10 Fascinating Facts About the Great Exhibition of 1851

In 1851, Great Britain stood at the very pinnacle of industrial and cultural leadership of the world.

But running in parallel was an undercurrent of class inequality, a fear of foreigners, and a contempt for internationalism.

Against this backdrop, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert organized the first world’s fair as a means to unite nations and encourage economic growth through international trade.

The first of many to come, the Great Exhibition was the symbol of Victorian progress and modernization.

Here are 10 fascinating facts about the Great Exhibition of 1851.

1. The Great Exhibition was a showcase for British pride

Although the Great Exhibition was a platform for countries from around the world to display their own achievements, Britain’s primary concern was to promote its own superiority.

British exhibits held the lead in almost every field where strength, durability, utility and quality were concerned, whether in iron and steel, machinery, or textiles.

It was thought foreign visitors would look positively upon British accomplishments, customs, and institutions—learning more in the six months during the exhibition than the prior thirty-six years since the fall of Napoleon.

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851 by Henry Courtney Selous, 1852
The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851 by Henry Courtney Selous, 1852

Great Britain also wanted to instill optimism and the hope for a better future.

Following two difficult decades of political and social upheaval in Europe, Great Britain hoped to convey that technology—particularly its own—was the key to a better future.

One of a pair of extravagant vases with finely painted views of the Crystal Palace on one side, and patriotic portraits of the Queen and Prince Consort on the other. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
One of a pair of extravagant vases designed to be solely exhibition pieces with finely painted views of the Crystal Palace on one side, and patriotic portraits of the Queen and Prince Consort on the other. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite being an advocate for internationalism, Prince Albert’s main objective was predominantly a national one—for Great Britain to make clear to the world its role as industrial leader.

The British Department viewed towards the transept
The British Department viewed towards the transept. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even so, some saw the rise of a new industrial power—one that would threaten Britain’s dominance in years to come.

With the industrial revolution well underway in the United States,  the Great Exhibition was an opportunity for the former British colony to show its machines, products, and agricultural wealth on the world stage.

Unavoidably compared to Great Britain, many looked favorably on the United States’ offerings.

The British Nave - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The British Nave – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2. The Great Exhibition was a symbol of the Victorian Age

From the 1850’s onward, the term “Victorianism” became popular for describing the strength, bullish superiority, and pride of an ever-improving Britain.

Opening of the Great Exhibition, 1 May 1851 by Eugène Louis Lami
Opening of the Great Exhibition, 1 May 1851 by Eugène Louis Lami. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Colonial raw materials and British art were displayed in the most prestigious parts of the exhibition.

Reflecting it’s important as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, a disproportionately large area was allocated to India.

Opulently appointed, the India exhibits focused on the trappings of empire rather than technological achievements.

The India exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The India exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The India exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The India exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The India exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The India exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Technology and moving machinery proved popular, as did working exhibits like the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth.

Drawing attention from the curious-minded were scientific instruments, the like of which most people had never seen before, including electric telegraphs, microscopes, air pumps and barometers, as well as musical, horological, and surgical instruments.

Moving Machinery. A view from The Great Exhibition of 1851
Moving Machinery. A view from The Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Queen Victoria previewed the exhibition the day before the official opening and wrote in her journal “We saw beautiful china from Minton’s factory and beautiful designs”.

The combination of glazed and decorated bone china with unglazed Parian figures was praised by the Great Exhibition jury for its ‘original design, high degree of beauty and harmony of effect’.

Queen Victoria purchased a 116 piece ‘Victoria pierced’ dessert service in bleu celeste at the Great Exhibition.

She was overwhelmed by the spectacular service with allegorical figure supports modelled by Pierre-Emile Jeannest.

Victoria pierced tiered centrepiece for a dessert service
Victoria pierced tiered centrepiece for a dessert service. . © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She purchased the service as a gift for the Empress of Prussia but gave permission for it to remain on display for the duration of the exhibition.

Vase and cover, Minton (manufacturer), Stoke-on-Trent
Vase and cover, Minton (manufacturer), Stoke-on-Trent. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3. The Crystal Palace was purpose-built to house the Great Exhibition

Drawing on his experience building greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire, architect Joseph Paxton designed the largest greenhouse in the world—so spacious was its interior that it fully enclosed some of Hyde Park’s own trees.

The Crystal Palace was an enormous success, considered an architectural marvel, but also an engineering triumph that reflected the importance of the Exhibition itself.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851
The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851

William Makepeace Thackeray, one of the leading novelists of the Victorian era, was moved to write a poem about the opening of the Crystal Palace:

As though ’twere by a wizard’s rod
As blazing arch of lucid glass
Leaps like a fountain from the grass
To meet the sun.

The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition , William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), 1851, V&A
The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition , William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), 1851, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

4. Six Million People visited 13,000 exhibits

Lasting six months, the average daily attendance at the exhibition was 42,831, with a peak attendance of 109,915 on 7 October.

One third of the entire population of Britain visited the Great Exhibition.

Whilst the western half of the building was occupied with exhibits by Great Britain and her colonies and dependencies, the eastern half was filled with foreign exhibits, with their names inscribed on banners suspended over the various divisions.

The Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. The Foreign Nave by Joseph Nash
The Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. The Foreign Nave by Joseph Nash. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The United States exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The United States exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Canadian exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The Canadian exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, Ceylon - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, Ceylon – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The China exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The China exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Holland section. Visitors are examining stalls showing goods of Dutch deisgn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Holland section. Visitors are examining stalls showing goods of Dutch deisgn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Turkey exhibit - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The Turkey exhibit – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Italian Court - Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851
The Italian Court – Dickinson’s comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Part of the French Court, No. 1 (Sèvres)', with a display of porcelain by the Sèvres factory visible in the background. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
‘Part of the French Court, No. 1 (Sèvres)’, with a display of porcelain by the Sèvres factory visible in the background. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

5. Numerous Victorian A-list celebrities visited the Great Exhibition

Attending the Great Exhibition were many notable celebrities of the time, including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot and Alfred Tennyson.

Victorian A-list celebrities
Victorian A-list celebrities: Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Charlotte Brontë described her visit:

Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place …

6. The Great Exhibition broke through class barriers

Ever present in Victorian society was the nagging guilt that this age of individualism, capitalism, and overwhelming self-confidence could not be embraced by all.

Crushing poverty ran concurrent with enormous wealth.

But Prince Albert was not oblivious to the plight of the poor and was determined to make the Great Exhibition accessible to all.

Ticket prices came down dramatically as the exhibition progressed—in today’s equivalent, prices varied from £311 for a season ticket to about £5 for one day.

Thus even the working classes could afford to attend —four and half million of the cheapest day tickets were sold.

A rank in which no aristocratic distinctions were observed from the doors of the Crystal Palace to the very centre of the Metropolis. The proudest equipage of the peer was obliged to fall in behind the humblest fly or the ugliest Henson; there being no privileged order but the order of arrival.Punch, vol.1, 1851, 190.
The Transept from the South Gallery, The Great Exhibition of 1851. Watercolour over pencil heightened with body colour on buff paper, 1851
The Transept from the South Gallery, The Great Exhibition of 1851. Watercolour over pencil heightened with body colour on buff paper, 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Refreshment Department of the Great International Exhibition of 1851
Refreshment Department of the Great International Exhibition of 1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

7. The world’s largest diamond had its own exhibit

The Koh-i-Noor, meaning the “Mountain of Light,” was the world’s largest known diamond in 1851.

One of the most popular attractions of the India exhibit, it was acquired in 1850 as part of the Lahore Treaty.

Dazzling and bewildering, the prismatically separated light of the Koh-i-Noor diamond was a metaphor for the Crystal Palace as a whole.

The eye is completely dazzled by the rich variety of hues which burst upon it on every side.Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue, 1851.

Originally thought to weigh as much as 793 carats, the earliest recorded weight was 186 carats, from which Prince Albert ordered it cut down to 105.6 carats so as to give the much brighter, oval-cut appearance preferred by Victorians—and fit for his Queen.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor diamond is set into The Queen Mother’s Crown and housed in the Tower of London.

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond 'mountain of light'. Credit Ji Ruan, flickr
The Koh-i-Noor Diamond ‘mountain of light’. Credit Ji Ruan, flickr

8. The Great Exhibition was a great success, but was not without controversy

Just as today, there were naysayers who thought the Great Exhibition would be a flop.

Some people feared that in the face of grinding poverty, the building would be gutted by a revolutionary mob.

The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind, and I am astonished the ministers themselves do not insist on her at least going to Osborne during the Exhibition, as no human being can possibly answer for what may occur on the occasion. The idea … must shock every honest and well-meaning Englishman. But it seems everything is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover

But the Great Exhibition of 1851 demonstrated the wisdom of internationalism at a time of widespread isolationism in Europe.

Its success inspired Napoleon III to open the second World’s Fair in Paris in 1855 and to hold some of the world’s grandest, including the Exposition Universelle 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower was built as a grand entrance.

By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, attitudes had progressed even further by focusing not on nationalistic prowess, but on the history of the world and its peoples.

9. The profits funded three of London’s most loved museums

Built in the area to the south of the exhibition and nicknamed ‘Albertopolis’, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum were all founded using the surplus profit from the Great Exhibition which amounted to a sum equal to £18 million in today’s money.

Even with the cost of these beautiful buildings, there was enough money left over to set up a trust for grants and scholarships for industrial research that continues to this day.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Credit Nick Garrod, flickr
Victoria and Albert Museum. Credit Nick Garrod, flickr
Inside The Natural History Museum, London. Credit Gene Krasko
Inside The Natural History Museum, London. Credit Gene Krasko
The Modern World gallery in the science museum, london. Credit Geni
The Modern World gallery in the science museum, london. Credit Geni

10. The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936

After the Great Exhibition had come to a close, plans were drawn up to move the entire Crystal Palace structure to a new location in the suburbs of south-east London.

In 1852, the building went into private ownership and was moved to Sydenham, Kent.

Completely dismantled and re-built in the new Beaux-arts style, the greatly enlarged Crystal Palace was opened by Queen Victoria in 1854.

Costing six times as much to move as the original palace had cost to build, it became an extravagant money pit and the owners quickly fell into debt.

Unlike the unmitigated success of the Great Exhibition, the new Crystal Palace was plagued with financial woes.

Although Sunday was the only free day for the working classes, religious observance prevented the palace from opening.

Even when the palace did start to open on Sundays, people had largely lost interest and attendance was low.

Crystal Palace Fire of 1936
Crystal Palace Fire of 1936

Falling into a state of disrepair, and despite a restoration project by Sir Henry Buckland in the 1920s, tragedy struck on 30 November, 1936.

In a few hours we have seen the end of the Crystal Palace. Yet it will live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world.Sir Henry Buckland.

100,000 people came to watch the blaze, as 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen fought valiantly through the night.

One of the onlookers was Winston Churchill, who said, “this is the end of an age”.

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