The London World Exposition 1851

The First World Exhibition


The 1851 World Exposition in London was the venue for, among many other things, probably the world's most important flute exhibition to date.  Before we go on to look at the flutes, we should get a feeling for the exhibition at large.  Adrian Duncan has assembled this overview ....

The Concept

The great Parisian Industrial Exhibitions, which had been significantly strengthening the French economy since the Great Revolution, inspired the British Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (hereinafter referred to as The Royal Society) to stage similar exhibitions in Britain from the 1840s onward. However, these exhibitions were purely national in scope and thus failed to present a comprehensive picture of commercial and artistic development worldwide.  Nor did they stimulate further improvements by offering the opportunity for a direct side-by-side comparison of the products of the International community at large.

On 29 June 1849, a Commission led by the influential civil servant Henry Cole proposed to Queen Victoria’s beloved Consort, Prince Albert, who served as Chairman of the Royal Society, that these industrial exhibitions should be internationalized. At first, Albert hesitated. But when the Ministry of Trade announced its willingness to participate, Albert and Cole swiftly went to work. They decided that such an exhibition would have to take place in a solid and attractive building in a suitably impressive setting, and went searching for an exhibition site. They also convened various committees to consider matters regarding financing, attracting foreign participants, and the creation of an awards system.  With the Queen’s consent, Hyde Park was to be used as the site of the first truly International exhibition.

Funding remained a private responsibility of the Royal Society, since the government wanted to employ a Royal Commission, which would have given an official air to the project, only after the financial foundations had been secured. Time did not allow for this.  However, thanks to the industrialization of the country, which had increased considerably in recent decades, there was now enough capital available from amongst the broader social strata in Britain to provide for the construction of the exhibition building without Government involvement. This capital could be attracted through subscriptions. The proposed great industrial Exhibition offered the bourgeoisie the opportunity to display their contribution to the nation’s wealth and to gain social recognition.

In January of 1850, Queen Victoria convened a 24-strong Royal Commission which was to oversee the planning and implementation of the Exhibition.  This Commission  was an illustrious assembly of the country’s leading scientists, engineers, civil servants and industrialists.  Naturally, Prince Albert became its chairman.  Numerous conferences and trips by the members of the Royal Commission secured the support of large segments of society, which organized into 330 local committees for the promotion and supply of the exhibition. For the working classes, too, promotion schemes were established, which were intended to inform the workers about the plans and allow them to travel to London to participate. Declarations of participation were received from the most important foreign nations.  Even Napoleon III, who had been planning a similar International exhibition project for Paris, pledged France’s participation.

The Building of the Crystal Palace

As late as June 1850, the Commission began to focus primarily on the Exhibition building itself.  The proposed site was a 26 acre rectangular piece of land in Hyde Park. 500 ft wide by 2300 ft long. This site was picked for ease of access, drainage, access to gas and water, convenient location and the beauty of its surroundings. Now a suitable building had to be designed, constructed and made ready for the Exhibition in the unbelievably short time of some 10 months – no time at all for such a massive undertaking.

Wishing to demonstrate that anything France could do, England could do bigger and better, the Commissioners decided from the outset on an Exhibition area far bigger than anything the French had produced to date.  A budget of £230,000 had been established by the Commissioners to meet the costs of the Exhibition, and designs for the building had been solicited, both from within Britain and internationally.  The response was massive - some 245 designs were submitted,  128 of which came from London, 51 from Provincial towns and 38 from foreign countries (27 from France). 

The Commissioners considered these drafts and rejected them all!  One of the rejected designs came from the eminent British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and consisted of a cast-iron dome, but this was ridiculed and considered hideous.  The Commission then developed their own design and entertained bids.

The design put forward by the commission itself included an oblong three-naved hall, which was to be crowned by a large dome of brick, steel and iron plates. This was attacked heavily both by Parliament and the press. Never could this monstrosity have been built within a year! Not only that, but it soon became apparent that the costs associated with this design would far exceed the available money. In Parliament, resistance against the whole project grew amongst the conservatives, since funding had now become insecure and the implementation of the design would threaten large stocks of ancient and highly-valued trees in Hyde Park. The “Times”, too, joined the opponents, seeing British technological progress as being potentially endangered by virtually inviting foreigners to come and overtly conduct “industrial espionage”, overlooking the obvious rejoinder that the British would have the same opportunity to examine the products of all the rest! 

Into this seemingly irresolvable situation stepped the eminent landscape architect Joseph Paxton, who quietly introduced his own draft at the beginning of July. He had drawn up his original design on blotting paper and had a complete set of plans prepared in nine days.  

Paxton was primarily a horticulturist who had been building glass houses for 20 years. His idea for the Exhibition building was based on a conservatory that he had built for the 6th Duke of Devonshire. He had also designed large greenhouses for the Duke at Chatsworth. His design stood out from all the other drafts by its lightness, its relatively lower cost, and the fact that its “repeating structure” design basis would allow extensive pre-fabrication and would also offer the possibility of both erecting and tearing down the building quickly. Paxton had been able to apply his experience gained in building large conservatories directly to the new task, and was working with some of the most experienced railway engineers of the time, who had experience in designing large railway station buildings. The contractors Fox and Henderson were also involved in developing Paxton’s design into something that could be erected within the available time-frame and within the available budget.  

Because of these factors, Paxton’s daring design appeared in the nature of a life-line to save a rapidly foundering project.  On July 6, 1850, the Illustrated London News published an engraving of the planned structure, which found immediate favor both with the public and the politicians.   The House of Commons voted for the Exhibition by a large majority, on the basis of its apparent feasibility if Paxton’s design were adopted. 

Because of the huge and immediate public and political support for Paxton’s idea, the Royal Commission was forced to give its consent. Perhaps to re-assert their somewhat diminished authority, the Commission added a domed roof to Paxton’s plan to accommodate some larger trees in the park which were to remain intact within the building.  This proved to be a significant enhancement to the design.  From that point on, there were no more obstacles or objections to the Exhibition proceeding, and the fabled Crystal Palace was born. 

The Crystal Palace’s architecture represented an adaptation of the great British conservatories; it was characterized by its high halls, flooded with light, in which even the old stock of living trees found room, and large machines in full operation could be displayed.

Against all Victorian customs, Joseph Paxton had largely disdained decorative elements in his design. The exhibition building was meant for a determinate function, limited in time, and was built only to this end. Different colors alone emphasized the different building elements: the interior was painted in white, red, blue and yellow, whilst the exterior was rendered in a light blue. The country’s industrial capabilities, for example in rail construction and glass fabrication, were drawn upon to the full: the roof was covered with 124 by 25 centimetre (50 by 10 inches) glass plates, for which a third of the whole British yearly glass production was required. These glass plates not only determined the grid for the roof, but for the whole building. Thus only four types of support beam, which were between seven and 22 metres long, had to be developed and cast. The pillars, on the other hand, could be screwed together and also served as rain pipes. The pillars and beams were produced industrially, tested on site for their solidity by a hydraulic press, and then assembled with cranes and pulleys. With this construction grid, which was indefinitely enlargeable, a structure developed that was three times as long as St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Paxton had designed a three-tiered building dominated by a 20 metre high and 563 metre long main nave. On its sides were 14 metre high side naves. Into the sides of the main nave were built galleries, thus increasing the exhibition area. This main nave was divided in the middle by a barrel roofed cross nave. This barrel roof was added by the Commissioners as a concession to nature, because only by including it could three large old elm trees be preserved. As things turned out, this concession added considerably to the building’s popularity. Since only the sidewalls of the side naves were made of wood, the rest of the building was made entirely of cast iron and glass, through which daylight entered unfiltered. Particularly in the 42 metre high cross nave, the whole construction seemed to dissolve into a fine web of iron and daylight.

The building included 2300 cast-iron girders; 358 wrought-iron roof support trusses; 202 miles (325 kilometers) of sash bars; 900,000 square feet of glass weighing more than 406 tons; 3230 hollow cast-iron columns which supported the structure and also served as a means to carry off rainwater from the 34 miles (54.7 kilometers) of guttering, and 600,000 feet of wooden planking to walk on.  Hawks were kept inside the Palace to control the sparrow population. And for the first time, flush toilets were incorporated into a building intended for public use.

Paxton had ignored all the then-current conventional conceptions of architecture – distinct walls determining proportions, windows allowing a clearly framed view of the outside, a solid protective roof. The contemporaries found it difficult to even describe this entirely new impression of space in the Crystal Palace. But it was less the “magical poetic construct of air”, as a critic praised it twenty years later, than the industrial production of the building components and the engineered erection of the structure, which were most influential in terms of the architecture of the second half of the 19th century.

On 26 July, the London builders and contractors Fox & Henderson were assigned the contract for  construction.  New methods of construction, extensive use of prefabricated components and the ready availability of cast-iron and glass made the concept easily realizable within the time available.  In fact, the project represented a staggering and highly innovative technological tour de force, of the kind in which the engineers and architects of Victorian-era Britain specialized.  The building was conceived in June 1850, the concrete foundations were begun in August of 1850, the first iron column was fixed into place on September 26th, 1850 and the completed structure stood finished in January 1851 – an elapsed time from initial conception to final realization of only seven months!  It is doubtful if anything remotely similar could be accomplished today.  Nothing could have been more effective in stamping the label of British technological superiority upon the Exhibition right from the outset.  The final cost of 193,168 pounds, added to Paxton’s fee of 5000 pounds, meant that the project came in well within the Commissioners’ budget.

The enormous deadline pressure quite understandably led to some construction flaws. Above all, the glass roof proved to be far from waterproof, because the plates had not always been screwed on properly or had been damaged during construction. In the short run, the meeting of the deadline was also threatened by a builders’ strike. In the middle of winter, the roofers sat for eighteen hours a day in specially constructed trolleys, with which 18,000 glass plates a week could be affixed to a carrier system developed by Paxton. For this dangerous task, the builders demanded a pay-raise from four to five shillings a day. Fox & Henderson could not afford a bad press in this situation and thus reacted swiftly and efficiently: the spokesmen for the builders were sacked, others were threatened with the same fate, but at the same time they were offered the option to continue work under the old conditions. At least job security was higher than on other building sites. The “Illustrated London News”’ reported only three serious accidents during construction.

Stability and safety concerns were raised by the Astronomer Royal, Professor Airey and Richard Turner. Their questions involved not the weight of the building but potential resonance arising from crowds moving through the structure. A test construction was organized to check the resonance theories, and  the experiment proved the safety of the structure.  Fears immediately diminished, to be replaced by a sense of eager anticipation.

Douglas Jerrold, editor of “Punch” magazine, is credited with introducing the building as "The Crystal Palace", which was intended as a derogatory remark. However, Jerrold’s intended sneering backfired - the name stuck and became synonymous in a highly positive sense with the spectacularly daring architectural and engineering design concepts which the building displayed. 

While the building was being discussed and construction getting underway, the work of collecting applications to exhibit at the event had also been ongoing.  The deadline for applications was October 31, 1850.  As of that date, total requests for space exceeded 417,000 square feet,  almost double the amount originally appropriated. The Exhibition layout was amended accordingly.

In the spring months of 1851 the elaborate installations and decorations for the exhibits were completed, which took away a lot of the Crystal Palace’s lightness. Furthermore, more than one million exhibits, many of them traveling from overseas, had to be collected and placed.  Some idea of the relative scale of the event may be gathered from the fact that France alone had 65,000 sq ft. of exhibit space, which was more than the total amount of area encompassing the 1844 and 1849 French National Exhibitions!!  For the purpose of the Exhibition, the building was to be treated as a "bonded warehouse" to avoid import duties. This explained why exhibitors were not free to sell their wares on the Exhibition premises (although they could of course do so outside the Exhibition site once import duty had been paid).

The Exhibition Opens

The London press had raised expectations very high as opening day approached. The “Times” newspaper reported that it would take over 200 hours to visit every exhibit. The whole city was feverishly looking forward to the opening of the gates. Numerous handbooks and guides were offered by official distributors and street vendors. Even a trade in souvenirs with depictions of the Crystal Palace on all sorts of objects had been established.

At the opening on 1 May 1851, the placement of exhibits was far from completed. But the festively decorated cross nave with its much admired crystal well in the centre offered an exalted backdrop for the festivities, which were staged on schedule with full Victorian pomp and pageantry. 25,000 visitors filled the Crystal Palace’s naves to be present at the opening ceremonies. Only season ticket holders were admitted to the actual Exhibition on opening day, and this may explain the fact that 0n April 29th alone, 40,000 pounds worth of season tickets were sold.

The exclusivity of Opening Day did not prevent an immense crowd of some 300,000 people (according to some reports) from filling the city streets and awaiting the arrival of the Queen and her husband.  At twelve o’clock sharp, they entered the exhibition site, accompanied by the thunder of cannons, fanfares and the cheers of the crowd. After a prayer by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” by the collective London choirs accompanied by the great organ, Prince Albert stepped forward and, as chairman of the Royal Commission, delivered the opening speech. He once again described the aim of the Exhibition as “the fertile promotion of all branches of human diligence and the strengthening of the bonds of peace amongst all the nations of the earth.” This was followed by a brief tour of the Exhibition building. In a festive progression, the Royal Commission together with Joseph Paxton and the contractors Fox and Henderson in the lead, the diplomats and foreign dignitaries, and finally the Queen followed by her courtiers, paraded through the building. Having returned to her throne, Queen Victoria, again accompanied by fanfares and rounds of salutes, declared the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” open.

The Queen herself, as can be gathered from her diary, was thoroughly impressed. The entry in her diary for the Opening Day of the Exhibition reads as follows:

 “This day is one of the greatest and most glorious in our lives and, to my joy and pride, will forever be associated with the name of my beloved Albert!  It is a day that has filled my heart with gratitude. […] The view through the iron gates onto the cross nave, the billowing palm trees, flowers, statues, the myriad of people occupying all the galleries and chairs, with all the fanfares as we entered: all of this gave us a feeling that I will never forget.  I was very moved. […] As we stepped into the centre where the stairs and throne (on which I did not sit) had been erected – directly before us the wonderful crystal well – such a magical sight awaited us – so overwhelming, glorious, touching. One felt – like so many others with whom I have spoken since – inspired with devotion, more than in any mass I have ever heard.  The mighty cheers, the happiness that shone from every face, the building’s enormous size, the mixture of palm trees, flowers, trees, statues, wells, the organ (with 200 stops and 600 voices – it sounded like nothing before) and my beloved husband, the originator of this “peaceful festival”, which unites the diligence of all the nations of the earth – all of this was indeed moving, and it has been and it is a day that ought to last forever.  God bless my Albert, God bless my beloved country that has distinguished herself so nobly today. One feels so grateful to the great God who seemed to imbue and bless everything and everyone!”

The Queen, along with her children, subsequently visited every exhibitor’s booth.  Incidents of this nature make it easy to understand the affection in which the British public, and indeed many foreign visitors, held the Queen.

The Exhibition Proceeds

In terms of its organization and its accommodations, the first World Exhibition set standards that would be hard to surpass. The immediate impact upon the visitor was undoubtedly made by the Crystal Palace itself, which for all of the attempts by “Punch” ‘to belittle it swiftly captured the imagination of visitors from around the world.  In his “Cultural Historical sketches from the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations (1851)”, Lothar Bucher commented as follows:

Paxton’s Crystal Palace: The building’s beauty, which has so often been discussed and argued over, in which we move around, is in my opinion based on the impossibility of achieving the singular aim with the given materials of iron and glass any better than Paxton has done. […] We see a fine network of symmetrical lines, but without a clue as to make a judgment about their distance from the eye, or the real size of its meshes. The sidewalls are too distant to be caught in one glance, and instead of finding an opposite wall, the eye moves upward along an infinite perspective, the end of which blurs into a blue haze. We do not know whether the building is suspended 100 or 1,000 feet above us, whether the roof is flat or made up of a number of small parallel roofs; because the casting of shadows, which usually helps the soul to understand the visual nerve’s impression, is entirely lacking. As we let our gaze wander down again, it meets the perforated carrier beams painted blue, initially in wide gaps, then moving ever closer, then overlapping, then pierced by a gleaming beam of light, finally dissolving into a distant background, in which everything corporeal, even the line, disappears and only colour remains. Only the side walls give us some orientation as, out of the mass of tapestries, tissues, animal furs, mirrors and a thousand other draperies, we select a single free pillar – so slim that it seems it were not there in order to support, but only in order to satisfy the eye’s needs for a support. The light beam, which breaks the perspective line of support beams, is the cross nave. It is due to the sober economy of language that I call the sight of it incomparable, fairylike. It is a piece of summer night dream in the mid-day sun.

In this fabulous setting, a total of 13, 937 exhibitors displayed over one million exhibits valued at over 2 million pounds.  This figure did not include the fabled  Koh-i-Noor Diamond, which was considered priceless and today forms part of the British crown jewels. The combined exhibits required a series of display tables which in the end totaled some 8 miles (13 km) in length!

Of the 13,937 exhibitors,   6,861 were from England, 520 from the 15 participating British colonies and the remaining 6556 from the 25 other countries taking part.  As might be expected from the above figures, Great Britain and her colonies required about half of the available space for her 6,900 exhibitors. In the eastern parts of the Crystal Palace, companies from a total of 94 states, colonies and dependent principalities and duchies displayed their exhibits. Never before had there been a larger gathering of the world’s nations. A sub-division of the Royal Commission had developed a novel classification system for the presentation of industrial products and arts and crafts in the same areas This grid had to be combined with the division of the exhibition site according to countries – a difficult task. It was however made easier by the building’s clear partition, with its main length-wise axis, which was entirely reserved for large sculptures, and the grid-like floor plan, which could easily be divided into approximately 1,500 square foot exhibition units. In the cross nave, palm trees and other exotic plants were placed in between large wells, thus providing coolness and shade in the heat of the summer months.

Stalls offering refreshments and restaurants could also be found here. Further catering facilities were accommodated at either end of the main nave. Some idea of the value of the catering rights may be gathered from the fact that J. Schweppe & Co. later reported having used half a ton of tea and over six tons of coffee to service the two refreshment courts in which they had involvement as suppliers!  An interesting commentary on the relative popularity of tea and coffee in Britain at the time!

Although the first World Exhibition was short on significant new inventions, the numerous improvements of existing tools and machines dispersed any doubts regarding the event’s usefulness. Only here could one find all the relevant information on new steam engines or the advances in the field of telegraphy. A whole side nave was dedicated to machines in motion in order to give the interested citizen a safe insight into production processes. Two large steam boilers, which were of course integrated into the presentation, supplied the energy with which all the machines were centrally powered. Above all, an overwhelming abundance of every available product of international productive diligence – from locomotives to the smallest precision clock – was displayed. From the colonies came primarily raw materials, which were skillfully arranged to symbolically represent the contribution of the under-developed countries to the world cycle of capitalism. The public were also impressed by exotic arts and crafts and stuffed wild animals. Arts and crafts were given their own section according to the classification system. In these areas as well as in the production of luxury goods, the French exhibitors stood out particularly.

The Royal Commission put a specific emphasis on the education of the working classes. The social unrest of the European revolutions of 1848/49 was still fresh in people’s memories, and education and empowerment of the masses were seen as vital elements in the avoidance of similar disturbances in Britain. Guided tours and ticket concessions made visits to the world exhibition easier for this class of visitor. Prince Albert was concerned about the workers’ difficult housing situation then prevailing in England and presented, next to the Crystal Palace, a model house that he had personally developed as a separate exhibit. This was remarkable for its well thought-through floor plan and novel building materials. Of course, the prince was awarded a Great Medal of Achievement, which he probably deserved.

The exhibition was very well received by the London public and the numerous out-of-town and foreign visitors. Every day, thousands of visitors journeyed from all parts of the British Isles to the Exhibition using bargain rail tickets. “Exhibition” railway excursions from York to London would run from 5 to 15 shillings for a round trip. In addition, many visitors came to the event from points all around the globe.  This was truly an International event.

Variable cover charges channeled the streams of visitors, such that one could chose between paying a large fee and being able to visit the exhibits relatively unhindered by a large crowd, or going on a “shilling day” and having to deal with the masses of visitors. The price of admission was reduced as the Exhibition neared its conclusion, and this explains why the best day’s attendance at the event came on October 7, 1851, when 109,915 people visited. 

The visitors who flocked to the exhibition from all over the world secured for the Royal Exhibition Commission a sizeable profit, with which the pre-eminence of domestic industry could be increased even further.

The Awards system

Awards at the Exhibition were to be conferred by a number of international Juries established for the different categories of exhibit, with a Council of Juries having representatives from each individual Jury in overall charge of the awards process. From the outset, the question arose – should exhibits receive recognition for their demonstrated innovation, their demonstrated workmanship, or both?  And how were the Jurors to judge the relative merits of an item displaying outstanding workmanship against one displaying outstanding originality? Unless some distinction were made, it would be very difficult for the Juries to assign merit to the various exhibits. 

It had originally been intended that there would be three types of medals awarded, all of bronze.  These were to be awarded on the basis of intrinsic merit rather than relative merit.  However, the Juries found it impossible not to imply some level of relative merit with the original award system, and at their request the number of award categories was accordingly reduced to two – the Council Medal and the Prize Medal.  These had quite distinct criteria, and it is vital for the reader to understand these criteria quite clearly. 

The stated intention of the organizers was to recognize two quite distinct areas of excellence with these two medals – innovation of ideas and outstanding workmanship and production.  It was the express intent that the medals awards for these factors should be seen as recognizing quite distinct elements of excellence and should not be seen in any way as conferring any relative degree of merit. 

The Prize Medal was to be conferred by individual Juries upon exhibitors whose offerings displayed “a certain standard of excellence in production or workmanship”.  An important point – there is no mention here of design innovation.  Recognition of that factor was reserved for the Council Medal, which was only to be awarded by the Council of Juries (at the recommendation of the specific Jury in question) to those exhibitors whose offerings displayed “some important novelty of invention or application” and was specifically not to be awarded on the basis of “excellence of production or workmanship alone, however eminent..…”  In other words, the Prize Medal recognised outstanding execution of ideas, whether original or not, while the Council Medal recognised outstanding and original innovation of ideas or their application.  The two awards were thus quite distinct and conveyed no relative merit whatsoever, greatly easing the task of the Jurors.  Some evidence of the relative implications of these awards may be gathered from the fact that, while 2,918 Prize Medals were awarded, only 170 exhibitors were judged to have earned the Council Medal. Then as now, those capable of outstanding execution of ideas in production terms far outnumbered their more innovative brethren!

The Juries were also empowered to assign Honourable Mention status to exhibitors whose work fell short of meeting the required standards for the award of a medal but which were nonetheless judged to possess noteworthy merit.  These awards were generally published without further comment. The Jury could also recommend cash awards to assist exhibitors in further developing their products.  Additional flexibility was provided to the Jury through its assigned task of preparing a Juror’s Report on each Subsection.  In this report, the Jury was free to make any observations that it cared to make about the exhibits which its members had reviewed. 

Apart from the relative numbers of medals awarded for innovation and execution, the fact that the Jurors took their work seriously is further reinforced by consideration of the fact that of the 13,937 exhibitors who took part, only 3,088 (22%) received medals of any sort.  Clearly, a medal winner really had to stand out from among the majority of his fellow exhibitors.

The above system, while laudable in its intention, proved in the event to be subject to abuse, particularly by those whose products received the Prize Medal for workmanship as opposed to the Council Medal for innovation.  Doubtless for commercial reasons, there was a great temptation to assign the credit for the award of the Prize Medal as a kind of “second prize” to the design of one’s product rather than to what the Medal was actually awarded for – the excellence of workmanship displayed by the exhibit.  A noteworthy offender in this regard who falls within our sphere of interest was the British flute designer and manufacturer Richard Carte, who consistently (and quite incorrectly) claimed to have received a Prize Medal for the design of his 1851 Patent flute.  In fact, Carte’s flute had merely been the vehicle through which the actual exhibitors, Messrs. Rudall & Rose, had demonstrated their manufacturing skill and hence their right to recognition.  It was accordingly Rudall & Rose, not Carte, who had received the award for their fine workmanship, not for Carte’s flute design. No doubt many other individuals made similar unfounded claims.

The Exhibition Closes

The first World Exhibition ended on 11 October, 1851 with the handing out of awards to those exhibitors selected by the 314 jurors. Naturally, the majority of awards went to Great Britain. France, with around 33 per cent of the prizes in the Council Medal category, did well, too. The exhibition’s message was quickly understood: Great Britain was leading in industry and economy, and could serve as an example for other nations. For trade, too, a clear signal was given. The times of protectionism and high import taxes were over. The world-wide linking of economies had been advanced considerably.

More than six million visitors had come to the Crystal Palace – roughly one-fifth of the entire population of Great Britain at the time.  This figure was far higher than the organizers themselves had anticipated in their wildest dreams. The Exhibition’s huge success made the Royal Commission a handy profit of over 400,000 pounds.  As set out in its statute, this money was used for the promotion of industry and to buy land in South Kensington, where Prince Albert had several museums established in order to raise education levels.  Profits from the Exhibition were used to provide London with the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Some of these, like the Victoria and Albert Museum, were endowed with selected exhibits from the first World Exhibition.

The architecture of the Crystal Palace had set a standard for subsequent World Exhibition venues, inspiring two fairly direct imitations.  The United States’ first major Exposition (in 1862) saw the unveiling of  the New York Crystal Palace, and Australia's first major Exposition was held in the Garden Palace in Sydney in 1879.  It is certainly true that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery!  Nevertheless, the elegance and eminence of the original structure have rarely been equaled.  Joseph Paxton might well have been proud of his achievement.

The Crystal Palace moves on

It had always been the intention of the organizers that the Exhibition building should be dismantled following the conclusion of the event so that Hyde Park could be returned to its previous condition.  However, the building had attracted so much favorable attention that its destruction was widely seen as being highly undesirable and indeed as something akin to an act of vandalism. A new commission was accordingly convened, this time with Paxton as chairman, for the purpose of determining a more positive future for the building than mere demolition.

True to his horticultural roots, Paxton wanted to turn the Crystal Palace into a "'Winter Park and Garden under Glass".  Accordingly, and together with 8 other directors, he formed The Crystal Palace Company under a Royal Charter. This group quickly raised over £500,000 to buy the building and to acquire the necessary land to re-erect it on a new site. The building was purchased for £70,000 (£3.5 million today) from Fox & Henderson. The new site purchased by the Company consisted of a mansion called Penge Place together with its 389 acres of associated land. The location on South London’s Sydenham Hill was previously owned by Leo Schuster, a friend of Paxton.

The intended use of the building at its new locations was to serve as a museum and tourist attraction for the general education and entertainment of the public and also as a giant conservatory.  The building underwent a major check-up for the purpose of reconstruction. The original building had been designed for a five-month event which basically took place during the summer months.  As a year-round long term facility, not only did it have to be made weatherproof for the winter and also heated and ventilated, but it also had to be made far more durable.  It had probably been only a matter of good luck that the structure had withstood the enormous rush of the crowds during the World Exhibition.  Some structural changes were clearly required if the building was to withstand the rigors of long-term use year-round.

Reconstruction at the new site began on August 5, 1852. Soon thereafter, the Brighton Railway Company purchased a 17 acre site nearby and constructed the Crystal Palace (Low Level) Railway Station. Connecting the Railway Station to the Crystal Palace was a 720 foot glass walkway called the Crystal Colonnade.

The work of reconstruction did not always proceed smoothly. In August 1853, 12 construction workers died when tons of scaffolding supporting the center transept collapsed. And in a somewhat ironic twist, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the eminent engineer whose original design had been rejected in 1850) had to step in to re-design and build the two 46 foot diameter, 284 foot tall brick water towers associated with the relocated structure after Paxton's design had failed. And there were financial woes as well - the Company used up their initial £500,000 before the building was half finished and had to borrow to cover the shortfall. The final bill totaled nearly £1,300,000 (£50.5 million today), and the Company was left deeply in debt.

Nonetheless, on June 10th, 1854, the New Crystal Palace Park, including both the building and the surrounding land,  was opened by Queen Victoria. The originally-planned opening day was to have been May 1, 1854 but the various construction and financial problems, together with the Royally-decreed covering of the private parts on the nude male statues (!!) delayed the opening to June 10th.

The new Crystal Palace was considerably larger than the original in Hyde Park. The building was 2 stories taller (5 stories total) and north and south transepts were added.  Total  floor area was 50% larger than the original. The total area was 603,072 feet, and the building footprint measured  1608 feet by 384 feet wide.

A Visit to the Relocated Crystal Palace

In 1862 the well-known French musical commentator, the Count Ad. de Pontécoulant, spent twelve days in London visiting the 1862 World Exhibition held that year at South Kensington.  One of the highlights of his visit was a side-trip to Sydenham to re-visit the fabled Crystal Palace which he had first experienced in 1851 during his visit to the Exhibition of that year.  The good Count left us the following description of his visit, which conveys very well the impressions created by a visit to the Palace in its heyday.

“To go to London without seeing Sydenham is undoubtedly to lose part of the interest of the journey.  I accompanied Mr. C ....... to the Crystal Palace.  A visit to Sydenham is not an excursion through the suburbs, it is a voyage through the world and the centuries.  Sydenham, its Crystal Palace, its summer and winter gardens, its gathering of the most curious and most unimaginable works of nature and art, where many dreams become palpable; where many pages of your readings, many engravings of the most remarkable monuments, take form and reality and appear in front of you, tangible, accessible.  You can believe yourself transported at one stroke to Pompeï or Khosabad, to Thébes or to Granada, and before a host of other interesting locations in the old and new world and, even more, the prehistoric world.

When the Exhibition of 1851 ended and the Crystal Palace, then standing in London in Hyde Park, had become useless, the English did not have the fortitude to destroy this building, so imposing and of such an extraordinary kind.  And yet the borrowed site on which it was located was required to be vacant once more.  A subscription of thirteen million francs was proposed, derived from a hundred thousand donations, and in less than fifteen days these hundred thousand donations, based on national self-esteem, note, and not on financial interests, had been received.   

Then they got on with it.  They brought the Crystal Palace to Sydenham; they placed it on an eminence dominating a vast horizon; it was modified, they raised it, they enlarged it by the addition of two transepts and side galleries; they gave it a splendid and picturesque garden with water fountains, and finally they sent specialists to the five parts of the world to draw, to measure, to mould, to collect all that could form a basis for a museum worthy of the building. 

The building is 500 meters in length (over a quarter of a mile), and 400 meters in width; I already told you the height.  As it stands today, it cost more than forty million francs. 

Now choose the region of the globe that you would like to visit.  If you wish to cross the  threshold of the elegant residence of a middle-class man of the time of Vespasian, note the hospitable threshold on which one reads the inscription in mosaic: “Salve” (the Latin for “Greeting”), or this warning: “Cave Canem” (Beware of the dog!). You will find there the feeling of being in a home extremely different to ours, but which was appropriate for a time when window glass was not in use, and with a climate under which life went on as much as possible in the open air.  In the place of our fragile wallpapers, the walls were covered with paintings, preserved rather well under the rain of ashes of Vesuvius, so that one could restore them and copy them with a rigorous exactitude.

From the residence of a private individual, do you wish to pass to a palace?   Here is the celebrated Court of the Lions, of the Alhambra, with its elegant columns; then the mysterious Hall of Rest, so-called by the  Infidels, with its profusion of bright ornaments resembling stalactites.  Some steps lead you from these gracious delicacies of Arab art to the robust colonnades of Philæ and bring you before the gigantic statues of Rhamsés.

Are you a fanatic of the monuments of the Middle Ages?  The most curious fragments of Romanesque and Gothic architecture abound before you.  Then comes the Renaissance, then the art of Italy: you will have before your eyes, without going to Florence, the famous doors of bronze of the Baptistry whose reputation is not exaggerated.  It has also been ensured that the Christian temples of Italy, the castles and the churches of Germany, the town halls and the manors of Belgium and France, have contributed to these reproductions.  And, everywhere before your eyes, copies of the most beautiful statues and the most beautiful groups in existence.   

 If you want to return from the field of art to that of nature, you will be able to see, in groves of foreign trees, the meticulous representation of the most eccentric human races, of which some in truth seem closer to the gorilla than of the man.

A transept, separated by a glass partition, forms an immense greenhouse where tropical plants grow and where some animals and especially beautiful exotic birds are raised.  It is there that they erected parts of the trunk of a Californian tree which stands 120 meters high: there are 60 of them in little meadows in the greenhouse. 

The Palace contains an immense orchestra, dominated by a cathedral organ, which can hold 4,000 musicians; a theatre which can hold 5000 people, who, at the time of our passing by, were listening to the two Marchesio sisters and chorus; a reading room where 150 newspapers are to be found; a library containing, among other works, all those which have some relationship to the subjects of study offered by the Palace; a collection of autographs, a permanent exhibition of pictures and watercolours which are on sale; a genuine bazaar where one can buy the most curious products of English industry; a telegraph office, and finally the inseparable accompaniment to any  gathering, the dining rooms and the largest dining hall in England.

The terrace which skirts the frontage of the Palace, a very-extended landscape, was illuminated this day by hazy sunbeams, giving it a particular and indefinable charm. The shapes did not have the sharp countours that the more definitive light of the southernmost climates gives them, but this vagueness seemed closer to the ideal than the reality would be.  The light fell gently upon so many beautiful, strange, odd and admirable things, created from imagination.

As for the gardens which extend over a gentle slope, at midday they appear vast and extremely beautiful, but we have some of comparable beauty in France.  Nonetheless, I admired the orange trees which came there from the castle of Neuilly which, after 400 years of existence on French soil, were displaced as a result of the Revolution, to die, like their last owners, on foreign ground.  What we do not have yet are the geological fossil basins, occupying a space of more than three hectares, that were formed with hundreds of cubic meters of soil and rocks of various formations, brought from all sides. There the extraordinary prehistoric animals are scattered, vanished races which do not exist any more except in a fossil state and which are reproduced with complete scientific rigour: a bat the size of a man with a long neck, a lizard the size of an ox, and other fearsome monsters that we are happy not to have not to contend with, and that one would believe to be the products of a fantastic imagination, if the ground had not preserved their petrified remains for us.”

The End of the Crystal Palace

For the first 30 years, attendance at the relocated Crystal Palace averaged 2,000,000 people a year. Despite this significant figure, In its 82 year life the new Crystal Palace never recovered from the debt incurred as a result of the shortfall in the initial capital raised to fund its construction. In 1911, the building was declared bankrupt and put up for auction on November 28th.  But on November 29th, the required balance of £210,000 was paid out of public funds and the building became the property of the Nation. A body known as the Crystal Palace Trust was established to manage the property.

During World War I, the building was used as the Royal Naval Shore Station HMS 
Victory VI. During this period, it  was known as the HMS Crystal Palace and  was occupied by 125,000 men during World War I.

The structure survived intact into the 1930’s, but at around 7:30 PM on the night of November 30, 1936, a fire broke out in the center transept. 438 firemen, 88 fire engines and 749 police officers answered the fire call. The cause of the fire has never been resolved. The most likely scenario is that the fire was a simple accident.  The core of the building was destroyed in this fire, never to be rebuilt.

The south tower was dismantled during the winter of 1940-41. In January of 1941, the Victorian Bandstand was destroyed during a Nazi air raid. The north tower was utilized during World War II for war work by the British government and was used for testing dummy bombs before its  destruction on April 16, 1941. Parts of the Park continued to be used by various government agencies for the duration of the war.

On October 24, 1950, fire destroyed the last reminders of the Crystal Palace - the remainder of the south wing and the School of Art. In 1951, the Crystal Palace Trust was dissolved and ownership transferred to the Greater London Council. Of the East and West Pavilions, only the East remains (and “remains” are all that is still  there).  This area was "cleaned up" along with Charles Aslin's Concert Bandstand and the Arboretum for an appearance in the 1969 movie "Women in Love".

In 1990, the Crystal Palace Museum opened on Anerley Hill. It is staffed by volunteers from the Crystal Palace Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Park. In 1994, another relic of the past, the Concert Bandstand, was destroyed by fire. However, some remainders of the Crystal Palace can still be seen in Sydenham Park, including statuary and the reproduction dinosaurs which were a feature of the Palace, as noted above by Pontécoulant. Debate continues as to the future use of the Park.

Among the Royal visitors to the new Crystal Palace during its 82 year life were Napoleon III, Prince Albert, the King and Queen of Greece, Queen Victoria, the Khedive of Egypt, the Shah of Persia, the Sultan of Turkey, II, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Tsar Alexander and the Kaiser.

Appendix I - The original Crystal Palace - Facts and Figures

Length: 563 metres

Width: 124 metres

Total building area:  7.6 hectares (18.78 acres)

Floor area: 71,800 square metres

Height of the main nave: 19,5 metres

Height of the cross nave: 41 metres

Weight of the iron parts: 4,500 tonnes (3,300 pillars, 2,224 carrier beams, 358 binders)

Wood: 16,800 cubic metres

Glass plates: 293,655 (83,600 square metres)

Pipes: 55 kilometres

Start of construction: 30 July 1850

Workers: in September 1850: 39, from December 1850: approximately 2,000

Exhibition area: 92,200 square metres

Cost:  £193,168

Architect Paxton’s fee: 5,000 pounds

Appendix II – The 1851 Exhibition - Facts and figures

Official title: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Exhibition site: Hyde Park

Area: 10.5 hectares, of which 7.2 hectares for the Crystal Palace

Exhibition area: 8.7 hectares

Duration: 1 May – 11 October 1851 (5 months and 15 days)

Exhibitors: 13, 937 with over one million exhibits, 6,861 of which were from England, 520 from British colonies and the remaining 6556 from other countries.

Foreign participants: from 25 countries and 15 British colonies

Total value of exhibits: c. 2 million pounds (excluding the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, which was considered priceless, and today forms part of the British crown jewels)

Aggregate length of  display tables: 8 miles (13 km).

Visitors: 6,039,205 (about one-fifth of the population of Great Britain at the time, which was just over 30 million.)

Entrance fees: variable, between one shilling and one pound.  General admission five shillings for the first three weeks. Then lowered to one shilling.

Hours: 10AM - dusk.

Classification: 4 sections and 30 classes

Jury: 314 members, half from England, half foreign

Prizes: 5,130 awards in three categories. Awards of the first category go mainly to Britain (46 percent) and France (33 percent)

Cost: 913,000 pounds

Total Gate Receipts – 423, 792 pounds

Total Receipts – 506,100 pounds

Net profit: 406,900 pounds

Appendix III - Bibliography

Richard Daniel Altick: The shows of London. Cambridge, Mass. und London 1978.

Joseph Anthony: An illustrated lifeline of Sir Joseph Paxton. Aylesbury 1973.

Charles Babbage: The exhibition of 1851; or views of the industry, the science and the government of England. London 1851.

Anthony Bird: Paxton's Palace. London 1976.

Lothar Bucher: Kulturhistorische Skizzen aus der Industrieausstellung aller Völker. Frankfurt 1851.

George Chadwick: The works of Sir Joseph Paxton. London 1961.

Charles Ryle Fay: Palace of industry 1851. A study of the Great Exhibition and its fruits. Cambridge 1951.

Chup Friemert: Die gläserne Arche: Kristallpalast, London 1851 und 1854. Dresden 1984.

Charles H. Gibbs-Smith: The Great Exhibition of 1851. A commemorative Album. Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1950 (Kat.).
Utz Haltern: Die Londoner Weltausstellung von 1851. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der bürgerlich-industriellen Gesellschaft. Münster 1971.

Chris Hobhouse: 1851 and the Crystal Palace. London 1950.

Georg Kohlmeier und Barna von Sartory: Das Glashaus, ein Bautypus des 19. Jahrhunderts. München 1981.

John Langdon-Davies: The Great Exhibition of 1851. London 1971.

Peter and Ann Mactaggart (ed.)  “Musical Instruments in the 1851 Exhibition”. Welwyn, England:  Mac and Me Ltd., 1986

Eric de Maré: London 1851. The year of the Great Exhibition. London 1972.

Tobin A. Sparling: The great exhibition: A question of taste. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 1993 (Kat.).

John Tallis: Tallis's history and description of the Crystal Palace and the exhibition of the world's industry in 1851. 3 Bde. London 1852.

Ernst Werner: Der Kristallpalast zu London 1851. Düsseldorf 1970



Thanks to Adrian Duncan for this background to the 1851 London World Exposition.



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