Not just fish

Everyone knows about the Great Exhibition of 1851. Prince Albert’s genius idea to showcase the brilliance that had grown from the fledgling roots of the Industrial Revolution. How many of the objects featured in the exhibition became part of the collection of what would become the V&A.

Of course, it wasn’t the first. That honour goes to Prague. In 1791 an industrial exposition was held to coincide with the coronation of King Leopold II. Then the French held seven from 1798 to 1827. In fact, the Great Exhibition was the 21st but seen as the first World’s Fair. All of them were epic endeavours and they spawned many exhibitions around the world. It was the beginning of something huge.

By the way, the first Australian exhibition was in Melbourne in 1854 and was held in conjunction with the French Exposition Universelle the following year.

These exhibitions were very successful and, it would seem, rarely a year went by that there wasn’t one somewhere in the world. Then, in 1883, there was the International Fisheries Exhibition, held in South Kensington on the Horticultural Gardens. These gardens were between the Albert Hall and the V&A (a rather large area) and, after the exhibition moved in, virtually ceased to exist.

The exhibition was due to open on May 1 and the preparations were intense including the installation of massive aquariums (20 of seawater and 20 of fresh) and miles of exhibition cases in order to showcase the fishing industry of the entire world. The original idea had to be enlarged when the response from international exhibitors was an unprecedented enthusiasm to take part. As an example of this willingness, the Russians demanded an area of 10,000 square feet for their exhibits alone.

The most unusual aspect of the exhibition (at least as far as the Times correspondent was concerned) was a Cookery Demonstration held every day in order to show how lesser known fish could be used for food rather than manure. (I had no idea that fish could be used as manure and wonder how awful it must have smelled…possibly worse than blood and bone.)

Given there was to be cooking flames, there was a worry that the whole place could wind up in a huge conflagration (ignoring the 40 tanks full of water) but this was easily resolved. (Ironically) the United Asbestos Company stepped in and coated everything in their wonderful product, ensuring fireproof visits for all and sundry. They even set up a demonstration prior to the opening. A wooden shed was coated and then attempts were made to set it on fire. The fire didn’t take and everyone cheered. For a few years, anyway.

By March 19, the buildings had been finished and plans were well advanced for the opening ceremony. Queen Victoria, naturally, wanted to cut the ribbon and pronounce it open for business. London was awash with anticipation for this wonderful enterprise.

The organisers decided that it would be so popular that it should be kept open at night so the whole thing was “…brilliantly lighted by electricity.”

As it turned out, Queen Victoria didn’t open the exhibition (I don’t know why…however, her favourite and confidante John Brown died on March 24 so maybe she was inconsolable) and she sent her son, the Prince of Wales to do the honours in her stead, something I don’t think he was too keen on. After all, one much prefers to be oneself rather than one’s mother. Still, even without Vicky, the ocassion was a riot of pomp and circumstance with all manner of dignitories sat on a massive wooden dais erected for the purpose. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury had a seat on it.

The ceremony started with a Royal procession, headed by Mr and Mrs Wales and various family members, then such important people as their Commissioners, Foreign and Colonial Acting Commissioners, the Executive Committee, the Superintendent of Works, the Architect and the Contractor. It’s interesting that the more work you do, the further down the procession you walk. I guess it’s always been that way, really.

During the procession, the hoi poloi and gathered dignitaries were entertained by

“…the National Anthem…sung by the choir consisting of 400 voices, accompanied by an orchestral band of 70 performers…” The Times, May 1, 1883

Once opened and the trappings of pomp were stowed away for the next event, the public flocked to the exhibition. In the six months it was opened, there were 2.8 million of them. I’m thinking that there wasn’t a lot that they didn’t know about fishing by the time the exhibition closed.

For instance, one of the highlights was a practical demonstration by a Native American. To quote the Times (and apologies for any insensitive language but this was 1883, after all):

“…a Mileceto Indian, who will put up his wigwam on the border of one of the lakes [yes, there were lakes too] in the grounds, and will show, not only the fishing tackle and appliances used by the Red Men, but will go on the water and display his skill in the management of a birch-bark canoe,” The Times, May 11, 1883

One of the most popular exhibits were those of the fish. Monsters from the deep (and not so deep) completely unknown to the Victorian gentry. Here is part of a sketch in the London Illustrated News showing just a few of these alien creatures.

The stuff of Victorian nightmares

The stuff of Victorian nightmares

But, like all good things, the International Fisheries Exhibition had to come to an end. The poor Prince of Wales once more dressed up as his mother and went along to shut it all down. It all came to an end on October 31. To celebrate the end of such a successful undertaking, the Illustrated London News printed the following image. It shows various images from the Exhibition including, at the top, a piece called ‘the last fish supper.’

From the London Illustrated News, 3 Nov 1883

From the London Illustrated News, 3 Nov 1883

All in all, the Exhibition was seen as a great boost for not just the fishing industry around the world but also for Britain. Most important though, and I guess this was intentional, the International Fisheries Exhibition of 1883 created a new love for seafood throughout Britain.

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1 Response to Not just fish

  1. Mum says:

    Wow all that about Fish,interesting though.
    love mum xx


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