'Quite the effect of fairyland', 1851

And who else could have given us a closer view of it?

(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of worldwide history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)

It shows of what immense use to this country this Exhibition is, as it goes to prove that we are capable of doing almost anything…

One hundred and seventy years ago – on 1st May 1851 – the Great Exhibition opened in the Crystal Palace, at Hyde Park in London. At least half a million people crammed into the park for a glimpse of the grand opening by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, who was one of the founders of the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’, inspired by earlier showcases in Paris.

The Great Exhibition ran until 15th October and the numbers speak for themselves: six million visitors (at a time when the UK population was 18 million); 14,000 exhibitors; more than 100,000 exhibits from countries around the world. And it even made a profit which benefits the nation today, as it was used to found three major museums in the area of London which came to be known as ‘Albertopolis’. When the exhibition opened, gentlemen paid £3 for entry, ladies £2, although a few weeks later the common rabble could get in for a shilling.

Many diarists and letter writers left accounts of their visits to the Great Exhibition, but of the opening ceremony itself I can only find one first hand account other than those in newspaper reports. It was written by… Queen Victoria. Although this newsletter generally aims to focus on less well-known figures, her account is vivid and charming, and nobody was closer to the heart of the event than her! Victoria was in fact a prolific diarist – she began writing at the age of 13 in 1832, and at her death left more than 140 volumes. Various selections have been published and the most comprehensive collection available is at www.queenvictoriasjournals.org. Here, then, is her account of the Great Exhibition lead-up and the opening ceremony itself:

Monday 21st April

Ld John Russell1 came to see us after luncheon, & we talked principally about the opening of the Exhibition which is to be an entirely state affair & we shall view the Exhibition privately on the 30th. 

Tuesday 29th

A very showery day. — We drove to the Exhibition with only the 2 Maids of Honour & 2 Equerries, & remained 2 hours & ½, I came back quite dead beat & my head really bewildered by the myriads of beautiful & wonderful things, which now quite dazzle one’s eyes. Such efforts have been made & our people have known such taste in their manufactures, all owing to the impetus given by the Exhibition & my beloved one’s guidance. We went up into the Gallery & the sight from there into all the Courts, full of all sorts of objects of art, manufacture, &c — had quite the effect of fairyland. The noise was tremendous as there was so much going on, of all kinds & sorts, & at least 12 to 20,000 engaged in work of every kind. The collection of raw materials is very fine; the clocks & articles of silver, stuffs, English ribbons, lace &c are beautiful. Indeed it shows of what immense use to this country this Exhibition is, as it goes to prove that we are capable of doing almost anything. We went down & examined the French part, in which there are most exquisite things from Sèvres, Aubusson, & the Gobelin Manufactures, — the most splendid arms of all kinds, &c. Looked also at the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, & German parts. The Austrian section is nearly finished & beautiful. There are splendid exhibits in porcelain & iron, from Berlin, lovely embroideries from Switzerland, &c — Russia is far behind hand as the ships were frozen in, & could not bring the things sooner…

Albert went to station to meet the Pce & Pss of Prussia.2 At ¼ to 4 they arrived & I was down at the door to received them & their son & daughter, afterwards taking them to their rooms. The young Prince, who is 19, is not handsome, but has a most amiable, attractive countenance & fine blue eyes. Little Pss Louise, aged 12, is slight & tall with pretty regular features, & seems a charming child…

Wednesday 30th

Everyone is occupied with the great day & afternoon & my poor Albert is terribly fogged. All day some question or other, or some difficulty, all of which my beloved one, takes with the greatest quiet & good temper.

We breakfasted with our dear guests & our girls, driving immediately afterwards to the Exhibition, where we walked about with the Pce & Pss & their son & daughter. The noise & bustle, even greater than yesterday, as so many preparations are being made for the seating of the spectators, & there is certainly still much to be done. We walked the whole round of the galleries. We saw beautiful china from Minton’s Factory & beautiful designs; there was also very fine Wedgwood Ware. Below, we looked for a moment at the Turkish. The fountains were playing & many flowers & palms have been placed, which have a most charming effect. — The day was again very showery…

Thursday 1st May

This day is one of the greatest & most glorious days of our lives, with which, to my pride & joy the name of my dearly beloved Albert is for ever associated! It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness. We began the day with tenderest greetings & congratulations on the birthday of our dear little Arthur. He was brought in at breakfast & looked beautiful with blue ribbons on his frock. Mama & Victor were there, as well as all the Children & our dear guests. Our little gifts of toys were added to by ones from the Pce & Pss. — The Park presented a wonderful spectacle, crowds streaming through it, — carriages & troops passing, quite like the Coronation Day, & for me, the same anxiety. The day was bright, & all bustle & excitement. At ½ p[ast] 11, the whole procession, in 9 state carriages, was set in motion. Vicky & Bertie were in our carriage (the other children & Vivi did not go). Vicky was dressed in lace over white satin, with a small wreath of pink wild roses, in her hair, & looked very nice. Bertie was in full Highland dress. The Green Park & Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour & most enthusiastic. I never saw Hyde Park look as it did, being filled with crowds as far as the eye could reach. A little rain fell, just as we started, but before we neared the Crystal Palace, the sun shone & gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying. We drove up Rotten Ro[w] & got out of our carriages at the entrance in that side. The glimpse through the iron gates of the Transept, the waving palms & flowers, the myriads of people filling the galleries & seats around, together with the flourish of trumpets, as we entered the building, gave a sensation I shall never forget, & I felt much moved. We went for a moment into a little room where we left our cloaks & found Mama & Mary. Outside all the Princes were standing. In a few seconds we proceeded, Albert leading me; having Vicky at his hand, & Bertie holding mine. The sight as we came to the centre where the steps & chair (on which I did not sit) was placed, facing the beautiful crystal fountain was magic & impressive. The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decorations & exhibits, the sound of the organ (with 200 instruments & 600 voices, which seemed nothing), & my beloved Husband the creator of this great “Peace Festival”, inviting the industry & art of all nations of the earth, all this, was indeed moving, & a day to live forever…

After the National Anthem had been sung, Albert left my side, & at the head of the Commissioners, — a curious assemblage of political & distinguished men, — read the Report to me, which is a long one, & I read a short answer. After this the Archbishop of Canterbury offered up a short & appropriate Prayer, followed by the singing of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, during which time the Chinese Mandarin came forward & made his obeisance.3 This concluded, the Procession of great length began which was beautifully arranged, the prescribed order, being exactly adhered to. The Nave was full of people, which had not been intended & deafening cheers & waving of handkerchiefs, continued the whole time of our long walk from one end of the building, to the other. Every face, was bright & smiling, & many even, had tears in their eyes. Many Frenchmen called out “Vive la Reine”. One could of course see nothing, but what was high up in the Nave, & nothing in the Courts. The organs were but little heard, but the Military Band, at one end, had a very fine effect, playing the March from “Athalie”, as we passed along. The old Duke of Wellington & Ld Anglesey walked arm in arm, which was a touching sight. I saw many acquaintances, amongst those present. We returned to our place & Albert told Ld Breadalbane to declare the Exhibition to be opened, which he did in a loud voice saying “Her Majesty Commands me to declare the Exhibition opened”, when there was a flourish of trumpets, followed by immense cheering. We then made our bow, & left. All those Commissioners, the Executive Committee, &c. who had worked so hard & to whom such immense praise is due, seemed truly happy, & no one more so than Paxton,4 who may feel justly proud. He rose from an ordinary gardener’s boy! Everyone was astounded & delighted. The return was equally satisfactory, — the crowd most enthusiastic & perfect order kept. We reached Palace at 20 m. past 1 & went out on the balcony, being loudly cheered. The Pce & Pss were quite delighted & impressed. That we felt happy & thankful, — I need not say, — proud of all that had passed & of my beloved one’s success. I was more impressed by the scene I had witnessed than words can say. Dearest Albert’s name is for ever immortalised & the absurd reports of dangers of every kind & sort, set about by a set of people, — the “soi disant” fashionables & the most violent protectionists,5 — are silenced. It is therefore doubly satisfactory that all should have gone off so well, & without the slightest accident or mishap…

I forgot to mention that I wore a dress of pink & silver, with a diamond ray Diadem & little crown at the back with 2 feathers, all the rest of my jewels being diamonds. The Pss looked very handsome & was so kind & “herzlich”.6 An interesting episode of the day was the visit of the good old Duke7 on his 82nd birthday to his little godson, our dear little Boy. He came to us at 5 gave little Arthur a gold cup, & toys, which he had chosen himself… Was rather tired, but we were both so happy & full of thankfulness for everything.

Two days later, Victoria positively gushed in a letter to her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium:

My dearest Uncle,—... I wish you could have witnessed the 1st May 1851, the greatest day in our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen, and the triumph of my beloved Albert. Truly it was astonishing, a fairy scene. Many cried, and all felt touched and impressed with devotional feelings. It was the happiestproudest day in my life, and I can think of nothing else…

Clearly the 31-year-old queen was very much amused.

A few years ago I published The Great Exhibition in Colour, which brings together more than 75 contemporary illustrations of the exhibition in full colour. If you click the button below, enter your email address and send the referral link to friends, as soon as five people have signed up with your link I’ll send you a free PDF copy of the book! (All this helps me to grow the Histories audience and create something lasting.)

Earn a free copy here!

Of course, I’m not stopping you from buying it here either (also available at Amazon UK and US):

Buy a copy here

Thanks for your support!


The prime minister.


William (later William I) and Augusta of Prussia. Their son Frederick later married Victoria’s eldest child, also called Victoria (‘Vicky’ here); their daughter Princess Louise is referred to by Victoria as ‘Vivi’.


Amusingly it later turned out that this supposed dignitary was in fact the captain of a junk moored on the Thames.


Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace where the Exhibition was held.


Five years earlier Prince Albert had tacitly given support to the then prime minister Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws – trade restrictions on the import of food – and (as a supporter of free trade) had therefore riled ‘protectionists’ in favour of keeping them.


Warm and hearty.


The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, after whom young Arthur (sharing the same birthday) was named. A few days earlier Victoria had apparently expressed concern to him about the number of sparrows invading the Crystal Palace and his pithy reply has gone down in legend: “Sparrowhawks, ma’am.”