowed on Henry Cole who helped to secure the backing of Queen Victoria to establish the Royal Commission for the Exhibition and subsequently assisted with the complex organisation.

The aim of the project was that, following two decades of political and social upheaval, Britain could make clear to the world its role as an industrial nation.  It was to encourage the arts, manufacturers, commerce and the use of raw materials and to be seen as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design.  It was to be a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements.  Hopefully it might also contribute to the aim of achieving world peace and free trade.

Through Dickinson’s pictures we witnessed some of the thousands of objects which were on display.  Visitors would have marvelled at the Koh-I-Noor diamond, moving machinery, the Agricultural Court, scientific instruments, the neo gothic Medieval Court designed by Pugin, Minton china, colonial produce and the Howdah displayed on the stuffed Indian Elephant.  This beast had not travelled from India but from the museum at Saffron Waldron.

Sadly, the building, which was dismantled and moved to South London, was destroyed by fire in 1936 but, although the project was not without controversy, the legacy of the Exhibition remains.  It was a great success and had a real impact on art and design, international trade and relations.  The complex of museums in South Kensington were all founded using the surplus profit.  It is in these magnificent buildings that the public can still be inspired and educated, reflecting the guiding principles behind the Great Exhibition.

Marian and Barrie Heathcote

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Dr Prasannajit de Silva