Inspired by a curious envelope, Assistant Curator Georgina examines the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition behind it...

The 30th of November marks 80 years since Crystal Palace dramatically burnt down. To commemorate the building and its legacy, I wanted to look into why it was built, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and how it ended up moving to Sydenham.

The Time:

Crystal Palace, a name coined by the satirical newspaper Punch, was conceived and constructed in the 19th century. Built during the height of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, it was an example of wealth and power.

Queen Victoria was on the throne supported by her husband Prince Albert, and the country was, for a time, at peace. The British dominance of the sea, and its ever-expanding Empire, made for a prosperous country and an increase in industrialisation.

Image of the Stephenson's Locomotive on a stamp.

Stephenson’s Locomotive, 7p, 150th Anniversary of Public Railways, 1975

This increase in technology led to advancements in locomotives and a greater rail network across the country, which would later allow people from all across Britain to visit the Palace.

Though from a much later date, the ‘British Empire’ stamp of 1924 (below) represents the power Britain held during the 19th century: it sees itself as a lion, proud and prominent.

Image of a Lion stood on the land with an image of King George V above.

British Empire Stamp, 1½d, 1924

The Construction:

The Great Exhibition was the brainchild of Prince Albert, President of the Royal Society of Arts, and the inventor of the Christmas Card, Sir Henry Cole. The exhibition was an opportunity to display the sophistication of the British Empire in both technology and trade.

Christmas Card with people drinking and socialising.

Original Christmas Card designed by John C. Horsley and sold by Henry Cole, 1843

There was a competition to design the structure, which attracted 248 different submissions. However, none of the designs were deemed appropriate or within budget, until that of renowned gardener John Paxton.

Paxton was the gardener for The 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, where he had experimented with greenhouses. It would be this concept that he would adapt to produce the structure.

Stamp depicting a young Queen Victoria with Crystal Palace in the background.

Crystal Palace, ‘Monarch of the Glenn’ (Landseer) and Grace Darling, 18p, Victorian Britain, 1987

The Crystal Palace structure, originally situated in Hyde Park, was built by the company Fox and Henderson. Its cast iron framework covered in glass plates produced an 1,850-feet-long by 108-feet-wide structure able to fit within the park’s elm trees.

The building began in 1850 with around 5,000 men working on the project. The final result was a structure that came in on time and on budget, at £80,000.

It was also the first building to house public toilets, invented by George Jennings. Visitors paid a penny to use the convenience, and it is from here that the saying ‘to spend a penny’ comes.

The Exhibits:

The exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, and would be visited by her majesty many times until its closure on 15 October the same year. Contributors from around the world and Empire showcased their best in manufacture, craft and technology. Britain took up half of the exhibits and in total around 100,000 items were on display.

Folded envelope inscribed along the top 'Machine folded and gummed by Thomas De La Rue & Co. at The Great Exhibition, 1851'.

Original envelope folded on the De La Rue Machine at The Great Exhibition 1851

One of the most popular exhibits was Thomas De La Rue’s envelope folding machine. Run on steam and worked by two boys, the machine could both fold and gum the envelope. You can see an example of one of these envelopes above, which we are lucky enough to have in our collection. Along the top it reads: ‘MACHINE-FOLDED AND GUMMED BY THOMAS DE LA RUE & CO. AT THE GREAT EXHIBITION, 1851’.

Drawing of the De La Rue envelope folding machine with two boys,

Drawing of the De La Rue envelope folding machine

The Legacy:

The Great Exhibition was so well received that over 6 million people visited it. Due to the increase in rail connections and Thomas Cook’s coach excursions, people from all around the country could visit London.

Initially the price to enter the exhibition was £3 for men and £2 for women, though it would later be dropped to 1 shilling, a price affordable for the common man. Due to its popularity the exhibition actually turned a profit and by the end had made £186,000.

One stamp depicting the Prince Albert Memorial and another of a young Queen Victoria.

The Albert Memorial, 12p, London Landmarks, 1980 & Queen Victoria, £1.10, Kings and Queens, The House of Hanover, 2011

This money was used to purchase the land on which The V&A, The Science Museum and The Natural History Museum in South Kensington now reside. Crystal Palace did not remain in Hyde Park: it was deconstructed and moved to Sydenham Hill in 1852.

Bar the original glass panes, the structure was moved in its entirety, though its design had to be adapted to its new surroundings. It was again opened by Queen Victoria in 1854, and became a place of education and entertainment.

The Palace would later go on to be a naval base for young recruits and the original home of the Imperial War Museum. Sadly, however, the building burnt down on the night of 30 November 1936 and was unable to be rebuilt. You can see in the images below the gutted structure of the building, which still demonstrates its dominance on the skyline.

Burnt out shell of Crystal Palace.

Copyright of Crystal Palace Museum

Men walking towards the burnt out Crystal Palace.

Copyright of Crystal Palace Museum

There is a museum dedicated to the Crystal Palace at Anerley Hill, postcode SE19 2BA, which you can currently visit on Sundays from 11.00-15.00.

Crystal Palace and The Great Exhibition represent many things, among which is surely the British public’s love of learning and entertainment. Throughout its life, the structure hosted numerous events for the benefit of the people, and in later life became known as the ‘Peoples Palace’ – a greatly missed landmark.

– Georgina Tomlinson, Assistant Curator of Philately