Exhibitions Great and Small

Frank Sharman

Exhibitions are an interesting and important part of the economic, social and cultural life of Wolverhampton. This is an outline account, mainly taken from secondary sources. All parts of it might make interesting subjects for others to research further.

The context of the Wolverhampton Exhibitions

The idea of holding art and industrial exhibitions, of which the Great Exhibition of 1851 is the best known example, did not pass Wolverhampton by. Its most notable efforts were in 1869 and 1902; but there were other examples too.

The origins of such exhibitions seem to go back to France in 1797, where the aim of the exhibition seems to have been to sell French products, mainly to the French, because the English blockade was making it difficult to sell them elsewhere. But the aim was also educational and propagandist - to persuade the French that they could produce industrial goods as well as the English. Numerous other such exhibitions, almost exclusively French in content and character, followed at irregular intervals until in 1849 a massive exhibition in temporary buildings in the Champs Elysee attracted a great deal of international attention. A number of other European countries also held similar exhibitions, closely modeled on the French, in the first half of the century.

In the UK exhibitions of a similar character, but much smaller in scale, were organised by what was later to become the Royal Society of Arts. Their motive was not commercial but mainly intellectual - they were interested in encouraging and learning about new scientific and design developments. This notion was taken up by the Mechanics Institutes, which promoted a large exhibition in Manchester in 1837 which was followed by many smaller exhibitions put on by Institutes in many northern towns. The Mechanics Institutes added a new dimension to the exhibitions - they were trying to persuade the working classes (or, more specifically, the skilled workers, artisans and craftsman) that their products were worthy of note and could take the benefits of modern processes and good design. (The above is based largely on: Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: the Exposition Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs 1851-1939, Manchester University Press, 1988).

Sometime during this period Wolverhampton seems to have joined in. Upton (Chris Upton, A History of Wolverhampton, Phillimore, 1998) records: "The earliest of these exhibitions was the brain child of George Wallis, an artist employed by the firm of Ryton and Walton in Turton's Hall. The exhibition was held in the Mechanics' Institute in Queen Street and showed both fine art (including paintings by Rembrandt and Claude) and the latest in designer furniture and decorated trays, as well as a variety of ironwork, locks and steel toys". The inclusion of fine art in an exhibition of this period was unusual and the mention of Claude may be significant. The decorators of japanned and similar wares tend to look to fine art as an inspiration and exemplar. Claude was a well known French landscapist the style and content of whose work often seems to be reflected in the landscapes appearing on decorated wares. (I suspect that the decoration on the relatively cheap wares produced in Wolverhampton - a town which was an important canal centre - may have been influential in the development of the "roses and castles" style of folk art found on canal boats.)

The Great Exhibition of 1851 seems to have taken all of the motives behind the earlier exhibitions and rolled them together - the Great Exhibition was to serve all the purposes of all the people. But the main organizer (with the enthusiastic blessing of Prince Albert) added a further and vital ingredient - that the exhibition should not just be nationally based but should be international. Foreign exhibitors were to be important - and they came to the 1851 exhibition in droves.

Read about Wolverhampton's contribution to the 1851 exhibition

The 1851 exhibition set the tone and standard for all the subsequent Great or Universal Exhibitions which sprang up around the world immediately after 1851 and which continued throughout this century and remain with us in the form of World Fairs. Only a few elements remained to be added. In the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 fine art was added on a large scale. The 1851 exhibition had concerned itself almost exclusively with applied or industrial art, which is, on the whole, what we would call design and ornament. Arts for art's sake came later. The French exhibition of 1855 also added another feature: the 1851 exhibition was housed in one huge building, the Crystal Palace; the 1855 exhibition was split between numerous pavilions; and this became the standard practice. Indeed exhibition architecture had been invented. Many, and sometimes all, of the buildings in an exhibition were temporary and were used as exercises in experimenting with new architecture or making over-cooked displays of the old. Sometimes some buildings were designed to be a permanent addition to the townscape - Wembley Way is full of the remnants of the Wembley Exhibition, the Festival Hall is a dour remnant of the Festival of Britain and the Atomium in Brussels is a leftover from a World Fair. Of all the weird and wonderful buildings constructed for exhibitions before the Great War only Melbourne's main exhibition hall seems to have survived. (see generally: Wolfgang Friebe, Buildings of the World Exhibitions, Editions Leipzig, 1985.

The main hall of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, Australia, 1888/89. This seems to be the only one of all the pre-Great War exhibition Halls to survive. Mostly classical, slightly frenchified, it is typical of the ornately bombastic style of great exhibition buildings. The Eifel Tower is another reminder of exhibitions long gone.

One further element was required: the entertainment. The earliest fairs had been strictly edifying in tone but the patronising classes had noted, with amazement and satisfaction, that the working classes had flocked to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Perhaps because of this, funfairs and the like were, for several decades, minor parts, if officially present at all, of most British exhibitions. But the French, again, in the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867 tried to attract crowds by providing a funfair and also by making the exhibits more entertaining - you could ride the helter-skelter then go and watch African natives doing tribal dances. The great exhibitions were nothing if not imperialist and racist. Indeed at the turn of the century the British had taken to promoting a whole series of National Imperial Exhibitions, whose major purpose was to defend the idea of empire. It seems that Wolverhampton hosted one of the bigger of these in 1907. (John M. McKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: the Manipulation of British Public Opinion 1880-1960, Manchester University Press, 1985).

Wolverhampton Exhibitions

Upton records that: "An exhibition of the Industrial Arts was held at St Leonard's Schools in Bilston in June 1859, opened by Sir Robert Peel...".

In May 1869 Wolverhampton made a bolder step towards its own version of the Great Exhibition, when the Exhibition of Staffordshire Arts and Industry took place in a temporary building in the Molineux Grounds.

The Exhibition of Staffordshire Arts and Industry, 1869. A contemporary photograph, with Molineux House in the right background and the temporary exhibition building in the left background.

It was opened by Earl Granville on 11th May. Upton reproduces an extract from the Earl's speech which encapsulates much of the thinking behind such exhibitions: he said that "it was a high distinction for Wolverhampton that its inhabitants should be among the first to erect a building specially for promoting industrial art. The treasures of art and the products of skilled industry, both part and present, collected within these walls are invaluable by suggesting ideas and planting seeds that should bear good fruit in the future, and instill into their minds a will and taste for the beautiful and the refined".

The Opening of the 1869 Exhibition. Presumably that is Lord Granville on stage, spouting. There is an orchestra on the balcony behind him. The large object, bottom right, seems to be most of the operative part of a lighthouse.

There seem to have been many other exhibitions of one sort or another in Wolverhampton during the rest of the century, but the biggest and most ambitious of them was the Arts and Industrial Exhibition which took place in 1902. This great enterprise was fully in accord with all the developments in industrial arts exhibitions up to that time, lacking only in international participation, Canada being the only country to have a pavilion.

Mason (Frank Mason, The Book of Wolverhampton, Barracuda Books, 1979) describes the opening by the Duke of Connaught (the King's brother): "...the opening ceremony took place with a solid gold key studded with brilliants, and a series of inaudible speeches. 'Its success' said the local press 'ought to be exceed even the sanguine hopes of the promoters'. They could not have been more in error. One of the worst summers on record ensured a loss of over £30,000 and although some bold spirits were prepared to try again the following year, the promoters had had enough".

The pictures here show what was on offer, as well as raising a number of questions.

This colour print, from a watercolour by George Phoenix, shows the whole exhibition. At the back are the water chute, the Machinery Hall, the Canada Hall, the Industrial Hall. At the right centre is the Shell Bandstand and Connaught Restaurant. At the front are the spiral toboggan, the kiosk band stand and the concert hall.
The entrance to the site. But what road is it on? Is it Bath Road?
The Duke of Connaught arrives for the opening ceremony. He is passing the Industry Hall.
The Industry Hall. The architectural style - of the tops of the towers, at least - might be described as Indo-Saracenic. The style of the rest is more debatable, though there is a touch of art nouveau in the horeseshoe shaped entrances.
The interior of the Industry Hall
The Machinery Hall. Again, the style defies description.
The interior of the Machinery Hall. Compare the functional style of the interior with the oddity of the exterior.
The Canada Hall. One might describe this as stripped classical but it compares favourably with the other pavilions.
The Concert Hall. Indo-Saracenic domes have been abandoned in favour of Eastern Orthodox onions; there are also classical and Arabic features - quite a selection in a basically plain design.
The Interior of the Concert Hall. It seems strangely unornamented and the seats do not seem to be designed for comfort.
The Shell Bandstand. The doorway at the right gave access to the Connaught Restaurant.

The Water Chute.       

The Spiral Toboggan
The Swan Boats. The passengers seem to be seated in wicker chairs. A man in sailor's uniform sits astride at the back. How were these boats propelled?
A special stamp that was produced to commemorate the 1902 exhibition.

Courtesy of Terry Furler.

Wolverhampton Archives, amongst other material on the 1902 Exhibition, has, on the open shelves, a complete set of the Daily Programmes of the Exhibition, which detail what was happening at the Exhibition day by day.

Many of the Great Exhibitions, though temporary in themselves, altered the cities in which they took place because of the clearances and changes made to accommodate them, because of the buildings that remained and because of changes to infrastructure. In its own little way Wolverhampton's great exhibition had a little effect. The underground lavatories in Queen Square were dug out to provide for the additional visitors expected in town; the Lorain system tramway was hurried on so as to be ready for the opening: its first route was from the town centre to the exhibition; and the bandstand in West Park may have been built for the Exhibition..

Some later exhibitions

The 1869 and 1902 exhibitions can be seen as being within the tradition of art and industrial exhibitions. But, of course, Wolverhampton hosted many other exhibitions of all sorts, local and national. It may be worth noting, briefly, some which have come to my attention and to invite others to do further study these, and any further examples they may find.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England had run the annual Royal Show since 1839. In 1871 it came to Staffordshire for the first time. "On that occasion the deputation who waited on the Council of the Society to support the invitation was introduced by Mr. C. P. Villiers, who represented Wolverhampton in the House of Commons for the long period of 63 years, and the claim was pressed successfully by the then Mayor (Alderman Thomas Bantock)...". (The Book of Wolverhampton: Souvenir of the Royal Show 1937, Wolverhampton Industrial Development Association, nd (1937). The show was held on the old race course, now West Park.

The Royal Agricultural Show, 1871, held on Wolverhampton Race Course (now West Park). In the left background one can make out St.Peter's and the Town Hall. Is the church just behind the stand (centre) supposed to be the Catholic Church on Bath Road? On the right centre is the parade ring. The galleried building left is signed "Wickham & Pickmere First Class Refreshments".

The illustrated paper, "The Graphic", in its issue for the 21st July 1871, published a whole page of wood blocks of the show. Three pictures are shown here. (The other two are standard blocks of funny agricultural characters and might have been drawn anywhere. As two of the pictures here show, "The Graphic" seemed intent on amusing its sophisticated urban readers with illustrations of amusing yokels).

"Trial of Traction Engines at Newbridge". Does anyone have the story behind this?

In the trial fields at Hopton. What is the machine? Is it part 
of a steam ploughing set up?

The Chenab (Government Steam Train) in the Mud. Does anyone have the story behind this?

In 1937 the Royal Show was again in Wolverhampton, this time in a very much bigger form and at Wrotteseley Park.

These shows reflect the fact that Wolverhampton, for most of its history, mainly got its living from agriculture. It was a centre for the rich arable lands around as both the Exchange and the Agricultural Hall testify. In addition Wolverhampton had been an important centre of the wool trade.

In 1937 one casualty of the Royal Show was what would have been the 45th annual Wolverhampton Flower Show (which seems also to have been known as the Floral Fete). This event claimed to be "in many respects ... unsurpassed for many years and ranks next in importance to the great floral display at Chelsea." The 1937 show was abandoned in favour of the Royal Show and this may have been, if not the end of the Flower Show, the beginning of its end. The conservatory in West Park is a legacy of these flower shows.

This undated, turn of the century, coloured postcard, shows West Park and the clock, the band stand and the conservatory. In the general view St.Peter's can just be made out on the distant horizon.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain had as great an effect on the country as the old arts and industrial exhibitions were supposed to have, even though empire gave way to commonwealth and the entertainment was shipped off from the South Bank to Battersea Park. But the Festival was a festival of Britain, not just London, and the organizing committee approved local exhibitions as part of the Festival programme. In Wolverhampton the local exhibition, The Festival of Wolverhampton, ran from 4th May to 19th May and was organised by Beatties, who had 19 stands in their shop. The list of the exhibitors is almost a who's who of Wolverhampton industry in the post war period: Express and Star, Villiers, Goodyear, ECC, Courtaulds, J.Brockhouse and Orme Evans and Co, James Gibbons, Butlers, Boulton Paul, Chubb, Ever Ready, Fischer Bearings, Henry Meadows, H.J.Law, Star Aluminum, Qualcast, Guy Motors, Turner Manufacturing, Presto and Tower Brands. (anon (Beatties), The Festival of Wolverhampton Exhibition Souvenir programme, np (Beatties), nd (1951)). It may be a little sad to reflect that great aspirations of 1902 had been reduced to some stands in a department store for two weeks; and even sadder to reflect on how many of the exhibitors are, in Wolverhampton at least, no more.

The symbol of the Festival of Wolverhampton - the Festival of Britain symbol with the crossed keys of St.Peter superimposed on it.