Wednesday, October 23, 2019

More about the Crystal Palace

By Judith Taylor

Following on from her post about the creation of the Crystal Palace, Judith picks up the story again:

It is hardly surprising that an event like the Great Exhibition and a building of such magnitude and glamour as the Crystal Palace would linger in one’s mind, “agitating the little grey cells”. There is still a great deal to be learned about it and even with intense application one would only scratch the surface. There is the prosaic matter of how the exhibition was paid for and the steps taken after it closed. With all the effort put into getting show ready it is hard to believe the exhibition only lasted for six months from May to October 1851. Queen Victoria took her family to see it three times. We need to put aside the seductive charms of ancient greenhouses and cast iron and think about drier things.

To refresh everyone’ memory, some visionary senior officials wanted to create a great exhibition of the world’s arts and manufactories to celebrate Britain’s imperial dominance. Prince Albert is usually considered to be the prime mover but he was always very wary of butting into potential political minefields. His enthusiastic scientific friends and colleagues planned to open the show on May 1, 1851.

The timing was not coincidental. Think about it. The date was precisely half way through the century. Then there were the recent troubles in Europe. In 1848 the Continent had seen major radical uprisings with the Communes in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Budapest. England watched its citizens very carefully and probably breathed a big sigh of relief when very little happened there. The worst that  occurred was the movements of the Chartists.

One way the English authorities defused the situation was to offer the masses a few perks to distract them from their miserable conditions. The unprecedented creation of free public parks and the privilege of using formerly private parks was one of them.

The leading lights of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began the process but when it did not move very quickly they managed to persuade their president, Prince Albert, to use his personal charm and get the government to set up a royal commission to turn the idea into reality. He had no statutory authority. The French had been holding similar exhibitions of their own products every year since 1798. Sir Henry Cole and the commissioners took their task very seriously, setting up an architectural competition for a building.

The Commissioners, 1851

The next big question was where to put it. London in the late 1840s was not built up the way it is now but even so, finding enough open land was a challenge. The established open spaces such as Hyde Park or Regent’s park had originally been closed royal property and had only recently become available to the larger public.

In the early 19th century London was still bounded to the west by Park Lane, Marylebone Road to the north, the South Bank of the Thames at Southwark and Bethnal Green and Spitalfields to the east. Technically, the City of London, with the great cathedral of St Paul’s which qualifies it for the title of city and being the seat of banking and finance, had its own ancient boundaries. Surrounding the capital were villages such as Hampstead and Kensington.  Westminster with Parliament and the Abbey was a separate city. The rest was open country, part of manorial land and parish titles. West of the park, William Kent had started the trend for commercial nurseries in places like Brompton.

Most of the land surrounding London was still owned by families such as the Harringtons, Alexanders and Lees. There were also smaller holdings. A massive increase in population led to the development of suburbs like St John’s Wood and Blackheath. London began to gobble up Middlesex and Surrey. There were one million people living in the city.

Railway Map of Central London, 1899

Speculative builders bought up as much land as they could and developed mainly two kinds of housing: large villas equipped with clean running water and plenty of space for a family with servants such as the Jekylls and much more modest terraced houses where the white collar employees of such family businesses could live.

Geography and architecture both helped to extend the separation of social classes, giving London its character. Upper class people lived in the West End or near it and really poor people in the East End. They had no running water. This is a huge oversimplification but handy for the moment.

In the end the commissioners chose Hyde Park for the exhibition but prudently set about buying the parcels of land they would need for the second phase of the plan. This land lay to the west and south. It was essentially Kensington, with parts of Chelsea and Westminster included.

The financing of the project held it up for a long time. This was why the prince had been so circumspect. He was concerned that he would be accused of wasting public funds for a pet project. When preparatory talks began in late 1849 the press was against the idea. The commissioners had very little choice but to attract private funding. They signed a contract for £20000 with Messrs. J. and G.  Munday, a large firm of public works contractors.

The press now changed its attitude. A project created by a royal commission could not be seen to rely on private funds. If it were successful the backers could make a lot of money out of a national event and that was thought to be unseemly. Leading bankers, traders and merchants in the City issued a resolution in January 1850 condemning the private contract with the Mundays and insisted it be voided. Funds from the Department of Works would cover the initial steps. This decision was eased by the fact that one of the commissioners was able to explain the concept of pay as you go with money coming in as well as going out.

They then took the whole idea a step further. Considering this was to be a national event it was decided to encourage as many groups as possible to contribute voluntarily, primarily organized by municipality. The City of Glasgow sent £2666, Bradford gave £1605 and Rochester £13. The City of London contributed £26632. This can be considered to be an early version of “crowd funding”.

Land obtained for the Museum Quarter

By now the prince was fully on board and showed his vision for the future. The Great Exhibition was just the first salvo in his mind. Once the exhibition ended they would move the building to another, permanent site. In 1852 the commission used the profits from the exhibition, more than £180 000, to buy the land on which to build permanent artistic and cultural institutions which thrive to this day. These were the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum and the Imperial College. The road which is the axis of their locations is Exhibition Road. This is the district now known as South Kensington but sometimes called “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert died in 1861 and did not live to see the final results of his vision. Of all his descendants, only Prince Charles has shown similar interests.


Coleman, Eliza


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to get the back story. Thank you for this post


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.