The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display & The Great Exhibition & The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. – Review

The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display & The Great Exhibition & The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. – Review – book review

Albert J. Schmidt

The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. by Jeffrey Auerbach (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. viii plus 288pp. $40/cloth).

The Great Exhibition. By John R. Davis (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999. xviii plus 238pp. $36/cloth).

The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. By Stephen Halliday (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999. xiii plus 2l0pp. $36.95/cloth).

Mid-Victorian Britain was bursting with pride; nevertheless, it was beset by many, many social problems. These three volumes are illustrative of both themes, and the tie which binds them is that of engineering and building. While they are accounts about complicated or extraordinary building schemes, they are much more than that. They show how huge projects worked for the betterment of society, both in a physical and psychological sense. While the undertakings of Sir Joseph Bazalgette unquestionably improved the condition of public health and relieved downtown London’s traffic congestion, the Great Exhibition of 1851 arguably provided a marvelous balm to both the London and British psyche. Beyond enhancement of London’s self-image, the Exhibition had the democratizing effect by thrusting diverse classes together and bequeathing a surplus which perpetuated its legacy in public museums. Whether these grand building enterprises accomplished their aesthetic goals is another matter. Certainly such arbiters of taste as John Ruskin and William Morris regarded the Crystal Palace a flop.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851, which owed much to the initiatives of Henry Cole and the Royal Society of the Arts and to Prince Albert, was intended as a monument to industrial achievement. Both Auerbach and Davis contend that it was much more. That their diverse treatments of an identical subject, inclusive of overlap in information and even illustrations, should be published the same year is unusual and intriguing, to say the least.

Although their organization of the subject differs substantially, each author begins with a segment on “origins” or “roots”. In reality, Davis devotes much more space (three chapters and part of a fourth) to preparations for the Great Exhibition than does Auerbach. Unlike Auerbach, Davis delves into European fair antecedents, noting in particular those in nineteenth-century France and Germany. His chronicle of the Royal Commission’s undertaking and the politics involved, while illuminating, can be pretty tiresome stuff. Auerbach’s coverage of similar material, while less detailed, enlarges on the important 1840s issue of industrial education and places the Royal Society of the Arts in a larger context than Davis does. Auerbach’s recounting of the Royal Commission’s trials (chapter entitled “Obstacles”) is a more successful articulation of the political squabbles engulfing the Commission than Davis’s unstructured narrative. On the other hand, Davis treats Palace construction methods, replete with excellent ill ustrations, more effectively than does Auerbach.

Davis’ chapter “Setting Up Shop”, while informative, is quite a mix. In incorporates the role of Albert, the manner in which tickets were handled, the catalogue, exhibits and their themes, foreign exhibits, worries about revolutionaries, and much else. Again, Auerbach deals with much of this (and more) but in a more systematic fashion. In his section “Organization” he recounts the Commission’s drumming up support for the Exhibit through subscriptions (which Davis buries in an earlier chapter) and by going to the English counties, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Like Davis, he effectively represents Albert’s positive role in exhibition planning; beyond that, he provides a clearer picture than Davis of the free trade and protectionist responses to the whole enterprise.

In his “Great Exhibit Experience” Davis walks the reader through the Exhibition–its layout, the catalogue, good photographs to support the text, a commentary on those who attended, and much else. As good as it is, this section again falls short of Auerbach’s coverage of the far- ranging discussion of the Exhibition itself. The most sophisticated and fascinating segment of Auerbach, in this respect, consists of three chapters under the rubric of “Meaning”. The first, “Commerce and Culture”, speaks to such mundane matters as exhibit contents and their classifications, the raw materials, machinery, and the manufactures–each nicely buttressed by charts and numerous colored illustrations; more complex themes like the Commercialization of the Crystal Palace and Construction of an Industrialized Society complete it. While aspects of this chapter are paralleled in Davis’ “The Exhibit Experience”, that author neither defines nor considers the Exhibit’s commercialization and its implications for industrial Britain.

Auerbach’s “Integration and Segregation” really has to do with the people aspect of the Exhibition–how it related to the working class, their modes of travel, lodgings once there, admission prices, shilling days, and then, finally, a thoughtful conclusion on the Exhibition as an integrative force in Britain’s class structured society. Auerbach’s last chapter, “Nationalism and Internationalism”, explores the tensions between Cobdenite internationalism and Palmerstonian nationalism and how they played at the Exhibition. The reader will find no comparable discussion in Davis. Both Davis and Auerbach, in their conclusions, treat the removal of the Crystal Palace Building to Sydenham; the significance of the Exhibition; reactions to it both at home and abroad; its legacy in the museums spawned in Kensington, and other topics. Perhaps the surprise, at least for the reviewer, was its irrelevance to the Labor government in assembling and promoting the Festival of Britain on the Great Exhibition’s centenary.

Unquestionably, Auerbach’s work is superior to Davis’ in conception, organization, and analysis; moreover, its appraisal of the Great Exhibition’s consequences are the more sophisticated of the two. All said, Davis has written an acceptable work which, no doubt, would have fared better had there not been another inviting comparison. While both authors write well, Davis is given to annoying cliches. The two works approximate each other in length: Davis contains 216 pages of text, Auerbach 231. On balance Auerbach is more creative in handling the matter of illustrations: his work contains 76 illustrations, Davis a few more. Davis does include portraits of Exhibit supporters and opponents alike; Auerbach, disinclined to distinguish among the many minor characters in the production, details only the stars–Prince Albert and the Palace architect Sir Joseph Paxton. Each author relies on amusing and telling Punch illustrations. Auerbach’s exhibit hall diagram, chart, and maps are very useful, while his beautiful co lored prints add luster to the volume. Davis’ publisher, Sutton, evidently has a problem numbering illustrations: neither this nor the Bazalgette volume includes this handy device. Finally, the greater depth of the Auerbach work seems further substantiated by its notes and bibliography. Its index shows more pains-taking effort, too. One wonders whether either author was aware of the other’s engaging in Crystal Palace biography.

Lest the gleaming Crystal Palace blind one to the real mid-Victorian London, we have only to study the gray image created by Stephen Halliday in his narrative of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works from 1856-1889. While not a household name even among those who profess acquaintance with eminent Victorians, Bazalgette was a veritable Robert Moses in his energetic pursuit of a new London.

That a renovated city was needed there can be no doubt: by the early nineteenth century the city’s accelerated growth had created enormous problems among which were those of public health and congestion. For years local authorities had resisted governmental intervention into such matters; however, by the 1830s cholera outbreaks and the increased contamination of the Thames stimulated new thinking about both. Even so, it took a while before authorities attributed the disease to drinking water drawn from the polluted river rather than bad air (“miasma”) generated by the river filth.

Not until the sweltering summer of 1858 did the Thames stench, the “Great Stink”, drive MPs from their chambers and force their empowering Bazalgette to do something. His scheme of intercepting sewers, pumping stations, and treatment plants replaced London’s centuries’ old sewage system, cleansed the Thames, and immeasurably improved the quality and duration of London life thereafter. As a road and bridge builder Bazalgette was hardly less a giant in changing the face of Victorian London. His achievements included construction of the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, Charing Cross Road, Southwark Street, Northumberland Avenue, Queen Victoria Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, and the Putney, Battersea and Hammersmith bridges over the Thames.

These were truly important accomplishments and certainly deserve a full accounting. That Halliday has attempted to do so is to his credit. His is a useful account of London’s sanitation before 1850, focusing on the critical problems which developed in the first half of the nineteenth century and the frustrations caused by overlapping government in Metropolitan London. The chapter on “The most extensive and wonderful work of modern times” is a reasonably detailed and technical account of Bazalgette’s engineering accomplishment with respect to London’s sewers. That it is nicely reinforced by a crucial map and many illustrations makes it the best in the book. The author’s revelations about sewage disposal and cholera, shocking in their content, complete the picture of the significance of Bazalgette’s overhaul of the city’s sanitation system.

Even before discoursing on sewers and sewage, author Halliday unlooses two illustrations which eloquently depict Bazalegette’s achievements above ground. One shows the Thames lapping the foundations of Somerset House in 1820; the second is of the same building in 1870. The latter day Somerset House gracefully reaches to the new Victoria Embankment–laid out on land reclaimed by Bazalgette from the Thames. Although Halliday resurrects this thoroughfare from the Thames and the engineer from oblivion, he does so in a desultory fashion. His organization is mundane and narrowly limited to Bazalgette. This limited conceptualization diminishes the reader’s understanding of the far-reaching consequences of the engineer’s work, especially his work on London’s avenues and bridges, which the author treats superficially and dismisses in just a few pages. So much more could be said to enrich this work and the reader’s understanding.

A word about illustrations and their enhancement of the text: the book is abundantly illustrated, often with colored prints. They nicely support the text. An especially effective device is the author’s insertion of relevant biographical vignettes replete with portraits, which are both eye-catching and informative

Halliday’s sources, on the other hand, reflect the generally superficial treatment evident by the text. They appear limited to Parliamentary publications, the records of the Metropolitan Commissioners of Sewers, and Metropolitan Board of Works, and Bazalgette’s own papers at the Institution of Civil Engineers. One wonders whether the scope of the work might have been enlarged by expanding these sources. While this work enhances our knowledge of a relatively unknown but important Victorian, it is narrowly conceived and falls far short of what it might have been. Like Davis on the Great Exhibition, Halliway’s Great Stink is dwarfed by the kind of scholarship evidenced by Auerbach.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group