Major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation and technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural makeup of Britain. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a majority of the population lived in the countryside and London had 1 million inhabitants. By 1850, half of the population of Britain lived in towns and the population of London had doubled. At the start of the 1840's, railway lines in Britain were few and scattered, but by the end of the decade, a virtually complete network had been laid down and the majority of towns and villages in Britain were connected. By the mid nineteenth century, Britain had become the world's leading industrialized power.
The factory, one of the mainstays of the Industrial Revolution in Britain
Against this background of rapidly increasing wealth and empire, the 1840's were difficult years economically. Britain experienced two "bubbles" and a financial crisis; railway shares underwent a substantial reversal during the railway mania and the price of corn rose and fell dramatically soon afterwards, partly as a result of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It was in this uncertain economic climate that advocates of a national exhibition faced the challenge of drumming up support and finances.
Financing the Great Exhibition
One of the liveliest contemporary debates surrounding the organization of the Great Exhibition was how such a huge undertaking was to be financed. Was the Exhibition to be funded largely by private individuals who faced the prospect of losses if the Exhibition was a failure, but potentially large gains if it was a success, or was it instead to be financed through public funds and voluntary contributions?
The first advocates of the Great Exhibition, members of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (later the Society of Arts) initially faced little choice in the matter. It was clear that the support of Prince Albert, royal consort and president of the Society, would be necessary to raise the necessary funds. Though expressing interest in the idea of a national exhibition from an early stage, Prince Albert showed caution in publicly backing the concept until sufficient public support had been proven. Only after such support had been demonstrated would he advocate the establishment of a royal commission to oversee the organization of the exhibition.
Prince Albert, taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, 1853
Without a royal commission, the Society faced great difficulty in securing the financial backing necessary to drum up the required public support for the project. After much fruitless negotiation with several builders and contractors, the Society turned to a public works contracting firm, Messrs James and George Munday, who agreed, on certain conditions, to advance £20,000 as a prize fund, erect a suitable building, find offices, advance any funds necessary for preliminary requisites and to take on the whole risk of loss.
Once the royal commission had been officially established in January 1850, however, and with important sections of the press vehemently against the private financing of a national and public exhibition, the Royal Commission moved to terminate the contract.
Henry Windham Phillips, The Royal Commissioners for the great Exhibition of 1851, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
At a meeting of the "merchants, bankers and traders of the City of London" (so wrote the Times on 26 January 1850), a resolution was proposed and seconded,
"That this meeting entirely concurs in the reasons which have induced the Royal Commission to terminate the contract with the Messrs. Munday, and to rest the success of the proposed exhibition entirely upon public liberality."
In seconding the motion, a Mr T E Baring spoke for the mood of those present, according to the Times, stating:
"That contract might have been necessary at the time when first entered into, in order to give to the world some evidence that the plan would in some shape be brought into execution; but it did not meet with general concurrence, from the notion that every individual should, as far as possible, give his consent to the project; and when the matter was confined to a contract, that seemed rather to exclude an appeal to public contributions. That contract was now terminated, and it was the people of England that the Royal Commissioners appealed. (Hear, hear.) As citizens of London they were proud that the first appeal was made to them, and he trusted no gentleman present could doubt that the appeal would be successful. (Hear, hear.)".
The outcry over the prospect of a national event being funded by private capitalists who might potentially benefit from public funds forced the organizers and the commissioners to make the event a truly public and national undertaking. The Great Exhibition was to be funded not by the government or the wealthy few, but by people of all classes by means of voluntary contributions.
The Royal Commission oversaw the establishment of over 300 local committees throughout the United Kingdom which were responsible, among other things, for gathering subscriptions from within their boundaries. The success of these committees, whilst mixed, is evidenced by the fact that over half the funds for the Exhibition came from outside London. Whilst the City of London contributed £26,632, Bradford contributed £1,605, Glasgow £2,666 and Rochester £13.