In this series of posts I am writing up some of my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition, on which I recently presented at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about and gave an overview of the shape of the research as it currently stands. In this piece, I start by exploring the planning stages of the Exhibition.
II. Planning the Exhibition
Transport networks were crucial from the early planning stages of the Exhibition in the late 1840s. A network of committee members travelled around the country to garner support for the Exhibition, making use of the railways to do so, and Joseph Paxton noted that his first meeting with Robert Stephenson about the design of the Crystal Palace was a chance encounter on the railway.
As the international remit of the Exhibition became certain a global network of representatives came into effect, operating mostly via postal correspondence – the speed of which was facilitated by quickening times of steamers. In fact Henry Cole, in his lecture “On the International Results of the Exhibition of 1851”, anticipated that one of the first legacies of the Exhibition would be the formation of a global Postal Association which would create a standardised, uniform system of postal rates, much like that effected by Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform, across the world.
Back in London the first planning decisions centred upon where the Exhibition would be located. Hyde Park was one of just several possible options, with sites at King’s Cross, the Isle of Dogs, and Battersea fields among others proposed:
Transport was central to discussions about the site: access was vital not only for the large number of visitors anticipated, but more importantly for the delivery of objects. Proximity to railway termini was one factor: as can be seen from the map, despite the growing national scale of the railway network the number of termini in the city was still relatively limited in 1851. King’s Cross offered an ideal site given that the railway station connected with the north and west of England, from where the majority of UK displays would be arriving.¹
Access to water was equally, if not, more important though: a far greater number of goods would be arriving from overseas. Transporting a large number of items overland from the docks by waggon, on the scale required, would be costly, time-consuming, and potentially disruptive to the city’s road network. Battersea fields and the Isle of Dogs had the advantage of proximity to the river, removing the need for overland journeys – ships would be able to sail straight up-river, or send on smaller loads by boat.
Hyde Park had neither the advantage of rail nor water access:
“There are no means of access, either by water or by railway, to Hyde-Park. This is so serious an objection that were there none other forthcoming it should be decisive upon the subject. The cost of transporting the materials and of removing them, the expense of conveying the bulkier objects that are to be exhibited to the repository, must of necessity be vastly increased in amount in consequence of the selection of Hyde-park as the site of the intended Exhibition.”
(The Times, 2nd July 1850, p. 5)
It is almost surprising that Hyde Park was the final choice, given how much surrounding discussion focused on the significance of transport networks. What Hyde Park did offer, however, was the benefit of centrality for visitors, removing the need for lengthy cross-city journeys for those who would already have travelled into London. But its river and rail connections did continue to be a feature throughout the ensuing preparations, a theme I’ll come back to in a later post.
Transport preparations were also coming into effect around the country: repairs to railway lines were pushed forward, and a new locomotive series built. This wasn’t limited to Britain: plans were underfoot to ensure the smooth passage of Austria’s contribution:
“A committee has been formed, under the auspices of Government, for taking into consideration the best means of worthily representing Austria at the great exhibition of manufacturers &c., in London. 10,000l. has been granted by the Minister of Commerce for the construction of roads in Croatia and Sclavonia, and it is proposed to construct a railroad between the Banat and the sea coast.”
(The Times, 25th March 1850, p. 3)
While Spain and America announced early on that there would be free passage for exhibitors:
“Spain had offered large rewards and free passages for the articles of exhibition. The Governor of New York would represent the American people, and free passage would be given for objects intended for the exhibition.”
(The Times, 3rd May 1850, p. 3)
The precursor to the Exhibition, then, was a climate of discussion about transport, both nationally and internationally. There is a sense, in these early months, that Britain begins to realise the capabilities of the networks it has created, and to recognise the Exhibition as the moment in which they will come to fruition. As one poem of 1851 reflects,
“The Prince conceiv’d his giant scheme,
Invok’d he then the aid of steam,
And all the energies of man,
To realise his glorious plan.”
The Crystal Hive; or, the first of May, 1851, Charlotte Theresa Wheler (London, 1852)
This paved the way for the transport of exhibits, the subject of my next post.
¹ The King’s Cross Station building that stands today wasn’t completed until 1852, but a temporary passenger station at the end of the Great Northern Railway line was open from 1850.