The Floral Hall in Covent Garden (as described in the VV's previous post) was quite a feat of structural engineering as well as being a thing of beauty. But it was as nothing when compared to what was built in the grounds of Hyde Park to house The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry and all Nations from May to October in 1851.
Planned and organised by Henry Cole and Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the event was promoted as a self-financing world fair – though not without some scorn and derision from those who feared that drawing great crowds to one site in London might encourage a revolutionary rabble.
Karl Marx considered it an emblem of capitalist fetishism about commodities, and King Ernest I of Hanover wrote:
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…is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.
The regal - and much admired - opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, with Albert on the right
In fairness, Ernest feared more assassination attempts on the Queen, but as it turned out Victoria was determined to support Albert's ambitious enterprise, frequently attending and spending all day viewing the displays on show.
The Exhibition was a great triumph, both socially and financially. Aided by the expansion of the railways, six million people (a third of the country’s population then) descended on London to view the spectacular show. And, as if the exhibits were not stunning enough (and Great Britain was determined to prove its superiority with trophy displays from its colonies as well as the home-grown industrial fields of iron and steel, machinery and textiles), the vast glass structure which housed them reached an iconic status and was nicknamed The Crystal Palace.
That Palace of glass was designed by Joseph Paxton, with help from the engineers Charles Fox and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the time from conception to completion and the opening of the show was only nine months; a remarkable achievement when considering the enormity of the structure, with the ironwork frame and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. And although Paxton had gained great expertise in the design and building of ‘greenhouses’ for other wealthy patrons, nothing before had been so large, measuring 1848 feet long and 454 feet wide, and able to house fully grown trees that were already growing in the park.
Nowadays the catalogue, with its steel engraved illustrations is a symbol of High Victorian Design. When the exhibition was done a surplus of £186,000 was made which today would translate as something in the region of £16,000,000. That profit went on to fund an education trust with grants given out for industrial research and, more visibly, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum – all built on ground to the south of Hyde Park and known fondly as Albertopolis. And, over all this presides the Albert Memorial, erected by Victoria to recall her husband’s legacy after his sad and premature death at the age of only 42. And what a legacy it was! The VV thinks even King Ernest would find it hard to disagree.
The Albert Memorial, erected just over a decade after Prince Albert's death in 1872