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Industry, Religion and the British Empire

The Machinery Court at the Great Exhibition by Joseph Nash. Museum no. NAL 207747

The Machinery Court at the Great Exhibition by Joseph Nash. Museum no. NAL 207747

The mid-Victorians were convinced that their way of life was not only better but also quite unlike that known by their predecessors. The birth of industrialism, discoveries in science and a developing understanding of the natural world were all tangible evidence of progress.

Bolstered by a newly secure Christian belief, they were confident that their generation would leave behind a stable legacy on which the next would build. This was the comfortable, assured feeling that British visitors took with them to the Exhibition. There they expected and found an affirmation that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.

Britain was the most powerful and important nation in the world, with an empire that encircled the globe, and dominated not only militarily but also in terms of civilian skills. Had not British engineers laid railway tracks around the globe so that these iron arteries of Empire could bring the benefits of civilization and the industrial revolution to all?

In May of 1851 these self-congratulatory thoughts would have been in the minds of visitors as they travelled from all parts of the country to the Exhibition in London. As they entered Hyde Park such thoughts would have been confirmed by the size, magnificence and structural perfection of the building that met their eyes. With the sun reflected in its massive glass surface they would undoubtedly have agreed with the magazine Punch that it was 'a Crystal Palace' .

The drama of its building must have heightened their expectations as they went through the doors to be overwhelmed by the height of the iron and glass transept which soared 108ft (33m) above their heads. The park's fully-grown elm trees encased within the building added to the impression that the visitor was inside a vast greenhouse.

From the entrance the nave stretched apparently endlessly until the brightly painted iron pillars and girders in blue, yellow and red merged into grey in the distance. Everywhere was a feeling of light and colour with the great dark red banners hanging from the galleries telling of the myriad manufactured goods of Britain, the raw materials and exotic productions of her Empire, while farther back lay all the other strange countries of the world to explore.

Souvenir of the Great Exhibition - The Transept from The Grand Entrance. Museum no. CIS 19627

Souvenir of the Great Exhibition - The Transept from The Grand Entrance. Museum no. CIS 19627

Gradually the visitor would become aware of the sound of water splashing from Ostler's enormous glass fountain that stood at the very centre of the building, behind vast iron gates from the Coalbrookdale Iron Company. These gates still exist, moved westwards from their original position in the exhibition site, on the carriageway between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens at the eastern approach to the Albert Memorial. Above the sound of the fountain and the clamour of the 40,000 other people, who, on an average day would have been in the building with them, was the sonorous rumble of a great pipe organ.

By the time the exhibition closed on 15 October 1851 more than 6 million people had passed through its doors. The vast majority of these were the ordinary people of Britain who came from every corner of the land, some of them seeing London, let alone the marvels of the Exhibition, for the first time. Many were brought from the North by the enterprising Thomas Cook who had just started running temperance excursion trains. When they arrived they were as amazed and impressed by the productions of industry and the ingenious scientific gadgetry, much of it now preserved in the Science Museum, as by the decorative and applied arts that today's visitor can see in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Opening of the Great Industrial Exhibition of All Nations by George Cruikshank and David Bogue. Museum no. CIS 19648

The Opening of the Great Industrial Exhibition of All Nations by George Cruikshank and David Bogue. Museum no. CIS 19648

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