Spotlight On …

the Great Exhibition

Written by James Hawksley

While November is famed for its bonfires and fireworks, we tend to forget about another great fire.

It might be hard to believe that a building made of glass and iron could burn down, but one of our famous past landmarks did just that in November 1936.

The wealthy area of Sydenham in London was one of two sites that hosted the Great Exhibition, the first being Hyde Park. It took around 5,000 navvies to erect the 1,850 ft long, 108 ft high structure known as the ‘Crystal Palace’. Against the odds, the work was completed on time and the Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851.

After six months, and due to a lack of permanent planning permission, the Crystal Palace found itself threatened with destruction or relocation. So the Victorians, never allowing much to stand in their way, decided to move 4,000 tonnes of greenhouse to the affluent area of Sydenham. Thanks to this, the area later became more commonly known as Crystal Palace.

The whole intention of the Great Exhibition was to compete with the France and their ‘Exposition des Produits de l’industrie Française’ (Exhibition of Products of French Industry). Not wanting to be outdone by the French, Britain had to show the strength of their Empire, and their position as the trading power of Europe.

The exhibition was huge; over ten miles of exhibits, and 100,000 items. The biggest of all was the massive hydraulic press that had lifted the metal tubes of a bridge at Bangor, invented by Stevenson. Each tube weighed 1,144 tonnes, yet the press was operated by just one man. Next in size was a steam-hammer that could, with equal accuracy, forge the main bearing of a steamship or gently crack an egg. There were adding machines which might put bank clerks out of a job; a ‘stiletto or defensive umbrella’ – always useful – and a ‘sportsman’s knife’ with eighty blades from Sheffield – perhaps less useful.

One of the upstairs galleries was walled with stained glass through which the sun streamed in technicolour. Almost as brilliantly coloured were carpets from Axminster, and ribbons from Coventry. (An Axminster from the Great exhibition can still be viewed in the Library of Claydon House in Buckinghamshire).

And in the spirit of the Empire, items from all corners of the kingdom went on display too. Canada sent a fire-engine with painted panels showing Canadian scenes, and a trophy of furs. India contributed an elaborate throne of carved ivory, a coat embroidered with pearls, emeralds and rubies, and a magnificent howdah and trappings for a rajah’s elephant.Of course, our special friends across the pond were involved too. The American display was headed by a massive eagle, wings outstretched, holding a drapery of the Stars and Stripes. As you could imagine, all of this pomp and ceremony would have been very impressive to the average Victorian.

Although the exhibition was set up to contend with the French exhibition in Paris, one of the largest foreign contributors was France. She exhibited sumptuous tapestries, Sevres porcelain and silks from Lyons, enamels from Limoges and furniture. Unlike British exhibits in the same class, many of which were sadly lacking in taste, the visual impact of the French display was stunning. It was backed up by examples of the machinery used to produce these beautiful objects. France was a worrying competitor in the markets on which Britain prided itself, especially in textiles.

After the exhibition, the crystal Palace was used as a public space, a concert space, and art gallery. As an interesting side note, the Crystal palace was the first building to hold the first major installation of indoor public toilets.

Sadly, by the late 19th Century and early 20th century, it began to decline in popularity partially due to maintenance costs and the fancy exhibitions were gradually replaced with stalls and booths, giving it a more ‘down-market’ appearance.

© British Library
J. McNeven, View of the Nave - Great Exhibition, 1851

On the 30th November 1936, an office fire caused by an explosion in the women’s cloak room took hold of the Crystal Palace and it burnt to the ground. How did it burn down? I hear you ask, It’s made of iron and glass! The kindling was provided by the wooden flooring and the contents of the building.

Of the main building, only the two water towers remained. Their legacy was short; one of those was pulled down shortly afterwards due to an unsafe structure, and the last one was pulled down during WW2 to prevent it being used as a landmark by the Luftwaffe. The only thing that now remains of the original structure is the stone terrace that it sat upon.

Though physically gone, the legacy of Crystal Palace still lives on, most notably in the eponymous football club. One subtle remainder is a nearby road called High Level Drive, named after the high-level railway that brought visitors to the Palace.

The Great Exhibition also lives on in our collection, with a number of items previously exhibited in the Crystal Palace. Oh, there’s the link! I hear you say.

© National Leather Collection

Yes, we have a leather box with a metal plaque on the front reading “Made from the skin of the sea cow. W Norman, Chichester, 1850”. After some research, we found that the Steller’s sea cow is now extinct, wiped out just 30 years after its discovery. The other interesting thing about this box is that it’s turned, just like you would expect with a piece of wood.

Other Great Exhibition items include shoe lasts, tools, and a couple of original catalogues in the National Leather Collection’s library. These catalogues are fascinating display of design and craftsmanship, and also list leather goods suppliers, designers and book-binders, as well as suppliers of fur and hair. They’re a great indication as to how expansive industry was in the UK at the time.

As a parting note, back in 2013 there was talk of recreating the Crystal Palace building. However, the developer’s sixteen-month exclusivity agreement with Bromley Council to develop its plans was cancelled upon its expiration in February 2015.

It’s a real shame because, as a building, it would have been fantastic. It does create the question, however; would the contents of such an exhibition would be so exotic or interesting today?