This week in history the opening of The Great Exhibition

13 May 2015

By Pan Macmillan

1 May 1851: the opening of The Great Exhibition

The idea for a Great Exhibition was first suggested by Henry Cole, a civil servant, Christ’s Hospital scholar, law clerk, member of the Society of Arts and inventor of the Christmas card. Cole had been involved in local art and industry exhibitions, and suggested to Prince Albert, the Society’s president, that Britain should mount an exhibition on a grand scale similar to one staged in Paris in 1849.

The scheme won royal assent the following year, and the Great Exhibition became closely associated with Prince Albert, who threw himself into its planning and staging,

Some 250 architectural plans for the main exhibition hall were considered, before a royal commission finally settled on an ingenious design in iron and glass by Thomas Paxton, which was soon christened ‘The Crystal Palace’ by Douglas Jerrold in the humorous magazine Punch.

Work began on this unprecedented structure in September 1850, and was completed at breakneck speed by the following January. In the following months, over 100,000 exhibits from all over the world were installed in time for a special opening ceremony for subscribers to be attended by Queen Victoria herself, on 1 May 1851.

There were grave concerns that the public might riot, the exhibition be infiltrated by European anarchists or that the attending crowds would loot the exhibits – or even that Paxton’s structure itself would simply collapse. To guard against lawlessness, the Duke of Wellington, whose 82nd birthday fell on the same day as the opening, personally oversaw the deployment of a 10,000 troops into London. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan police was enlarged with an extra 1,000 special constables. In the event, the whole thing passed off without incident.

George Howard, the Earl of Carlisle, left this record of the opening in his journals:

“The great day dawned for the opening of the Great Exhibition, and with the promise of bright sun and soft airs, which was realised, for the day; the young green of Spring, the boats on the Serpentine, the flags round the top of the long crystal roof, were all full of life and flutter; the scene was beautiful, gorgeous, unparalleled, inspiring; it looked like Ormuz, and Bagdad, and Florence and Fairyland; the coup d'oeil was most admirable, the whole idea most thrilling, the thought all the time even exceeding the sight, and the immense, orderly, pleased masses without, were as striking as all the rest.” 

Picture: The Crystal Palace © Joost Markerink/