Getting to the Great Exhibition
Season Ticket to the Great Exhibition, from the Victoria & Albert Museum
One of the biggest complaints heard about the Great Exhibition was from the wealthier citizens of England; the event would bring all sorts of riffraff into London at the height of the Season—the months when Parliament was in session and the upper classes flocked to London for the meet-market (i.e., to get sons and daughters married off at the best possible price). Though Parliament opened earlier, Easter typically served as the unofficial opening of the Season, and the Great Exhibition was slated to open on May 1 . . . about the time that most families were settling into their Mayfair or West End homes.
Why were they concerned about riffraff? Well, because Prince Albert’s vision included making visiting the Exhibition affordable to all levels of society.
A poem used as advertising for the GE’s Shilling Days, from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas
In addition to a low cost of entry, the railways got into the spirit as well.
Great Northern Railway advertisement, from the National Archives and V&A
It’s estimated that 4.5 million visitors came on shilling days—out of the approximately 6 million who visited in total. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were known to visit on shilling days! (Not that they had to pay to get in, of course.)
As you can imagine, the crowds were much bigger on shilling days than on full-price days.
“The Shilling Day—Going to the Exhibition” / image in the London Illustrated News depicting the rush of crowds to get to the GE on shilling days. From the National Archives and V&A
There were also five-shilling days. These were days when those who did not want to rub elbows with the one-shilling crowd attended.
“The Five Shilling Day at the Exhibition” / image in the London Illustrated News from the National Archives and V&A
Most of us aren’t crazy about being in crowds, but now imagine yourself back in 1851 and trying to fight the crowds in a dress held out several inches to a foot or more from your feet in all directions by multiple petticoats and crinolines (no, not hoops but heavy, stiff fabric made from horsehair or other stiffened materials).
Color illustration of the Great Exhibition from the British Library
Put yourself in 1851. Will you go on a one-shilling day or a five-shilling day? How will you arrive? And, most importantly, what will you wear?