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The World for a Shilling

Price: £9.99

How the great Exhibition of 1851 shaped a nation.

By Michael Leapman

As Michael Leapman suggests in his entertaining and engaging account, the tremendous success of the Great Exhibition owed something to luck. "A Consort anxious to make his mark; a burgeoning manufacturing industry looking to expand its horizons; the dawn of the age of mass travel; a world riven by fractiousness but recognising that self-interest demanded greater levels of international co-operation": all of these converged to ensure that the exhibition housed in Paxton's magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park captured the imagination of the nation and the world between May and November 1851.

Such success could not have been predicted, and there was doubt that the great event would ever occur, let alone on time. Worries about insurrectionists from abroad and anxieties about working-class revolts at home had many observers, particularly fashionable Londoners who lived near Hyde Park, predicting doom and gloom. This was, after all, only a few years after the European revolutions of 1848, and the memory of Chartist uprisings were still writ large in middle-class minds.

The bullish magazine John Bull was particularly xenophobic, fearing "the influx of large masses of visitors, whose moral standard in their own homes is considerably below our own". A scaremongering pamphlet warned that "no history, no poetry, no national code, no religion exists without some allusion to the danger of vast multitudes".

What the Great Exhibition staged was the first mass spectacle – all social classes visited, as many as 50,000 per day – and the rise of the "mass" would dominate the rest of the century in politics, media and education.

Leapman is particularly strong at presenting the detail of the organisation, building and contents. In one chapter, he gives us a walking tour through the national displays, bringing alive what might otherwise be leaden facts. I kept hoping for more analytical discussion of the ideology behind the Great Exhibition, perhaps in relation to the urban, capitalist culture of advertising, publicity and spectacle emerging in wake of the industrial revolution. The attempt to display the culture and technology of the world was an audaciously ambitious one.

308 pages Hardback 21 illustrations