The front entrance of the original Crystal Palace, London, 1851
Word arrives from our man in London that not content with building replicas of little bits of Britain (and elsewhere) in China, one Chinese developer plans to build a replica of Britain’s iconic Crystal Palace on its original South London site.
Shanghai-based ZhongRong Group intends to recreate the cast iron and glass structure that was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. At the time it was the largest glass structure in the world and a projection of Victorian Britain’s imperial and manufacturing power. The building was first located in Hyde Park in central London. It moved three years later to what was then if no longer a semi-rural part of south London, giving its name to the area. Fire destroyed it in 1936.
The Phoenix version will be used as a cultural attraction and exhibition space. Work on the £500 million project is expected to start the year after next.
A century and a half back, London staged a glorious popular spectacle, A Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. It can fairly claim to have been the world’s first World Fair, a celebration of the latest (for 1851) technology and design and the promise of the burgeoning Victorian Age. It was housed in a futuristic glass and cast iron pavilion the like of which the world had never seen. This was known as the Crystal Palace and would give its name to the area of south east London to which it was subsequently moved from the exhibition site in Hyde Park in central London; it burnt to the ground in a fire in 1936.
Six million people, equivalent to one in three of Britain’s then population, visited the exhibition. Queen Victoria went three times. The hordes of visitors were there to marvel at what the countries and colonies of the world — and particularly the host country — wanted to project as their crowning achievements and capabilities as the industrial revolution and Europe’s 19th century imperial expansion got into full, self-assured swing.
Four and a half million of the visitors bought the cheapest tickets. They got, in the title of a 2001 book on the Great Exhibition, the world for a shilling (an old unit of English currency for our younger readers). Not for them the sniffy remarks of some that the Great Exhibition was showy and shallow. Indeed, so popular was it with ordinary Britons that some in the governing classes feared the mass of visitors might become a revolutionary mob (the political upheavals of 1848 in continental Europe were still fresh in the memory).
The Great Exhibition cost $1.65 million, equivalent of $42 million in today’s money. The Shanghai Expo that has just closed cost an estimated $4.2 billion but in many other respects it can draw a direct line as a glorious, popular success to the Crystal Palace of 1851, giving most of its 73 million visitors the world for 100 yuan.