Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

The Great Exhibition

A Great chance for the people at home to see what the colonies could produce came in 1851, when the Great Exhibition of foreign and colonial produce was held.

As the summer of 1851 drew on, all eyes were turned towards Hyde Park, London, where, for some months past, a huge glass palace had been in course of erection. The idea of displaying here all the industries of the whole world had occurred to the Queen's husband, the Prince Consort, who had announced his scheme to the people of Britain in these words: "Gentlemen, the Exhibition of 1851 is to give the world a true test and a living picture of the point of industrial development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting-point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions."

Indeed, it was the first attempt ever made to collect men from every country in Europe, America, Africa, and Australia, in a common bond of interest and sympathy. But the Prince himself had yet larger ideas behind all this. He wanted to see a world at peace. He thought that, after men of all nations and creeds had met on a friendly footing, they would never wish to meet again in the fierce rivalry of war. But this was not to be. The great Peace Festival was a grand success, as far as it went; but in less than three years Russians, Turks, British, and French were all at war in the Crimea.

Great Exhibition


The organization of the Exhibition was a vast undertaking. The idea of building with glass and iron instead of brick originated with the Duke of Devonshire's gardener, Joseph Paxton, to whom the erection was entrusted. When finished, it looked something like a cathedral; it was four times the length of St. Paul's, and twice the width, covering eighteen acres of Hyde Park. It was begun in September 1850, and finished by January 1, 1851.

After four months of hard work arranging the exhibits, the Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria in person, with the Prince Consort and their two eldest children, the Princess Royal, afterwards German Empress, and the Prince of Wales, afterwards King of England. Perhaps the Queen's own words best describe the scene on the opening day.

"The great event has taken place," she says, "a complete and beautiful triumph—a glorious and touching sight, one which I shall ever be proud of for my beloved Albert and my country. Hyde Park was one densely-crowded mass of human beings, in the highest good-humour and most enthusiastic. A little rain fell just as we started; but before we came near the Crystal Palace the sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of all nations were floating.

Prince Albert


"We drove up Rotten Row and got out at the entrance on that side. The glimpse of the transept through the iron gate, of the waving palms, flowers, statues, myriads of people filling the galleries and seats all round, and the flourish of trumpets as we entered, gave us a sensation which I can never forget, and I felt much moved. . . . The sight, as we came to the middle, where the steps and chair were placed, with the beautiful crystal fountain just in front of it, was magical—so vast, so glorious, so touching.

"The tremendous, cheers, the joy expressed in every face, the immensity of the building, the mixture of the palms, flowers, trees, statues, fountains, the organ (with 200 instruments and 600 voices), and my beloved husband the author of this 'Peace Festival', which united the industry of all nations of the earth—all this was moving indeed; it was and is a day to live for ever."

During the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus, a Chinese, with a pigtail of fabulous length, touched by the solemn scene, made his way slowly round the great fountain to the Queen, and made her a deep bow. Then a procession was formed, in which the old Duke of Wellington (it was his eighty-second birthday) joined, and the royal party walked from end to end of the Exhibition, amid continued cheering and waving of handkerchiefs. Every language was heard amid this vast concourse. Frenchmen shouted, "Vive la reine ", and Germans saluted Britain's Queen; Amid the turbaned and sallow-faced Indians might be seen the British workman in round fustian jacket and glazed cap of those early days.

Edward VII


What did all these thousands of people look at as they wandered up and down the spacious aisles? The west half of the long building was occupied by products of Great Britain and her "dependencies", arranged in thirty classes, each marked by a red banner; the eastern half was given up to foreign countries: Out of the 15,000 exhibits, one half were British. Right down the centre were fountains, marble statues, models of bridges, lighthouses, and other interesting objects.

In the centre of all stood the marvellous crystal glass fountain mentioned by the Queen. This represented the equator of the world, and round it were grouped the products of India, China, Tunis, Turkey, Persia, Egypt, and Arabia. An endless scene of beauty and interest met the bewildered spectator. There were articles of untold wealth to be seen: there were golden embroideries from the gorgeous East, glittering jewels, pure white marble sculpture, rich carpets, and many-coloured silks; there were specimens of native work from far-off lands, wheat and grain, implements of agriculture, carriages, manufactured articles—indeed, there was something to suit every taste.

Duke of Wellington


The Exhibition remained open for six months. When all was over, the great house of glass was removed to Sydenham, where we know it to-day under the name of the Crystal Palace.

The example thus set has been followed again and again, not only in London, but in every other great city in the world.