From a distance it gave the appearance of a religious house, a monstrous cathedral of glass and iron, but the gods worshipped here were those of the factory and the forge, human muscle and the hiss of steam. This was Hyde Park in 1851, and this was the Great Exhibition.
A visit to the ‘Grand Exhibition’ was a ‘Must’ on the social calendar of the Victorian, whatever class they identified with. Special ‘One Shilling’ days were included to allow as many as possible to wander and wonder around the giant palace of glass that dominated the area for miles around.
A gaggle of children pushed and shoved each other while tickets were bought, and Beatrix made a mental note that even Victorian children could be heard and seen! Those who bought the cheap tickets were scrubbed clean, red faces glowing with anticipation as well as coal tar soap.
The crowd flowed every which way; some stayed on the ground floor to admire the cotton fabrics that made Manchester so famous and the ornate carriage works that stood opposite like peacocks proud in their fine livery. The north side of the ground floor was also where one could fine the ‘refreshment area’ which would usually be a magnet for those with tired feet, hoping to sample the fine selection of teas from around the Empire. There was however another, more prosaic reason for visiting the refreshment court. Here you could ‘Spend a Penny’ for the first time in the public conveniences created to showcase the advances in sewage disposal, but popular because, for the cost of the aforementioned coin, you could relieve yourself and be waited on by a team of servants who dusted down your coat while you washed your hands in one of the new blue and white china basins.
The sheer scale of the place was breath-taking, the huge trees that stood inside the ‘Palace’, the echo of footsteps on the hard wooden floor, dusted in some places with saw-dust, and the tinkling of the fountains that were liberally sprinkled around the ground floor... Beatrix was struck by the seemingly haphazard way the displays were arranged! True, the British exhibits were standing proud in the western wing, while the ‘Foreigners’, American, French, German goods crouched in the area to the east of the building, but the only power source was along the northern side of the structure, so the large machinery was to be found clustered here.
The smell of bodies mingled with the tang of fresh paint, and the tide of humanity ebbed and flowed around the building marvelling, as one, at just what wonders this modern world could produce… a Floating Church, space heaters made to look like renaissance statues, the newest design of Locomotives, even tiny walnuts filled with hundreds of minute items… ”all in a nutshell.”
Beatrix found the excitement and the energy of the Exhibition intoxicating, and whilst waiting in front of the huge stuffed Elephant in the Indian exhibit, she overheard a slight, but well-dressed gentleman say to his male companion, “I think the first impression produced is bewilderment, It looks like a kind of fairyland. As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls. Carpets, etc with long avenues of statues, fountains, and canopies...” She recognised the man at once, it was Charles Dodgson, and he should know what a fairy land might look like… Beatrix knew him better as Lewis Carroll.