It was, said the next day’s Times, “a sight the like of which has never happened before, and which, in the nature of things, can never be repeated”. Those who had been lucky enough to see it at first hand “hardly knew what most to admire”; those who only read about it in the newspapers could scarcely imagine what they had missed. The building itself, the famous Crystal Palace, with its “treasures of nature and art”, was beyond description. Among the crowds were many who were “familiar with magnificent spectacles; who had seen coronations, fetes and solemnities”. But they had seen “nothing to compare” with Queen Victoria’s arrival in Hyde Park to open the Great Exhibition on May Day, 1851.
The morning itself dawned fine and bright. “It was one of those ‘Queen’s Days’,” another paper thought, as though even the heavens themselves moved to suit the greatest empire in the world. Even at seven o’clock the streets of London were packed with people – the sightseers and holidaymakers pouring down towards Hyde Park, filled with curiosity to see the celebration of modern technology devised by the queen’s consort, Prince Albert, and his friends at the Royal Society. To subsequent historians the exhibition represented the summit of Victorian imperial self-confidence; to thousands of people at the time, it probably represented little more than a terrific day out.
The clocks were chiming noon when Victoria and Albert finally entered the Crystal Palace with the building’s architect, Joseph Paxton. As the men waved their hats and the women fluttered their handkerchiefs, “a burst of enthusiastic cheering broke forth from every side”. The crowd stood for the national anthem, and then the prince consort read aloud the report of the Royal Commission that had devised the exhibition. “By God’s blessing,” Victoria replied, “this undertaking may conduce to the welfare of my people, and to the common interests of the human race, by encouraging the arts of peace and industry [and] strengthening the bonds of union among the nations of the earth.”
All around her, the exhibits testified to the innovation and ambition of the age. There were displays of photography and steel-making; there were looms and kitchen appliances; there was a primitive voting machine; there were even the capital’s first public toilets, charging a penny per visit. Perhaps the most popular attraction, though, was the world’s largest known diamond, the famous Koh-i-Noor, presented to the queen the year before. Such was the public fascination with the jewel that “there were never less than a couple of hundred persons waiting their turn of admission”, leaving the police with a never-ending battle to hold back “the struggling and impatient multitude”.
For the next day’s papers, the opening of the exhibition seemed yet more proof of Britain’s pre-eminence among the nations. Inside the Crystal Palace, said The Times, had been packed some 30,000 “ladies and gentlemen”, with several hundred thousand celebrating in the park and surrounding streets. Yet to the delight of the authorities, “hardly a blow was struck or a temper ruffled during the whole day”. That could surely only have happened in Britain. “Such a result,” one paper remarked, “reflects credit on the character of the country, and proves the deep fund of good nature and self-government in the mass of the people.”
To the thousands of people who visited the Crystal Palace in the next six months, it truly seemed a wonder of the world. The novelist Charlotte Brontë, who was so impressed that she went twice, thought it “a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe”. She felt “as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect”.
But not everybody was quite so impressed. One relative newcomer to London, an obscure writer called Karl Marx, thought it a vulgar celebration of the evils of capitalism. And Victoria’s aged uncle, King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover, regarded his relative’s presence at such a tawdry bazaar as a symbol of national moral decline. “The folly and absurdity of the queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind,” he complained. Why had her ministers not forbidden her from lowering herself to such depths? It was, he thought, a sign of the times. “It seems everything is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.”
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.
This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine