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The Great Exhibition 1851
Exhibition interior
The front entrance of the Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Parkmarker, Londonmarker, Englandmarker, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. It was the first in a series of World's Fair exhibitions of culture and industry that were to become a popular 19th-century feature. The Great Exhibition was organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the spouse of the reigning monarch, Victoria. It was attended by numerous notable figures of the time, including Charles Darwin, members of the Orléanist Royal Family and the writers Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, and George Eliot.


The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was organized by Prince Albert, Henry Cole, Francis Henry, George Wallis, Charles Dilke and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commercemarker as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It can be argued that the Great Exhibition was mounted in response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844. Additionally, by hosting this exhibition, "Great Britain made clear to the world its role as industrial leader." Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, was an enthusiastic promoter of a self-financing exhibition; the government was persuaded to form the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to establish the viability of hosting such an exhibition. Queen Victoria and her family visited three times. Although the Great Exhibition was a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, Great Britain sought to prove its superiority. The English exhibits at the Great Exhibition "held the lead in almost every field where strength, durability, utility and quality were concerned, whether in iron and steel, machinery or textiles." Great Britain also sought to provide the world with the hope of a better future by hosting this Exhibition. Europe had just struggled through "two difficult decades of political and social upheaval," and now Great Britain hoped to show that technology was the key to a better future.

A special building, nicknamed The Crystal Palacemarker, was designed by Joseph Paxton (with support from structural engineer Charles Fox) to house the show; an architecturally adventurous building based on Paxton's experience designing greenhouses for the sixth Duke of Devonshire, constructed from cast iron-frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birminghammarker and Smethwickmarker, it was an enormous success. Not only was this building an architectural marvel, but also an engineering triumph that emphasized the importance of the Exhibition. The committee overseeing its construction included Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The massive glass house was 1848 feet (about 563 metres) long by 454 feet (about 138 metres) wide and went from its initial plans of organisation to its grand opening in just nine months. From the interior, the building's large size was emphasized with the inclusion of trees and statues, which served to not only add beauty to the spectacle but also to emphasize man's triumph over nature. The building was later moved and re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenhammarker in south London, an area that was renamed Crystal Palacemarker; it was eventually destroyed by fire on November 30, 1936.

Six million people—equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time—visited the exhibition. The Great Exhibition made a surplus of £186,000, which was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museummarker, the Science Museummarker and the Natural History Museummarker, which were all built in the area to the south of the exhibition, nicknamed Albertopolismarker, alongside the Imperial Institutemarker. The remaining surplus was used to set up an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research and continues to do so today.

The exhibition caused controversy at the time. Some conservatives feared that the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob, whilst radicals such as Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities. In modern times, the Great Exhibition has become a symbol of the Victorian Age, and its thick catalogue illustrated with steel engravings is a primary source for High Victorian design.

Notable exhibits

Exhibits came, not only from throughout Britain, but also its expanding imperial colonies, such as Australia, Indiamarker and New Zealandmarker, and foreign countries, such as Denmarkmarker, Francemarker and Switzerlandmarker. Numbering 13,000 in total, they included a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine that was sent from the United Statesmarker.

Admission fees

Admission prices to the Crystal Palace varied according to the date of visitation, with ticket prices decreasing as the parliamentary season drew to an end and London traditionally emptied of wealthy individuals. Prices varied from three guineas (two for a woman) per day, £1 per day, five shillings per day, down to one shilling per day. The one-shilling ticket proved most successful amongst the industrial classes, with four and a half million shillings being taken from attendees in this manner. 2,500 tickets were printed for the opening day, all of which were bought.

See also


  1. Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O'Brien. Civilization in the West. 7th Edition. Vol. C. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.
  2. Ffrench, Yvonne. The Great Exhibition: 1851. London: Harvill Press, 1950.
  3. Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O'Brien. Civilization in the West. 7th Edition. Vol. C. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.
  4. Ffrench, Yvonne. The Great Exhibition: 1851. London: Harvill Press, 1950.
  5. Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O'Brien. Civilization in the West. 7th Edition. Vol. C. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.
  6. A copy of the Illustrated Catalogue is available on Google books at
  7. "The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace". Victorian Station. Accessed 3 February 2009.
  8. "The Great Exhibition," Manchester Times (24 May 1851).

Further reading

  • Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. The Great Exhibition of 1851, 2nd edition, London: HMSO, 1981.
  • Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851–1939, Manchester University Press, 1988.
  • Leapman, Michael. The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, Headline Books, 2001.
  • Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Dickinson Brothers, London, 1854.

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