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’.

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the first great prefabricated building and the ‘largest enclosed space on earth’, was assembled in four months. There was never a question of building a vast revolutionary structure and then wondering what to put in it, otherwise known as the Greenwich Problem. The challenge was rather what to leave out. Officially this was The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Its contents, as Tennyson explained, were ‘Brought from under every star,/Blown from over every main’, but it was much more than a display of husbandry, ‘enginery’ and ‘secrets of the sullen mine’. Subtly, and rather mysteriously, the nation was brainwashed into seeing the Crystal Palace as a ‘Temple of Peace’. John Tallis, in his guidebook, observed that ‘peace was on every lip’, and not, as one would expect, the Victorian equivalent of ‘Wow!’

Jeffrey Auerbach is much occupied with charting such changes in aspiration and emphasis. His book is less concerned with what the Exhibition had to show than with its setting in history, its function as a ‘cultural battlefield’, its political and social implications, its bearing on the philosophy of trade, its revelations concerning industrial strengths and weaknesses, its influence on nationalism and imperialism, on class warfare and xenophobia, on religious divisions and – as one rather feared – its role as a ‘defining occasion’ in the supposed search for a national identity. This can become heavy sledding. In his acknowledgments Auerbach pays tribute to a colleague who ‘provided invaluable stylistic suggestions, tempered always by a caustic sense of humour’. Did this saucy helper try to discourage mention of ‘normative reference points’ and ‘paradigm shifts’? Or suggest that such headings as ‘Restructuring the Internal Organisation’ were a real turn-off? Never mind, the book improves greatly as it progresses. What Auerbach makes very clear at the outset is that the Exhibition (the brainchild of Francis Whishaw, of the Society of Arts) was never a spontaneous, universally demanded, enterprise. Tremendous opposition had to be worn down. The project attracted as many naysayers, doomwatchers, cranks and smokers-out of jobbery as ever opposed the Millennium Dome. It would be a magnet for pickpockets, Chartists, revolutionaries in Phrygian caps, the great unwashed and the sort of women who gave suck in public. The Times said it would ruin Hyde Park and lower property values. Rotten Row was imperilled. The Grand Cham of reaction, Colonel Sibthorpe, assuming the mantle of environmentalist, agitated endlessly to save a clump of trees, which in the end were enclosed unharmed inside the building’s transept. Reynolds’s Newspaper, organ of the swinish multitude, urged the workers to boycott this ‘gigantic humbug’. As always, the workers ignored the advice of the radical press.

Auerbach argues that the Great Exhibition was ‘a force for the creation of the Liberal Party’. Advocacy of free trade could not be openly voiced, however: Tory protectionists and farming interests saw to that. Even converts to free trade were sometimes nervous about displaying their wares and processes for foreign rivals to copy. The drum of Empire could not be banged deafeningly, though in the event the East India Company appeared as the centre of an Imperial showplace and the Koh-i-noor diamond, here described as ‘infamous’, went on unapologetic display. Much courting of Northern manufacturers and provincial mayors was necessary before the project achieved real momentum. Even Prince Albert proved lukewarm at first, not wishing to be associated with a failure. Constantly, the sales pitch was tempered and tapered to suit all tastes.

The notion of the Crystal Palace as a Temple of Peace sprang from the views of assorted visionaries seized of the idea that honest competition would replace international rivalry and the nations eagerly embrace the opportunity to assist and improve each other. Tennyson’s ode helped this idea along, foreseeing a day when all men working in noble brotherhood would break their mailed fleets and armed towers. Never was there such faith in the perfectibility of man. Certainly it was time to make some move towards that goal. Palmerston’s gunboats had only just finished blockading Greece in the Don Pacifico affair, demonstrating that no Englishman anywhere in the world, even if he was a Jew with a funny name, was to be insulted with impunity; this, says Auerbach, had ‘touched the heart, as opposed to the mind, of John Bull’. If ‘peace’ was now on every lip this was quite a change. Only three years earlier, in revolutionary 1848, the middle classes had been petrified by the presence of a great Chartist mob on Kennington Common. To safeguard the Temple of Peace from riots or coups the Duke of Wellington had ordered seven infantry battalions into the capital. As it turned out, everyone behaved astoundingly well.

Foreigners behaved themselves too. A suggestion that Britons and foreigners should visit the Exhibition on separate days was not taken up. Some sections of the press did little to counter xenophobia. Punch, while fully in favour of the Exhibition, had a cartoon showing French visitors looking at a washstand with ewers and professing mystification as to its function. A comic book about the Brown Family at the Crystal Palace showed Cannibal Islanders in native dress sitting opposite the family at table and asking greedily how much they wanted for little Johnny, under a sign saying ‘Soup à la Hottentot’. A spoof report on a visit to the Exhibition by a Chinese commission contained these lines:

The opening, in short, was as dull as could be;
There was no execution whatever to see;
There was no one impaled, and the use of the saw
Is not even mentioned in Englishman’s law.

‘It would be hard for the reader to miss the pointed criticism of the Chinese embodied in this comment,’ says Auerbach, who is not a man to leave jokes unglossed. He is to be thanked, however, for this fearless peep behind the veil of political correctness.

Eventually we learn of some of the odder exhibits in the Crystal Palace. They ranged from Absynthium (whatever that was) to Zithers. Dunin’s ‘Man of Steel’, an expanding mannequin constructed from seven thousand pieces, was of some possible help to those mystified about bodily functions; a seemlier device, surely, than a walk-in model of a human in which the explorer can expect to undergo a change of sex. Sheffield contributed an 80-blade sportsman’s knife, possibly as a challenge to the Swiss. There was a silver nose, its purpose and dimensions unexplained. Could it have been a prosthetic device for rich syphilitics? There was an ‘ostracide’ for opening oysters and – who said Victorians lacked a sense of fun? – a ‘silent alarm bedstead’ which tipped the sleeper into a bath of cold water.

Working exhibits included a machine which could turn out between 80 and 100 cigarettes a minute, ‘neater than those made by hand’, the test-bed of a mighty industry dedicated to thinning out the human race. There was a travelling crane capable of doing the work of six men which could be operated by a boy at ten shillings a week – the sort of claim which, when made on behalf of the Rev. Edmund Cartwright’s power loom, had led to rioting and arson in the North. According to Auerbach, the organisers held ‘a remarkably sophisticated view of the British economy’ and were interested even in electronic inventions. Electronics? The country had only just come to terms with the electric telegraph.

Some visitors, perhaps most, felt ‘a state of mental helplessness’ when faced with endless aisles crammed with heavily decorated household goods and furnishings. The young William Morris found everything ‘wonderfully ugly’. Ralph Wornum, a future keeper of the National Gallery, said: ‘the paramount impression conveyed to the critical mind must be a general want of education in taste.’ Auerbach comments: ‘There was no question that Britain could produce enormous quantities of goods. The question was, were they aesthetically pleasing?’ To which the people’s answer, as he concedes, was that they liked plenty of ornamentation, and why not? One of the critics was Augustus Pugin, who himself created much controversy with his Medieval Court, in high Gothic Revival style. It showed a harmless enough assembly of household goods crafted by old-fashioned methods, but one wall was reserved for saints in niches, clusters of tall candles and hints of bondieuserie. Protestants seethed at the spectacle of a large cross, even though it was a cross and not a crucifix. A ‘Popish chapel’ had been erected in the heart of the Exhibition, ran the cry. Readers of the Times were in a fine fury and the paper was begged not to fan the flames of ‘No Popery’.

Heat was also created by an American exhibit: a statue of a naked female described as a Greek slave, loaned by Washington. Ho! ho! cried the disciples of Wilberforce, and what about a statue of an American slave of today? John Tenniel in Punch produced a drawing of a Virginian black female, naked to the waist, put up for sale in chains. But baiting America had its risks. From across the Atlantic came Boston-born Alfred Charles Hobbs, lockmaker and lockpicker extraordinary, to case the Exhibition and announce his intention of picking Bramah’s famously unpickable lock, that ne plus ultra of British craftsmanship. In succeeding, he collected the 200 guineas which had been on offer for 40 years to anyone who could accomplish this feat. For good measure he also picked several Chubb locks. Auerbach fails to mention this humiliating display of Yankee know-how, which caused much excitement in the press, as did all the great lockpicking contests of those days.

Erected in four months, the Crystal Palace was pulled down in three. There had been a move to turn it into a winter garden, rather on the lines of a Center Parc, but West End residents united in opposition. It was re-erected in new, enlarged style at Sydenham, where it became known as the People’s Palace, a title still to be conferred on the Millennium Dome. It now housed all manner of entertainments, from Handel concerts to beauty pageants. By the time it caught fire, in 1936, it had become badly run down.

One also very much doubts whether the Great Exhibition had really been a ‘defining occasion’ in history. The Crystal Palace Experience, as it was not called, had been a great outing for one-fifth of the population and well worth pawning one’s watch for. It had been, against all expectations, a huge financial success, with the surplus going towards setting up the museum complex in Kensington. It had raised the popularity of the Queen and her Consort, who had mingled with their subjects in those glittering halls. It had done no harm, and perhaps a little good, to Lord John Russell’s Whig Government, which had been having a rough time. It had demonstrated the sort of tour de force that Victorian engineers could pull off when motivated. It had given the nation a temporary flush of self-confidence. It had inspired Tennyson to pay suitable tribute in an ode which thereafter appeared in all collected editions of his poems, reminding winners of school prizes down the generations of the wonders that had been, and perhaps today inspiring Andrew Motion to perform a similar service for that Dome. But, with all that said, life after 1851 went on as unregenerately as before. The ‘dignity of Labour’ had been much talked of, but only the happy horny-handed few were making ships, locomotives and cannon; half the working population was in domestic service and would long remain there. Three years after the Palace of Peace was levelled the country embarked on a foolish war with Russia and by 1857 it was blowing sepoy mutineers from guns in India. In 1858 demoralised Members of Parliament ran gibbering from the Palace of Westminster to escape the worst river stench in history, demonstrating to the world that the heart of an everexpanding empire was unfit for human habitation and that sanitary engineering faced a prodigious challenge. As for xenophobia, it was in 1854 that Punch produced one of its more famous jokes:

‘Who’s that, Bill?’
‘A stranger.’
‘’Eave ’arf a brick at ’im.’

As is the way with exhibitions, the masses who visited the Crystal Palace forgot what should have been memorable, or remembered the wrong things. It is probable that those who flocked to the Chicago Exhibition of 1880 recollected only being taken up in an elevator to the top of a 100-foot tower, where the cable was cut and the cage allowed to plummet down to an air-cushioned stop. Perhaps all that many remembered of the Crystal Palace was their first encounter with a water closet.