Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Location and ground plan of the Great Exhibition

Unlike almost all world fairs that were to follow it, the Great Exhibition was held almost exclusively within one building, Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace.  However, this is not to say that the site of the Crystal Palace and the organization of exhibits within the building did not engender debate and, at times, controversy.  Contemporary debates in fact shed much light on London society, Victorian values and the place of technology within society.

Hyde Park

Crystal Palace was located at the southern end of Hyde Park in central London.  The map below, produced by James Cross in 1851 for visitors to the Great Exhibition, shows Hyde Park on the left hand side of the map, with the Crystal Palace itself marked in pink below the Serpentine River.

Map of London produced in 1851 by James Cross for visitors to the Great Exhibition.  It is printed on silk, the texture of which is clearly visible on the scan.  Source: MAPCO, Map and Plan Collection Online,

The James Cross map as superimposed over a current map of London through the use of world map is available here.

The location of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was not a forgone conclusion.  Prince Albert and Henry Cole agreed that Hyde Park would be best for an exhibition as early as July 1849.  It was sufficiently removed from the busiest parts of the city to minimize disruption to commerce, yet not so far that it would be inconvenient.  According to Prince Albert, another advantage of the park was that it "admitted of equal good access to high and low, rich and poor"[1].  The building committee of the Royal Commission, however, expressed concerns that Hyde Park was too central, that London would become too crowded and that it would be difficult to transport exhibits to the park.  The committee therefore considered a number of alternative sites, including Regents Park, Battersea Park, Victoria Park and Primrose Hill before returning to Hyde Park.

An enlarged view of James Cross' map showing detail of Hyde Park.

The public were not so easily persuaded, however.  In particular, the wealthy inhabitants of the areas around the park objected to almost certain damage to the park and an influx of "undesirables" both from Britain and abroad. This outcry can perhaps be explained by the significance of the park to the upper classes.  It was incorporated into London society, used for garden parties and balls in the Summer and the site of daily rides or drives along "Rotton Row"(marked as "The King's Private Road" on the map above) to see and be seen.  Thus an example of a typical complaint in the Times newspaper on 18 February 1851:

"On Sunday last, there was a frightful repetition of the riot which has nearly every Sunday afternoon for the last several weeks taken place in Hyde Park, arising from the vast crowds of persons which have been attracted by the building of the Great Exhibition being unable to pass through the gate at the end of Park-Place...I will content myself by merely stating that scarcely a Sunday now passes that the disturbance does not terminate in a fight" [2].

Such objections highlight the class divide of nineteenth century London and, according to Jeffrey Auerbach, chart an important moment in the history of nineteenth century Britain: the decision to place the exhibition building in Hyde Park "challenged respectable society's two-part division of London: the fashionable, wealthy and 'safe' West End and the commercial, poor and 'dangerous' slums of the East End"[3].

The Ground Plan

The building was 1848 feet long and 408 feet wide, with a central transept that rose to 108 feet.  It covered over 18 acres of land and enclosed over 33 million cubic feet of space.  Its galleries ran for nearly a mile and these added another 5 acres to the floor area [4].  In short, it was vast.

Plan of the Crystal Palace.  Reproduced in Studying the Victorians and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London 1994)

The layout of the building itself was determined to some extent by the land available in Hyde Park.  In particular, the celebrated transept was designed as a solution to a grouping of 10 elm trees that would have had to be cut down to make way for the building.  In response to protests, Paxton designed the transept as a way of building the Crystal Palace over the trees.  At the centre of the transept crossing stood the famous Crystal Fountain, made specifically for the exhibition by Follett Osler out of four tones of pure crystal glass.

Crystal Palace transept in 1852, after the Exhibition and before Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham. Photo by Benjamin Brecknell Turner c.1852.  Victoria & Albert Museum.

Organisation of exhibits

As can be seen from the plan above, the whole of the Western half of the Crystal Palace was occupied by the British exhibits, whilst foreign exhibits occupied the Eastern half.

The British exhibits were divided into four sections - raw materials, machinery, manufactures and fine arts - covering thirty classes of exhibit.  Their physical arrangement did not in fact parallel this neat classification.  The power source for the machinery was in the North-West corner, which meant all the heavy machinery was placed along the North side, whilst the lighter goods were placed in the galleries because of structural considerations.  There was therefore no way to walk the exhibits in the order in which they were meant to be seen, through the stages of production from raw material to manufactures using machinery.

Classification of British exhibits at the Great Exhibition, taken from Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press, 1999).  Pg 93

Foreign exhibits were not categorized in the same manner, and each country was permitted to arrange its exhibits in its own way.  Exhibits from Britain's colonies were displayed at the centre of the Crystal Palace, as befitting Britain's desire to project an image of wealth and control.  It is interesting to note the way in which exhibits from the colonies were arranged to promote them as vast areas of untapped wealth and resources.  Australia, for example, was promoted in the Official Catalogue as "the most extensive wool-producing country in the world",whilst Canada's contribution included timber and furs, arranged by the Hudson Bay Company [5].

French exhibits at the Great Exhibition.  Source: British Library

Foreign exhibitors included countries such as France, Austria, Belgian, Sweden and the United States, all arranged in the Eastern half of the building in whatever manner they wished.  The overall effect of the building and its more than 100,000 exhibits was overwhelming for many visitors.  Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, for example, commented:

"I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is of bewilderment.  It looks like a sort of fairyland.  As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls, carpets &c with long avenues of statues, fountains, canopies &c &c &c" [6].

Sydenham: a postscript

The Great Exhibition was closed on 11 October 1851.  Following a public debate over what should become of the Crystal Palace, the building was relocated to Sydenham, then a village and now part of South East London.  The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was built on an even larger scale than the original one, covering almost 100 more acres and with an additional three stories.

Map of the grounds of Crystal Palace in 1862.  Source :

The map above as superimposed over a current map of what is now known as Crystal Palace through the use of world map is available here.

Although the building was similar, the Sydenham Crystal Palace had a very different focus to that of the Great Exhibition.  It was designed primarily as a place of entertainment, as a resort and theme park as well as a place for musical performances.  The Sydenham Crystal Palace burnt down on the night of 20 November 1936.

The Sydenham Crystal Palace.  Source:


[1] Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press, 1999) (hereafter A Nation on Display).  Pg 42.
[2] Letter to the editor, The Times, 18 February 1851.
[3] A Nation on Display. Pg 46.
[4] de Mare, Eric, London 1851, The Year of the Great Exhibition (The Folio Press, 1973).  Pg 36.
[5] A Nation on Display.  Pg 101
[6] Lewis Carroll to his sister, Elizabeth Carroll, 5 July 1851 in Carter, Angelica, Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass (Lerner Publications, 2003).  Pg 28.

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