Prince Albert’s Mark On South Kensington

Today South Kensington stands as one of the most sought after neighborhoods in London.  With close proximity to some of the city’s greatest museums and Hyde Park, it’s no wonder South Kensington is so popular.  But during the early Victorian era, the neighborhood was a bit different.

South Kensington was not much more than an outpost of the City of London in the early nineteenth century.  With homes of the wealthy and a quieter atmosphere, it was still graced by Hyde Park, one of the finest Royal Parks.  In about 1850, Prince Consort Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, chose Hyde Park as the site for a “great exhibition”.  The event was to be a truly grand world’s fair, displaying goods, animals, people, and technology from all corners of the British Empire.  Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole organized the event, and chose Joseph Paxton’s conservatory-style design to house the event.  The Crystal Palace was constructed of cast-iron framework and glass, giving it a light and airy feel.  Truly a contemporary marvel, it stood in stark contrast to the heavy load-bearing stone and brick structures of its day.  At nearly a million square feet, the structure was shone as the jewel of the Great Exhibition of 1851, totally wowing its visitors.

The Great Exhibition proved to be wildly successful.  It drew more than six million Britons and others from all over the world to view the 13,000 exotic exhibits, including diamonds from India, demonstrations of manufacturing advancements, decorative arts from foreign cultures, and even agricultural equipment.  The visitors flocked from London’s train stations though South Kensington and north along what is now Exhibition Road, which bisects the greatest legacy of the Great Exhibition and Prince Albert’s efforts: Albertopolis.

Under Prince Albert’s direction, surpluses from admissions fees pooled from the event were used to purchase a large swath of land just south of Hyde Park.  On this site, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum were built, in addition to Royal Albert Hall and some of Imperial College’s buildings.  With free admission thanks to this endowment, these museums welcomed the industrial classes who so enjoyed the Great Exhibition.  Today the museums remain just as grand, twinkling among London’s greatest sites.

Next time you’re walking through charming South Kensington, look beyond Lamborghini of London and simply stroll past the lovely creperies.  Head for the corner of Cromwell and Exhibition Road to take in a view emblematic of Britain, and remember that Prince Albert’s vision made it possible.  South K wouldn’t be the same without him.