A Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, celebrating industrial advances, had been promoted from July 1949 by Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole, the same man who had encouraged William Smith Williams in his paper on lithography. It went through many and long arguments. Some people, such as Ruskin, had serious reservations about the benefit of industry. Others were writing about its very clear disadvantages in terms of urban poverty. All strands of industry from both Great Britain and elsewhere were to exhibit their wares. In the early part of 1851 Richard Williams, William’s brother, was acting as Secretary to the group of Surgical Instrument makers preparing their displays for the Great Exhibition. He was running the office of Weiss & Co at 62 The Strand. For the exhibition, Weiss had produced a most marvellous instrument comprising 1,851 knives. This was clearly a bit of showing off. Yet, behind the scenes, advances were being made in surgery with the work of Lister and others and the makers of instruments took up the challenge to keep pace.
Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with the Exhibition was perhaps characteristic. On 17 April 1851 she wrote to George Smith’s mother to say, ‘I was nursing a comfortable and complacent conviction that I had quite made up my mind not to go to London this year: the Great Exhibition was nothing – only a series of bazaars under a magnified hothouse.’ She did though go, as she wrote to her father on 31 May 1851
Yesterday we went to the Crystal Palace – the exterior has a strange and elegant but somewhat unsubstantial effect – The interior is like a mighty Vanity Fair - the brightest colours blaze on all sides – and ware of all kinds – from diamonds to spinning jennies and Printing Presses are there to be seen – It was very fine – gorgeous – animated – bewildering…
The Great Exhibition drew both great praise and harsh criticism. A wonderful series of lithographs were produced by Lowes Dickinson’s firm and this is available for us to see on the British Library website. Lowes Dickinson later married William Smith Williams's eldest daughter.
I explored the catalogue of the Great Exhibition for my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World published by and available from Pen & Sword.