THE GREAT EXHIBITION

 

The person who came up with the idea of the Great exhibition was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. He took a leading part in the organization of the exhibition. Prince Albert took great interest in the arts as well as business. This was not entirely a revolutionary idea but the Great Exhibition was to be the greatest fair ever organised. This enormous fair was intended as a demonstration of Britain’s economic supremacy. It was also meant to be a celebration of science, trade and industry as well as a celebration of peace. At first, some people were reluctant to the scheme and it took some time before Prince Albert talked the parliament into backing his idea. The controversy focused on two main points : Was Hyde Park the ideal setting for such an event ? Was it sensible to plan such a large exhibition ? There was also a religious aspect to the debate. The opponents to the project criticized the materialism of the venture that was in fact against the principle of man’s submission to God. Some people also feared the exhibition might cause riots and violence in the capital. Others even predicted new epidemics that could be imported by foreigners. The visit of strangers aroused xenophobic fears among Londoners. However the main point of disagreement was over the site that had been chosen : Hyde Park. As a matter of fact, the erection of the building required the transformation of the park as well as the destruction of trees. Once this matter settled, the Commission still had to decide which type of building would be the best. One hundred and three different projects had been submitted to the jury but all of them were refused because they were too costly, too expensive, and long to erect. The building had to be built within a few months. Hopefully one man, Joseph Paxton, came up with a brilliant idea. Paxton was an inventive genius and a great engineer : he was used to building greenhouses and drew up a blueprint for a glass and metal structure. The Commission was impressed by the plan but they wondered if the materials that were to be used would actually house the thousands of machines on display and resist bad weather. Bridges and train stations had already been built with these materials but the jury was afraid the structure might not be solid enough. Paxton’s blueprint was published in the Illustrated London in 1850 and became highly popular. It was therefore adopted. Needless to say the Crystal Palace was ridiculed by other architects. Those evil tongues predicted the building would collapse provoking an unprecedented catastrophe.

The Great advantage of the Crystal Palace was that it could be built very quickly, thus matching the deadline. Besides the glass roof and walls let natural light flow in. All in all three hundred thousand sheets of glass, produced in Birmingham, were used for the building. Every single element was manufactured in a mill or a plant and then shipped to the site and assembled. The interior space was huge : about ninety thousand square meters. The trees that had been the object of a fierce debate were eventually included within the framework thanks to a very high dome. The building was three times as long as St Paul’s and the obvious evidence that England was well ahead of all the other nations as regards technology.

The building was inaugurated on May, 1st, 1851. Prince Albert made an inaugurating speech drawing the first positive conclusion of the venture. The Queen herself visited the exhibition on forty occasions.

The purpose of the Exhibition was to showcase the world’s finest manufactures items. It was also a competition between countries, with medals awarded for the best show. The objects that were exhibited fell into 4 different categories : raw materials, machinery, manufactures and sculpture and fine arts. The contents of the Exhibition were immensely varied and ranged from the most practical to the most pleasing objects that were heavily adorned but totally useless. The British Department consisted of the entire western half of the building. Products from all the British colonies were on display. In the Department for machinery there were cotton mills in full operation, printing presses and many curious machines requiring steam power. People very enthusiastic about the objects on display and the building. People from many different countries, the elite of the world, visited the exhibition.

Steam-powered machines attracted throngs of visitors. The entrance fees were low enough for middle-class workers to be able to afford the visit but high enough to keep the riff-raff away. Cheaper tickets were on sale on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On average forty two thousand people a day visited the Crystal Palace and no incident burst out. The Great Exhibition was a financial success and attracted large crowds. The profits paid for the establishment of The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Over six million people visited the Crystal Palace during the exhibition.

After the closing of the Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was rebuilt in Kent but it was destroyed by a fire in 1936.