“The Great Exhibition has taught me so much I never knew before”, enthused Queen Victoria, “has brought me in contact with so many clever people I should never have known otherwise, and with so many manufacturers whom I would scarcely have met unless I travel all over the country.  Some of the inventions were very ingenious, many of them quite utopian.”1

 

It was the railways that transformed Victorian England2.  In the twenty years that followed the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830 (at the time Dr. Arnold was getting established at Rugby), England was to be criss-crossed with more than six thousand miles of railway lines.  This was a transport revolution eight times more extensive, and three times more rapid, than the much vaunted building of motorways in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Journeys, which previously had taken days, were now measured in hours, even in minutes.  It wasn’t simply that goods could be moved around with ever greater ease, so could people, and more importantly, so could ideas.

 

Nothing demonstrated this better than the Great Exhibition of 1851, which had been largely conceived by Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband, to give the English a sense of pride in the wonders of technology3.  Here was to be displayed the greatest array of inventions in the arts and industrial sciences ever seen anywhere in the world.  The sheer scale of this Crystal Palace electrified the imagination ─ nearly a million square feet of glass carried on a web of iron girders and pillars, enclosing an area six times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and over a third of a mile in length.  Within were over a hundred thousand exhibits, many brought in by British ships and merchants from the four corners of the earth, together with British-made steam turbine engines, microscopes, flushing toilets, diamond tiaras, air pumps, railway locomotives and sewing machines.  An international committee awarded nine of the ten prizes (“Palms of Excellence”) to British invention; a report card placing Britain at the top of the class.

 

A crowd of half a million witnessed the Exhibition’s opening (perhaps the biggest crowd ever seen anywhere before), while over the next six months more than six million men, women and children made what was for many of them their first ever railway journey (and so for the first time going faster than a horse, and further than twenty miles from home) and travelled up to London from the far extremities of Wales and Cornwall, from East Anglia, Kent and Scotland.  In today’s world of instant visual images it’s hard to comprehend what a thrilling and life-shaping experience this was.  One of the visitors was a twelve-year-old boy, this author’s own great, great grandfather.  It was the first time he had ever gone beyond the local market town of Axminster, or seen anything beyond the farm or the Devon coast.  I can easily recall how, fifty years ago in the 1950’s, my own grandfather repeated to me the enthusiasm with which his grandfather had told him, fifty years before that, what he had learnt at the Great Exhibition, namely that “Britain has three advantages that will forever enable it to be rich ─ we sit on top of the world’s most plentiful coalfields; we have the world’s most creative engineers, and our navy gives us protection from all other nations.”

 

The mid-Victorians were convinced that Britain would forever rush forward.  Yet if such people had stopped to analyse Britain’s true position they would have recognised that the country’s industrial genius owed almost everything to the craftsman/apprentice tradition that was rapidly dying out, and that very little was being done within formal schooling to replace this older system of learning-on-the-job.  Innovation in the future, they should have foreseen, was more likely to come out of a science laboratory, than out of a workshop.

 

England wasn’t ready for this for, of all the countries in Europe England’s education system was, with the exception of Portugal, the least developed.  The Great Exhibition gave England a complacency about the future that was to inhibit the development of education until well into the twentieth century4.  The Exhibition did something else, equally significant.  By creating such a lavish display of what was soon to be called ‘consumer goods’ it awoke, in the average Englishman, an increasing desire to earn more money, so as to have the wherewithal to buy more and more goods.  Materialism and its first cousin, consumerism, were born5.  Employment was to be a means to an end (cash in hand), not ─ as it had been for so many craftsmen in the past ─ a satisfying activity in itself.  The first danger sign was rung up at the next great International Exhibition held in Paris in 1869 for at this England won only 10% of the “Palms of Excellence”.

 

Prince Albert remained fearful that the English would continue to be socially dismissive of their technological achievements.  It is to his credit that the Commissioners spent the enormous profits made from the Exhibition to buy land in Kensington on which would shortly be built the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Art Gallery, and the Imperial College of Science and Technology6.  In 1853 the Board of Trade, not the Office of Education who continued to be unmoved by the situation, set up a Department of Science and Art7.

 

Thesis 44:             24th August 2006