The Great Exhibition 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the brilliant end point to years of careful consideration of how to promote Britain to centre stage of world trade.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the idea of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Its full title was ‘The Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations’ but why was it necessary to stage such an expensive and exhaustive exhibition?

The reign of Queen Victoria is seen as one of great growth for the British economy but in the early years of her reign the country was rumbling with the threat of dissident groups who saw an even greater need for social reform. The last thing Britain or indeed any part of Europe needed in the late 1840’s was further revolution and unrest. As fortune would have it, Britain saw an upturn and the start of a period of economic growth. The Industrial Revolution, begun in the previous century had made possible an industrial and manufacturing scene to rival anywhere in the world. With vast natural resources to exploit and trading markets all over the globe, Britain was wonderfully placed to out trade all comers. However the French and American markets were fierce competitors and perhaps what the British lacked was the fire in the belly to promote the goods they were producing.

The idea for the exhibition came quite possibly from discussions between Prince Albert and Henry Cole of the Royal Society of Arts. A Royal Commission was appointed and the views of many parties was sought.

The Great Exhibition would become a show case for all the astonishing goods that British designers and manufacturers were producing. The show case itself must be a grand building, capable of housing the biggest display of goods ever brought under one roof and it had to be able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors. This was an enormous task, finance had to be raised, land procured, the building designed and the general public had to be involved if there was to be a successful outcome.

    • On 1st May 1851 over half a million people massed in Hyde Park in London to witness its opening.
    • Prince Albert captured the mood of the time when the British considered themselves to be ‘the workshop of the world’.
    • The exhibition was to be the biggest display of objects of industry from all over the world with over half of it given over to all that Britain manufactured. It was to be a showcase for a hundred thousand objects, of inventions, machines and creative works.
    • The ‘works of industry of all nations’ was to be a combination of visual wonder, competition (between manufacturers with prizes awarded) and shopping.
    • The main exhibition hall was a giant glass structure, with over a million square feet of glass. The man who designed it, Joseph Paxton, named it the ‘Crystal Palace’. In itself it was a wonderous thing to behold and covered nearly 20 acres, easily accommodating the huge elm trees that grew in the park.

The success of the exhibition was astounding with over six million visitors attending in the five months it was open. This is an amazing figure given that the British population at the time stood at only 20 million.

Another measure of its success was that the profits were used to help fund the building of some of our most iconic London landmarks, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.



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