On 1 May, 1851, Queen Victoria opened the ‘Great Exhibition of Industrial Advances’ in Hyde Park to some 20,000 visitors on the first day alone. The exhibition had been promoted from July 1949 by Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole , President of the Royal Society of Arts, and it went through many and long arguments. Some people, including John Ruskin, had serious reservations about the benefit of industry. Others were writing about its very clear disadvantages in terms of urban poverty. Many, possibly most, saw it as a wonderful expression of patriotic pride.

All strands of industry from both Great Britain and elsewhere were to exhibit their wares. There were 100,000 exhibits from 14,000 individuals and companies from the United Kingdom and overseas, with some 60% from the home nations. The Crystal Palace, erected in Hyde Park to the design of Joseph Paxton, who had created huge hothouses for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, covered some 900,000 square feet. The six million or so visitors, from all over the UK and further afield of all sections of society, would have seen the incredible array of objects. Glass makers would have noticed that Paxton had used hand blown glass for the 30,000 panes that comprised the shell of the building. Engineers may have looked at the British exhibits and perhaps may have felt uncomfortable when they compared them to the sometimes technically superior products of some European countries and the USA. Overall it was a sense of great satisfaction that prevailed.

The Exhibition catalogue gives a sense of the state of the nation’s manufacturing through the trades it sought to display. There were four sections: Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufactures and Fine Art; these were then broken down into thirty classes. Just taking the number of exhibitors in each class, the most numerous, at just under one thousand, was ‘Machines for direct use including carriages, railway and marine mechanisms’, followed by ‘General hardware including locks and grates’ at just over eight hundred and ‘Philosophical, musical, horological and surgical instruments’ at seven hundred and forty.  One of my treasured possessions is the signed cover of a copy of the catalogue of the Great Exhibition presented to my great-grandfather, Richard Williams, by the members of the Surgical and Anatomical Committee Class X, ‘as a slight token of the services rendered by him as Secretary’. Richard managed the business of Weiss & Co surgical instrument makers in London’s Strand.

With thanks to Weiss & Son

The catalogue has name after name of businesses which played their part in shaping the manufacturing world: Johnson Matthey, Naylor Vickers, WG Armstrong, James Watt & Co, Maudsley Son & Field, Butterley & Co, Napier & Sons, H. Bessemer, Ransomes & May, H. Mulliner and Thrupp, J. Whitworth, G. Naysmith, Clayton & Shuttleworth, Elliott & Sons, Samuel Courtauld, Spear & Jackson, Mappin Brothers, Chance Brothers, Doulton & Co.

I explore their story in my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.