The Great Exhibition, 1851

Charles Clark was a great fan of innovation of any kind. He was highly excited by the Victorian fad for ballooning, writing several letters in which are detailed the visits of balloons to the Essex skies. He was delighted by the new railway and postal systems, and by menageries, firework displays and circuses. He enjoyed reading about advances in farming technology, and of course he remained up to date with the latest inventions pertaining to his own particular interest in the printing press. Clark scoured the London periodicals and newspapers for notices of anything ‘new’ and trendy. Its no surprise, then, that Clark should have been eager to make a trip to London to visit The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was held at The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851.

Clark writes a short letter to John Russell Smith on 24 May 1851, which he closes by saying: “I have not visited the Exhibition – shall soon”. As far as we know, Clark made very few trips to London (in his letters to John Russell Smith he frequently refers it as “your little village”), and expeditions to the capital were, for Essex folk, just that: long, punishing journeys, hard on the pocket-book, and because of that quite rare. Clark registers this in his letters; on 2 June Clark (again in a short note to Russell Smith) remarks, in an excited tone, that his housekeeper has spotted a party of neighbours, led by local auctioneer Mr May from Totham, start out that morning on a visit to the Exhibition. Clark describes the company in the way that one might group of adventurers or explorers. By 28 June, his neighbours have presumably reported back from London, and Clark seems both annoyed and impatient at his lack of opportunity to make the trip: “Have not visited the Exhibition even yet!”.

The Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, published 1854

The Crystal Palace from the northeast from Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, published 1854

By 1 September, Clark is remarking on matters such as the hot weather that has characterized of the summer of 1851; still, one can easily discern his continued impatience to experience for himself what surely must have been the talking point for the entire year. He was such a voracious consumer of the press that he, almost daily, would have read reports of and responses to the spectacle at Crystal Palace, and the exasperation in his letters is discernible, predictable, perhaps weary: “Even now, I have not yet visited the Exhibition!”

He does make it to London, eventually. It seems that plans to pay a visit to his erstwhile bookseller in Soho fell through because the lure of the Great Exhibition was too great. On 24 November the letter to Russell Smith is full of business: remarks about the latest catalogue and a payment of £5 to settle some of his account. Only then does he say that he has been to London: “Altogether, I made Three visits to the Exhibition, returning each time the same day – so had no time to reach 4, ‘O[ld].C[ompton].S[treet].’!” He must have travelled to London before 11 October, when the Exhibition ended, and clearly spent a lot of time there.

Clark records no more than this in his letters to his London friend. But we are certain that his excitement at this palace of glass, in which were housed the wonders of the Victorian age, would have delighted Clark. The spectacle of the enormous glass structure filled with curiosities and innovation would have been too much for to him to pass unrecorded in his prolific correspondence. Perhaps we will at some point recover his thoughts (in a letter, perhaps?!) on what must have been, for him, the adventure of a lifetime.


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