Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Victorian Wonder.

The Great Exhibition - 1851.

What have these objects in common?
-         A knife with 1,851 blades
-         Furniture carved from giant lumps of coal
-         A bed that became a life raft
-         The world’s largest mirror
-         The model of a suspension bridge designed to link England with France?

Answer: They were all displayed at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Queen Victoria opening The Great Exhibition, 1st May 1851.
Housed within the magnificent Crystal Palace (see previous post), Prince Albert’s idea was to draw together up-to-date technology from all over the world, to display under one roof.  

The concept was a roaring success. The Great Exhibition received over 827,000 visitors in the (just under) six months it was open. The busiest day was October 7th (just before the Exhibition closed) with a total of 110,000 visitors on that one day. At one point 92,000 people were inside the Crystal Palace at the same time – a world record of the day.

But amidst the hustle and crush, there was one oasis of calm – the Newfoundland Exhibition. Their display took the visitor through the production of cod liver oil and mysteriously, wasn’t very popular.

The American display nearly didn’t happen at all. Congress provided sufficient funds to ship their exhibits as far as England but no further. With their goods impounded at the docks, it was an American philanthropist, George Peabody, who stumped up the $15,000 to get the display up and running. However, after this unpromising start, the goods themselves came as a huge surprise. There were innovative machines for doing really useful things such as a sewing machine by Elias Howe, an automated reaper by Cyrus McCormick and an automated revolver by Samuel Colt.

The India Pavilion at The Great Exhibition.

But strangely, the most popular place within The Great Exhibition were the elegant retiring rooms. Furnished with flushing toilets they were a revelation in themselves and not to be missed. In one day alone, these toilets accommodated the comfort of 11,000 people – quite something when at the time the British Museum boasted of having two, outside privies.
The Crystal Palace, home to The Great Exhibition, in Hyde Park.

 The Great Exhibition was such a success that it generated a profit of 186,000 GBP. With this money thirty acres of land, just south of Hyde Park was purchased which became affectionately known as ‘Albertropolis.’ It was on this site that most of the famous institutions and museums that dominate London to this day were built: The Royal Albert Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and the Royal Colleges of Art and of Music. So even though The Great Exhibition is gone, the legacy lives on.

The entrance hall to the Natural History Museum, London - in the modern day.


  1. It is so sad that that magnificent place was destroyed. Can you imagine how impressive the exhibition was to the people of that time? Especially the flushing toilets, lol. What a breakthrough, for which I am daily grateful.

  2. Love the Newfie Cod Liver Oasis of Calm lol!

  3. What an interesting article! I was especially interested to see the old poster - I know Abergavenny well, it's not very far from Newport, Gwent in South Wales, where I was born!

  4. My main reason for not wanting to live in 'history' is the lack of flushing toilets! (Also the reason why I wont go camping.)
    Kai- it's a lovely thought isnt it - such a busy place and the one place no one is interested in!
    Hywela - so glad you like the Abergavenny poster. I wonder how long the journey took to get to The Great Exhibition?


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