The Great Exhibition opened on 1 May 1851. A giant display of crafts and wares from around the world, it was also a major promotion of Britain and its empire. The Whig government funded the venture, realising it could be self-financing by charging an entrance fee of one shilling – something that around six million people availed themselves of.
Hyde Park was selected as the site for the exhibition and over 230 entries for the design of the building were submitted. Joseph Paxton’s City of Birmingham produced the cast iron and glass edifice that was selected as the winning scheme. Measuring over 560m by 140m it took only eight months to construct.
The exhibition was an astounding public success comprising nearly 100,000 exhibits – such as engines, carriages, textiles, china, glass, porcelain and all types of decorative arts. Britain displayed its most recent gift from India; the Koh-i-Noor diamond (now part of the Crown Jewels). The United States of America bucked the trend for decorative arts and displayed the latest Colt Revolver, a Goodyear rubber tyre and an unpickable lock – designs firmly rooted in industry.
The exhibition produced a vast surplus of £186,000, which was invested in a permanent centre for the display of science, arts and manufactures. Coined ‘Albertopolis’ at the time, it is evidenced today by the museums and institutions situated on Exhibition Road – immediately to the south of the former site of Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’. The building was dismantled in 1852 and moved to a permanent home in Sydenham, sadly to be consumed by fire in 1936.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum are the main museums – each justifying a day-long visit.