London Missionaries and the Great Exhibition of 1851

The history of the world records no event comparable, in its promotion of human industry, with that of the Great Exhibition.” So claimed Henry Cole, the English civil servant who bore much of the responsibility for organizing the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” to give it its full title, in London in 1851. Cole’s claim should not be dismissed as mere hyperbole, for the Great Exhibition was on a scale hitherto unknown, and social historians invariably point to the exhibition as the preeminent symbol of Britain’s economic dominance during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. The Great Exhibition attracted over six million visitors in five months and featured over one hundred thousand exhibits from all over the world. The exhibition was housed in an impressive glass structure dubbed the “Crystal Palace,” erected in Hyde Park (fig. 1). Designer Joseph Paxton created prefabricated iron sections that allowed the building to be assembled easily and cheaply. The Palace measured 1,848 feet long by 408 feet wide, giving an area under glass approaching a million square feet. The transepts were tall enough to encase some of Hyde Park’s mature elm trees. Calling it the Great Exhibition was by no means a hollow conceit.

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