Tag Archives: Great Exhibition series

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

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:

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):

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.

“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.


Writing a Transport History of the Great Exhibition II: Planning the Exhibition

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

Tallis’s Railway Map of Great Britain, 1851

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:

Some of the proposed locations for the Exhibition (marked in yellow), and London railway termini (red), using Cross’s 1851 London Guide produced for the Exhibition

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.

Writing a transport history of the Great Exhibition I: introductory thoughts

“London in 1851”, by George Cruikshank; first published in Henry Mayhew, 1851: or the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys (London, 1851)

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.

The Times,  Thursday January 16th, 1851, p. 6; image from The Times Digital Archive 1785-2010 at Gale Cengage Learning

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.

SS Baltic, built in 1850 for transatlantic service with the American Collins Line; N. Currier, 1851, U.S. Library of Congress

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.