Oh no! Not the Crystal Palace again! Surely there must be better vantage-points from which to view the high Victorian period? Surely there must be something fresher and more surprising than that overblown and over-exposed greenhouse? Yes, there is – and it is still the Crystal Palace, but one we can now see differently. The Crystal Palace has proved so capacious that every generation can find something new in it. Historically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that so long as we remember that we haven’t displaced the older interpretations, only enriched them.


So the Crystal Palace remains what it has always been, the starting-point of a great Victorian era of peace, industry and empire. This spectacular centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, opened by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851 and straddling the year until it closed its doors officially on 11 October, did celebrate with more than a touch of complacency the peaceful triumph of Britain’s unique compound elite, part-aristocratic, part-capitalist. Britain had escaped the revolutions that had plunged continental Europe into social division and civil war in 1848, and the planning and execution of the Great Exhibition in 1851 was naturally timed to remind the world of that fact. It did celebrate Britain’s industrial supremacy, both in its form and its content. A vast shed – a blend of greenhouse, railway terminus and museum, half again as long as the Millennium Dome built 150 years later – the Crystal Palace was constructed from prefabricated and interchangeable parts made of the most modern materials, iron and glass. It was deliberately filled with products of great size and ingenuity to shock and awe – huge blocks of coal, the largest steam locomotives, hydraulic presses and steam-hammers, a scale model of the Liverpool docks with 1,600 miniature ships in full rigging; sewing machines, ice-making machines, cigarette-rolling machines, machines to mint medals and machines to fold envelopes.

If the exhibition was open to all nations, the results were confidently expected to demonstrate British superiority. The global dominance that Britain had achieved not by rapine or conquest but by virtue and hard work – steam-engines and cotton-spinning machines were held up by the novelist Thackeray as “trophies of her bloodless wars”.

1851 in context

With its share of world manufacturing rocketing, Britain was a nation of growth, and yet extreme poverty was driving thousands to emigrate 

The country in which the Crystal Palace was built in 1851 was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – as it had been since 1801, when the Union with Ireland was inaugurated, and would be until the partition of Ireland after the First World War. The great social and economic changes of the Industrial Revolution had bonded Wales, Scotland and England more firmly together – south Wales, lowland Scotland and the north of England, in particular, had all become more urban and industrial in character, more liberal in politics, and more nonconformist in religion.  

Nationalism was not a potent force in any of these areas. But Ireland had been an exception in all these respects even earlier in the century, and by 1851 had become even more so. Hit by the holocaust of the Irish famine in the late 1840s, its population would dwindle over the rest of the century as emigrants poured out of the country. Between 1841 and 1901 Britain’s population grew from 26.7 million to 41.5 million; Ireland’s dropped from 8.2 million to 4.5 million.  

While living standards were rising in the second half of the 19th century for most of the population, these rises were distributed unequally – probably more unequally than at any other point in British history. The top half of one per cent of the population accounted for 25 per cent of the nation’s income. In comparison, the same share is earned by the top 10 per cent today. Wealth was distributed still more unequally. There was a class of super-rich, known as the “Upper Ten Thousand”, comprised mainly of landowners and bankers. Three-quarters of the population would have been employed in manual working-class occupations, most of the rest as shopkeepers and clerks. 

Opportunities for social mobility were severely limited and living conditions for most remained cramped and unhealthy. As a result, it was not only the Irish who emigrated – emigration from all parts of the British Isles escalated steeply over this half-century, especially to the United States, Canada and Australia. 

However, Britain was very far from a nation in decline in this period. Its share of world manufacturing output held up remarkably well, at just under a fifth of the total in 1900, practically where it had been in 1860. The advent of universal, free and compulsory education in the 1870s and 1880s meant that literacy became nearly total by the end of the century. 

Despite extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884, however, not even all adult males were entitled to vote, and some adult males had more votes than others. The United Kingdom in this period was in many respects “free” but still unequal.

Messy and modern

That complacent picture doesn’t capture the sheer exuberant messiness of the Crystal Palace, or the full range of excitements through which it prefigures the modern life that we live today. Though responsibility for the Great Exhibition was vested in a Royal Commission crammed with the great and the good, and led by the Prince Consort, a free press kept up a loud and rowdy running commentary, and every segment of a diverse and disputatious public opinion – including the large majority who were formally excluded from political representation – offered up its own views. When after three weeks of more exclusive viewing by the “respectable” public the Crystal Palace was opened to “shilling tickets” on 26 May, the floodgates were opened and six million people poured through them in the next four months.

Kick-starting modern tourism

In fact, the Great Exhibition gave a decisive push to physical mobility – travel to it has been called “the largest movement of population ever to have taken place in Britain” – and it can be said to have kick-started the entire apparatus of the modern tourist industry: the railway journey, the package holiday, the hotel (or at least the B&B), and the restaurant were all to be transformed from elite into popular experiences. Thomas Cook alone brought 165,000 people to the Crystal Palace from the Midlands on cheap excursion trains.

More like this

To orient these strangers, street signs of the modern type had to be invented. To comfort them, public lavatories were for the first time installed. London, which had been used to dominating national attention in the 18th century but had had to share the spotlight with the great cities of the north in the early 19th, once again became the nation’s cynosure. In the following years, it increased its share of the national population and began to resume a stature that it has never since lost.

What had the masses come to see, and what did they make of it? Undoubtedly they were awed by the great machines and demonstrations of power. They would also have been aware of the formidable police presence – anything from 200 to 600 policemen. On the other hand, they had a huge variety of sights to choose from – there were 100,000 exhibits – and could gravitate freely to those that pleased or intrigued them. These were often trinkets and gadgets on a human scale that people could relate to, could imagine in their homes, consumer goods of paper and glass, new styles of furniture, brands of toothpaste and soap.

A visit to the Crystal Palace was not supposed to be a shopping expedition. Exhibitors weren’t allowed to display prices or sell over the counter. But supply and demand could not be so easily kept apart. Brochures, posters, trade cards and price sheets proliferated. Outside the Crystal Palace, the rest of London did its best to capitalise on the visitors. Historians now think that the modern age of advertising was opened by the Great Exhibition – the primitive shop signs, handbills and small-print newspaper adverts of the 18th century were gradually transformed by a panoply of new technologies, leading to the billboard, the illustrated display advertisement, the department-store window. Among the visitors in 1851 was a 20-year-old draper’s apprentice from Yorkshire, William Whiteley, who was inspired to move his theatre of operations to London and who in the 1860s expanded his draper’s shop in Westbourne Grove into Britain’s first department store, Whiteley’s, the Universal Provider.

Crowd-pleasing cheapness?

These surging crowds and their clamour for goods and thrills drew snooty criticisms of vulgarity, and we have long been familiar with comments such as John Ruskin’s – he called the Palace “a cucumber-frame between two chimneys” – and William Morris’s – he called it “wonderfully ugly”. The likes of Ruskin and Morris were offended because the Palace’s projectors had portrayed it as a chance to refine popular tastes, whereas they saw only crowd-pleasing cheapness.

Thanks to the railway, visiting the Crystal Palace was not only a national but an international phenomenon. Rail connections between Paris and London had been completed just prior to 1851 and in the year of the Exhibition the numbers of travellers between France and England nearly doubled to 260,000. The international nature of the exhibits gave visitors a powerful sense of a newly wide world – and, with steam facilitating travel both by land and by sea, a shrinking world.

The British empire was literally at the centre of the Crystal Palace, with an Indian Court filled with fine materials and finished goods meant explicitly to strengthen trade between metropole and empire. These were hardly trophies of bloodless wars. But there was a strong streak of idealism present, an idealism that did see free trade between equals as the civilised substitute for war. Exhibits from America drew special attention to an emerging power, now seen less as rebellious offspring, more as a potential trading partner. Sensationally, the Americans’ McCormick reaping machine beat its British rivals in a competition, harvesting 20 acres of corn in a day.

Visitors of 1851 got a glimpse of what we call globalisation. The telegraph was on display – used to communicate from one end of the giant structure to the other – and contemporaries were well aware of its potential use for global communications, talking of a forthcoming “network of wires” and a “never-ceasing interchange of news”.

In about 20 years, that network would span continents; in about 50 years, it would span the world – and, since the telegraph like the telephone or the computer is an electronic device, working at speeds pretty much equivalent to the speed of the Internet today.

Palace of the people

We are now also better aware that the Crystal Palace had an afterlife, reconstructed on a new site in south London – and serving for another 80 years as the “Palace of the People”, responsible among other things for inaugurating the dinosaur craze (the life-size models are among the few fragments of the Victorian period to survive on the site) and for pioneering a dizzying range of commercial entertainments from high-wire acts to aeronautical displays. Even if we confine ourselves to the year 1851, Crystal Palace works happily as a pivot on which swings a door opening to the modernity we enjoy today.

What we can see more clearly now than they could then was that the generally optimistic hopes of projectors and visitors, while realised to an extraordinary extent, also cast darker shadows – the 100,000 exhibits have multiplied a hundred thousand-fold in our consumer society, for ill as well as for good; the 500 police have multiplied too; internationalism and the shrinking globe did not betoken world peace; and just imagine the carbon footprint left by all those machines…

History facts: 1850–1899

Food consumption per person per week (1860s): 10.9 pounds of bread, 3.9 pounds of potatoes, 0.9 pounds of meat, 1.4 pints of milk

Alcohol consumption per person per year (1870s): 1.5 gallon of spirits, 34 gallons of beer 

Life expectancy at birth (1860s): Liverpool, 30 years; Manchester, 31 years; London, 38 years; Cardiff, 41 years; Portsmouth, 42 years

Key years: other important events in the second half of the 19th century

1854 – The Crimean War begins. Despite the high hopes expressed at the Crystal Palace, the second half of the century was not a period of unbroken peace. The Crimean War pitted Britain and France against Russian expansion into the Ottoman Empire. It lasted two years, left contemporaries with a big bill and an inquest into military disorganisation, and bequeathed to posterity Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade (at the Battle of Balaclava) and, indeed, the balaclava (the headwarmers knitted for British troops to guard against cold Russian nights).

1857 – The “Indian Mutiny”. Only a mutiny, of course, from the British point of view – now more frequently called a “Rebellion”. Sepoys – locally recruited soldiers – protested against conditions in the East India Company’s army. A direct result was the end of East India Company rule and the incorporation of India into the formal empire.

1865 – The “Governor Eyre Controversy”. Jamaican Governor EJ Eyre brutally suppressed another rebellion – the Morant Bay rising by black Jamaicans protesting against economic conditions and their lack of rights – killing hundreds and summarily executing one of the leaders, GW Gordon. The ensuing controversy polarised educated opinion in Britain – was Eyre a hero or lawbreaker? – much as the Vietnam War polarised America in the 1960s.

1867 – The Second Reform Act. Although this act gave the vote to only about a third of adult males in England and Wales, it marked the point at which the United Kingdom began to think of itself as a democracy. But it also underscored the inequitable treatment of Ireland, where fewer than a sixth of adult males got the vote in a separate act.

1869 – Origins of Women’s Suffrage. Often overlooked in the shadow of the Second Reform Act, a reform of the municipal franchise in 1869 gave the vote in local elections to unmarried women who were heads of households. This betokened a growing role for women in social and political affairs below the parliamentary level.

1889 – The London Dock Strike. Although the Trades Union Congress can be dated back to 1868, the London Dock Strike brought trade unionism into the centre of public life for the first time, largely because it demonstrated that “ordinary” workers could strike as well – not only skilled workers seeking to protect their trade privileges.

1896 – Origins of the tabloid press. The Harmsworth brothers (later Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere) founded the Daily Mail, the first of a new breed of cheap and cheerful newspapers. It cost a halfpenny – half the cost of the standard cheap newspaper – and specialised in shorter human-interest stories and a vigorously populist editorial tone.

1899 – The Boer War breaks out. The decades of “peace” since the Crimean War had been marred by repeated colonial wars; however these had required little British manpower. This colonial war – against Dutch settlers in southern Africa – required a serious mobilisation and, like the Crimean War, it left behind a bitter taste in human and financial costs, and concerns about Britain’s war fighting capacity.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1916: The Long March to Modernity

Go back: 1832: The ‘Great’ Reform Act

Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His latest book The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair is published by Yale University Press (2006)

Further reading: Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes 1851–67 by Asa Briggs (1954; Penguin, 1990); The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display by Jeffrey Auerbach (Yale University Press, 1999); Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854–1936 by JR Piggott (Hurst & Co, 2004)


This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine