In 1851, Hyde Park hosted the Great Exhibition. This major international event celebrated industry, technology and culture from across the globe.
The Great Exhibition attracted an unprecedented number of visitors to Hyde Park and was a huge financial success. Its profits were used to establish some of London’s best-loved museums.
Why was it created?
The Industrial Revolution had made Britain a world-leader in industry. In order to celebrate and promote this success, an exhibition was proposed that would showcase the wonders of new technology.
Other countries would be invited to show off their own innovations too, casting Britain in a powerful leading role. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, was one of the masterminds behind this event.
A magnificent glass building was constructed in Hyde Park to host the Great Exhibition. Inside this so-called ‘Crystal Palace’, visitors could marvel at over 100,000 exhibits, from steam-powered machines and giant engines to cutting-edge scientific tools and clever technological innovations.
New inventions were also displayed, from the ‘adding machine’ that could calculate large sums to the bizarre ‘defensive umbrella’ that doubled as a weapon. Culture was an important part of the exhibition too. Ticket holders could gawp at Chinese porcelain, French tapestries, Russian armour and Indian ivories.
What was the big deal?
It was big, literally. So big that that some of Hyde Park’s trees ended up inside the finished building! The crowds were also huge, with an estimated six million people attending. That was a third of Britain’s population at the time, which would be 22 million people today.
The Great Exhibition was the place to go, whether you were an A-list celebrity or a person on the street. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens were two of the more notable attendees, and over four and a half million of the cheapest day tickets were sold, making it accessible for everyone.
Legacy of the Great Exhibition
In 1854, the Crystal Palace was removed from Hyde Park and re-erected in the area of South London now named after it. It remained there until 1936, when it was tragically destroyed by fire. A crowd of 100,000 gathered to watch it burn, including Winston Churchill who said: ‘This is the end of an age’.
The footprint of the original building can still be seen in Hyde Park, marked out by South Carriage Drive. In addition, thanks to modern technology, it's also possible to experience a 'virtual tour' of the original Crystal Palace as well.
Though the building may not have survived, the legacy of the Great Exhibition endures. At Prince Albert’s insistence, the profits from the event were used to establish a cluster of museums, colleges and concert halls in South Kensington.
This area, dubbed ‘Albertopolis’, still boasts some of London’s best-loved museums including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. The legacy lives on!
The Great Exhibition in numbers
- The Crystal Palace was 92km2
- Worked on by 5,000 labourers
- Took just five months to build
- Open for six months from May – October 1851
- 14,000 exhibitors from around the world
- Attended by six million people
- Relocated to Crystal Palace and reopened in 1854
- Burned down in 1936