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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Industrial Exhibition of 1862

Two hundred and fifty years ago this month, the 1862 industrial exhibition in South Kensington opened. Following the triumph of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Joseph Paxton’s landmark Crystal Palace, expectations ran high for this new international exhibition.

The 1862 exhibition was dogged by controversy right from the planning stages. Captain Francis Fowke’s design for the building was considered a stylistic disaster by many commentators, who could not understand why Paxton was not chosen to reprise his former sensational design.
Prince Albert’s death the previous December 1861 was a great loss to the Exhibition planners. Albert had fought to keep the 1851 exhibition as a platform for the peaceful arts, but weapons of war were permitted in the 1862 exhibition.
There was more controversy because exhibitors were allowed to choose where to site their wares and an undignified fight for space erupted amongst the nations taking part. At one point it looked as if the Americans would not appear at all because Congress refused to give any financial support for their exhibits. There was critical comment over the judging procedures, too. Some of the judges awarding prizes were also exhibitors! The organizers had decided to permit visitors to buy exhibits if they wished, so at times the exhibition seemed more like a giant bazaar than a celebration of industry.
Queen Victoria was not present at the Exhibition’s grand opening on 1 May, probably because it was a painful reminder that she and Albert had opened the Crystal Palace eleven years earlier. As in 1851, there was a ‘shilling day’ so that ordinary people could afford to attend. Some children from the London Orphan Asylum visited: their treat was paid for by members of the Stock Exchange. The young Prince of Wales and his little sisters visited on the same day.
Despite the critics, the Exhibition attracted over six million visitors to see wonders such as Charles Babbage’s calculating engine, the Bessemer process, Perkin’s revolutionary aniline dye, and the new process of chromolithography.
The original planners had hoped that the building would be used for future events, but instead much of its materials were used to build Alexandra Palace (which later burnt down). Only two years after the Exhibition closed its doors, the building’s remains were dynamited by a team of Royal Engineers from Chatham. Capt. Fowke watched the demolition of the building he created.

Images from the author's collection: View of the 1862 Exhibition. Old and New London Vol. V, c. 1895.

One of the 1862 Exhibition’s colossal domes, designed by Capt. Fowke. Record of the 1862 Exhibition, William Mackenzie, c.1863.

Lilleshall Company’s Blast Engine exhibited in 1862. Record of the 1862 Exhibition, William Mackenzie, c.1863.

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