Dr Geoffrey Kay who came to speak at our January meeting on the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition had just acquired a new digital projector with all sorts of potential to go wrong, he told us. In fact there was some bother with Windows appearing, informing him that his virus protection had expired but this was soon dealt with.

He started by showing us photos of the famous eighteenth century Iron Bridge on the River Severn, the first in the world (although the Chinese claim an earlier one), which when the conditions are right makes a stunningly beautiful perfect circle with its reflection. We then whizzed forward to Henry Cole (Old King Cole) in 1850, who during his time at the Board of Trade, had the idea for an exhibition to promote British design. He was lucky enough to have the ear of Prince Albert who was immediately enthusiastic and also the backing of Queen Victoria who would do anything that might help to enhance her darling Albert’s popularity. The idea quickly expanded from a national to an international exhibition and it was decided to site it in Hyde Park. The exhibition committee held a competition but none of the entries for a temporary building came up to scratch. Then Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, submitted a plan based on glass and ironwork. This was the design that was chosen.

The finished hall was huge, big enough to include full-grown trees beneath its roof. It was the Times Newspaper that christened it the Crystal Palace. The interior had a ground floor plus galleries and was divided into sections allocated to different countries. India sent a stuffed elephant with howdah and the Canadians a pile of furs and a birch-bark canoe. The interior was brightly coloured with a lot of the ironwork painted crimson. With their love of decoration the Victorians piled layer after layer of detail on the objects exhibited until the eye was dazzled and confused by the complexity.
Over two million people visited the exhibition, some many times over, but at least two celebrities of the time – John Ruskin and William Morris – absolutely hated it and refused to go in. A young man called Thomas Cook decided to organize train excursions from the north and with such huge crowds the London crime rate went through the roof.

All good things have to come to an end and in the autumn of 1851 a piece of sheet music was on sale titled ‘Farewell to the Exhibition’. The Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham where it continued to house such entertainments as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and symphony concerts. The whole thing ended in tears in 1936 when it burnt to the ground, although its legacy is still with us in the form of such things as the Crystal Palace Football Club.

V E Bines


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