Albert Memorial, London

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

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