Summer of 2019 marks 200 years since the births of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park helped move forward the industrial and cultural advances that characterised Victoria's reign. It also led to the creation of several of London’s most-loved museums.
Why was it created?
Following the Industrial Revolution, in 1851 Great Britain was the world leader for culture and industry. However despite the advancements in technology, British society was dealing with challenges like a class divide and a mistrust of foreigners, with not everyone embracing the movement towards internationalisation.
To try and bring everyone together, while also taking a chance to show off just how great Britain was, Prince Albert organised what would come to be known as the first World's Fair. He invited countries from around the world to bring their own exhibits, to encourage trade and establish British superiority.
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 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.
It 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.
The Great Exhibition was considered a success and led to similar World’s Fairs around the globe, including one in France in 1889 that constructed the Eiffel Tower as its entrance.
The Crystal Palace that had been built in Hyde Park was demolished and relocated to an area of South London that now bears its name in 1854. You can still see the footprint of the original building, marked out by South Carriage Drive.
The palace didn’t have the same popularity in its new home before it was destroyed by fire in 1936. Among the 100,000 people who came to watch it burn was Winston Churchill, who remarked “This is the end of an age”.
However, the legacy of the Great Exhibition lives on. The surplus profits were enough to build the Natural History Museum, Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as set up trusts to fund research and development that still exist today.
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