On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.
This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.
It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:
“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural result of the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”
(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)
This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.
This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:
“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”
(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)
It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.
In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.
My sources thus far have been a variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.
As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.
In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.