Albert: the man who engineered Britain
No one did more than Queen Victoria's husband to usher in the age of engineering and technology. E&T talks to author Jules Stewart to find out why Prince Albert was so influential.
'Albert arrived in Britain at the dawn of the industrial age,' says Jules Stewart, author of new biography called simply 'Albert'. 'He was horrified by the social conditions and the squalour in which the common people were living.' As a result, the Queen's Consort dedicated his short, intense career to lifting these people out of their poverty and destitution.
He was also concerned that the nation should do more to communicate to the world its pivotal role in engineering. In the late 1840s he decided that Britain needed an exhibition to show its wares to the world, to demonstrate the advances it was making. 'This was fine, but he took it a step further, by making it an international exhibition.' This had not been the case with similar enterprises held in other European capitals to date.
It wasn't easy, however, and Albert was forced into a war of attrition with the establishment: 'There were reasons for this. First, they didn't like him. But the mistrust rose to a level of absurdity where objections from MPs even went so far as to say that foreign visitors would bring diseases to the UK.'
Albert was good at overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as Stewart explains in his new book. Published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his death, the book is an eye-opener for anyone unaware of the far-reaching effects Albert's technological vision would have. An enlightening read for those interested in the history of engineering, 'Albert' charts a life dedicated to public service and the understanding of science, from the Great Exhibition to widespread social reform.
One of the highlights of Albert's career for Stewart was the Exhibition, which attracted six million visitors from May to October 1851. Exhibitors came from all over Europe and the US, bringing with them the latest technology. 'He believed that science and art could combine to take the country forward.'
The Great Exhibition wasn't envisaged as a profit-making enterprise. Unlike the government-funded Millennium Experience in Greenwich 150 years later, Albert's privately funded exhibition was 'a raging success drawing huge subscriptions from working men's clubs all over the country'.
Much to the organisers' surprise, the venture made a huge profit, generating the creative challenge of finding something to do with the money.
'There was a tract of land of about 30 acres, which today we call South Kensington, which they purchased. Albert had a very Germanic idea of centralising his vision, building a science museum, a natural history museum and other permanent buildings and institutions. This area is still a showcase for British achievement in science.' Some call it 'Albertropolis', while others call the road named after the exhibition 'Knowledge Street'.
Few can doubt the role this concentration of learning has had in educating people in science, engineering and technology. 'But people do not realise the role Albert played in bringing all this together.'
Man of many parts
Albert is also credited with the modernisation of the British Army which had, until the 19th century, been 'a hotchpotch of regiments raised by daft colonels. Albert saw the defects of this and wanted to reorganise the structure along the lines of the Prussian army with central command and divisional headquarters. But he also saw the need to train the officers and, as a result, Aldershot – home of the British Army – came about'.
Many of Albert's proposed Army and Navy reforms didn't materialise until after his death, 'but the Cabinet had approved the changes during his lifetime'.
As an operator he 'always worked behind the scenes. As the Queen's Consort he could never really take a protagonist's role. But he was always influencing people. With the Crystal Palace that housed the exhibition – a great feat of engineering in its own right – he was involved with the architects and structural engineers to quite some degree'.
Social housing was another issue and Albert made proposals for working men's housing in Kennington, changing the design and building materials to better withstand London's weather.
The reason for Albert's involvement in the advancement of technology was 'simply the benefit of society. He fell in love with his adoptive country, England.' He also wanted to safeguard the reputation of the monarchy. But he brought it back to a level of prestige that it had not enjoyed for centuries. He thought Britain should be 'top dog in science and technology and this entered almost every imaginable sphere'.
Albert also applied his mind to developing military strategy during the Crimean War and the Siege of Sevastapol that contributed to Britain's victory.
He was the first person to send'a photographer to war and also worked with Florence Nightingale to create innovations in conditions for soldiers, more of who were dying as a result of airborne contagious diseases contracted in hospital than were through wounds sustained on the battlefield.
Death of a nation's hero
Prince Albert lived in Britain until his death in December 1861,'after devoting nearly a quarter of a century to the improvement of Britain: 'I'would say that it was overwork that finished him off, but there were other factors such as stress caused by the frustration of having to deal with the hostile Establishment.'
Commenting on the uncertainty surrounding Albert's early death, Stewart says: 'The quacks at the time had some theories, but in the end they were simply plying him with brandy in an attempt to bring him back. But that probably hastened his death, as it's now thought there might have been a stomach cancer involved.'
Stewart's conclusion is that Albert was a genuine visionary, despite much of his vision failing to come to fruition during his lifetime (Imperial College, for example, wasn't founded until 1907).
To this day his influence penetrates the national psyche: 'There are still medals, grants and scholarships awarded in his name.' *
'Albert' by Jules Stewart is published by I B Tauris, £19.99
We read it for you
As Jules Stewart says in his introduction, Albert was the greatest of all Victorians and, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death, the author revisits the accomplishments of the man who was effectively the spearhead of 19th century industry, technology and social reform.
The work he left behind and his modernising accomplishments underpin Albert's greatest gift to the nation. This was to raise the standard of education and the public awareness of science, along with the determination to introduce a new concept of royalty with unprecedented close ties to the common people.
The biggest monument to Albert is not the monolithic memorial in Hyde Park, but the 30 or so acres in Kensington to the south clustered around Exhibition Road that house the Natural History Museum, the V&A, the Albert Hall, Imperial College and other important institutions. The area of London is still affectionately known as Albertropolis.
Extract: Technology on show
By mid-February the Crystal Palace was near enough to completion to begin receiving the more than one hundred thousand exhibits that would soon cause amazement and dazzle the millions of visitors, some of whom had already ordered their season passes (three guineas for men, two for ladies), others of whom would be purchasing tickets on the door, at prices ranging from one pound down to two shillings and sixpence for the working classes, the price of a couple of pints of beer.
The eastern portion of the building, nearest to Hyde Park Corner, housed the foreign exhibits, and the western end displayed those from Britain and the Empire – valued in total at nearly £3m [about 100 times that in today's money], a vast sum at the time. From each proving came some specimen of its industry and art.
'They will form no insignificant addition even to the grand spectacle which will be presented, and many of the rude machines of the natives will be found are remarkable for their ingenuity as the more perfect contrivances of European artificers.'
The world was treated to the dazzling sight of the Queen's Koh-i-Noor diamond, an array of technical innovations, from the mechanical wonders of the electromagnetic telegraph device to the prototype of the modern calculator, marine engines, hydraulic presses and great pieces of steam machinery.
The French collection was heralded as the most attractive and expensive in the Exhibition.The number of French exhibitors was around 1,750, and their floorspace was second only to the British, with two large courts displaying tapestry, machinery, arms and instruments.
Reproduced with permission from 'Albert' by Jules Stewart
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