Visitors by railway to the Great Exhibition of 1851

Rae, A.B. (1987). Visitors by railway to the Great Exhibition of 1851. MPhil thesis The Open University.



This is an examination of the visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in an attempt to establish whether large numbers of people from the provinces did actually travel to London on the recently-established railway network.

Some four million passengers, over and above the normal increase in numbers which was taking place each year as the network expanded, used the railways in 1851 and there is evidence that the vast majority of them were visitors to the Great Exhibition. This was the greatest movement of population in such a concentrated period of time ever to have taken place in Britain up to that date.

Such a movement could not have taken place without the railway. Although the railway companies, with their growing experience of excursion traffic, did prepare for increased traffic, its scale was beyond their expectations. But the traffic was handled with a reasonable degree of punctuality and safety as the companies learned to make full use of all their resources.

Many people organised their visits through subscription associations at a time when there was still considerable hostility to the concept of the Exhibition. Many were encouraged and assisted by their employers who used the visits as an exercise in good industrial relations.
Most, however, merely took advantage of the low excursion fares resulting from intense competition between the railway companies. Although many went seeking self-improvement, the majority were attracted by the press publicity to visit the greatest spectacle they were ever likely to encounter.

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