It was a “glass act” – and South Shields played a big part in staging it.
It was the Great Exhibition of 1851, and today a local history society is hosting an illustrated talk all about it.
The talk is to be given by design historian Michael Johnson, who will examine the cultural significance of this spectacular display of Victorian Britain’s industrial and imperial power – with particular emphasis on South Shields’ and Sunderland’s role in building the exhibition’s majestic venue, the famous Crystal Palace.
The Great Exhibition was an international trade fair, organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
The world’s most industrially advanced nations and their empires participated, making the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” the largest event of its kind.
Half the floor area was devoted to Britain and her empire and half to participating countries.
Despite its international scope, the exhibition was intended to demonstrate Britain’s industrial superiority and imperial power.
The event was held in a purpose-built hall called the Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park.
This innovative building was constructed from cast iron and glass. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the immense structure was large enough to encompass three elm trees that existed on the site. A Herculean feat of Victorian engineering, the Palace was constructed in just nine months.
This was the largest amount of glass ever seen in a single building, and represented the culmination of advances made by various firms.
In 1847, James Hartley, of Sunderland, patented a means of making rolled plate glass, which allowed for large sheets of cheap but strong glass.
Robert Walter Swinburne of South Shields had been an apprentice with Cookson and Cuthbert’s glassmaking firm, in South Shields.
He took over the business when they retired in 1845 and formed R.W. Swinburne and Company with George Stephenson, George Hudson and, others.
Together with Chance of Birmingham, they divided the enormous order for the rolled plate glass required for Crystal Palace.
The interior of the Crystal Palace was an extravaganza of exotic wares from around the world. The Canadian display featured canoes and sledges, as well as specimens of Canadian wildlife. The Great Exhibition revealed an obsession with the exoticism of the East, but by extension it was simultaneously a display of Britain’s imperial might.
Six million people visited the exhibition – equivalent to a third of Britain’s population at the time.
It was one of the first mass spectacles of the modern age and established the template for today’s mass media. Karl Marx saw the exhibition as an emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities, and arguably it anticipated today’s consumer culture.
Michael Johnson is a lecturer in design history at Northumbria University, and co-author of The Architecture of Sunderland, 1700-1914.
l The talk will be held in South Shields Central Library theatre at 5pm. Visitors are very welcome, with a charge of £1. For further information please contact the reference desk in the Central Library or telephone 0191 424 7864.