The Crystal Palace Experience

E.S. Turner

  • The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display by Jeffrey Auerbach
    Yale, 280 pp, £25.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 300 08007 7

If the snappish Ambrose Bierce had been asked to define the word ‘exhibition’, he would probably have said it was an expensive faraway folly to which parents with fractious children journeyed to see a lump of coal, a steam engine and three hundred kinds of wood. As a schoolboy in 1925 I was taken, willingly enough, to Wembley to the British Empire Exhibition, then in its second triumphal year. I have only the fuzziest recollections of Imperial pavilions and palaces of engineering. Dimly, I recall seeing Canada’s life-size statue of the Prince of Wales in butter (‘My legs are too thick,’ he complained) but not Australia’s butter statue of the cricketer Jack Hobbs. I would probably have remembered seeing girls’ skirts being blown over their heads by jets of air had I been allowed anywhere near the amusement park (years later I caught up with this spectacle at Coney Island). What I do remember clearly from this outing is the subsequent evening stroll through the West End, where rich people who could not be bothered to pull the curtains could be seen going about their occasions in lush chandeliered rooms, their outer portals guarded by cockaded menservants. This, I felt, was what life was really about; if such were the rewards of Empire, so be it.

It was the knowledge that visitors to exhibitions risk being sidetracked into secondary pleasures and meaner aspirations that sometimes worried the promoters of the Great Exhibition of 1851. They had, with enormous trouble, laid on ‘All of beauty, all of use/That one fair planet can produce’ and they did not want to see the stuff wasted. The working classes of Yorkshire who proposed heading for the Crystal Palace were warned in a special guide for visitors not to ‘fritter away their time and money in seeing panoramas and shows, and paltry theatres’. The object of the exercise was to advance the brotherhood of man in a world purged of drudgery by machines, ennobled by art and wrapped in universal law. In this fantasy the workers were expected to play their part. It need not cause them undue expense, if they went on a shilling day. As Jeffrey Auerbach reveals, a decent frugal Yorkshireman could travel by night train to London, tour the ‘long laborious miles’ taking his fill of 100,000 uplifting exhibits, and then, spurning the paltry pleasures of the capital, travel back north on the next night train, thus losing only one day’s wages and saving the expense and indignity of Cockney lodgings.

This decent fellow could also qualify for an unadvertised experience, rendered possible by teamwork on the part of Science, Art and Labour. According to Stephen Haliday’s The Great Stink of London, published earlier this year, 827,000 persons used the water closets installed for the Great Exhibition, ‘many visitors no doubt experiencing the device for the first time’. How and why the authorities counted this fortunate flock is one puzzle; how the rest of the six million visitors coped with their problem is another. Prince Albert, a driving force of the Exhibition, may not have known that the rage for newfangled water closets was flooding the drains and cesspools, causing dire contamination to London’s drinking water. This aspect of progress does not sully the pages of Auerbach’s book, though he tells us that Prince Albert’s model houses for the labouring classes, erected beside the Crystal Palace, had interior toilets; he also mentions among the exhibits a splendid shipboard artefact in the form of a ‘patent portable water closet’ convertible into a ‘floating life-preserver’.

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