Page 10 - History 2020
P. 10

But perhaps the greatest innovation of the Great Exhibition was the Crystal Palace

            itself. A competition had been held and the winning design was by Joseph Paxton,
            the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener. Many people had protested that holding
            the proposed Exhibition in Hyde Park would mean destroying lawns, flowerbeds and
            trees. Paxton’s design minimized this. His winning design was based on a large iron
            and glass structure he’d erected at Chatsworth to house a huge tropical water-lily the
            Duke had collected. The Crystal Palace was a vast shell built of cast iron and glass
            with wooden floorboards, manufactured in pre-fabricated parts which were
            delivered and assembled on the site. It enclosed nearly a million square feet of

            exhibition space and was three times the size of St. Paul’s cathedral. It was later
            dismantled and moved to Sydenham (sadly it burned down in 1936).

            Take a virtual reality tour of the Crystal Palace courtesy of the Royal Parks:

            In a sense however the Great Exhibition was more of an ending than a beginning.

            Historian Martin Wiener calls it “the high-water mark of educated opinion’s
            enthusiasm for industrial capitalism”. The cultural climate was changing. Prince
            Albert died in 1861 and nothing like the Great Exhibition was ever attempted again.
            Just before this, three titans of Victorian railway engineering had also died within
            months of each other in 1859-60: I.K. Brunel, Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke.
            Stephenson in particular was hailed as a hero, crowds lining the streets for his funeral
            at Westminster Abbey.

            Then, in 1861 Samuel Smiles began publishing Live of the Engineers which became
            immensely popular. What is England, he asked, “without its tools, its machinery, its
            steam engines, its steam ships and its locomotives?” Smiles is often quoted as proof
            of the Victorians’ respect for industrial engineering, but as Martin Wiener says,
            although Smiles found “a moral purpose in industry and in its progress material for a
            new kind of epic drama”, this vision never conquered Victorian Britain: “the moment

            passed, the purpose grew dim, and the audience turned away. Business and industry
            were pushed aside to the periphery of British social and cultural concern, to be
            criticised and disdained.”
            As the historian of British engineering, L.C.T.Rolt, says: after Robert Stephenson
            “never again would a British engineer command so much esteem and affection; never
            again would the profession stand so high. The public lost confidence in the engineer,
            so that he lost confidence in himself.” Historian Herbert Sussman calls the 1850’s “the
            end of hope in the blessings of the machine”. Smiles invited the British to honour and
            celebrate their heroes of the Industrial Revolution. For a brief time, they did; but

            then, as Wiener says, the audience turned away.
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