I am pleased to be speaking at “Making the Connections” – Transport and its Place in History, a conference run by York Transport Historians and sponsored by the National Railway Museum on 16th November 2016 at King’s Manor, York.
More about the conference and registration can be found here, the abstract of my paper is below.
“This moving panorama of life”: Re-inserting transport into the history of the Great Exhibition
“Where they all come from is the wonder, nor can the stranger help admiring the marvellous dexterity with which this moving panorama of life is directed in its perplexed and hazardous course.” (The Times, 8th October 1851)
The Great Exhibition of 1851 has occupied a central place in scholarship on the Victorian period, and many studies have examined the material culture on display in the Crystal Palace. With over 100,000 exhibits, the Exhibition stood as a “monument to consumption”, as Nikolas Pevsner wrote in 1851: “the final flourish of a century of greatest commercial expansion”.
But the Exhibition was not just a monument to consumption; it was also a monument to mobility. As much as the Exhibition was comprised of the new things of a changing consumer culture, its displays were made possible by the new networks of a mobile culture that had seen rapid and widespread developments, at global and national levels, in the preceding years. While there has been recent critical interest in the global commodity flows surrounding the Exhibition, and the significance of the railways to the Exhibition has been broadly acknowledged, little attention has been devoted to understanding the practical functioning of the transport networks that produced the Exhibition, or to considering the wider resonances of Exhibition transport history for our understanding of mid-nineteenth century mobile culture.
In this paper, through study of official planning documents and reports, news articles in The Times, journals including Household Words, and contemporary literary pieces such as Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys, I construct an account of the practicalities of Exhibition mobilities: the what, where, and when of how 6 million visitors and objects from 14,000 contributors were successfully moved across the world and into the Crystal Palace. I assess how global mobilities, primarily steamship networks, were instrumental in enabling the internationalism of the Exhibition; I then turn to the role of intra-national mobilities, including railways, omnibuses and cabs, in bringing objects and people across the nation and into the Crystal Palace.
I conclude by considering what this transport history contributes to understanding the mobilities of mid-Victorian culture more broadly. While the transport technologies that enabled the Exhibition had been developing in the years leading up to 1851, I argue that the Exhibition represented a turning-point in how mobility was perceived and conceptualised. The Exhibition brought transport into view in a new way: through the sudden flux of people and things moving about and around the nation, the Exhibition made acutely visible how Britain had become a globally connected nation, and made prominent the role of transport technologies in facilitating this change. I argue that this intersected with questions about Britain’s global positioning and national sense of self that the Exhibition raised, placing transport history at the centre of a significant cultural moment for the Victorians.