On 1 May, 1851, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that it had been ‘the happiest, proudest day of my life, and I can think of nothing else’.
The event she was dizzy about was not the birth of a child, but the opening of a trade fair organised by ‘my dearest Albert’ – the Great Exhibition.
It has gone down in history as a dazzling celebration of Victorian industry and ingenuity.
By the end of its six-month run, 6,039,195 people had visited the show in Hyde Park, London, over a quarter of the population of Britain.
Albert (Tom Hughes) opening the Great Exhibition with the queen (Jenna Coleman) in last Sunday’s Victoria on ITV
From Kentish farm labourers and Bradford weavers, to Charlotte Brontë (‘a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe’) and the 82-year-old Duke of Wellington, they crowded through its doors.
They came and gaped in awe not just at the exhibits but at the building itself: Crystal Palace, bigger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a monument to the engineering genius of the age.
But its success was far from a foregone conclusion; up until the opening ceremony it was beset with naysayers – much as the London 2012 Olympics was.
But like that event it ended up a roaring success, uniting the nation.
Albert had been keen to find a purpose for himself since their marriage in 1840 and had joined a series of committees, including the Society of Arts.
A building with 300,000 panes of glass was made for the show. Pictured is the Egyptian Hall
After one of its members, Henry Cole, organised an exhibition in 1849 that attracted 100,000 visitors, he approached Albert about a larger show for 1851, with the royal stamp of approval.
Albert was seized with enthusiasm, determined it should be an international display of invention.
The machinery, materials and manufactured goods should come from the ‘whole civilised world’, he said, arguing that ‘advantage to British industry might be derived from placing it in fair competition with other nations’.
Once it was decided the taxpayer should not pick up the bill, subscription clubs were set up around the country, leading to Albert being pilloried in parts of the Press, with Punch magazine depicting him as a boy with a begging bowl.
This Vacuum Sugar Apparatus was one of the many things on display at the Exhibition
Some complained that displaying their inventions would lead to foreign rivals stealing their ideas, while others protested about the need to uproot elm trees in Hyde Park.
But perhaps the biggest challenge was the building itself.
The commissioners dismissed all the 254 designs submitted and produced their own, but people said it looked like a railway terminus.
Enter Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener, who, after developing glasshouses at Chatsworth, knew a building made of glass could be constructed quickly and fairly cheaply – and he could incorporate many of the elm trees inside it.
And what a building he designed.
It was 1,848ft long (later stretched to 1,851 when Paxton realised the symbolism), 408ft wide and had 300,000 panes of glass.
It was the largest enclosed space in the world, and Punch called it a ‘palace of very crystal’.
The nickname stuck, and the Crystal Palace went up with giddying speed, ready for the opening ceremony, which was open to the Royal Family, the organisers and those who’d paid £3 and 3 shillings to be season-ticket holders.
For the next two days it cost £1 to get in, then 5 shillings until 22 May. Only then did it come down to a shilling (about £5 today).
Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that it had been ‘the happiest, proudest day of my life, and I can think of nothing else’ after the Exhibition planned by her husband opened
More than 13,000 exhibitors took part, from over 40 nations.
There was an unsinkable deckchair for ships, the world’s most powerful magnets and a collapsible piano designed for ‘gentlemen’s yachts, etc’.
The weirdest of all displays was possibly Hermann Ploucquet of Stuttgart’s tableau of stuffed frogs, one shaving another while a third carried an umbrella.
But the exhibits that attracted the greatest crowds were those that appeared to prove that Victorians, as Albert insisted, were ‘living in a period of most wonderful transition’.
There was an 18-ton lump of coal, the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution, and the huge Koh-i-Noor diamond, which had been given to the queen only the year before.
Just as impressive were the machines, powered by a steam boiler outside the Crystal Palace: threshers, printing presses and a cotton-spinning machine.
A surplus of £186,000 (£20 million today) was generated, and Albert insisted on using the money to buy 87 acres south of the site of the exhibition to build institutions that would foster science and the practical arts.
That land now houses the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College London and, of course, the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The palace itself was dismantled and reassembled in Sydenham, south London, where it remained a popular venue for concerts and exhibitions until it was destroyed by a fire in 1936.
It was never rebuilt but the Crystal Palace and its contents had a lasting effect on Britain.
The Great Exhibition stirred the millions who visited with a confidence about being British at the dawn of the modern age.