The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Common People

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The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Common People
Tracie Stokka

McLean Sixth Grade Center

Forth Worth, TX
2012 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

Come to the Exhibition

Sweet Catherine with me,

And for a bob a piece my love,

Such funny things we'll see.

(From a flier advertising

The Great Exhibition of 1851)


The Great Exhibition dangled the enticements of celebrity, novelty, and ingenuity before an international audience, which reacted with predicable enthusiasm. Although the Great Exhibition was open only six months, over six million people visited it. By the time it was over, one in three English citizens had been to the Great Exhibition at least once, and many of its wealthier patrons purchased season tickets. Charlotte Bronte wrote the following after her second visit:

Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created (, “Charlotte Bronte at the Great Exhibition, 1851”).
Its popularity was a reflection of how far the Industrial Revolution had progressed, and it foretold how this revolution would socially, politically, and economically influence Great Britain during the rest of Queen Victoria’s reign and beyond. In particular, it marked a turning point in the relationship between the working classes and the rising middle and upper classes.

Advertising the Great Exhibition

The birth of the Industrial Revolution was soon followed by that of its siblings: Mass Marketing and Mass Manipulation. These precocious twins had an especially intimate relationship with the Great Exhibition. In tertiary industries such as entertainment, success was measured in ticket sales. Without a significantly large audience, the Great Exhibition would have been counted a colossal failure even if it had succeeded in creating the world’s largest assembly of international businesses. Moreover, convincing businesses to attend depended largely on promising crowds of potential customers and stalls of rival businesses with which to compete. Thus, a persuasive catch-22 existed between the need for exhibitors and the need for spectators.

Although Prince Albert and other notable government figures were heavily involved in the promotion and planning of the Great Exhibition, the event itself was bankrolled by private money, mostly in the form of donations and subscriptions. For Prince Albert, often viewed as the suspicious foreigner married to England’s beloved queen, the event was a potential public relations dream-come-true or nightmare. Failure threatened money, status, and ego.

Doing something that would have been unthinkable during the previous decade solved the problem of attendance. The “working classes,” or, if you prefer a less Marxist descriptor, “the common people” were invited to attend. In fact, their presence was actively and somewhat romantically courted.

In his book, The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, Michael Leapman writes that Poet Laureate Tennyson “honored the common herd as much as the privileged elite” in the following verse venerating the Great Exhibition:

Lo! The giant aisles

Rich in model and design;

Harvest-tool and husbandry,

Loom and wheel and enginery,

Secrets of the sullen mine,

Steel and gold, and coal and wine,

Fabric rough or fairy-fine . . .

And shapes and hues of Art divine!

(Leapman, 13)

While Tennyson’s poem may have acknowledged the “common herd,” it was not written for them or intended to persuade their attendance. However, numerous advertisers created their own ballads in a rough vernacular meant to arouse the enthusiasm of common folk and to woo them to make the necessary financial sacrifices to procure funds for travel and admission. Take for instance the opening stanza of a full-page flier:

Let all the World say what they will,

I do not care a fig,

The Exhibition I will see

If I don’t dash my wig;

If I sell the pig and the donkey,

The frying pan and bed,

I will see the Exhibition

While it is a bob a head,

Never mind the rent or taxes,

Dear Polly come with me,

To the Great Exhibition all

The wonders for to see.

(University of Kansas)
Not only would the lower classes set up, tear down, and clean up after the Great Exhibition, but also they would have the novelty of attending the party. Such advertisements were indicative of the financial uncertainty surrounding the Great Exhibition. The 186,000-pound profit that would be used to purchase land for the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Science and Natural History Museum, and Prince Albert Performance Hall was not anticipated. During the planning stage, breaking even often seemed beyond the realm of real possibility. It took until March of 1850 to obtain the 100,000 pounds of capital needed to build the Great Exhibition Hall, and the last 20,000 pounds had been acquired by robbing the prize fund. Competitors would now compete for medals and the accompanying prestige only (Leapman 40).

Thus, even the five-shilling and single shilling patrons were sought aggressively towards a goal of balanced books. Unfortunately, finding five spare shillings or even a single spare shilling was beyond the ability of many. To put this seemingly small admission fee into Victorian working class perspective, one need look no further than the glaziers who placed the Crystal Palace’s 900,000 square feet of glass and earned the “good pay” of four shillings a day for their troubles. When “rabble rousers” attempted to organize and demand an exorbitant five shillings per diem, they were promptly found out and thrown out. Their naïve and impressionable followers were grateful to be rehired at original pay (Beaver 24).

For most, the entrance fee was only one of many related expenses. A day at the Great Exhibition meant another day’s wages lost. For those outside the London metropolitan area, the price of a third class train ticket was yet another outlay. In addition, a meal or refreshment might be needed. The total cost of the trip amounted to several weeks’ wages. For the poor, forever living precariously hand to mouth, a few pounds represented a small fortune. The poem from the advertising flyer on the previous page makes jest of “selling the pig, the donkey, the frying pan, and bed.” Yet this mirth had the cutting ring of truth to it. In his book The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Jeffrey Auerbach indicates that a large number of watches were pawned during the Exhibition (150). A poor man’s watch would have been one of few personal effects valued enough by the middle classes to be used as collateral for a loan.

A variety of solutions were found to address the problem of cost. An innkeeper named Abraham Priestly started the Great Exhibition’s equivalent of a Christmas Club Account where his customers saved anywhere from few pence to a schillings each week towards the goal of attending. They started saving slightly over a year in advance, and during this time period Priestly negotiated special group rates for the travelers (Leapman 40-41). Soon others were using his methods of small savings sustained over time to fund their own group excursions.

A Baptist minister Thomas Cook transferred to the Great Exhibition the business acumen he had earned organizing group travel to temperance rallies. He purchased tickets in enormous blocks at greatly discounted prices. He resold the tickets to his patrons for a modest profit and was also able to offer far-flung travelers modestly priced and “un-spirited” nights at known temperance hotels (Leapman 226). His successful marketing included hiring bands to play outside factory exits where he sold tickets on payday. In conjunction with Midway Railways, he was responsible for helping 165,000 people attend the Great Exhibition (Auerbach 138).

Many of the common laborers attended the Great Exhibition at least partly on the largess of their employers. A London brewery awarded 300 hundred of its employees two days of vacation and a crown bonus to attend the exhibition. A bank used its 500-pound subscription donation to provide season tickets to lower tier staff. Other, more modestly profitable businesses, added shillings to their employee’s sustained savings. While often these gestures were rooted in patriotism, paternalism, and a genuine appreciation of their employees’ efforts, just as often the generosity was tainted by self-interest. Some employees were instructed to note new methods of production that might be copied, new machines that might be adapted for their own purposes or even technology that might be nefariously stolen. One large carpet manufacture subsidized the entire cost of the trip to impress upon its employees the level of competition that they faced (Auerbach 150).

The Great Exhibition was the first large-scale public event to pursue the pennies of the poor. Several interpretations, all probably partially true, attempt to explain why the phenomena of marketing to the poor continued and even flourished. One holds that as poor as the working class still was, their situation had improved enough that their meager “discretionary” wealth could be sought to sustain the Industrial Revolution’s economic growth. The common people had, at last, become consumers as well as tired cogs of production.
An Olive Branch to the Common People

How far had the standard of living risen at the time of the Great Exhibition? Was it a new higher standard of living that made it possible for so many of the poor to attend the Great Exhibition? In his essay “The Standard of Living Debate during Britain’s Industrial Revolution,” Professor Gerard Koot summarizes the views of notable historians on the political left and the political right regarding when and how much the standard of living improved for the common people. He shares some of the statistical data that each side uses to support its claims. By doing so, he suggests that evidence is largely inconclusive, that the statistics of the time period can be manipulated to support the opinion that “real wages” rose significantly or hardly at all between 1780 and 1850 (Koot).

However, historians from both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that the 1840’s were the “hungry forties,” a time of deep economic recession. Given the shorter life expectancy and the sense of immediacy born of limited literacy, “the hungry forties” may have the only economic situation with which many workers were familiar. Therefore, workers must have felt that their condition had improved modestly in the economic upswing of the early 1850’s. After all, they believed in the possibility of saving enough to attend the Great Exhibition.

Also, only “the cream” of the working classes, would have possessed the wages and necessary discipline to save enough to attend. They would also have been the ones to inspire the generosity of employers. Addictions and other social ills flourish in situations of extreme poverty where they offer temporary escape from harsh realities. These maladaptive habits devour pay packets, breed self-contempt, and promote the self-righteous indignation of “respectable” society. Of course, not all who were incapable of saving the funds to see the Great Exhibition were gin freaks, prostitutes, or other undesirables. Nevertheless, the lowest entrance fees were set at a shilling for the precise intention of excluding some of the working classes.

As self-made men, both author Charles Dickens and Crystal Palace architect Joseph Paxton were sympathetic to the plight of the poor and advocated low entrance fees. In fact, Paxton initially advocated for free admission because he felt that too many people would be denied the opportunity to visit it. He also contended that the exhibition was too valuable an educational opportunity to be done justice in a single visit (Leapman 72).

Not surprisingly, Paxton’s idea was met with both practical criticism regarding crowd management and criticism based solely on the conceits of birthright. In a letter to an acquaintance, critic Lord Granville conveyed his opinion regarding Paxton’s social inferiority when he wrote, “Paxton’s head has been turned by the events of last six months, and it is not surprising that they should have that effect on a self-educated man (Leapman 73).”

The 1840s might also in part explain the attitude of the upper classes towards the lower classes regarding this event. In 1834, the New Poor Law was passed with its goal of drastically cutting the number of paupers eligible for relief and the amount of money spent on that relief (Morgan 72). Between 1829-1833, under the Old Poor Laws, 6.7 million pounds were spent on poor relief. In the four years following the 1834 New Poor Law, only 4.9 million pounds was spent, and from 1839-1843, it declined again to 4.7 million pounds. As the economic depression worsened, the amount spent on poor relief rose slightly to 5.2 million pounds (Morgan 72). However, the slight rise in money spent was not proportionate to the economic downturn that created greater and greater numbers of unemployed laborers. Compounding the problem was the Irish potato famine that brought in new waves of desperate immigrants. Those lucky enough to qualify for poor relief received slightly more than half of what they would have gotten two decades earlier. The situation invited political upheaval, and, indeed some historians have labeled 1848 as the Year of Revolution because of the political uprisings that started in France and spread across Europe to include Italian States, German States, Poland, Denmark, the Hapsburg Empire, and other domains.

England avoided revolution but not social protest. The most vocal of the urban protesters were the Chartists whose main goal was universal male suffrage without property qualifications in order to ensure that the lower classes could take part in government franchise. Despite the large number of people who signed the Chartists’ petitions in 1839, 1842, and 1848, none of their demands were granted and their protests were successfully squelched. After 1848, the strength of the Chartists waned with an improved economy (Leapman).

However, lingering memories of the movement left residual anxiety in the ruling class and colored their interactions with the poor. They recognized a need to court the goodwill of the poor majority while at the same time fearing that too conciliatory an attitude would be perceived As weakness and would invite new demands. The following quote by Colonel Lloyd, one of the Great Exhibitions promoters, conveys the fine balancing act that was deemed necessary:

I think or think I see a strong and selfish feeling among these classes, which it is very important to be guarded in meddling with, that they may not be betrayed into an undue opinion of their own importance and power. So long as the co-operation of the working classes is under perfectly manageable control and thoroughly and entirely subordinate to the majors and local committees, much kindly feeling will result and nothing but good will come of it: but a very little oversight and a very little mismanagement may cause great mischief and effect into sudden importance a vast power which may not be reducible again to its proper limits after the Exhibition shall have passed away (Leapman 63).

Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford and the son of an abolitionist, offered an olive branch to the poor that was held less apprehensively. He delivered a “gospel of work” sermon on the Great Exhibition’s ability to promote the “dignity of labor . . .which attaches to the producers of things “ and went on to suggest that the inventions displayed at the exhibition would eventually “ameliorate the conditions of the lower classes of people and bring within their reach advantages which had previously been restricted to the richer grades of society (Auerbach 129).” His phrase “dignity of labour” was often repeated and became synonymous with efforts to show greater respect to the working class. Bishop Wilberforce found an ally in Prince Albert who was President of the Society to Improve the Condition of the Working Classes. This organization would feature a “Model Dwelling House” for working class families at the Great Exhibition that had been designed at Albert’s behest (Beaver 42).

Not all of the ruling class saw a need to calm a turbulent relationship with the common masses by inviting their participation in a large public event. Lincoln MP Colonial Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorpe was the most virulent and vocal of the opposition. A true patriot, Sibthorpe established his credentials early in his parliamentary career by opposing the Public Library Act. He was against the Great Exhibition of 1851 for a myriad of reasons ranging from the possibility of trees being cut down in Hyde Park to money wasted while the “ Irish poor are starving.” He opposed the laboring classes attending the exhibition out of concern for their morality. Speaking to his fellow members of Parliament, he stated:

The House has been told that labourers throughout the country will save their shillings, that they might be enabled to visit the exhibition. Who will take care of their families whilst they are away in London? The poor labourers will suddenly find themselves amidst the temptations of the metropolis . . .What will become of the chastity and the modesty of those who might become unsuspecting victims of those temptations? (Beaver 22)
When the first groups of foreign exhibitors arrived in February of 1851, he expressed further concern and predicted a “piebald generation” (Beaver 35).
At the Exhibition

For the common folk, many of whom worked from dawn to dusk six days a week, a trip to London was like a visit to a foreign land, and entering the Crystal Palace was stepping into fairy tale castle where wealth spun from machines and where the good queen’s presence at the side of her prince cast a spell of goodwill among all nations and social classes. Queen Victoria proudly supported her beloved Albert’s success by making numerous visits to the Crystal Palace. Some of these visits occurred on shilling days.

Mouths agape, heads swiveling, they wandered through nearly ten miles of displays that featured everything from the world’s largest diamond, to the miracle of steam engines, to an envelope manufacturing machine, to nude sculptures (from where else but France), to a series of vignettes featuring taxidermy squirrels and kittens dressed in clothes and posed as school children or ladies having tea. New luxuries could be seen as well as used since the Great Exhibition was the first event to feature public restrooms.

When the feared mayhem failed to materialize, newspaper after newspaper featured

Series of human-interest stories about the visitors. Of an early group of visitors from

Yorkshire, the Morning Chronicle declared:

The honest fellows appeared delighted, though somewhat confounded, by the vastness of the Crystal Palace and the strange collection of objects among which they found themselves. It was amusing to observe how they seemed to stand in awe of the building: its greatness paralyzed them; they hardly like to penetrate into the huge compartment which opened on each side, but struck close to the crystal fountain, or, if they moved forward, kept close together in small parties---the young ones held by the hand lest they should be lost, and even the adults seemed apprehensive of a similar disaster. To guard against this, the rosettes had been provided (Leapman 12).
To counter the anticlimactic reality of a nearly impeccably behaved working class at the Great Exhibition, entertainers at taverns far and wide and small time publishers created their own ribald versions of happenings at the exhibition. Many of the songs were fiercely xenophobic, while others merely played on the moral decadence that MP Sibthorpe had forecast. Take for instance the verse below which Michael Leapman describes as suggestive of exhibit patrons who used “the occasion for something other than self-improvement and intellectual gratification.”

Five hundred maidens got with child

At the National Exhibition

Many a pretty damsel kind,

Oh, lack a day! In nine months’ time,

In a truss of straw will be confin’d

With a national exhibition.

Some got squeezed and some got hobbled,

Some got kicked and some got robbed,

Some got barked at by the dogs,

And some got smothered in smoke and fogs.

Some pretty maids got in disgrace,

Lost what they never can replace,

And thousands went with a dirty face,

To see the exhibition.

(Leapman 210)


The Great Exhibition reinforced comforting notions regarding Britain’s place at thievery center of the “civilized” world. Treatment of the common people during the Great Exhibition was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In the words of Jeffry Auerbach:

The organizers of the Great Exhibition sought to bring together all sectors of British society under one roof. Yet, at the same time, the arrangement of exhibits, admission prices, patterns of attendance, and latent fears about the working classes reflected and reinforced hierarchies and divisions within Victorian society (128).
A cynic might be tempted to argue that any real progress in improving the plight of and attitudes towards the poor was purely illusionary, that the Great Exhibition merely tied a pretty ribbon around the status quo. The intentions of the Great Exhibition’s promoters towards the lower classes were both arguably generous and yet undeniably self-serving. It was yet another example of the upper and middle classes utilizing the poor in order to improve a financial bottom line. Moreover, it was done in a manner that allowed the wealthier classes to feel self-congratulatory in their magnanimity towards the poor, while, in fact, offering them very little of lasting value.

However, the cynic’s view does not take into account the intensity of the spotlight that shone on all aspects of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The same publicity that promoted the shilling and five entrance days by extension cast light on the people who would be taking advantage of these lower rates. It continued and broadened a lively national debate on issues related to “those” people. It illuminated societal misconception regarding the poor, and because the shilling attendees behaved largely beyond reproach, it cast shadows of doubt on long held prejudices.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1999. Print.

Beaver, Patrick, The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore, 1986. Print.

Hobsbawm, E. J., and Chris Wrigley. Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day. New York: New, 1999. Print

Koot, Gerard M., “The Standard of Living Debate,”

Leapman, Michael. The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation. London: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Morgan, Kenneth. The Birth of Industrial Britain: Social Change, 1750-1850. Harlow, England: Longman, 2011. Print.

“ I'm Going to See the Exhibition for a Shilling." Digital Image. “Humorous Asides,” The Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2012. .

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