Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 31 - 1862-3 - Great Exhibition - Princess Alexandra

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CHAPTER XXXI

1862-3 - GREAT EXHIBITION - PRINCESS ALEXANDRA

1862 - Exhibition - Disappointing buildings - Mr. Gladstone defeated - Splendid exhibits - Locomotives - Ships - Colonies - Aniline Dyes - Armstrong and Krupp guns - Candlesticks - Koh-i-noor - Strand Theatre - Lady of Lyons - 1863 - Prince of Wales's marriage - Woolwich - Illuminations - London Bridge unapproachable - Successful manoeuvre.

I HAVE vivid recollections of the Great Exhibition of 1862, the much-criticised buildings of which were erected between Cromwell, Prince Albert and Exhibition Roads, South Kensington, or, as it was then more commonly called, Brompton. Instead of inviting competitive plans the Exhibition Commissioners entrusted the designs to a gentleman esteemed by them as a "born architect." His detractors, while willing to admit the adjective, were emphatic in substituting something else for the noun.
    Accustomed as I was to the Crystal Palace, it is not surprising that I failed to find the 1862 edifice imposing, although it did boast a dome 200 feet high. Very likely the same sense of shortcoming, similarly excited in others, unfairly prejudiced the new man's work: his was the difficult task of following on after a universally admired model. And he complained that the Commissioners had altered some of his details without authority. According to one caustic commentator the general result was "a building, the ugliness and absurd unsuitability of which have disgraced the architectural knowledge and taste of England in the eyes of the whole world." Rather a sad Exhibition, that, for England! It had been intended to preserve the chief structure for utilisation as a permanent museum, but the wholesale condemnation it met with put the project out of sight. Mr. Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, [-247-] burned his fingers in handling the matter. He proposed to Parliament to purchase the Exhibition buildings for £105,000, but was defeated by 287 votes to 121.
    There were, however, grand things inside. I recollect specially the locomotives, of which there was a fine display, including Specimens from France and Austria; the models of ships, marine engines and floating docks; the lighthouse lanterns and lenses; the agricultural machinery, - in all these England led the world by a whole boxful of long chalks. The Australian Colonies showed up well with trophies illustrating their gold and wool productions. In a conspicuous position was a towering and glittering obelisk representing the mass of gold won from the Southern Continent since the discovery there of the lustrous metal.
    Aniline dyes, Mr. Perkin's epoch-marking discovery of six years before, had an attractive exhibit; perhaps it was that which first caused the Germans to take up a matter which they afterwards pushed with such extraordinary success. One of the greatest shows was of guns - Armstrong, Whitworth, Krupp. Rifling and breech-loading of cannon were then receiving special attention and all three firms - Armstrong and Whitworth were rivals in those days - had many samples, large and small, on view. Our recent kind friend, Herr Krupp of Essen, specially shone. His guns, and portions thereof, were so highly polished that the fair sex, in search of mirrors, had only to gather at his stall and admire what they saw. A contrast, illuminative of the state of domestic lighting of the period, was a fine show of candlesticks, snuffers and extinguishers, comprising all modern improvements and some special patents by the exhibitor. I imagine that specifications relating to candlesticks do not bring much grist to the Patent Office mill in 1924.
    This was my first International Exhibition. it is true that I had been present at the 1851 Hyde Park show as a baby, where, according to the family records, I had conceived a great admiration for the Crown Jewels, even putting out a hand to clutch the Koh-i-noor; but of this adventure I had no knowledge of my own.
    [-248-] We finished an exciting day at the Strand Theatre, where was presented a burlesque on Lord Lytton's romantic play, The Lady of Lyons, in which Claude Melnotte's mother, an actor in female accoutrements, pelted Pauline's father with uncooked dumplings. Then an omnibus took us to London Bridge Station in time for the last train; we sat on the knife-board, passed beneath the ugly and obstructive Temple Bar, and in St. Paul's Churchyard closely skirted the Sussex-iron railings of the Cathedral.
    Of the many events of 1863 which live in my memory the marriage of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, for whom I had been accustomed to pray every Sunday, stands out prominently. Denmark and things Danish had been booming in the press for some time, and Alexandra and Dagmar, names hitherto unknown of the average person, had become almost as familiar as Betsy and Jane. The Princess had a great reception at Gravesend, where some ultra-loyal citizens proposed to change the cognomen of their township to Alexandra in perpetual remembrance of the auspicious event. But they got well sat upon for their trouble, the good-will residing in the old title being considered too valuable to be set aside. Had they proposed to supersede the somewhat lugubrious Gravesend by what it really means, Grovesend, better success might have been wished to their efforts.
    That day, March 7th, my father and I walked to Woolwich Common, where a grand salute was to be fired to notify the passage through the town over the North Kent Railway of the train conveying the Princess to Bricklayers' Arms terminus. The news was signalled from the Arsenal station by a long line of soldiers carrying lances tipped with red-and-white flags. We saw the last three or four drop practically simultaneously and at the same instant the first gun flashed and banged. Telephones could not have conveyed the news more promptly. An officer's horse was led close to the battery during the salute, probably to accustom him to the firing, which, indeed, he took very philosophically.
    The Princess received a grand ovation at Bricklayers' [-249-] Arms, where the scene I have described in connection with the arrival there of the Crown Prince of Prussia some five years previously was repeated, but with larger crowds and much greater enthusiasm. And how marvelously different have the two marriages eventuated!
    Before leaving the Common we visited the Rotunda, a museum chiefly of military objects, and, not for the first time, admired the puzzling balance clock which worked by a ball running in zigzag grooves under the influence of gravity.
    Woolwich, apart from the Common, was a mean and dirty place, with a big churchyard dominating the principal thoroughfare. The Arsenal and Dockyard hid the river, and were themselves concealed by sombre walls, while the South-Eastern Railway Company's North Kent branch traversed the town in a deep walled cutting interspersed with tunnels. The two stations were approached by many steps and the top of the cutting was everywhere walled off from the adjacent roads; so altogether Woolwich was a disgusting place for boys who wanted to study ships and trains.
    At the pier, however, we could get a glimpse of Father Thames, and as it was largely used by steamers and about a dozen of them, spare or undergoing repair, lay moored or anchored close by, we found the spot interesting. The ferry to North Woolwich then belonged, I think, to the Great Eastern Railway and was worked by two steam-boats with twin red funnels called Kent and Essex. This was, of course, long before the era of the London County Council's free ferries and tunnels, and I think the fare for crossing was one penny.
    On March 10th the Prince and Princess were wedded and I formed one of a party of adventurers bent upon seeing the illuminations, which, according to the prophets, were to be of unparalleled magnificence. Starting from the Marble Arch soon after dark, we made our way along Oxford Street, Holborn, Holborn Hill (there was no viaduct then) and Newgate Street to the City. The crowds were immense, especially in the vicinity of any exceptional show, and, although vehicular traffic was suspended, the whole thorough-[-250-]fare was packed and our progress tortoise-like and spasmodic.
    Electricity as a practicable illuminant had not come in, although to send a beam from an electric arc lamp along Oxford Street was already within the resources of science, and, I am told, was actually accomplished that evening. Gas-jets formed the foundation of most of the devices, although the old-fashioned oil, burning in glasses of many colours, reared its ancient front here and there. Some of the most effective crowns and plumes of feathers were so built up. All firms and shops of any pretension advertised their burning and steadfast loyalty in terms of flickering light. Some had larger shows than others, but there was scant variety in plan, and when the first dozen had been passed in review there was little to wonder at afterwards.
    I marvelled at the simplicity of the country yokels- amongst whom I should in justice classify myself - hailing as I did from Kent - who gasped at and admired such simple devices. Close to Day and Martin's Temple of Blacking, the classic façade of which was picked out m luminous fringes, an omnibus had overturned earlier in the day and reposed partly on the northern pavement, where it formed an obstruction of no mean effectiveness. The crowds surged round it and got entangled in the wheels, men swore mightily, while women screamed, and we had difficulty in navigating through the Charybdis thus created.
    About 10 o'clock we reached Cheapside, where John Bennett, clockmaker, in years to come Alderman and Sheriff, but never Mayor, had his chime-striking giants embowered in effulgence such as Aladdin had not known in his garden of jewels, and began to feel anxious regarding our last train, due to leave London Bridge soon after 11. All attempts to win through to the Mansion House, where His Worshipful the Lord Mayor was casting back to the sky no mean portion of the shine ordinarily received from it, proved abortive; but we had a strategist with us who, finding a frontal attack impracticable, determined to turn the enemy's flank. We got into Bow Lane and under the gracious protection, perchance, of St. Dick Whittington, threaded our way through [-251-] many by-ways (there was then no Queen Victoria Street) to Southwark Bridge.
    Here was a good sprinkling of people, despite the halfpenny toll, many more than that Cinderella amongst bridges was accustomed to at any time of an ordinary day or night, but no embarrassing crowd. A burly old gentleman was coming across with his top-hat in one hand and stick in the other calling out at every few steps, "The Prince of Wales, God bless him! Bless him!" emphasising every "bless" with a sounding thwack on the foot-path with his stick. There were no dissentients.
    On the Surrey side all was peace and strange quietude and we soon reached London Bridge, where turmoil reasserted itself, crowds thronging over the river to the stations. The Greenwich platform was crowded, but when the train came in-the last that night-room was found somehow for the lot. In our compartment we were like the Wandering Jew pedlar's tiara - three deep at least. The engine was No. 2, already immortalised in these pages, and she had a heavy, if light-hearted, load. At Greenwich the streets were quiet, with here and there a sorry illumination - so we thought after our grand Oxford Street pilgrimage - flickering on its way to extinction. "And so to bed."
    Had I in my sleep been vouchsafed a pre-vision of London streets in 1924 with their electric signs and wonders, exceeding the festal splendours of 1863 even as Donati' s comet outshone the polar star, I should doubtlessly have deemed it simply one of the eccentric and impossible fantasies of dreamland.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924