Writing a Transport History of the Great Exhibition III: Transporting Goods

In this series of posts I am writing about my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition that I presented last year at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about, and part II discussed the planning stages of the Exhibition. In this third post, I look at how goods moved across the world into the Crystal Palace.

III. Transporting Goods to the Exhibition

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The Great Exhibition of 1851; see The British Library images

“It seemed as if magic only could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the Earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus… ruled and subdued by some invisible influence”

Charlotte Brontë, in a letter of 7th June 1851 to her father, Patrick Brontë

Such were Charlotte Brontë’s words upon entering the Crystal Palace in June 1851, the first of 2 visits that she made during her stay in London that year. Her reflections here capture the extraordinary co-ordination of forces that had come together to produce what another contemporary commentator described as a “monument to consumption” (Nikolas Pevsner, 1851).

While evocative, Brontë’s invocation of “the invisible influence” of supernatural hands belies the very visible presence of activity in the lead-up to the Exhibition; whether in the streets of London or in the pages of the press, objects on the move were recorded with intense fascination in the months and weeks leading up to the Exhibition.*

This started with the international packages, sometimes traced right from the point of origin; in one case, the route of a “monster lump of zinc ore” sent from the USA is followed from the mines, over the mountains to Dover, New Jersey, and then on to the coast to be shipped across the Atlantic (see The Times, 16th January 1851, p. 6).

Much of the sea-transportation was undertaken by the steamer ships that had largely outmoded sailing vessels by this point in the century, and Britain’s global network of steamships came into action: the Peninsular & Oriental company shipped items from Middle East and Mediterranean, the East India Company brought goods from India, and regular services between Britain and many ports across Europe served the continental contributors. Some ships were of especial interest, such as the Feiza Baari, the first Turkish steam-ship to ever visit England. The US frigate St Lawrence was also the subject of much anticipation, and for several months there are reports detailing the choice of ship, its fitting up, and then the awaiting of its eventual arrival on British shores, greeted with much excitement:

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The Times, 14th March 1851, p. 5

While the St Lawrence was of particular interest for the eagerly-awaited American contribution to the Exhibition, the attention given here to the packages it contains is not unusual. In the months leading up to the opening, the pages of The Times are filled with numerous such reports recording each arrival at the British docks with meticulous detailing of the number, and often the contents, of packages brought by each ship. As the weeks progress, this turns into something of a growing fixation at the numbers of goods received and the number still to arrive, as in this table from 22nd April 1851 recording the “return of foreign and colonial goods received to April 19 (inclusive):

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The Times, 22nd April 1851, p. 3

 

Such figures are accompanied by frequent expressions of anxiety at the unknown quantities of goods still to be received, and concerns about scant intelligence from some countries: in February The Times writes, “the Executive Committee remain in profound ignorance as to what they may expect from most of the foreign countries” (The Times, 13th February 1851, p. 5) and this anxiety increases as 1st May approaches. Such concerns are a reminder that while it is easy to emphasise the global connectedness that the Exhibition depended upon, it also brought to the fore the realities of disconnection and the persistence of gaps in the networked world.

International goods arrived into either the London Docks, or to other ports such as Southampton (as in the case of the St Lawrence, above), which were connected to London by rail; many of Britain’s contributions also arrived on the railways (hence the importance of the Exhibition’s proximity to mainline stations, as outlined in this previous post). Upon arrival into the city, packages then made their way to the Crystal Palace by road.

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“The Shilling Day: Going to the Exhibition”, Illustrated London News, 19th July 1851, p. 100

Road-congestion around Hyde Park had been the subject of much discussion in the planning stages, but as the Exhibition approached this turned from concern to a source of wonder. The sight of waggons laden with goods arriving and departing at every hour becomes a spectacle in and of itself, one that The Times comments on frequently, and at length:

“waggons laden with every species of commodity have deposited their burdens in the interior… the string of conveyances in waiting often extended down the Kensington-road as far as the end of Sloane-street. Such a spectacle was probably never witnessed in any thoroughfare of the metropolis before, and passers-by stopped to gaze at that long procession … more wonderful in its character than even the rows of splendid equipages assembled in the adjoining park during the height of the season. On Monday 600 waggon loads were received; yet the whole of this vast consignment was deposited with the utmost regularity, and without any inconvenience to the ordinary traffic of the thoroughfare.”

(The Times, 3rd April 1851, p. 5)

This wonder is not only at the number of things, but also at the movement of things: the  “utmost regularity” by which so many packages are moved with order and precision. This sense of the ceaseless, repeated mass movement of items through the streets is evocative of technologized motion; while the waggons are an old form of pre-industrial transport, the consciousness of the railway age here turns them into the mechanisms of a machine-like motion filling London’s streets.

By May 1st 1851, most of the items for display had arrived in the Exhibition – with a few notable omissions, such as “the contributions of native produce from Western Australia, including the newly discovered woods from Shark’s-bay […] which were delayed by an accident to the vessel they were shipped in” (The Times, 8th May 08, 1851; pg. 6). But while a few late announcements of displays follow, attention now mostly turned to passenger transport which will be the subject of my next post.

*my focus here, as in previous posts, is on The Times; I’m currently working through local and regional newspapers to compare with and complement the London focus.

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