The Who’s Who of 1862

April 2014

Dedicated to the memory of Henry Cole (15th July 1808 – 18th April 1882)

English Heritage Blue Plaque © Helen Cresswell, 2013

English Heritage Blue Plaque © Helen Cresswell, 2013

As researchers of the 1862 International Exhibition, there are certain dates which stand out in our calendar. Today is one of them: the 132rd anniversary of the death of Henry Cole.

Although making his name as a civil servant, inventor, principal organiser of the 1851 Great Exhibition and as the first director of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), I was first introduced to Cole through his dog. As one of the perks of his job, Cole was allowed to bury his dog in the courtyard of the South Kensington Museum, a curiosity which is still marked by a small plaque in the V&A courtyard till this day. Catching my attention many years ago, this surprisingly touching monument sparked an interest in Cole and the role he played in the establishment of South Kensington as a cultural quarter.

Although not directly involved in the organisation of the 1862 International Exhibition, Cole was not shy about sharing his opinion about it and the project maintained much of the character which he had developed within the 1851 Great Exhibition. Designed to display the world’s best design, encourage future good design and celebrate the superiority of British design, the 1851 Great Exhibition created a model of competition, nationalism and innovation which was emulated in all subsequent international exhibitions, world fairs and biennales.

Cole is therefore a principal figure in any narrative of exhibitions and their origins. However, the editors of visit1862 are attempting to extend these narratives beyond the impact of individual figures such as Henry Cole. There is no denying that Cole was an important figure in establishing the exhibitionary culture of the nineteenth century. But, the influence which he had over visitors’ experience of these events is debateable.

Yes, narratives of experience have to be aware of the influence organisers and officials had over the movement, practices and behaviour of the visitors. But, they also need to consider how these instructions were regularly challenged, subverted and directly disobeyed. For example, at the 1862 International Exhibition, the organisers implemented rules which banned the use and carrying of sticks and umbrellas within the exhibition space. This did not go down well, season ticket holders launching complaints about this infringement on their personal liberties!  Battle commenced between the organisers and the visitors until on the 16th August 1862, The Illustrated London News reported that:

The great stick and umbrella controversy has been decided in favour of the commissioners and against the season-ticket holders.  The authorities at South Kensington are confirmed in their right to make what regulations they please for the good order of the exhibition, and to visit refractory people, who will bring sticks and umbrellas where they have no right to be, with expulsion. 1

Despite this ruling, season ticket holders continued to quarrel with the exhibition organizers, arguing   that it was their right to bring these possessions into the exhibition space. This therefore demonstrates how the exhibition organizers could only control the behaviour of visitors to a certain extent.

The ‘great stick and umbrella controversy’ is not alone. Indeed, it is stories like these that historians of experience live for. But, we must also be aware that many of the ways in which individuals experienced these events were never directly recorded. The challenge we face is therefore how to develop a means of using the sources available to us to reconstruct what people saw, heard, smelt, felt and thought when they visited. We are not abandoning histories of individuals like Henry Cole, but rather we are collapsing the divide between the organiser – who is often well documented in the historical accounts – and the visitor. Bringing the two together in order to talk about experience rather than intent. Both of their narratives are interesting and important and they become even more so when told in combination.

Happy death day Mr Cole. Here’s to the addition of many other people’s narratives to the story of the 1862 International Exhibition.

The editors of visit1862 would be extremely interested to hear of any stories about visitors’ experiences of the 1862 International Exhibition – from real life or fiction. If you know of any references please do email

  1. Illustrated London News, August 16, 1862

© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2014

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