Published in The Drouth, Winter 2008/9, in response to the theme ‘Public’, this short study uses the Great Exhibition of 1851 to negotiate the ideology of the term.
Ladies and Gentlemen: the reformer, researcher, journalist and one of the founders of Punch magazine, Mr. Henry Mayhew:
“A large crowd of people always presents many curious subjects of speculation. The bare fact of their being there is marvellous in itself, when we think of it, without thinking too deeply.”1
Despite having been dead for over 110 years now – a contemporary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 – Mr. Mayhew’s words will be guiding us through this study. Your writer hopes that in the fresh, still-moist ink of this most recent of Drouths, that his words will still appear fresh and vital. (If you are reading this magazine from the distant future, then you should probably take this statement to be ironic, given its crusty countenance, and be assured that I certainly was alive when I wrote it; oh yes, and please forgive me, my generation were mainly bankers).
The Great Exhibition was the first international event of its kind, displaying works of Industry, in the broadest sense of the word, from around the world in a single space – for comparison and reflection. It was a representation of both the power and nationalism of a colonial Britain and a summation of the anxieties of a fragmented, industrialized nation trying to come to terms with profound social changes. As much as it was a display of raw materials, machines, and products, it was the display of people. On the busiest day the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s monumental exhibition space, would entertain 109,915 visitors2. From the 1st May 1851 to the 11th October of that year, 6,030,195 visitors3 would be recorded (in 1851 the population of the United Kingdom was around 27 million4). It is my aim here to explore the relationship between this constructed encounter and term ‘public’. Your writer shall proceed by outlining and developing a seemingly simple definition of the term derived from Raymond William’s Culture and Society, first published in 1958.
For Williams, studying the evolution of the term during the industrial revolution, public was a term for describing large bodies of people and simply a polite term for the masses, “a new word for mob”. And, as he continues:
“… the traditional characteristics of the mob were retained in its significance: gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit. The masses … formed a perpetual threat to culture. Mass-thinking, mass-suggestion, mass prejudice would threaten to swamp considered individual thinking and feeling.”5
This statement implies that a certain number of prejudices are imbedded in the term, and it initially seems to correspond to the attitude of the upper and middle classes towards the working class in Britain in 1851. For the more reactionary of the ruling classes, generally the upper class, this ‘threat’ was confounded by memories of national working-class agitation, the ‘monster mob’ of the Chartist rally of 1848 and, also of that year, the outbreak of revolutions on the continent, to offer but a few examples. Prior to the effective opening of the Great Exhibition to the working classes then, when admission was reduced to an affordable 1 shilling, many Londoners were fearful of riots and disruption. The Duke of Wellington, for example, voiced his opinion that 15,000 police officers would be necessary to establish control over the masses6.
For social reformers, being more generally associated with an enterprising middle class, a different emphasis was placed upon the short fallings of William’s ‘public’. For them, base characteristics could be overcome by cultivating experiences: “many liberal intellectuals hoped that the Great Exhibition, as an ambitious model of ‘rational recreation’, would fulfil a wider educative function and exert a civilizing influence on the majority.”7 (Indeed, as it was recorded by the bourgeois press, the masses, to be less polite for a moment, proved to be very well behaved. The Times, for example, described them as being “well dressed, orderly and sedate, earnestly engaged in examining all that interests them.”8) For the working classes this ‘civilizing influence’ was expected take the form of a new and invigorated work ethic, which was to be celebrated and publicized – an important factor in a competitive Industrial Nation’s success. As our friend, Mr. Henry Mayhew put it in 1851, with good intentions:
‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry and Art of all Nations is … the first attempt to dignify and refine toil; and by collecting the several products of scientific and aesthetic art from every quarter of the globe in to one focus, to diffuse a high standard of excellence among our operatives, and thus to raise the aesthetic qualities of labour, so that men, no longer working with fingers alone, shall find that which is now mere drudgery converted into delight, their intellects expanded, their natures softened, and their pursuits ennobled by the process.’9
The Royal Commission, established in order to augment and consolidate efforts to realize the Great Exhibition, shared these aspirations and was mainly comprised of such liberal thinkers, who – and this shall be shown to be more than coincidence – also tended to be proponents of free trade10. Two key members of this commission were Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the two men to which the planning and administration of the Great Exhibition is largely attributed. Both men had been active in trying to elevate the standards of industry and Cole in particular was keen to see the quality of British products tested in exhibitions11. In Cole’s case the Great Exhibition was far from being an expression of nationalistic confidence and he hoped, in fact, that the deterioration of the standards of British goods –due he thought to mass production – could be exposed12. These opinions are paralleled and eloquently expressed again by Mr. Mayhew:
‘One Great good the Exhibition assuredly must do, and that is to decrease the large amount of slop of inferior productions that are flooding the country, and which, in the rage for cheapness, are palmed off as equal to the handiwork of the most dexterous operatives. Were the public judges of workmanship – had they been made acquainted with the best work of the best workmen, and so possessed some standard of excellence by which to test the various kinds of labour, it would be impossible for the productions of the unskilful artisan to be brought into competition with those of the most skilful. Owing to the utter ignorance of the public, however, upon all such matters, the tricky employer is now enabled to undersell the honourable master…’13
In this passage ‘operatives’, i.e. the working class, and the ‘public’ are clearly separated. The ‘threat to culture’ diagnosed by Mayhew corresponds very clearly to the latter’s tastes. This use of the term ‘public’ discriminates between those who make products and those who consume them. It qualifies its subjects against their capacity to purchase and as Peter Gurney observes, “the majority of working-class people had very little disposable income to spend on the expanding range of consumer goods in 1850”14. In this reading, the majority of the working class seem to be excluded from the term ‘public’. Some writers have made interesting observations about the absence of the working class from the displays of the Great Exhibition too; the giant machines and endless arrangements of materials were silent, essentially abstracted from the labouring process itself. Steve Edwards comments that, for example, “this occlusion allowed the spectator to imagine, or to fantasise, a system of making that provided no resistance to the manufacturer’s desires.”15 It is interesting to add to this observations made at the time suggesting that the different classes of people at the Exhibition, referred to as the 5s and 1s classes according to the admission fee paid on specific days, were quite different types of spectator. John Tallis, author of one of the many guidebooks, speculated that the 5s (upper) class seemed to ‘lounge’ around the nave, concerned with the finery and spectacle of the exhibition, while the 1s classes seemed more eager to examine the workings of the machines, and as punch put it, “gain instruction from what they see”16. For the former class the surface appearance of production and wealth seems to have been sufficient – seemingly corresponding to Edwards fantasising spectator – while the later seem to have had pragmatic concerns, relating to the material realities of the display.
Where William’s use of the term ‘public’ might lead to certain ambiguities, arising from its proximity to so many other terms, such as ‘masses’, ‘people’, ‘majority’ and ‘mob’, it is clear that it in relation to the Great Exhibition it had a specific role within a liberal, bourgeois and significantly, capitalist system of representation. Here ‘public’ does not relate to the working class, whereas ‘mob’ and ‘masses’ might. As we have seen, the term ‘public’ could be imbued with transformative power through its contiguous relationship to civilization and progress, the apex of which, represented at the Exhibition, was a free-capitalist Britain.
What we should not assume here however, is the assured stability of the term ‘public’, even considering its powerful provenance. In William’s statement, the phrase ‘threat to culture’ is very significant. It imbeds the term ‘public’ with certain characteristics, helping it to adhere to the rhetoric of the liberal capitalist. Let us take a moment to back track slightly and emphasize the ambiguity of the other terms in William’s statement, specifically ‘masses’, to see what they reveal about the term ‘public’ and what its specific application at the time might conceal. I want to take this moment to reflect upon a very different type of threat. A much more vivid threat posed by the masses was that of epidemic. This was not caused by the morality or sophistication of the working classes as opposed to romantic aspirations for a ‘philosophically characterized people’, to borrow from Wordsworth, but was caused by the critical mass of bodies subject to appalling conditions. Though conflation between morality and mortality might have been made at that time, the evidence proving the connection between these material conditions and their consequences was becoming much more compelling. Edwin Chadwick’s Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, published in 1842, states, for example: “disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion [sic] with physical circumstances [and] where those circumstances are removed by drainage, proper cleansing, better ventilation, and other means of diminishing atmospheric impurity, the frequency and intensity of such disease is abated”17. Less formally, Mayhew looking back from 1874 to 1848, wrote that, “so well known were the localities of fever and disease then, that London could almost have been mapped out pathologically, and divided into its morbid districts and deadly cantons”18. As horrific as Mayhew’s picture of London may be, imagining the contagion to be compartmentalized was really wishful thinking. With servants silently permeating the delicate membranes of society, no class was immune to the ill effects of the ‘nauseous nests’ described by Mayhew19. This conception of the ‘masses’ is very different from the ‘public’. It is corporeal; it is about bodies, rather than subjects of a capitalist system, though they are obviously interconnected, where threat derives its force from visceral realities. If the Great Exhibition did allow certain spectators to fantasise about a ‘system of making’ without resistance, perhaps we could argue that it bears a strong resemblance to the use of the term ‘public’, where a group of subjects are constituted in such a way as to be susceptible to ‘civilizing influences’. Both denied material realities: the former, the limitation of resources and the working class, the latter, the corporeal masses. Both derived their force from capitalism, and so both were paradoxically tied to the material realities they sought to deny. To conclude, I would like us to consider how the term ‘public’ was, in part, able to achieve this incredible illusion.
As Williams explains, none of us can really consolidate our own sense of individuality with the strange phantom body of other people that we call the public, or even the general public; similarly we don’t consider ourselves, or our families, or our friends, to be the masses. From this point of view, the term public corresponds to an abstract, generic, evasive type of knowing that seems irreconcilable with the personal, specific and loquacious way we might think we know individual people. To return once more to Henry Mayhew’s reflections:
“Of these men and women who pass and repass me in the crowded street, one is an only son, on whose progress in life his bereaved mother has staked her happiness; another is the ne’r-do-weel husband of a spirit-broken, but still loving wife; a third is a husband that is to be; a fourth is the father of a big hungry family – every one, from peer to beggar, is the living centre of some social scheme. They are all so much alike, and yet so widely different; their stories are so wonderfully similar in their broad outlines, and yet so strangely unlike in their minute particulars.”20
The term ‘public’ does not refer to people as complex beings, but it operates at the level of ‘broad outlines’. Moreover, as William’s comments, this peculiar way of viewing other people has ‘been capitalized for the purposes of political or cultural exploitation.”21 This exploitation has been well explored in relation to the Great Exhibition and its representation of other cultures. What I hope this study has done, on a modest scale, is reveal a small aspect of how this exploitation operated within Britain in 1851. To be a member of the public, you were less flesh and blood, and more an aspect of consumption, valued for your acquiescence to a certain taste. Yet, as I hope has also been shown, this view itself is a kind of fantasy, dispossessed of material reality. Unfortunately it was, and perhaps remains, an incredibly powerful fantasy.
The Xenodokeion Pancosmopolitanicon was the name of a hotel that, according to Mayhew, was set up by P. T. Barnum during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Mayhew’s account being semi- fictitious and Barnum’s capacity for hoax make this a particularly unbelievable fantasy, which is all the better. Established to entertain those visiting the Great Exhibition The Xenodokeion Pancosmopolitanicon offered clients a range of luxuries: a private chaplain, the right to enter the Palace, a seat with a nightcap and Pillow at the House of Commons, free columns in the Times, use of the Lord Mayor’s carriage and access to the Queen’s drawing room. To stay at The Xenodokeion Pancosmopolitanicon was to have at your fingertips the contacts, the publications and the power of Victorian Britain. It was the magical portal to the top of world. And the price for a ride in this magical portal? A measly 1 shilling.
- Mayhew, H. (1874) London characters: illustrations of the humour, pathos, and peculiarities of London life, London. p.2
- GIBBS-SMITH, C.H. & Victoria and Albert Museum (1950) The great exhibition of 1851 : a commemorative album, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. p.33
- Harvie, C. and Matthew, C. (2005) A Very Short Introduction: Nineteenth Century Britain, Oxford University Press. Oxford. p.11
- Williams, R. (1958) Culture and society, 1780-1950, Penguin. p.288
- Auerbach. J (1999) The Great Exhibition of 1851. New Haven, Yale University Press. p.147
- Gurney, P. An Appropriated Space: the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and the Working Class, in Purbrick, L. (2001), The Great Exhibition of 1851 : new interdisciplinary essays, Manchester University Press : Distributed exclusively in the USA by Palgrave, Manchester, UK; New York. p.115
- The Times quoted in, Auerbach. J (1999) The Great Exhibition of 1851. New Haven, Yale University Press. p.154
- Mayhew, H. & Cruikshank, G. 1851, 1851: or, The adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Sandboys and family, who came up to London to “Enjoy themselves” and to see the Great Exhibition. [With illustrations.], London. p.131
- Kemper, J. (2000) Internationalism and the Search for National Identity: Britain and the Great Exhibition of 1851, available at: http:///www.stanford.edu/group/ww1/spring2000/exhibition/strart.html [accessed November 2008]
- Sparling, T.A. & Yale Center for British Art The Great Exhibition : a question of taste, Yale Center for British Art. p.7-9
- Forty, A (2005 ) Objects of Desire, Thames and Hudson, London. p.43
- Mayhew, H. & Cruikshank, G. 1851, 1851: or, The adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Sandboys and family, who came up to London to “Enjoy themselves” and to see the Great Exhibition. [With illustrations.], London. p.158
- Gurney, P. An Appropriated Space: the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and the Working Class, in Purbrick, L. (2001), The Great Exhibition of 1851 : new interdisciplinary essays, Manchester University Press : Distributed exclusively in the USA by Palgrave, Manchester, UK; New York. p.116-7
- Edwards, S. The Accumilation of Knowledge, or, William Whewell’s Eye, in Purbrick, L. (2001), The Great Exhibition of 1851 : new interdisciplinary essays, Manchester University Press : Distributed exclusively in the USA by Palgrave, Manchester, UK; New York. p.46
- John Tallis and Punch, reported and cited in Auerbach. J (1999) The Great Exhibition of 1851. New Haven, Yale University Press. p.156
- Chadwick, E (1842) Report…from the Poor Law Commissions on an Inquiry into the Sanitory Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britiain, available at: http:///www.victorianweb.org/history/chadwick2.html [accessed 06/11/2008]
- Mayhew, H. (1874) London characters: illustrations of the humour, pathos, and peculiarities of London life, London. p.444
- Harvie, C. and Matthew, C. (2005) A Very Short Introduction: Nineteenth Century Britain, Oxford University Press. Oxford p.42#
- Mayhew, H. (1874) London characters: illustrations of the humour, pathos, and peculiarities of London life, London. p.2
- Williams, R. (1958) Culture and society, 1780-1950, Penguin. p.289.