|Image Credit: The Great Exhibition of 1851 was housed in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.
Attribution: Dickinson Brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crystal_Palace_from_the_northeast_from_Dickinson%27s_Comprehensive_Pictures_of_the_Great_Exhibition_of_1851._1854.jpg
The Crystal Palace was a cast iron and glass building originally erected in Hyde Park, London, in 1851, as the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition. It was designed by Joseph Paxton and was considered an engineering marvel for its time due to its large size and innovative use of materials. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the idea of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. Prince Albert wanted to hold the exhibition to showcase the industrial achievements of Britain and to promote international cooperation and the exchange of ideas. He saw the event as an opportunity to demonstrate Britain’s technological and industrial superiority and to bring together the world’s most advanced nations to exchange ideas and develop economic and cultural ties.
The 1851 Great Exhibition was considered very successful both financially and in promoting Britain. It was a world’s fair held in London, England, and in slightly less than half a year, attracted over six million visitors from around the world. It showcased the latest technological innovations and advancements of the time and was seen as a symbol of Britain’s industrial dominance. The event also generated a significant profit, which was used to establish the South Kensington museums, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The entrance fee for members of the public to visit the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was the princely sum of one shilling. This was considered an affordable price for the time and allowed a wide range of people to attend the event. Visitors to the exhibition came from all over the world, and the event was considered a great social and cultural gathering, as well as an opportunity to see the latest technological innovations. The large turnout and success of the event demonstrated the popularity and public interest in world fairs and exhibitions.
Queen Victoria visited the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Crystal Palace, and it is reported that she was impressed with the building and the exhibitions on display. According to historical accounts, Queen Victoria was particularly interested in the exhibits related to technology and industry, and she took a keen interest in the new products and innovations showcased. While there is no direct evidence of her expressing specific approval or disapproval of the Crystal Palace building itself, her visit and reported enjoyment of the event suggest that she was pleased with it.
The companies and countries selected to attend the Great Exhibition of 1851 were chosen by the Royal Commission, known as the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. The commission was made up of leading figures from industry, science, and the arts and was responsible for overseeing the organisation and management of the exhibition.
Companies from around the world were invited to participate, and the exhibitions ranged from large industrial displays to smaller, more specialised displays. The selection process for the exhibiting companies was based on a variety of factors, including the quality of the products, the importance of the industries represented, and the level of innovation and creativity displayed. The exhibition’s goal was to showcase the latest technological advancements and innovations of the time and to encourage the exchange of ideas and knowledge between different countries and industries.
More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in Crystal Palace’s 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) exhibition space to display examples of technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Great Exhibition building was 1,851 feet (564 m) long, with an interior height of 128 feet (39 m), and was three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Brainchild of Prince Albert
The Archive of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition 1851 dates from 1849 when the Society of Arts and its president Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, conceived the idea of holding a Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
Image Credit: Early daguerreotype with hand-colouring, 1848
Attribution: William Edward Kilburn (1818-91), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prince_Albert_1848.jpg
NOTE: Daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process; it was widely used during the 1840s and 1850s. “Daguerreotype” also refers to an image created through this process. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daguerreotype
The commission in charge of mounting the Great Exhibition was established in January 1850, and it was decided at the outset that the entire project would be funded by public subscription. An executive building committee was quickly formed to oversee the design and construction of the exhibition building, comprising accomplished engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, renowned architects Charles Barry and Thomas Leverton Donaldson, and chaired by William Cubitt. By 15th March 1850, they were ready to invite submissions from architects, which had to conform to several key specifications: the building had to be temporary, simple, as cheap as possible, and economical to build within the short time remaining before the exhibition opening, which had already been scheduled for 1st May 1851.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was officially opened by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851. The event was attended by members of the royal family and dignitaries from around the world. The opening ceremony was a significant event, marking the beginning of the exhibition and attracting widespread attention and public interest. The success of the exhibition and its impact on the world of industry and technology helped to establish the concept of world fairs and exhibitions as a means of showcasing the latest innovations and promoting international cooperation and exchange.
Ownership and Financing
The cost of the Crystal Palace was £150,000, which was funded by public subscription. It was owned by the British government. The management of the Great Exhibition was by a Royal Commission led by Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria. It was a condition of the original Act of Parliament that gave authority for the Exhibition that Hyde Park had to be returned to its original state after the Great Exhibition closed in October 1851, and this remained the view of Prince Albert. Various suggestions were made for its future use, and after the future of Crystal Palace was debated in Parliament on 29th April 1852, it was decided to stay with the original plan to dismantle the Crystal Palace and restore Hyde Park.
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which still exists today, was obliged to use the surplus funds of £186,000, presumably arising from profits from the Great Exhibition, to promote Prince Albert’s ambition to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”. The money was applied to purchasing 87 acres in South Kensington, which were used to build the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial College, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music.
After the Great Exhibition in 1851, there was concern about the fate of the building, and the Crystal Palace Company was established in June 1852 to purchase the building from the British government. The capital was raised from private investors to fund the purchase from the British government. The Crystal Palace Company raised or contributed over £500,000 (over £25 million today) and purchased the Hyde Park Crystal Palace building from Fox and Henderson for £70,000 (over £3.5 million today). Shares were raised in the Crystal Palace Company, and within two to three weeks, £500,000 had been subscribed, with the London-Brighton Railway being the majority shareholder.
The much-enlarged Palace in its new location, combined with the huge expenditure required on the grounds, used up nearly all of the original £500,000 before the building was even half finished. The balance was raised with various share issues and resulted in a final bill of nearly £1,300,000 (over £50.5 million today). In June 1854, Crystal Palace was re-opened in its new location by Queen Victoria. In the 82 years of its corporate life, The Crystal Palace Company never managed to shake off its debt burden and the resultant problems and only rarely made the very smallest of profits. A board of trustees managed the building and its exhibitions on behalf of the investors. After the fire in 1936, the site was used for various purposes, and today it is owned by the London Borough of Bromley. The park and sports centre located on the former site of the Crystal Palace are owned and maintained by the London Borough of Bromley.
In essence, the British government effectively nationalised the Crystal Palace and its assets, taking control of the profits generated by the company and using them to establish the South Kensington museums. It was a significant moment in the history of the Palace and the museums, as it marked a transition from private enterprise to public ownership and helped to ensure the preservation and promotion of British cultural heritage for future generations.
None of the previous 245 design proposals from architects was considered acceptable to the organising committee until a British gardener and architect famous for his innovative use of materials and his work on large-scale greenhouses and conservatories threw his hat into the ring. Joseph Paxton was commissioned to create the largest glass building the world had ever seen.
The design of the Crystal Palace was a departure from traditional architecture, as it was made almost entirely of glass and iron and had a modular, prefabricated structure. One of the major advantages of Paxton’s “ferro-vitreous” iron and glass design was the building’s extreme simplicity. The arrangement of all the principal elements of the building in multiples and sub-multiples of 24 feet not only facilitated and economised all the building operations (it was erected in 17 weeks) but also produced perfect symmetry in the building.
Paxton’s innovative design earned him widespread recognition and helped to establish him as one of the leading architects of his time. He also earned a knighthood for his trouble.
When completed, the Crystal Palace provided an unrivalled space for exhibits, as it was essentially a self-supporting shell standing on slim iron columns with no internal structural walls whatsoever. Because it was covered almost entirely in glass, it also needed no artificial lighting during the day, thereby reducing the exhibition’s running costs.
On 15th October 1851, the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park closed after receiving over six million visitors. The event’s popularity led to concern about the fate of the building, and the Crystal Palace Company was established in June 1852 to purchase it. The Palace was relocated to an area of South London known as Penge Place, which had been excised from Penge Common. It was rebuilt at the top of Penge Peak next to Sydenham Hill, an affluent suburb of large villas. Construction commenced in August 1852. With the move of the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park in 1854 and the opening of the steam railway from London Bridge Station, Sydenham and Penge soon became popular residential suburbs. Sydenham is eight miles southeast of central London, with Forest Hill to the north, Bellingham to the east, and Penge to the south.
In 1911, the Crystal Palace Company suffered financial collapse, and the complex was ‘saved for the nation’ in 1913. The building had suffered a serious fire in the north transept in 1866 when many exhibits were lost, but far more serious was the fire which struck on the night of 30th November 1936, destroying the complex in its entirety.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, lasted 24 weeks, from 1st May to 15th October 1851. After the closure of the Great Exhibition, and while the Palace remained in Hyde Park, it was used for a variety of purposes, for example:
- Hosting exhibitions and events, such as concerts and other performances.
- Serving as a venue for religious services and political meetings.
- Being used as a public park and recreation area, with the grounds being opened to the public for leisure activities such as walking and picnicking.
After the Great Exhibition, the building was relocated to South London, where it was reassembled and remodelled before opening to the public as a cultural centre and entertainment venue. It housed exhibitions, concerts, performances, sporting and other events and became a popular tourist attraction. The Palace was also used for religious services and political meetings. In addition, the grounds were used as a public park and recreation area, and the Palace housed a number of museums and art galleries.
Image Credit: The Crystal Palace after its relocation to Sydenham Hill in 1854.
Attribution: Paul Furst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kristallpalast_Sydenham_1851_aussen.png
Between 1871 and 1936, when the fire destroyed the Crystal Palace, the variety of exhibitions, concerts, and cultural events included:
- Trade exhibitions showcasing the latest technology and innovations from around the world
- Cultural exhibitions featuring artwork, artefacts, and other items from various countries and civilisations
- Concerts, including classical music performances and popular entertainment acts
- Political rallies and meetings
- Religious services
- Fashion shows and beauty contests
- Circuses and other travelling shows
These events were designed to entertain and educate the public, attracting many visitors to the Palace each year. The building’s spacious interior and impressive architecture made it a popular destination for such events, and it remained a major cultural centre until its destruction on 30th November 1936. The palace was never rebuilt.
Specific examples of exhibitions, concerts, and cultural events held at the Crystal Palace building are:
- The Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 showcased products and advancements from France and the UK.
- The Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 featured exhibits from British colonies and territories around the world.
- The Health and Strength Exhibition of 1924 focused on physical culture and featured bodybuilding and gymnastics displays.
- Music concerts by famous composers and performers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Nellie Melba.
- Political rallies, such as the Monster Rally organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908
- Religious services, including the Christmas Carol Concerts held in the Palace’s nave.
- Circus performances, such as those by the travelling circus of Pablo Fanque.
- In 1910, King George V was crowned at Crystal Palace. Later, during World War 1, the site was converted into the Royal Navy, a theoretical training centre for troops. From then until 1936, when the fire destroyed it, the structure fell into disuse, and serious deterioration was already noticeable.
Today, the site of the Crystal Palace is home to a park, sports centre, and other facilities. The legacy of the Crystal Palace lives on through its influence on architecture and design, as well as its role in popularising the use of cast iron and glass in construction. The site is now occupied by a public park, which is named Crystal Palace Park.
The Crystal Palace was a large, monumental building made of iron and glass. It was designed by Joseph Paxton as a temporary structure for the Great Exhibition of 1851 to showcase the latest technological innovations of the time. The building was rectangular in shape and covered an area of over 18 acres. It consisted of a central nave, with transepts and side aisles, and was surrounded by a curving, partially enclosed gallery.
The structure was made up of a vast number of prefabricated elements, including iron columns and beams, that were assembled on site to form the frame. The walls and roof were made of glass, which was supported by the iron framework, and provided ample natural light to the interior. The Palace’s design was innovative, as it used a unique system of interlocking trusses that allowed for the creation of large, clear spans without the need for intermediate columns. The geometry of the Crystal Palace was a classic example of the concept of form following the manufacturer’s limitations: the shape and size of the whole building were directly based on the size of the panes of glass made by the supplier, Chance Brothers of Smethwick. These were the largest available at the time, measuring 10 inches wide by 49 inches long. Because the entire building was scaled around those dimensions, nearly the whole outer surface could be glazed using millions of identical panes, drastically reducing both their production cost and the time needed to install them.
The interior of the palace was divided into individual exhibitions, where participating countries and companies displayed their products, including machinery, textiles, fine arts, and other manufactured goods. The atmosphere inside the building was said to be grand and spacious, and the use of glass and iron allowed for an airy and bright environment. The building was considered a marvel of engineering and design, and its impact on architecture and construction was significant. It was built by a team of workers and craftsmen. Building was overseen by the engineers Fox & Henderson and involved using new building techniques and materials, such as prefabricated elements, to speed up the process.
The land on which the Crystal Palace was built was located in Hyde Park, London, and was owned by the British government. The government granted the use of the land for the exhibition’s duration to the Crystal Palace Company to hold the Great Exhibition. After the event, the company purchased a permanent site in South London and reconstructed the palace there.
Image Credit: The interior of the Crystal Palace in London during the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Attribution: J. McNeven, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crystal_Palace_-_interior.jpg
Has a similar building ever been constructed in Britain?
No, a building similar to the original Crystal Palace has not been constructed in Britain since the original was destroyed in 1936. However, there have been several proposals to rebuild the palace or create a similar structure, but none have come to fruition. A park and sports centre now occupy the site of the original Crystal Palace in South London. The legacy of the Crystal Palace lives on through its influence on architecture and design, and it remains an important part of British cultural history.
What did it cost to build?
As mentioned previously, the cost of building the Crystal Palace in 1851 is estimated to have been around £150,000, which would be equivalent to several millions of pounds in today’s currency. It was a significant investment for the time, but the building was considered a success, attracting millions of visitors during its lifetime.
The cost of the building was considered a worthwhile expense due to its role in showcasing the latest technology and innovations from around the world during the Great Exhibition. It was financially successful when sited in Hyde Park, but after relocation, it barely survived and eventually became bankrupt.
What caused the fire?
The exact cause of the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace in 1936 is unknown. However, it is believed to have started in the heating and ventilation system and quickly spread due to the flammable materials used in the building’s construction, such as paper and timber. The fire was made worse by high winds, which caused the flames to spread rapidly through the structure. Despite the efforts of firefighting crews, the building was completely destroyed and could not be saved. No one was reported injured in the fire.
Caption: The Crystal Palace completely destroyed a few days after the night of 30th November 1936.
Attribution: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crystal_Palace_Destroyed_1936.jpg
The Palace’s Biggest Show
In 1911, the year of George V’s Coronation, the Palace’s biggest show – The Festival of Empire – was held. The Festival brought all countries of the British Empire to display their produce, including dozens of high street brand names. A railway was constructed known as the All Red Route Railway enabling visitors to view the buildings more easily.
Connections with Early Television
In 1926, John Logie Baird, the Scottish inventor and engineer widely considered to be one of the pioneers of television, had an association with the Crystal Palace. In 1926, Baird gave the first public demonstration of television at the Crystal Palace, which was one of the earliest demonstrations of the technology to a large audience. This event helped to popularise television and was an important moment in the development of the technology. The Crystal Palace was a suitable venue for Baird’s demonstration, as it had a reputation for showcasing cutting-edge technology and innovations. Baird’s demonstration at the Crystal Palace helped to establish him as a leader in the field of television and solidified the building’s reputation as a centre of innovation and progress.
Sources and Further Reading
CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.
- The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of 1851 by Adrian R. J. Hayday, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2002.
- The Crystal Palace: An Architectural and Social History by Mark Jones, Yale University Press, 2009.
- The Rise and Fall of the Crystal Palace by J. Mordaunt Crook, Harvard University Press, 1979.
- The Great Exhibition: The World Show 1851 by J. M. Richards, Studio Vista, 1971.
- Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition by Michael Leapman, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2005.
- The Art of Victorian London: Hindley’s London Street Views edited by Paul T. K. Lin, Unicorn Press, 2002.
- The Crystal Palace and Victorian Society by J. Mordaunt Crook, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
- London’s Crystal Palace: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Cultural Relations by Ivan Polt, University of Illinois Press, 1979.
- The Crystal Palace: A Reflection of Victorian Culture by Mary Bratton, Manchester University Press, 1978.
- The Crystal Palace and Sydenham Hill by John Thomas Smith, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1935.
- London’s Lost Palaces by Matthew Green, London Publishing Partnership, 2018.
- The Crystal Palace and its Contents: A Descriptive Account of the Exhibition of 1851 edited by Henry B. Wheatley, Richard Bentley, 1854.
- The Crystal Palace: Design, Material Culture and National Identity by Sarah Victoria Turner, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.
- The Crystal Palace, 1851-1936: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise by E. A. Rew, David & Charles, 1976.
- From Crystal Palace to Eco-village: A History of the Upper Norwood Triangle by David R. Hulse, Historical Publications, 2000.
- The Royal Parks: Take the Great Exhibition Virtual Tour, at: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/whats-on/the-great-exhibition-virtual-tour
- The Largest Building In The World (in 1851), at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lunN7Ob_R9k
- The Story of the Great Exhibition – Part 1, at: https://historywm.com/films/the-story-of-the-great-exhibition-part-1
- Great Exhibition Of 1851 Crystal Palace, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRvOHOltp_w
- The Great Exhibition, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV5C53qEwZ0
End Notes and Explanations
Source: James Harrison, ed. (1996). “Imperial Britain”. Children’s Encyclopedia of British History. London: Kingfisher Publications. p. 131. ISBN 0-7534-0299-8. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Palace ↑
Source: City of London, at: https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/london-metropolitan-archives/collections/the-great-exhibition-of-1851-the-crystal-palace-at-sydenham © City of London Corporation 2023 duly acknowledged. Fair Use claimed. ↑