Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in London inside an enormous structure of iron and glass known as the Crystal Palace. In five months, from May to October 1851, six million visitors thronged the gigantic trade show, marveling over the latest technology as well as displays of artifacts from around the world.

The stunning display of inventions, works of art, and objects collected in distant lands was something of a precursor of a World's Fair. In fact, some newspapers referred to it as such. And it had a definite purpose: the rulers of Britain intended to show the world that technology was bringing uplifting changes to society and Britain was leading the race into the future.

A Brilliant Showcase of Technology

Crystal Palace

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The idea of the Great Exhibition originated with Henry Cole, an artist, and inventor. But the man who ensured the event happened in spectacular fashion was Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.

Albert recognized the value of organizing a massive trade show that would place Britain at the forefront of technology by displaying its latest inventions, everything from massive steam engines to the latest cameras. Other nations were invited to participate, and the official name of the show was The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.

The building to house the exhibit, which was quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace, was constructed of prefabricated cast iron and panes of plate glass. Designed by architect Joseph Paxton, the building itself was a marvel.

The Crystal Palace was 1,848 feet long and 454 feet wide and covered 19 acres of London's Hyde Park. Some of the park's stately trees were too big to move, so the enormous building simply enclosed them.

Nothing like the Crystal Palace had ever been built, and skeptics predicted that wind or vibration would cause the colossal structure to collapse.

Prince Albert, exercising his royal privilege, had detachments of soldiers march through the various galleries before the exhibit opened. No panes of glass broke loose as the soldiers marched about in lockstep. The building was deemed safe for the public.

Spectacular Inventions

Machinery at the Great Exhibition

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The Crystal Palace was filled with an astonishing amount of items, and perhaps the most amazing sights were within the huge galleries devoted to new technology.

Crowds flocked to see gleaming steam engines designed to be used aboard ships or in factories. The Great Western Railway displayed a locomotive.

Spacious galleries devoted to "Manufacturing Machines and Tools" displayed power drills, stamping machines, and a large lathe used to shape the wheels for railroad cars.

Part of the enormous "Machines in Motion" hall contained all the complicated machines that turned raw cotton into finished cloth. Spectators stood transfixed, watching spinning machines and power looms manufacture fabric before their eyes.

In a hall of agricultural devices were displays of plows which had been mass-produced of cast iron. There were also early steam tractors and steam-powered machines to grind grain.

In second-floor galleries devoted to "philosophical, musical, and surgical instruments" were displays of items ranging from pipe organs to microscopes.

Visitors to the Crystal Palace were amazed to discover all the inventions of the modern world displayed in one spectacular building.

Queen Victoria Formally Opened the Great Exhibition

Opening ceremony of the Great Exhibition

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The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was officially opened with an elaborate ceremony at noon on May 1, 1851.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert rode in a procession from Buckingham Palace to the Crystal Palace to personally open the Great Exhibition. It was estimated that more than a half-million spectators watched the royal procession move through the streets of London.

As the royal family stood on a carpeted platform in the center hall of the Crystal Palace, surrounded by dignitaries and foreign ambassadors, Prince Albert read a formal statement about the purpose of the event.

The Archbishop of Canterbury then called for God's blessing upon the exhibition, and a 600-voice choir sang Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus. Queen Victoria, in a pink formal gown suited to an official court occasion, declared the Great Exhibition to be open.

After the ceremony, the royal family returned to Buckingham Palace. However, Queen Victoria was fascinated by the Great Exhibition and returned to it repeatedly, usually bringing her children. According to some accounts, she made more than 30 visits to the Crystal Palace between May and October.

Wonders From Around the World

India Hall

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The Great Exhibition was designed to showcase technology and new products from Britain and its colonies, but to give it a truly international flavor, half the exhibits were from other nations. The total number of exhibitors was about 17,000, with the United States sending 599.

Looking at the printed catalogs from the Great Exhibition can be overwhelming, and we can only imagine how stunning the experience was for someone visiting the Crystal Palace in 1851.

Artifacts and items of interest from around the world were displayed, including enormous sculptures and even a stuffed elephant from The Raj, as British India was known.

Queen Victoria loaned one of the world's most famous diamonds. It was described in the exhibit's catalog: "The Great Diamond of Runjeet Singh called 'Koh-i-Noor,' or Mountain of Light." Hundreds of people stood on the line each day to view the diamond, hoping the sunlight streaming through the Crystal Palace might show its legendary fire.

Many more ordinary items were displayed by manufacturers and merchants. Inventors and manufacturers from Britain displayed tools, household items, farm implements, and food products.

The items brought from America were also very diverse. Some exhibitors listed in the catalog would become very familiar names:

McCormick, C.H. Chicago, Illinois. Virginia grain reaper.
Brady, M.B. New York. Daguerreotypes; likenesses of illustrious Americans.
Colt, S. Hartford, Connecticut. Specimens of fire-arms.
Goodyear, C., New Haven, Connecticut. India rubber goods.

And there were other American exhibitors not quite as famous. Mrs. C. Colman from Kentucky sent "three-bed quilts"; F.S. Dumont of Paterson, New Jersey sent "silk plush for hats"; S. Fryer of Baltimore, Maryland, exhibited an "ice-cream freezer"; and C.B. Capers of South Carolina sent a canoe cut from a cypress tree.

One of the most popular American attractions at the Great Exhibition was the reaper manufactured by Cyrus McCormick. On July 24, 1851, a contest was held at an English farm, and the McCormick reaper outperformed a reaper manufactured in Britain. McCormick's machine was awarded a medal and was written about in the newspapers.

The McCormick reaper was returned to the Crystal Palace, and for the rest of the summer, many visitors made sure to get a look at the remarkable new machine from America.

Crowds Thronged the Great Exhibition for Six Months

The Great Hall

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Besides showcasing British technology, Prince Albert also envisioned the Great Exhibition to be a gathering of many nations. He invited other European royals, and, to his great disappointment, nearly all of them refused his invitation.

European nobility, feeling threatened by revolutionary movements in their own countries and abroad, expressed fears about traveling to London. And there was also general opposition to the idea of a great gathering open to people of all classes.

The European nobility snubbed the Great Exhibition, but that mattered not to the ordinary citizens. Crowds turned out in astounding numbers. And with ticket prices cleverly reduced during the summer months, a day at the Crystal Palace was very affordable.

Visitors packed the galleries daily from opening at 10 a.m. (noon on Saturdays) to the 6 p.m. closing. There was so much to see that many, like Queen Victoria herself, came back multiple times, and season tickets were sold.

When the Great Exhibition closed in October, the official tally of visitors was an astonishing 6,039,195.

Americans Sailed the Atlantic to Visit the Great Exhibition

The intense interest in the Great Exhibition extended across the Atlantic. The New York Tribune published an article on April 7, 1851, three weeks before the exhibition's opening, giving advice on traveling from America to England to see what was being called the World's Fair. The newspaper advised the quickest way to cross the Atlantic was by steamers of the Collins Line, which charged a fare of $130, or the Cunard line, which charged $120.

The New York Tribune calculated that an American, budgeting for transportation plus hotels, could travel to London to see the Great Exhibition for about $500.

The legendary editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, sailed to England to visit the Great Exhibition. He marveled at the number of items on display and mentioned in a dispatch written in late May 1851 that he had spent "the better portion of five days there, roaming and gazing at will," but still hadn't come close to seeing everything he hoped to see.

After Greeley's return home he led efforts to encourage New York City to host a similar event. A few years later New York had its own Crystal Palace, on the present-day site of Bryant Park. The New York Crystal Palace was a popular attraction until it was destroyed in a fire only a few years after opening.

The Crystal Palace Was Moved and Used for Decades

Victorian Britain put out a grand welcome at the Great Exhibition, though there were, at first, some unwelcome visitors.

The Crystal Palace was so enormous that large elm trees of Hyde Park were enclosed within the building. There was a concern that sparrows still nesting high up in the enormous trees would soil visitors as well as exhibits.

Prince Albert mentioned the problem of eliminating the sparrows to his friend the Duke of Wellington. The elderly hero of Waterloo coldly suggested, "Sparrow hawks."

It's unclear exactly how the sparrow problem was solved. But at the end of the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was carefully disassembled and the sparrows could once again nest in the Hyde Park elms.

The spectacular building was moved to another location, at Sydenham, where it was enlarged and transformed into a permanent attraction. It remained in use for 85 years until it was destroyed in a fire in 1936.

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McNamara, Robert. "Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 9). Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).