The Floral Hall in Covent Garden (as described in the VV's previous post) was quite a feat of structural engineering as well as being a thing of beauty. But it was as nothing when compared to what was built in the grounds of Hyde Park to house The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry and all Nations from May to October in 1851.

Planned and organised by Henry Cole and Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the event was promoted as a self-financing world fair – though not without some scorn and derision from those who feared that drawing great crowds to one site in London might encourage a revolutionary rabble. 

Karl Marx considered it an emblem of capitalist fetishism about commodities, and King Ernest I of Hanover wrote:

The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind, and I am astonished the ministers themselves do not insist on her at least going to Osborne during the Exhibition, as no human being can possibly answer for what may occur on the occasion. The idea…is conspiring to lower us in the eyes of Europe.

The regal - and much admired - opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, with Albert on the right

In fairness, Ernest feared more assassination attempts on the Queen, but as it turned out Victoria was determined to support Albert's ambitious enterprise, frequently attending and spending all day viewing the displays on show. 

The Exhibition was a great triumph, both socially and financially. Aided by the expansion of the railways, six million people (a third of the country’s population then) descended on London to view the spectacular show. And, as if the exhibits were not stunning enough (and Great Britain was determined to prove its superiority with trophy displays from its colonies as well as the home-grown industrial fields of iron and steel, machinery and textiles), the vast glass structure which housed them reached an iconic status and was nicknamed The Crystal Palace.

That Palace of glass was designed by Joseph Paxton, with help from the engineers Charles Fox and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the time from conception to completion and the opening of the show was only nine months; a remarkable achievement when considering the enormity of the structure, with the ironwork frame and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. And although Paxton had gained great expertise in the design and building of ‘greenhouses’ for other wealthy patrons, nothing before had been so large, measuring 1848 feet long and 454 feet wide, and able to house fully grown trees that were already growing in the park.

Nowadays the catalogue, with its steel engraved illustrations is a symbol of High Victorian Design. When the exhibition was done a surplus of £186,000 was made which today would translate as something in the region of £16,000,000. That profit went on to fund an education trust with grants given out for industrial research and, more visibly, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum – all built on ground to the south of Hyde Park and known fondly as Albertopolis. And, over all this presides the Albert Memorial, erected by Victoria to recall her husband’s legacy after his sad and premature death at the age of only 42. And what a legacy it was! The VV thinks even King Ernest would find it hard to disagree.

The Albert Memorial, erected just over a decade after Prince Albert's death in 1872



A view of the Floral Hall in Victorian times, taken from the wonderful historical resource, www.arthurlloyd.co.uk

This week the VV was lucky enough to be invited to a party hosted by Orion, her publishers, and held in the Paul Hamlyn Balcony bar in the London Royal Opera House. This stunning hall of elaborate glass and ironwork was historically known as the Floral Hall – a part of the Victorian Covent Garden Flower market which was only incorporated into the main body of the opera house after a generous bequest from Paul Hamlyn in the 1990’s.
A view of the 'old Covent Garden market'.

Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market began in the 17th century, held on ground that had formerly belonged to Westminster Abbey – which was known as the Convent Garden – and becoming the first public square in England built on the Italian piazza frame. The market proved so successful that it soon expanded and by 1830, based on designs by Charles Fowler, a vast central stone market square was constructed in the neo classical style playing host to a thriving commercial scene where more than a 1,000 porters were employed. The Floral Hall, designed by E M Barry was added later in 1858-9 and must have been quite spectacular when filled with beautiful flowers and plants – a feast of colour, fragrance and chatter – much like the party on Tuesday night.



The Double Life of Cora Parry by Angela McCallister is set in a gritty Victorian world where the reader can almost smell the streets of London which are seething with danger and violence, where pawn shops and fences deal with thieves and where urchins, such as a girl called Fletch, live on their wits like wild animals with little moral conscience.  

Cora Parry is the orphan once saved from the workhouse as a small child, only to find herself back on the streets when her foster parents die. Determined not to return to the sordid poverty of her past, Cora tries her very best to find some honest employment and only when that endeavour fails is she trapped in Fletch’s persuasive spell, living in a den of thieves and committing crimes of her own to survive – though to overcome the shame and disgrace she creates an alter ego called Carrie, going on to develop a split personality in which the two characters overlap and struggle to take control of her mind.

With themes of identity, madness and loss, Angela McCallister skilfully weaves a compelling psychological tale that will entertain and educate all young adult (and older) readers who share an interest in history.

It’s beautifully written too.

Angela McAllister has written over thirty children’s books. She lives in Hampshire with her husband and their two children who are often the inspiration for her stories.



Marie Curie (1867-1934)

The VV remembers, a long long time ago, seeing a very old black and white film entitled Madame Curie. It starred Greer Garson as an impoverished and lonely Polish student who, in 1891, began studying at the Paris Sorbonne where she met the physicist Pierre Curie. That Hollywood film (see the trailer here) told the wonderful story of their scientific and personal devotion and went on to be nominated for several Oscars. But, in reality, the Curies won far more significant plaudits of their own. 

Pierre Curie

When her intial studies were done, after Krakow University in Warsaw refused to let Marie return to work there, simply because she was a woman, the talented young scientist returned to Paris, there to work in the labs of Pierre Curie. In between falling in love and marrying in 1895, the couple made great advances on the work of other scientists such as Roentgen and Becquerel. They discovered the element Polonium (named after Marie's homeland) and then that of Radium, named because of its intense properties of radiation. Pure Radium was extracted from pitchblend but only after great perseverance, with one ton of pitchblend rendering up only one tenth of a gram of radium chloride from which salt the element could be crystallised.

In recognition of their endeavour in 1903 the Curies, along with Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize for physics after which, much like Roentger before, they refused to patent their discovery, hoping that further research might go on to advantage the whole of mankind - and even the money awarded with the prize was handed out to students and friends in financial need. 

Marie and Pierre with their daughter, Irene

In 1906, when Pierre's life was cut short in a tragic road accident, Marie took up his post at the Sorbonne (the first woman to hold a teaching role there) and resumed their scientific experiments for which, in 1911, she went on to win a second Nobel Prize, this time presented for Chemistry. Despite this, many male scientists continued to oppose her role, but the French government provided the funding for her own private Radium Institute where she worked with her daughter and son in law (Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie) who also went on to win a joint Nobel Prize.

The Curies' work was dangerous, though it was not realised at the time. Personally, Marie liked to carry glass test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pockets, gazing at the glowing green light they gave off when held up in darkness. But, such exposure took its toll and in 1934 Marie died from aplastic anemia - a radiation induced leukemia. Even now her scientific papers dating back to the 1890’s are so radioactive they cannot be safely handled and are kept in lead-lined boxes.

Marie in one of her mobile x-ray units

During World War 1, Marie Curie worked tirelessly with the Red Cross, helping those soldiers who might have been wounded by driving her mobile radiography units which were known as ‘Petites (Little) Curies’. And under Marie's direction the earliest surgical radiotherapy treatments were used in attacking cancerous cells which over the years since Marie’s death must surely have gone on to save millions of lives, more than justifying the fact that in 2009 Marie Curie was named by New Scientist Magazine as ‘Most inspirational woman in science'.