The Great Exhibition, which was held in Hyde Park in the huge, purpose built Crystal Palace between May and October 1851, was a defining moment in London’s history.
The brainchild of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert and the inventor and civil servant, Henry Cole, this five month long event was essentially the world’s first expo, showcasing all manner of art and technology from across the globe.
As well as providing tourism and international trade and relations with a major boost, the Great Exhibition also generated a huge profit which was ploughed into establishing a trio of landmark museums; these being the Victoria and Albert, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all three of which are located in South Kensington, close to the original site of the Crystal Palace.
Those who visited the Great Exhibition in 1851 could marvel at over 100,000 items covering everything from delicate glassware, to the latest in heavy industrial gear. Highlights included the magnificent Koh-I-Noor Diamond, Samuel Colt’s 1851 Navy Revolver, and the massive ‘Trophy Telescope.’
The Victorians could be an odd bunch though and, alongside the wonders on show within the Crystal Palace, there were also a number of objects which were perplexing, unsettling and, in some cases, downright creepy.
Here are five to make your skin crawl…
5: The Tempest Prognosticator
Apparently, leeches are good at predicting bad weather- if they sense a storm’s approaching, they’ll swim upwards and, if kept in a jar, will even attempt to crawl out.
Bearing this in mind, the aptly named Dr. Merryweather of Whitby, Yorkshire decided to create a barometer which was operated by twelve of these parasitic beasts. If the leeches were agitated by atmospheric changes, their movements would trigger a bell.
4: Horn Furniture
Horn furniture- that is chair and tables fashioned from antlers- originated in Europe around the 15th century, and for many years most examples of the style were confined to hunting lodges.
Things changed however when a suite of this spiky furniture was exhibited at the Great Exhibition. This led to a craze amongst wealthy Victorians who thought nothing of furnishing entire rooms in this stuff.
No doubt this resulted in a lot of snagged clothing.
3. Gilbert's Tooth Extractor
Despite advances made in the 19th century, Victorian medicine was still a pretty rough affair- as this piece of equipment, designed for ripping out problematic teeth, gruesomely illustrates.
2: Miss Walter's Virtuous Clockface
This unusual clock-face design was drawn up my a woman known only as Miss Walter, who appears to have resided on Devonshire Place, Marylebone.
As you can see, the clock’s outer circle is designated ‘Satan’s Kingdom: Spiritual Darkness’, the hours of which are divided into all manner of nastiness including ‘Evil’, ‘Hostility’, ‘Hatred’ and ‘Leprosy of Sin’. Oh, and there’s an Illuminati-esque eye at its centre too.
1: Smith's Comic Electric Telegraph
This extremely creepy head was crafted by one G.R Smith, who resided off of Culford Road; close to Dalston Junction.
The device was essentially an early animatronic- three magnetised bars, which were hidden behind the face and operated by a basic keyboard- were capable of twisting the eyes and mouth into a variety of shapes. Before such movement occurred, a bell inside the head’s box would ring to alert the attention of unfortunate passers-by.
Following the Great Exhibition, G.R Smith’s son gifted the head to the Savage Club in Bristol. Then, in 1951, it was returned to London to be exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Festival of Britain Celebrations.
That appears to be the last time the ‘Comic Electric Telegraph’ was seen in public. If it survives, its present whereabouts are a mystery…