British Royalty Royalty: Prince Albert's Role--The Great Exhibition

Figure 1.--This is a view of the French Room at the Great Exhibition in 1851 painted by Joseph Nash (1809-78). Notice the little boy with his mother. He seems to be wearing a tunic suit and pantalettes, but it is a little difficult to tell. We are not sure that the French Room would have been seen as appropriate for little boys by many mothers at the time. Nash did a series of these paintings on the Great Exhibition/

Prince Albert was the main backer of the 1851 Great Exhibition. This was the first "world's fair", with exhibits from most of the world's nations. The exhibition was held in Hyde Park, and the showpiece was the Crystal Palace, a prefabricated steel and glass structure like a gigantic greenhouse, which housed the exhibits. The Great Exhibition proved to be theb turning point in Albert's official responsibilities and public image. Before the Exhibition he was seen as primarily the Queen's husband. After the Exhibition is talents and abilities were increasingly seen and Giovernment ministers increasingly sought his council. The Great Exhibition was not exactly a novel effort--te French had been holding tem for years, but it was novel for Britain. In may ways it served as the protype for future international expositions and world fairs. It was Albert who conceived of it and promoted it.

Interest in Science

Prince Albert had an abidng interest in science and was convinced that modern technology would improve the output of British agriculture as well as further industrial development. In large measure this was due to his tutor in Saxe Coburg who stressed science. It was a subject that was not seriously addressed in Britain's prestigious public (private) schools.

The Exhibition

Great Britain in 1851 was arguably the leader of the industrial revolution and feeling very secure in that ideal. It was a bnew development. For two centuries France had been the dominate power in Europe. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was conceived to symbolize this industrial, military and economic superiority of Great Britain. Just representing the feats of Britain itself would have excluded many of the technological achievements pioneered by the British in its many colonies and protectorates, so it was decided to make the exhibit truly international with invitations being extended to almost all of the colonized world. The British also felt that it was important to show their achievements right alongside those of "less civilized" countries. The prevailing attitude in England at the time was ripe for the somewhat arrogant parading of accomplishments. Many felt secure, economically and politically, and Queen Victoria was eager to reinforce the feeling of contentment with her reign. It was during the mid-1850s that the word "Victorian" began to be employed to express a new British self-consciousness, both in relation to the nation and to the period through which it was passing.

First English event

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the earliest international exhibitions. It was in part prompted by the success of the French Industrial Exposition of 1844. The English Government showed no interest when some suggested that it would be advantageous to British industry and agriculture to have a similar exhibition in London. The French had an established tradition of exhibitions--the Marquis díAveze had held a large one as early as 1798, in the grounds and interior of the Maison díOrsay, Rue de Varennes. This was followed by a series of official Expositions, the first being on the Champ de Mars, through to the eleventh in 1849, all devoted to the glory of the art and industry of France, and increasingly large and successful.

English exhibitions

Britain at this time had held nothing like the French exhibitions. English exhibitions were mostly than local affairs. The first building to be put up solely for the exhibition of manufactured goods was built in Birmingham in 1849, for an exhibition of the British Society. It included 10,000 square feet, and together with Bingley House, in the gardens of which it was erected, 12,800 square feet of exhibition space was available. In the same year, the first Exhibition of British Manufacturers took place, largely concentrating on precious metalwork.


Prince Albert was very much in favour of a self-financing Exhibition of All Nations. But even though this meant that the exchequer would have to pay no money, there was a lukewarm reception from Parliament. Albertís plan was fora great collection of works in art and industry, "for the purposes of exhibition, of competition and of encouragement," to be held in London in 1851. Such an Exhibition, he said, "... would afford a true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions. The Government was finally persuaded to set up a Royal Commission.They decided to call for voluntary contributions nationwide. In an attempt to whip up support, all the mayors from the whole country were invited to a sumptious banquet at Mansion House, to listen to Prince Albert argue the case for an Exhibition. Other big names were present to give support - Sir Robert Peel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lords Russell and Stanley, and the French ambassador. The meeting was a great success.

The Crystal Palace

Conceived by prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park in London in the specially constructed Crystal Palace. The Royal Commissioners had set up a competition for designing the building, and 233 architects sent in designs: 38 from abroad, 51 from around England, and 128 from London. None were quite the right thing, thought the Commissionís Building Committee, who fortuitously had prepared and printed their own design. However, one contractor, Messrs. Fox and Henderson, presented costs for an amended design, one amended so much, in fact, that it bore no resemblance to the Building Committeeís original proposal, but with the compelling advantage of a better price. It was based on a design by Joseph Paxton, who had struck on the idea of a simple repeating structure so that one cross-section could be repeated indefinitely to make a whole building. Doubts were raised early on about the stability and safety of the structure--doubts which could not be ignored, as they were expressed by Professor Airey, the Astronomer Royal, and by Richard Turner, who had constructed the Palm House at Kew Gardens. An experiment was set up, with a test construction, on which 300 workmen walked backwards and forwards, regularly, irregularly, and then jumping simultaneously in the air. Finally, to induce the most regular oscillations possible, the army sappers and miners corps were called in, and marched repeatedly in step across the structure. The maximum girder movement was 1/4 inch, and building work was continued. The whole building was enormous - 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide (with an extra bit sticking out on one side 936 feet x 48 feet). The central transept was 72 feet wide and 108 feet high, and a grand avenue and upstairs galleries ran the whole length of the building. Altogether, 772,784 square feet (19 acres) were roofed over, not including the 217,100 square feet of galleries. This was an area four times that of St Peterís in Rome, or six times that of St Paulís Cathedral. The total enclosed volume was 33 million cubic feet. Materials included 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, 900,000 superficial feet of glass and 600,000 feet of wooden planking to walk on. There were 202 miles of sash bars and 30 miles of gutters.

Over 13,000 exhibits were displayed and viewed by over 6,200,000 visitors to the exhibition. The millions of visitors that journeyed to the Great Exhibition of 1851 marveled at the industrial revolution that was propelling Britain into the greatest power of the time. Among the 13,000 exhibits from all around the world were the Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, tools, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine from the United States. The objects on display came from all parts of the world, including India and the countries with recent white settlements, such as Australia and New Zealand, that constituted the new empire.


The public was dazeled. In its catalogue of the Exhibition, the Art Journal glowingly wrote: "On entering the building for the first time, the eye is completely dazzled by the rich variety of hues which burst upon it on every side; and it is not until this partial bewilderment has subsided, that we are in a condition to appreciate as it deserves its real magnificance and the harmonious beauty of effect produced by the artistical arrangement of the glowing and varied hues which blaze along its grand and simple lines... Forming the centre of the entire building rises the gigantic fountain, the culminating point of view from every quarter of the building; whilst at the northern end the eye is relieved by the verdure of tropical plants and the lofty and overshadowing branches of forest trees... the objects which first attract the eye are the sculptures, which are ranged on every side; some of them of colossal size and of unrivalled beauty... We have here the Indian Court, Africa, Canada, the West Indies, the Cape of Good Hope, the Medieval Court, and the English Sculpture Court... Birmingham, the great British Furniture Court, Sheffield and its hardware, the woollen and mixed fabrics, shawls, flax, and linens, and printing and dyeing... general hardware, brass and iron-work of all kinds, locks, grates... agricultural machines and implements... the mineral products of England ... the cotton fabric and carriage courts, leather, furs, and hair, minerals and machinery, cotton and woollen power-looms in motion... flax, silk, and lace, rope-making lathes, tools and minerals, marine engines, hydraulic presses, steam machinery, Jersey, Ceylon, and Malta with the Fine Arts Court behind them; Persia, Greece, Egypt, and Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Madeira and Italy, France, its tapestry, machinery, arms and instruments, occupying two large courts; Belgium, her furniture, carpets and machinery; Austria, with her gorgeous furniture courts and machinery furniture, North of Germany and Hase Towns; Russia, with its malachite doors, vases and ornaments, and the United States, with its agricultural implements, raw materials etc. We pass from the United States to Sweden, part of Russia, Denmark, a division of the Zollverein, Russian cloths, hats and carpets, Prussian fabrics, Saxony, and the Austrian sculpture court, another division of France with its splendid frontage of articles of vertu and ornamental furniture, its magnificient court for plate, bronzes and china; its tasteful furniture, and carpets, its jewels, including those of the Queen of Spain; its laces, gloves and rich embroideries; Switzerland, China and Tunis ... In the British half are the silks and shawls, lace and embrodieries, jewellery and clocks and watches, behind them military arms and models, chemicals, naval architecture, philosophical instruments, civil engineering, musical instruments, anatomical models, glass chandeliers, china, cutlery, and animal and vegetable manufactures, china and pottery... on the opposite side perfumery, toys, fishing materials, wax flowers, stained glass, British, French, Austrian, Belgian, Prussian, Bavarian and American products."


The Great Exhibition which he promoted and managed was a huge success and was the turning point in his relationship with the British public and Government officials. Despite critical comments in the press, the family life of the Victorian court began to be considered increasingly as a model for the whole country. It certainly was in sharp contrast to previous royal families. Albert had appreciated the achievements of Prime Minister Robert Peel's political and military advances and publicly advocated the advancement of industry and science. These facts began to sway opinion in his favor as respectable foundations of family life and industrial supremacy were becoming rapidly acquainted with the monarchy of Victoria and Albert.

Royal Visitors

Royalty from all over the continent were invited. Many were afraid to come having just survived the caotic disorders of 1848.

Prussian Royal Family

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria hosted the future Prussian royal couple at Buckingham Palace in 1851 for the Graet Exhibition. Augusta was inpressed with popularity of the British monarch wen the Prussian royal family visited Victoria and Albert for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It afforded Albert te opportunity for Albert to develop a personal relationsip with the Prussian royal family. Albert saw that Prince William (future Wilhelm I) seemed phycically weak, so he did his best to develop a relatonship with his son Frederic (Fritz--future Frederich III). Albert noted that Frederich had inherited some of his mother's liberal leanings. He lectured Frederich about his concern with Russian power and how Austria and Jesuit influences were promoting "red republicanism". Fritz was unprepared for all of this. The difference betwwen the two families became apparent. Fritz who knew nothing about Britain became alarmed when the Duchess of Kent (Victoria's mother) became inadvertedly separated from Victoria and the children. The children were quite amuesed that Fritz should fear for her saftey. A policeman who had no idea who she was found her a good seat. He was also suprised when the quuen was delighted with a trick hankerchief that turned into a boquet--he thought it disrepectful.

The Princess Royal

Frederich was in fact so bewildred by all of this that he was able to take refuge with Princess Royal Vicky with whom he could speak in German. Vicky was such a bright student that she was already speaking fluent German. It was Vicky, of course, that Frederich would marry.

Children's Clothes

With the possible exception of their marriage and the marriage of their children, the Great Exhibition was perhaps the major event of Victoria and Albert's lives together. The Queen and children woould have been dressed in their best clothes. Clearly considerable attention would have been given to their attire. I am not sure just what the boys wore, but hope the find out. Here I am not sure just who attended the opening. Some of the younger children may have not attended. We do know that Bertie and Victoria attended. Berue was outfitted in a military jacket anf Highland kilt outfit. We know that Albert sometimes designed dresses for Victoria and the princesses. Certainly he would have also been involved in what the princes wore.

Moving the Crystal Palace (1854)

After the Exhibition, the authorities decided to move the Crystal Palace and restore Hyde Park to its former conditin. The Crystal Palace was painstakingly disassembled and relocated to an area of South London known as Penge Common. Yr move was orgaizied bt Thomas Younghusband, an enterprising fellow who had played a role in setting up the Crtysal palace exhibitions and organising food for the festivities. He owned a tavern/hotel and moving business near Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace was reassembled at the top of Penge Peak next to Sydenham Hill, at the time a toney suburb of large villas (June 1854). It was such a famous landmark that the nearby residential area was renamed Crystal Palace. This came to include the Crystal Palace Park. The Palace was set up in the middle od the Park. The Park also included the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. It was a football stadium that hosted the FA Cup Final (1895 and 1914). Crystal Palace F.C. were founded at the site (1905) and played at the Cup Final venues. The park still contains Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's famous Crystal Palace Dinosaurs which were moved along with the Crystal Palace in 1854. The Crystal Palace burned down in a fire (November 1936).


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Created: May 13, 2001
Last updated: 2:02 AM 8/9/2019