The Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace built the V and A

Last updated on June 2nd, 2022

If you’ve been watching Victoria  Series 3, then you’ve recently come across Henry Cole, Prince Albert’s wingman in the creation of the visionary Great Exhibition of 1851. What you probably didn’t know is that the exhibition, dubbed The Greatest Show on Earth and housed inside the glittering Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, would one day result in the creation of one of London’s most famous landmarks: the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“We must have steam, get Cole” (Prince Albert in reference to Cole’s creative and energetic muscle)

Henry Cole

Henry Cole was a savvy businessman: he had already introduced the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843 and would go on to create the world’s first postage, the Penny Black.

world's first Christmas card, Henry Cole, V and A, Victoria and Albert, The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Queen, Victoria

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was Prince Albert’s pet project, and together with Henry Cole’s expert management skills and the design talents of Joseph Paxton, the project would be a triumph of the Victorian age. The exhibition was ridiculed by the press, but such was its success that it inspired other fairs around the world.

“one of the greatest humbugs, frauds and absurdities ever known” Colonel Charles Sibthorpe on The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Queen, Victoria, V and A, Victoria series 3

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park

The man in charge of the Crystal Palace design was celebrity gardener Joseph Paxton (head gardener of the superative Chatsworth Gardens). He had already designed the hitherto largest glasshouse in the world, called “The Great Stove.” Thanks to Paxton’s ingenious ideas, the purpose-built iron and glass building was built in under a year, completed on schedule and within budget. He even incorporated the park’s tall elm trees into the structure so that none of these would be destroyed.

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Great Exhibition was opened on 1 May 1851 by Queen Victoria, and it would run on until October that year. It was the world’s first fair devoted to industry and culture. 1,000,000 objects were exhibited by over 14,000 exhibitors, and it was 92,000 m2 – three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Exhibiting countries included France, the USA, Turkey, Russia and Egypt, Britain took up half of the display space. France came in second place.

The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Queen, Victoria, Victoria and Albert Museum, V and A Joseph Paxton

Henry Courtney Selous. The Opening of the Great Exhibition, 1851-2, Victoria and Albert Museum

Six million people would walk through the doors of the Crystal Palace, equating to one-third of the British population.  It made a £186,000 profit (£20 million by today’s standards). A who’s who of Victorian Britain attended including Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin and William Makepeace Thackeray. Charlotte Brontë went twice.

The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Koh-i-Noor, Prince Albert, India,

The Indian Court in the Great Exhibition. One of the most famous exhibits was the Koh-i-Noor diamond, presented to Queen Victoria in 1850. (Joseph Nash, The Indian Court, 1854, Victoria and Albert Museum)

Famous exhibits included the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the 27-foot Crystal Fountain, steam engines, a prototype for the fax machine, a submarine and electric telegraphs. The strangest invention, the Tempest Prognosticator (also known as the leech barometer) was an instrument used in the prediction of storms. It was thought that leeches could detect an impending storm at which point they would climb up the jar, setting off an internal bell.

The Great Exhibition had the first public loos in the country – called Retiring Rooms. These cost one penny to use, and it’s argued this coined the phrase, “spending a penny.”


Prince Albert wanted the profits to go towards the creation of a cultural neighbourhood of museums and colleges in South Kensington. 86 acres of land in South Kensington were purchased and referred to as Albertopolis.  Today, this area includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial College, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music.

Henry Cole, V and A, Victoria and Albert, The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Queen, Victoria series 3

Henry Cole would become the first Director of the South Kensington Museum (or the Victoria and Albert Museum as it is now known). This memorial to Sir Henry Cole was made in 1878 by his niece, Florence Cole. You can find it in the V and A’s Ceramic Staircase. Note the relief above which depicts the Royal Albert Hall, the Great Exhibition Memorial in front and the surrounding area, designed by Prince Albert and Henry Cole.

Queen, Victoria, Victoria and Albert Museum, V and A, opening, Victoria series 3

Official programme for the laying of the Foundation Stone of The Victoria & Albert Museum, 1899. Museum no. E.1458-1984 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The laying of the V and A’s foundation stone in May 1899 would be Queen Victoria’s last public ceremony.

What happened to the Crystal Palace?

The Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham in South London where it happily stood for 82 years. It was destroyed by a fire on 30 November 1936, when the country was in the throes of the abdication crisis. The fire was seen as symbolic of the end of Edward VIII’s monarchy.

Henry Cole, Kensington, The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace

Blue plaque outside 33 Thurloe Square, South Kensington.

The Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace


Hampton Court, The Favourite, Queen Anne


Lady Di, Princess Diana, London


A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.


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