On 1st May 1851, The Great Exhibition opened in London. This was the first ever large scale international exhibition of manufactured products.
Organised by Henry Cole and Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the event was held in a purpose-built structure which became known as Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. It was designed by Joseph Paxton and structural engineer Charles Fox, with help from many others, including Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The building was effectively a massive glass house, c.564 metres long by c.138 metres wide. It was made from cast iron-frame components and, rather obviously, glass, and was brought from the pages of a simple plan to life as a functioning building in only nine months.
Britain’s 19th century Industrial Revolution saw the country become a major manufacturing world power. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended to show the world just how powerful. Attended by celebrities of the day such as Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Bronte, the exhibition was an instant success. A third of the entire population of Britain (approximately six million people) visited the Great Exhibition; with an average daily attendance being 42,831 people. The busiest day was on 7th October, not long before the event was due to close, when 109,915 people walked through the large glass doors to see the wonders of the age.
The profit made from the event, about £186,000 (£18,370,000 in modern terms), was used to found the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Not only that, but many of the objects in the Exhibition were used as the backbone of the first collection for the South Kensington Museum which opened in 1857, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The remaining surplus was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research. This funding scheme is still in operation today.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.