In the 19th century London was the capital of the world’s greatest empire, on which the British boasted “the sun never sets”. The country could celebrate Pax Britannica. Britain had fathered the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era was a time of rapid progress in engineering and inventions. Manufacturing by machinery was still new and it excited the public imagination. Against this background it was decided to hold a ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ in Hyde Park in 1851, a huge shop window to showcase the skills and products of the world. A great monument to free trade, it was the first time such a vast international event had been held anywhere in the world.
During the mid-19th century Britain was in a period of transition, between the old world of farming and the future of cities and industry. Railways were linking the country. Coal and iron were fueling the nation’s industry. London was the manufacturing capital of, not just the country, but of the empire. There was boundless inventive flair. Britain was far ahead of the rest of the world in its industrial expansion. The country seemed peaceful, prosperous and secure. It seemed there was much to celebrate.
Henry Cole was a civil servant who fought passionately for a variety of reforms, including patent laws and the standardization of railways gauges. He assisted Rowland Hill in the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, the world’s first pre-paid postage stamps. He is credited with creating the world’s first commercial Christmas cards three years later, and he edited the Journal of Design. As a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce he lobbied the government for support to improve standards in industrial design. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, became the President of the society in 1845 and took a great interest in the subject. A royal charter was granted and it thereafter became known as the Royal Society of Arts.
As far back as 1798 the French government had been organizing National Expositions to promote the works of industry. The first ‘Exposition des produits de l’industrie française’ was held on the Champ de Mars in Paris. It took place in a building constructed for that purpose by Jean-François Chalgrin who also designed the Arc de Triomphe. The expositions continued, although spasmodically due to national political upheavals, and they led to the foundation of the Société d’Encouragement for the cultivation of science and industry. In 1849 Cole visited the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition but noticed there were no international participants.
It was not uncommon for provincial agricultural or trade shows to be held in Britain but in 1845 the Free Trade Bazaar of industrial and manufactured products was successfully held at the Covent Garden Theatre. In 1847 the Royal Society of Arts organized an exhibition with the patronage of Prince Albert. Larger events followed in the succeeding two years.
The idea of an international exhibition in London was formed from Cole’s visit to Paris. A meeting was held between Prince Albert and members of the society at Buckingham Palace in June 1849. In January 1850 the idea received a royal sanction from Queen Victoria. The ‘Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’ was created that month, chaired by Albert and with twenty-seven commissioners including Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Sir Robert Peel, William Gladstone, engineer William Cubitt, architect Charles Barry, and sculptor Richard Westmacott. An executive committee consisted of Henry Cole as administrator, architect Matthew Digby Wyatt as secretary, and the railway engineer Robert Stephenson. A building committee included Barry, Cubitt, Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the architects Robert Cockerell and Thomas Leverton Donaldson.
The name for the event was to be ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’. Twenty-thousand pounds was set aside to be awarded as prize-money for the best exhibits. In March 1850 the Lord Mayor of London invited the mayors of cities, towns and boroughs to a banquet at Mansion House where the Prince explained the undertaking. At a banquet in York Albert announced: “our invitation has been received by all nations, with whom communication was possible, in that sprit of liberality and friendship in which it was tendered”. Lord Carlisle expressed the hope that the exhibition was “giving a new impulse to civilization, and bestowing an additional reward upon industry, and supplying a fresh guarantee to the amity of nations”. The promoter of international peace and free trade, Richard Cobden, stated: “the year 1851 will be a memorable one, indeed: it will witness a triumph of industry instead of a triumph of arms…tens of thousands will cross the Channel, to whom we will give the right hand of friendship”. Lecturers and agents were sent around the country to explain the objectives of the event.
The first obstacle was that no building could be found to house such an undertaking. Leicester Square was considered as the location because it “admitted of good access to high and low, rich and poor; and that those who went down in omnibuses would have equal facilities of approach with those who went in their private carriages” but it was eventually dismissed as too small and disruptive. The government offered Somerset House. But the Prince proposed an empty space on the south side of Hyde Park between South Carriage Drive and Rotten Row and that was settled.