The Greatest Day in our History

We’ve all had a Tardis Teaser fantasy. What moment in history would you like to be transported if you had a time machine? One point in London’s timeline worthy of consideration might be the opening of ‘The Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ or as Punch nicknamed it the Crystal Palace. Covering 19 acres with room inside to accommodate four St. Paul’s Cathedrals it was at the time the largest building on earth.

[S]tarted 160 years ago on 31st August 1850, a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea, until Henry Cole more famous for inventing the Christmas card conceived the idea after visiting the Paris Exhibition.

An open competition attracted 245 designs all were deemed unworkable. A design committee was formed having amongst their number Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and between them they produced a vast low, dark shed of a building, needing 30 million bricks. Now with only 16 months to go desperate times required desperate measures and Joseph Paxton was approached.

Paxton, born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire, he was at the age of 20 running an experimental arboretum for the Horticultural Society. There one day he made such an impression on the Duke of Devonshire in that his strong, clear voice could be heard by the near deaf Peer of the Realm, he was offered the post of Head Gardener at Chatsworth House.

Paxton really was a boy wonder, he created one of the great gardens of England at Chatsworth with the Emperor Fountain’s raising a jet of water 290 feet into the air, a feat only exceeded once to this day in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed estate villages; became the world’s expert on dahlias; produced the country’s finest melons, figs, peaches and nectarines winning numerous prizes; he ran two gardening magazines; a daily newspaper; he was on the board of three railway companies; built the world’s first municipal park, later copied to form Central Park in New York; the hot house at Chatsworth he built was so vast that when Queen Victoria visited the Great Stove, as it was called, she toured it in a horse drawn carriage.

Learning of the committee’s struggle to design a building for the Great Exhibition he doodled plans while chairing a meeting and had completed drawing ready for review in two weeks. The design broke all the criteria stipulated for the competition, but desperate times required desperate measures and after a few days of hand wringing the committee accepted them in their entirety.

Nothing, really absolutely nothing, says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than entrusting this iconic building to a gardener. No bricks, no mortar, no foundations, prefabricated from standard parts away from the building site it was simply bolted together. The build time was phenomenal in eight months, one million square feet of glass, 18,000 panes a week (one third of all the glass produced that year); 20 miles of guttering, 33,000 iron trusses and tens of thousands of planks of wooden flooring, this being tested by a battalion of soldiers marching across it. The finished building was 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year the exhibition was held, now copied by the new World Trade Centre whose height matches in feet the year of their independence), 408 feet across and 110 feet high and spacious enough to accommodate a much admired avenue of mature elm trees.

Queen Victoria opened the exhibition on 1st May 1851 describing with some justification that it was ‘the greatest day in our history’. Open for five and a half months it attracted six million people at a time when Britain had a population of only 20,959,477. Almost 100,000 objects went on display; a knife with 1,851 blades; furniture carved from coal; a 4-sided piano; a bed which automatically tipped its surprised occupant into his morning bath; an enormous lump of guano from Peru. Newfoundland for some inexplicable reason devoted its entire stand to cod-liver oil, and the highlight of the day was a use of the elegant ‘retiring rooms’ the flushing toilets, a novelty at the time. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use them, this is often given as the origin of the British euphemism ‘to spend a penny’.

Unlike its successors the Great Exhibition cleared a profit of £186,000, enough to buy 30 acres of land south of the exhibition site where the Royal Albert Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music were later built.

Exhibition Gates After the Exhibition was closed the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham were we managed to burn it to the ground in 1936. All that marks its passing is the Colebrookdale Gates originally made to stand at the entrance to the north transept of the Exhibition, now moved to the entrance to Kensington Gardens beside Alexandra Gate and behind which Albert sits enthroned in his memorial, on his lap he hold a book:

The Catalogue of the Great Exhibition.

2 thoughts on “The Greatest Day in our History”

  1. I must admit to being fascinated by the Victorian era and by the great figures that dominated it, such as Paxton, Stephenson and Brunel, not forgetting Prince Albert, who was no slouch, either, when it came to grandiose plans for improving works.
    In the 20th century, it became customary to dismiss the Victorians as hypocritical prudes and snobs but I think we are again beginning to recognize the wonders that they achieved and how we owe our present world in large measure to them.
    I think Victorian London would be a fine spot in space-time to visit but I would not want to live there. The rich may have had easy, pleasant lives (though always in danger from the many epidemics) but the rest of the population lived in various degrees of misery compared with us.
    My idea for an entertaining outing? A ride around Victorian London in a hansom cab.


    1. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a hansom cab driver in Victorian London, most had TB and spent their working lives in the open to the elements. I should have put in the caveat to just view the Great Exhibition and not live there during that time.


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