Video: A day at The Great Exhibition
Pathé archive voice over: To few people in a lifetime comes the chance of seeing such a gigantic blaze as the funeral pyre of the Crystal Palace, one of the few remaining links with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Narrator: In 1936 a fire destroyed the spectacular building known as the Crystal Palace - the same building that 85 years earlier had housed the famous ' Great Exhibition' , one of the most important events of the Victorian era.
On 1 May 1851 the Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria.
Her husband - Prince Albert - led the development of the Exhibition, which was the first of its kind. It was a bit like a giant museum, full of interesting objects from around the world.
The Great Exhibition was held in London' s Hyde Park in a building that soon became known as the Crystal Palace because of the amount of glass used to build it - and it attracted people from all over the country.
Historical sources like diaries, letters, newspaper articles and pictures tell us about the Great Exhibition. They give us a good idea of what a ' day out' at the Exhibition was like.
Mary Smith, a school-teacher from Oxfordshire, wrote about her visit to the Great Exhibition.
Mary Smith: The time came that we started off on a week' s excursion to London, to see this latest wonder of the world.
We travelled, as everyone did, by an ' excursion train' , the first I had experience of, and all our party were very weary of it.
Narrator: Visitors even came from overseas, from as far away as America, China, Trinidad, Australia, India and Ceylon.
Less well-off people like Mary Smith went on cheap ticket days, which were very popular.
Mary Smith: Country folks as we were, we naturally made the Exhibition our first object, setting off for Hyde Park directly after breakfast to be there when the doors opened. We went with the common people on the shilling day.
Narrator: It seemed as though everyone was there. If you were really lucky, you might even bump into the Queen herself on one of her many visits.
Queen Victoria: After breakfast we left for the Exhibition. It looked so beautiful this wonderful creation of my beloved Albert' s.
Narrator: Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland, found the Great Exhibition very exciting. He wrote that:
The impression when you get inside is of bewilderment. It looks like a sort of fairyland. Far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls, carpets, canopies…
Walter Bagehot (coughing and interrupting):
The only accurate idea I can give you of the Exhibition is that it is a great fair under a cucumber frame.
Narrator: Walter Bagehot, a journalist and banker, recorded his experience of the Great Exhibition in a letter that he wrote to his mother.
Walter Bagehot: The form of the building is that of a cross, the long stroke being called the nave, and the short stroke the transept. In the exact centre is a stunning fountain made of glass.
Narrator: The Crystal Palace covered an area equivalent to 15 football pitches. It was over 30 metres high and several trees that stood on the site were not sawn down, but were covered by the huge building rather like pot plants in a giant conservatory.
An average of 42,000 visitors from all classes of society came to the Exhibition each day.
Reporter: There were honest fellows in corduroys, agricultural labourers in smock frocks, and rural folk in their full dress of velveteen, with their sweethearts in bright-coloured shawls of scarlet and green.
It was amusing to observe the amazement of these good folks as they entered, and the bewildered look of their upturned wondering eyes gazing up at the roof of the building in stunned and staggered astonishment.
Narrator: There were over 100,000 objects on display.
Exhibits from Britain and its colonies filled one half of the building, and the rest of the world, the other half.
The famous author, Charlotte Brontë, could not believe her eyes.
Charlotte Brontë: Whatever human industry has created, you find there! Railway engines and boilers, mill machinery, splendid carriages of all kinds, glass-covered stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of gold and silver smiths, carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth thousands of pounds.
Narrator: In the British section, there were manufactured goods such as silk and cotton, cutlery, hand tools and surgical instruments and much more.
Official Guides were employed to show the more well-off visitors around.
Guide: Among the more unusual items to be found at the Exhibition are the following: a piano that four people can play at once, furniture made from papier mâché, a bed that turns into a life-raft, a penknife with eighty blades, a dressing table that doubles up as a fire escape…
Narrator: In the British Machinery Section, there were cranes, lighthouse lamps and huge presses. Mary Smith was intrigued.
Mary Smith: We came upon a world of wonders of mechanical skill. One of these was a bedstead so contrived that it could be set like an alarm to any hour desired, and at that time would begin, by springs, to fold itself up, and throw the sleeper out of bed.
Narrator: In the Foreign Section, the American display included part of a bridge, the very latest weapons and a trophy made of rubber, but Walter Bagehot found little to interest him, as he told his mother.
Walter Bagehot: The Americans have an immense compartment all to themselves at the end of the nave and nothing hardly in it, except busts in soap of the Queen and her people. It must be amusing to wash yourself with yourself.
Narrator: From Wurttemberg in Germany came exhibits of stuffed animals arranged in comic scenes, including a frog shaving another frog, baby rabbits being taught in school and a frog carrying an umbrella. Stuffed kittens were a big crowd-puller, and were one of Queen Victoria' s favourite exhibits.
Determined to see as much as they could, many visitors, like Mary Smith, spent all day at the Great Exhibition.
Mary Smith: We exhausted our morning wandering everywhere over this arena of art in our anxiety to see all, and we were glad to sit down near the large crystal fountain and get an early lunch. Thoroughly tired, we took our meal leisurely, drinking from the sparkling fountain near us, with glasses we had brought with us.
Narrator: Although refreshments were provided for large numbers of people, not everyone was completely satisfied.
Visitor: I fully sympathise with those who so bitterly complain of the lack of refreshments at the Exhibition. I tried the lollipops, and the worst and smallest sandwiches I ever tasted! The coffee I have found nearly always cold and good for nothing; tea I have never yet seen.
Narrator: As with most aspects of the Exhibition, the amount of food and drink sold was carefully recorded: 28,046 sausage rolls, 1,000 gallons of pickles, 37 tons of Salt, and more than a million bottles of Schweppe' s soda water, lemonade, and ginger beer.
Public toilets were new then, and as a result Capt. Boscawen Ibbetson was given the task of writing an ' Official Report On The Waiting Rooms and Washing Places in the Exhibition Building' . In other words, he counted how many people used the toilets.
Captain Boscawen Ibbetson: The largest receipt from the Waiting Rooms was on Wednesday, 8th October 1851 when 11,171 persons made use of them.
Narrator: At a time when few had ever been abroad, a tour around the Exhibition was like a tour around the world. Visitors could go and see exotic displays from China or Turkey or Tunisia or wherever they wished, but possibly the most impressive and popular of all was India.
Here they could see some of the star attractions, like Queen Victoria' s magnificent ' howdah' , a gift from an Indian Prince. The ' howdah' was a covered seat for those who wished to travel on an elephant.
Guide: Also in the Indian Section is to be found the most valuable object in the whole Exhibition, the great diamond, the Koh-I-Nor, or mountain of light.
Narrator: After the excitement of a ' world tour' the more down to earth Raw Materials section was surprisingly popular. The public flocked to see…
Guide: …a mass of slate of unusual dimensions, being 15 feet in height and of proportionate width, and a large column consisting of a single block of granite about 30 feet high, and monster specimens of coal.
Charlotte Brontë: It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all ends of the earth with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect.
Reporter: One of the most affecting and pleasing scenes was the constant presence of a large number of schools of children. Thousands of children visited the Exhibition and were able to see its varied wonders, which they will probably remember for the rest of their lives.
Mary Smith: It was a great reality, a thing to be seen and talked about for a lifetime; a kind of Queen of Sheba' shop, with all the stores of the great world in it.
Narrator: More than six million people visited the Exhibition, and after six months, on 11 October 1851, it closed. The Exhibition made a profit, and Prince Albert used this money to buy land in South Kensington.
Here, where you are now, a great group of museums and colleges was founded - including the Victoria and Albert Museum, which still keeps alive the memory of the Great Exhibition.