The Crystal Palace: Victorian Era Science, Technology, & Industry at its Best


The Crystal Palace, a giant glass and iron exhibition hall built in Hyde Park, housed the 1851 Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations. Many consider this remarkable structure to be one of the touchstones of Victorian England—an intrinsic part of the cultural system that both shaped and reflected the nation’s values. Sir Joseph Paxton’s design made such an impact in the field of architecture that replicas of the structure were built in Spain and the United States.* Yet such were mainstream British attitudes toward foreign influence during the Victorian era that the construction of The Crystal Palace, and the Great Exhibition, almost didn’t occur.

When Victoria inherited the throne at the age of eighteen, Britain had moved from a primarily agricultural system to one based in manufacturing. The lower class were abandoning the farms and moving to the cities in droves. The country was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. Victorian’s reign would see the birth of the factory system, the production line, and the machine age. The technology developed during this time would change not only the nature of industry, but the nature of the society as well.

At the age of twenty, Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert. PBS Empires: Queen Victoria provides details of their “courtship:”

“Prince Albert’s father, Duke Ernest of Coburg, was a brother of Queen
Victoria’s mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent. Since Albert was a
second son, he would have no inheritance and no occupation. The family
conspired almost from his birth in August 1819, three months after that of
Victoria, to link the first cousins in marriage”(“Prince Albert,” n.d.).

Victoria proposed (which was necessary because she was sovereign) and Albert accepted. However, many of Victoria’s subjects viewed her choice of husband with dismay, primarily because Albert was foreign. From the early days of Victoria’s reign a marked distrust of foreigners grew and developed even further as England became a global super-power. In part it was a sense of national pride—in the superiority of the English way of life—that created this mistrust of foreign people and their cultures and customs. Jan Morris explains:

Punch Magazine Victorian Era Political Cartoon

Punch Magazine Victorian Era Political Cartoon. While the Queen pays her taxes, Prince Albert stands behind her doing “something” in her skirts. A high ranking clergy looks on with disapproval.

“It’s hard to generalize it by a British attitude, isn’t it? But the attitude of
those people who were thinking about it or in a position to do anything
about it was, I think, that they . . . were masters, not only of industrial
production, but of the means of distributing the things they made around
the world. They were really on top of the world, and it gave them I’m sure
a kind of magical feeling . . .”(“Interview with Jan Morris,” n.d.).

Parliament reflected the mood of the general public and refused to grant Albert any type of a title. Yet the ministers to the Queen noted that he had more patience in dealing with complex matters of state and encouraged Victoria to include her new husband in their daily briefings. Slowly their relationship developed into a co-monarchy. Albert was discharging the duties of a king, in reality if still not in title.

Because Albert had a lively interest in industry and invention, the queen was introduced to new developments in technology. He tried to open Victoria’s eyes to the ideas and opinions that were uprooting the old agriculturally based world around them. Albert focused on technological change as a way to improve the lives of all people, not just the upper and middle class. He wanted the standard of life of the working class improved, he wanted wealth to be more evenly distributed, and he wanted more people to have the advantages of the new inventions.

screen-shot-2011-03-28-at-10-46-38-amOne of Albert’s greatest successes—The Great Exhibition of The Works of Industry of All Nations (informally known as the Crystal Palace)—almost failed because of the British nationalist attitudes. Protests were lodged in Parliament to the Exhibition because of the influx of foreigners that it would attract.

Political enemies of the Prince focused on every aspect of the event, complaining relentlessly in Parliament and in the press about the construction of the building that would house the Exhibition, the perceived negative impact that it would have on the economy, and the folly of the Queen for allowing her foreign-born husband to bring such disorder to London.

Despite all of the protests, it was an unparalleled success:

“On May 1, 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace, an
engineering marvel itself, on the southeastern edge of Hyde Park. A
wonder of iron and glass, it was the first substantial prefabricated building,
and housed a staggering sampling of the new developments in
engineering, manufactures and the arts. Its impetus in fostering change
would be enormous, and the setting, with light streaming through its
293,655 panes of glass, awesome. Six million visitors were recorded,
equal to a third of the kingdom. Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father,
‘Whatever human industry has created, you will find there.’” (“Engines of
Change,” n.d.).

Inexpensive tickets allowed many of the working class to attend the Exhibition. People from the Continent and as far away as America journeyed to London to visit the Crystal Palace. Yet, even when the crowds topped over 100,000 visitors a day, there was no disorder. For many, it was the first time they could glimpse the technological pre-eminence of Britain and it generated feelings of awe and wonderment (“Engines of Change,” n.d.). Among the exhibits were Colt’s repeating pistol, Goodyear India rubber goods, chewing tobacco, hydraulic presses, powerful steam engines, pumps, and automated cotton mules (spinning machines). The building had the first major instillation of public toilets.

crystalpalace3Relocated after The Great Exhibition of 1851, the building was used for other events. In 1936 a catastrophic fire swept through The Crystal Palace, and in 1941 the government demolished the final remnants of the building, ostensibly to prevent German Bombers from using the ruins to target the area. In 2013 there were plans submitted to rebuild the Crystal Palace in the London Borough of Bromley, but the project was canceled this year.

*There is a replica of The Crystal Palace in Madrid and one at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The latter houses the 100-Acre Wood Restaurant.**

**If you Google “Winnie the Pooh and Queen Victoria” you will get some very odd results. The most disturbing article I read described a web of conspiracy between A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie the Pooh books), Queen Victoria, and Jack the Ripper. Try to get that ominous trio out of your mind the next time you see a picture of Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in a honey pot.





Engines of Change. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved

Interview with Jan Morris. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved

Prince Albert. (n.d.) PBS Empires: Queen Victoria. Retrieved from



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