In an age when it takes six years not to build a national football stadium, the magnificence of the 1851 Great Exhibition remains ever more beguiling. Two weeks after Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace design was approved, the foundations were laid in Hyde Park. Nine months later, it had been erected. But it's not just the building that is impressive. The professionalism, popularity and spirit of the entire exhibition is awe-inspiring: more than six million visitors in six months were entranced by 14,000 exhibits from across the world.
Michael Leapman's account of the great spectacle doesn't, alas, match the subject. Marketed as a popular history and written to celebrate the event's 150th anniversary, the book is packaged with all the "colour" and characters demanded by a Daily Mail feature piece. His descriptions of the exhibits - which ranged from the celebrated Koh-I-Noor diamond to coal from Newcastle to early photography - are engaging, as are the tales of the political intrigue and lobbying that made the exhibition possible. But when he draws out its "significance" for the Victorian era, things go awry.
After the failure of the Dome, the fascination of the Great Exhibition is its success. The breadth of support for the project, from the leader office of the Times to the friendly societies of Liverpool, was powerful. Similarly, the attendance: from across the country, the loyal working and middle classes, helped by Thomas Cook's "excursion trains", turned up in their millions.
The idea for the exhibition grew out of the annual London shows run by the Society of Arts. With Prince Albert's patronage, the society planned for a national exhibition to improve design and taste in manufactured goods. The aim was to rubbish the French, who had long been running similar displays, and to improve and educate the nascent working class - "our future masters".
The exhibition was entirely financed by voluntary subscriptions, with guilds and clubs eagerly competing to contribute. Similarly, penny-saving funds and travel arrangements were organised by the myriad civic institutes that criss-crossed Victorian society. And part of the reason for their enthusiasm was that they had enjoyed such excursions before. Leeds had held numerous exhibitions in the 1840s to promote manufacture and design, as had Liverpool and Manchester. The Great Exhibition was not nearly as unique an enterprise as Leapman suggests.
The difference was the inclusion of foreign exhibitors and the crucial role of Prince Albert. Leapman draws out the battle between free-traders and protectionists over the wisdom of exposing British wares to national competitors. One superbly reactionary MP condemned it as "an industrial exhibition in the heart of fashionable Belgravia to enable foreigners to rob us of our honour". Some manufacturers were angry that they were not allowed to show the price of their goods - their sole advantage over foreign competition.
Leapman describes well the aching pride Victoria had in Albert's powerful stewardship of the project. She became convinced that the exhibition would be the defining moment of her reign. It is now amusing to think that Tony Blair once hoped the Dome would provide "line 1, paragraph 1" of his re-election manifesto.
As the opening day approached, the political classes in London stood petrified at the prospect of a working-class insurgency. The Duke of Wellington wanted to place a troop of cavalry outside the exhibition entrance. It was not merely renegade Chartists who caused concern; the flood of Continental socialists who escaped to London after the 1848 revolutions was also considered a threat.
The Great Exhibition may have been a successful "visitor attraction", but its primary purpose was not fulfilled. Leapman suggests that it fostered a new meritocracy, with eager industrialists subsuming the aristocratic old guard. In reality, in the latter half of the 19th century, Britain's manufacturing competitiveness slipped behind that of Germany and America, while the landed gentry reinsured their social position through the finance capitalism of the City of London. The "significance"of the Great Exhibition, then, lies not in its contribution to social change, but in its identity as a monument to the social and civic strengths of the mid-19th century. And that is why it was the defining mark of Victoria's reign.