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Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0000
Held at: Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
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Full title: Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
Date(s): 1849-2002 (ongoing)
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: approximately 1000 boxes
Name of creator(s): Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was established in 1850 by Queen Victoria to mastermind the 'Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations'. The commissioners were appointed by Royal Charter to plan and promote the Great Exhibition, with Prince Albert as the President taking personal charge of the operation. The exhibition was held in London in 1851 in a building designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, known as the Crystal Palace. It was erected in Hyde Park, and after the exhibition closed was sold by the contractors to a syndicate for re-erection at Sydenham, where it remained until it was burnt down in 1936. The exhibition made a substantial profit of 186,000, and when its affairs were wound up the commissioners remained a permanent body under a supplemental charter to administer the surplus funds to 'increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry'. The profit was carefully managed, and capital assets are now of the order of 39 million with annual charitable disbursement of over 1 million. The commissioners proposed to provide a 'locality', and establish central institutions working in cooperation with regional interests to promote industrial education for the benefit of the whole country. Within two years the commissioners had bought an estate in South Kensington of eighty-seven acres. The commissioners were assisted by Parliament to complete the purchase of the estate, and elected Government representatives to the commission as ex-officio members to assist them in managing the estate. Government representatives continue to serve, although the partnership with the commission was dissolved in 1858.

The first step in the development of the system was taken by the Government in founding the Department of Science and Art in 1853. The Department was moved to land off Exhibition Road in Kensington in 1860, and other institutions were established in the same area including the School of Naval Architecture and Engineering (later moved to Greenwich), the Royal College of Science, the Royal School of Mines and the Royal College of Art. In 1858 the commissioners assigned to the Government the land east of Exhibition Road on which the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) was built. The southern part of the main square of the estate was used for the International Exhibition of 1862, and in 1863 part of that site was sold to the Government for the Natural History Museum and other public institutions. From 1860 to 1889 the commissioners used the estate for temporary exhibitions and other activities designed to stimulate public interest in science and art. The commissioners still intended to establish permanent institutions according to their stated aims, and to this end a Museum of Art had been established and Museum of Science was being developed. The commissioners leased sites for and helped promote the foundation of the Royal Albert Hall, Royal College of Music, Royal College of Art, Royal College of Organists, Royal School of Needlework, National School of Cookery, School of Art Woodcarving and Queen Alexandra's House, a residential hostel for female students. The commissioners also enabled the Government to acquire land for developing the National Science Collections and Library and eventually to build the Science and Geological museums. Land was leased to the City and Guilds of London Institute for the building of their Central Institution (opened 1884), and for the building of the Imperial Institute (later Commonwealth Institute). The Royal Horticultural Society's gardens also occupied a large section of the estate until the 1870s. The remainder of the unoccupied estate was leased to the Imperial College of Science and Technology (now Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine) which in 1907 co-ordinated its constituent colleges already established on the estate, the Royal College of Science, Royal School of Mines and City and Guild's College.

As part of their aims of 'increasing the means of industrial education and extending the influence of science and art upon productive industry' the commissioners also established fellowships and scholarships for science and engineering graduates which continue today. A scheme of postgraduate awards was launched in 1891 'for assisting the promotion of scientific education by devoting a portion of their surplus income to the establishment of technical scholarships'. Seventeen to twenty scholarships were offered each year to students from universities in Britain, Ireland and throughout the empire. The scheme was reorganised in 1922, with two schemes operating. Senior Studentships (later called Research Fellowships) were available to all British university institutions and provided funds for two years of research for scientists or engineers. Overseas Scholarships, which ran until 1988, were awarded to universities of the Empire and later the Commonwealth. They allowed selected students to devote two or three years to full time research. The schemes provided research opportunities to many outstanding scientists and engineers, including eleven Nobel Laureates, four Presidents and 130 Fellows of the Royal Society. Former 1851 award holders include Lord Ernest Rutherford, Professor Charles Barkla, Professor Robert Robinson, Professor Walter Haworth, Sir John Cockcroft, E T S Walton, Paul Dirac, Sir James Chadwick, C P Snow, Lord Alexander Todd, Professor Sir John Cornforth and Sir Aaron Klug.

A scheme of industrial bursaries was established in 1911 to give graduates financial assistance before obtaining employment in industry, ending in 1939. Post graduate scholarships in naval architecture were also awarded by the commission, and travelling scholarships tenable at the British School at Rome for the study and practice of fine arts. Currently the Commission's educational awards comprise Research Fellowships in Science or Engineering awarded to scientists or engineers to continue research for two years, Industrial Fellowships, awarded to British nationals for work in British industry, Industrial Design Studentships and Research Fellowships for research within the Built Environment.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, 1849-2002, comprising minutes of the Commission, 1850-1993; minutes of the Board of Management, 1872-2002; minutes of Science Scholarships Committee, 1890-2002; reports of the Commissioners to Parliament, 1850s-1960; annual reports of the Board of Management and committees, 1880s-2002;

correspondence, 1850-1855, relating to the Exhibition, including transport and reception of exhibits, site for the building, organisation of activities and visits for overseas visitors, medal design, music for the opening ceremony, appointment of jurors, negotiations with the contractors Fox & Henderson, award of gratuities, removal of the Crystal Palace to Sydenham, use and disposal of the surplus funds, purchase of the South Kensington Estate;

correspondence concerning the South Kensington estate, 1851-2002, including the establishment, building and subsequent development of institutions such as the Royal Albert Hall, Royal College of Music, Royal College of Art, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal College of Organists, Imperial Institute (later Commonwealth Institute), Queen Alexandra's House, Royal Horticultural Society and Imperial College; correspondence concerning private properties on the estate, such as Queen's Gate; correspondence with the Royal Geographical Society, 1913-2001;

files relating to science research scholars, research fellows, overseas scholars, industrial fellows, industrial bursars, industrial design students and naval architecture scholars, including some research papers, 1891-2002;

maps, plans, drawings, photographs, including ground plans of the Exhibition, 1851; architectural drawings of the proposed estate, 1850s;

Windsor Archive concerning the 1851 exhibition, 1849-1886.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

The records are arranged as outlined in the scope and content.

Conditions governing access:

Researchers wishing to consult the archives should first contact the Archivist for the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Sherfield Building, Imperial College, London, SW7 2AZ for an appointment. Evidence of identity is required. There is a 30 year closure on most material. Personal files are closed for 50 years.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopying is permitted at the discretion of the Archivist.

Finding aids:

A detailed catalogue is in preparation and will be available at the Archives of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Created in the course of business. The Windsor Archive is on permanent loan from the Royal Collections.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Some of the exhibits of the Great Exhibition are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Minutes and papers, 1921-1951, of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 are held by the National Library of Wales (reference: D). The Public Record Office also holds some records , including correspondence with Secretary of the Royal Commission for the exhibition of 1851, 1935-1937 (reference: FD 1/3721).

Publication note:

Record of Award Holders in Science, Engineering and the Arts, 1891-2000 Valerie Phillips (Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, London, 2001).

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. An Outline of its Activities Past and Present (Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, revised, 1997). Compiled by Julie Tancell as part of the RSLP AIM25 project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
July 2002

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