‘The thousands inside all seemed to radiate with joy’ – The Great Exhibition of 1851

We’ve just had all the fun of the fair this May Day, and welcomed back Great British Fun Fair’s brilliant Victorian Swing Boats and Chair-o-planes. Nearly 163 years ago, Robert Hyde Greg enjoyed one of the greatest fairs the country had ever seen; the Great Exhibition of 1851.


Robert Hyde Greg in later life
Robert Hyde Greg in later life

Whilst cataloguing letters of the Greg family (yes our volunteers are still wading their way through thousands of letters!), Ian came across a letter from Robert Hyde Greg to his eldest son, Robert Philips Greg.

Ian discovered the letter
Ian discovered the letter

The letter is dated 19th May 1851, three weeks after the Great Exhibition opened at Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park. The Great Exhibition, was the first international exhibition of manufactured products, and had been dreamed up by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. Its purpose was to celebrate modern industrial technology, and establish Britain as the world’s industrial leader.


The royal family visited three times, and Robert was fortunate enough to attend on one of those occasions;

we had the Queen, Albert, Duchess of Kent, Prince and Princess of Prussia and Duke of W[estminster]…all quite incognito”.

However, Robert was far more interested in the displays and the Crystal Palace itself, rather than the royal family;

The whole thing is certainly wonderful and I wandered about for 8 hours…quite lost in amazement and admiration…even diamonds and jewels worth millions of money attract no admiration, nor indeed is anything worth withdrawing attention for a single minute from the general effect”.


One of these diamonds that Robert paid no particular attention to was the Koh-i-Noor, which was at the time believed to be the world’s largest diamond. There were over 100,000 objects and inventions displayed at the exhibition, with around 15,000 contributors, and over half of these were from Britain or the Empire. Also on display was a precursor of the fax machine, Robert Stevenson’s hydraulic press which lifted the metal tubes of a bridge at Bangor, and printing presses and textile machines.


What struck me as odd was that at the end of the letter to his son Robert signed it “Yours R.H. Greg“. At first I thought this may have been a result of their very troubled relationship Robert thought his son to be incompetent in business matters), but then I discovered that he signed all his letters to his children this way (grumpy so-and-so).


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