The Great Exhibition 1851

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A Victorian Triumph and our Sappers were there!


Great Exhibition Trilogy


Left: Albert of Saxe-Coburg, Prince Consort (1819-1861).

Centre: Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882). Civil Servant, writer, designer, introduced the first commercial Christmas card.

Right: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865). Gardener, architect, glasshouse designer, Member of Parliament.


Prince Albert’s Legacy

Prince Albert was very much in favour of a self-financing ‘Exhibition of All Nations’. But even though this meant that the exchequer would have to pay no money, there was a lukewarm reception from Parliament. However, Albert eventually had his way and a Royal Commission was set up.

The Royal Commission met for the first time in January 1850 comprising Prince Albert, Henry Coles and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. After digesting the concept that such an exhibition could make a profit, one of the Commission’s first acts was to set up a competition for designing the building, following which 233 architects sent in designs. However, the Commission’s Building Committee was not satisfied and prepared and printed its own design. This too was set aside when the engineering company Fox & Henderson presented more acceptable costs for a design by Joseph Paxton who put forward the idea of a simple repeating structure so that one cross-section could be repeated indefinitely to make a whole building. It would be made of glass – Paxton’s area of expertise – hence the name ‘Crystal Palace’.

Great Exhibition Crystal Palace Dome
Crystal Palace with Dome Roof

Events moved quickly, Paxton managed to have a complete set of plans within nine days. He presented it to Fox and Henderson on 22nd June 1850. The plan was accepted by the Commissioners after modifying it to include a dome roof so that elm trees on the site in Hyde Park could be accommodated without trimming. Work started on the 15th July, possession of site was granted on the 30th July, the first column was erected on the 26th September and the formal contract signed on the 31st October 1850.

Great Exhibition Opening 1 May 1851
The Opening Ceremony

The Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria on 1st May and closed on 15th October 1851. The visitors numbered over six million and the financial surplus came to 186,000 pounds (over 18 million pounds today). The surplus was used to fund the three major Kensington museums as well as an educational trust to provide grants and scholarships for industrial research which continues today.


After the Exhibition, the ‘glasshouse’ was moved to Sydenham in south London and was extended. Although the structure was destroyed by fire in 1936, the area continues to be known as Crystal Palace (London SE19) and is home to the FA league football club.

Bring on the Sappers

During construction, concerns were raised about the stability and safety of the structure, especially with regard to resonance – the worrying idea that a large crowd, moving regularly inside the building, could cause it to vibrate more and more until it collapsed. An experiment was set up, with a test construction, on which 300 workmen walked backwards and forwards, regularly, irregularly, and then jumping simultaneously in the air. Finally, to induce the most regular oscillations possible,the sappers and miners were called in, and marched repeatedly in step across the structure. The test structure held and work on the building resumed.

Great Exhibition Test [Illustrated London News 1 Mar 1851]
Testing the Oscillation! Illustrated London News 1 Mar 1851
From 11th September 1850, three RSM lance-corporals worked with the executive committee of the Commission. By the end of 1850 more men were added to the party and were quartered in Kensington cavalry barracks. The force was augmented throughout 1851 until, on 21st April 1851 the RSM detachments now under the command of three officers of the Royal Engineers, numbered almost 200. By this time, the cavalry barracks was full and all had been moved to the royal palace at Kensington. Hence a number of ‘our’ men are to be found in the 1851 Census at the royal palace. The number of men sent to the Exhibition from September 1850 to December 1851 reached a total of 274 of all ranks.

Great Exhibition [Illustrated London News 22 Feb 1851]
Illustrated London News 22 Feb 1852
The sappers performed engineering duties during construction and throughout the course of the Exhibition. They were responsible for security at the gates (crowd control), examining goods at customs, receiving and arranging entries, guarding the fire engines, monitoring ventilation, cleaning, maintenance of structures as required, and of course taking everything down again after closure.

The contribution the Sappers made to the Exhibition was heralded in the newspapers and more importantly recognised by Prince Albert with ‘Rewards and Presents’ (detailed here).




History of the Royal Sappers and Miners, T W J Connolly, Volume II.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey A. Auerbach.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, British History Online.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, Bob Speel.
Project Governance & Control: the Building of the Crystal Palace, Patrick Weaver PMP, FAICD, FCIOB.
Illustrated London News, 22 Feb 1851 and 1 Mar 1851.
Images from Wikipedia Commons.