Chapter 6 – The Mid 19th Century

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education

The Mid 19th Century – The Great Exhibition and its Consequences


Up to 1851 the existing schools and the Mechanics’ Institutions had made little impression on technology and technical education in Britain. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had contributed even less being mired in their medieval statutes. However the situation was about to change as the mid-19th century witnessed a particularly fascinating period economically, educationally, industrially and socially for Britain. It was the period of the Great Exhibitions and the emergence of other industrial countries which began to rival Britain’s supremacy in manufacturing. Up to the mid-19th century Britain was seen as the workshop of the world with unrivalled financial and industrial power but the situation was soon to change as the century moved on. In the 1850’s and 1860’s most European countries were engaged in a series of debilitating wars and fortunately for Britain none of these were on British soil. Picture below is an artists impression of the Crystal Palace where the Great Exhibition was staged.

Great Exhibition 1851

This gave Britain an advantage and opportunity to continue to sell its products and services where ever she chose to do so. Between 1855 and 1875 the value of British exports per head of the population, which itself was growing rapidly, rose by 50% i.e. from £4 to £6. The country remained the world leader in the export of textiles and the advantages of its natural resources particularly coal continued to give it some distinct benefits over its competitors. Total iron production in Britain in 1802 was approximately 100,000 tons and this had risen to over 2 million tons by 1850 and as a result most products were fabricated from iron and other metals by the mid 19th century. Most manufacturing units continued to employ relatively small numbers compared with our European competitors. The majority of workshops in the manufacturing centres making secondary metal products in Birmingham, Sheffield and across Lancashire still employed fewer than ten people. The average mining enterprises in Cornwall and the coal mines around Britain employed around 150 workers. However factories associated with railways, shipbuilding were big employers e.g. the naval dockyards employed over 5,000 workers during various wars. Overall the size of companies remained small until the 1870’s/80’s when mass production techniques and processing units associated with the manufacture of steel were introduced and as a result became more prominent.

One real advantage for Britain was the guaranteed and given markets in the empire for its products and services irrespective of their quality. The existence of the empire greatly assisted the access to cheap resources across the world, the so-called ‘imperial bonus’, but nevertheless even accepting this highly questionable advantage the magnitude of Britain’s achievements were remarkable.

The Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was organised by the Prince Consort (Prince Albert), Henry Cole, Francis Fuller and other key members of Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Society of Arts) to celebrate industrial technology and design. The Executive Committee membership also included some notable individuals namely Robert Stephenson, Isambad Kingdom Brunel and was chaired by William Cubitt. The Great Exhibition and its consequences provide a useful opportunity to assess Britain’s position as the leading industrial nation and the state of its educational system particularly technical education. The Great Exhibition had both positive and negative consequences as we will see later and the positive ones gave a boost to the development to technical education. One of the positive outcomes of the Great Exhibition was it re-ignited the debate about the continuing deficiencies in the countries educational system both at school level and particularly the urgent need to develop a technical education system.

Many commentators say that the success of British Industry at the Great Exhibition was a resounding endorsement of its scientific, technological and industrial know- how. Whilst others commented that it highlighted for the first time that Britain was beginning to lose its manufacturing prowess and supremacy compared with its competitors and identified the beginning of its decline as the leading industrial power. However the exhibition provided a unique opportunity for proclaiming and broadcasting national pride and self congratulation felt by the country and its people.

The exhibition attracted over six million people from around Britain and beyond and with a minimum entrance fee of one shilling, (equivalent to 5p decimal currency), it highlighted the pride that the workers took in their achievements. The majority travelled to the Crystal Palace by train which by that time was the most popular form of transport. As a result of its success and large attendance the Great Exhibition made a surplus of £186,000 and this was used to purchase 86 acres of land in South Kensington that became know as ‘Albertopolois’ in recognition of the essential role played by the Prince Consort. The prime movers in this initiative and subsequent investment of the surpluses were the Prince Consort, Lyon Playfair and Henry Cole who later were to become secretaries of the Department of Science and Art. In retrospect the exhibition was more of a social success than an economic one. Britain took most of the medals for manufactured and industrial products whilst other nations took the prizes for foodstuffs, handicrafts and raw materials. America was just emerging as an industrial nation and was already beginning to show its ingenuity and innovation in some products.

One fascinating consequence of the success of the Great Exhibition was the realisation by British manufacturers of the importance of product trademarks or brands. As mentioned in earlier chapters Britain was slow to develop this technique to improve sales and marketing strategies – Wedgwood being one of the few exceptions – following the success at the exhibition and with so many medals won companies quickly introduced branding for their products in both national and international markets. Even though Britain won most of the medals at the exhibition and continued to be the work shop of the world throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s the exhibition had for the first time identified and reinforced the growing confidence of this countries competitors. The exhibition had also revealed the increasing degree of inventiveness, innovation and in many cases higher quality products being manufactured by our overseas competitors. By the time the Paris exhibition was staged sixteen years later the picture was very different and Britain only won a few medals and was eclipsed in most categories by other countries in Europe and America. In many ways the Great Exhibition of 1851 represented the apogee of Britain’s industrial age. I will now focus on the positive outcomes on the developments on technical education following the Great Exhibition.

The Benefits to Technical Education after the Great Exhibitions

One important, beneficial and relevant consequence of the Great Exhibition was the resulting attention given by a number of individuals and organisations to the issues associated with the health of technical education in the country. As mentioned above in spite of its success the Exhibition had highlighted growing concerns about the future health of British industry and its ability to compete internationally. A number of observers argued that the country was going to lose its easy supremacy, (the imperial bonus), in commerce, industry and trade to the emerging competitors and this could most certainly be linked to the inadequate state of education in Britain both at elementary and technical level.

These concerns alerted a number of key individuals and the Society of Arts to the urgent need to identify and address the lessons learnt from the Great Exhibition. Informed observers identified evidence that showed that those countries that were beginning to challenge our industrial supremacy made significant investments in their national education systems and most certainly the education of the workers. These countries were also heavily investing in scientific and technological research and development to support their emerging industries. These concerns and the resultant reviews started a chain of events that would lead to some positive, significant and lasting contributions in the development of technical education. The Great Exhibition had in some ways acted as a crucial focus and catalyst in galvanising action by triggering a number of initiatives that would begin to transform the landscape of technical education both in terms of national policy, its management and provision. These developments again showed the crucial part played by the Society of Arts and a few visionaries. The Society of Arts like the City and Guilds Institute of London which was created in 1878 [see chapter 7] have been and continue to be key organisations in the history of technical and commercial education particularly in the examination of these disciplines.

Following the Great Exhibition the Society of Arts organised a series of lectures focusing on the lessons learnt from the event. Lyon Playfair (1818-1898) [see biography] delivered a powerful plea for technical instruction and industrial research (1). He said “Raw material, formerly our capital advantage over other nations, is gradually being equalised in price, and made available to all by improvements in locomotion, and industry must in future be supported, not by competition of local advantages, but by a competition of intellects” and he continued ‘the cultivators of abstract science- – – -are – – – the horses of the chariot of industry- – -‘. In the establishment of institutions of industrial instruction you, at the same time, create the wanting means for the advantage of science in this country.”

Fortunately these timely and worthy statements were picked up and supported by such key people as the Prince Consort and in 1853 the government, following a statement in parliament, made a commitment to begin to provide systematic support for industry by way of scientific and technological instruction. As a result of this commitment in 1854 the Department of Science and Art was created which would have a profound influence on the subsequent development of education including the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. The new Department merged with an earlier more niche Department namely the Department of Practical Art that had been established in 1840 to create the new Department of Science and Art. As a result the new Department assumed the control of art and design in addition to its responsibility for science. The Department was initially part of the Board of Trade and its primary purpose was to promote and encourage scientific and technical education. In 1854 the new Department assumed responsibility for the management of the Government School of Mines that had been in existence since 1852. The Department then merged the School of Mines with the Royal College of Chemistry – a private institution since 1845. These developments can be seen as the beginning of directly state supported technological higher education in England. Scotland and Ireland already had professorial chairs endowed/subsidised by the government in science and engineering.

The Board of Trade had limited experience in education even though since 1837 it had administered grants for the Schools of Design but as evidence from the Great Exhibition had shown our product design had been fairly weak and marginal when compared with our competitors. The new Department, although a long overdue development, was ill equipped to motivate and elicit industrial instruction. England’s national system of elementary/primary education was still twenty years away, and there was no semblance of a system for technical education. Another negative force was that politicians and industrial leaders continued to be wedded to the philosophy of free enterprise. This approach was opposite to that on the Continent where State funding was readily available. The approach in England was still driven by voluntarism and free enterprise i.e. a laissez faire philosophy that reinforced a characteristic that has dominated many critical developments in our history e.g. private investment, the free market and individual endeavour. Many of these are not bad in themselves but when operated in unchecked forms can create all sorts of negative consequences – just look at the current (2009) recession when non-existent regulation and the free markets practice ran riot.

The Departmental structures gradually evolved in the light of experience and in 1857 the Education Department was created which assumed control of the Department of Science and Art. Two Departments were then established one for elementary education based at Whitehall and the other for Science and Art based at South Kensington. The Department attempted to establish a science school in London but this did not succeed and in 1859 a payment-by-results scheme was created for improving science teaching in a variety of institutions offering instruction at the time. This programme provide financial assistance to create classes in chemistry, geology, mathematics and physics as well as paying teachers who had passed the Department’s examination according to the number of their pupils who passed examinations. Rewards took a number of forms – pupils could be given exhibitions, prizes and scholarships whilst institutions were given grants towards purchasing books and scientific equipment. In spite of some drawbacks that would become evident later overall the payment by results scheme was a success. It did stimulate and incentivise teachers and pupils to study science and technical subjects. For example in 1862 the scheme dealt with 2,543 in 70 schools/teaching institutions and in 1872 the numbers had risen to 36,783 pupils in 948 schools/institutions (2). The scheme was expanded over the years following its introduction to embrace 25 subjects. One perplexing aspect of the scheme was that there was still no state control over institutions where science was taught. Even though Thomas Huxley recognised the short comings of the payment by results scheme he said it was an ‘engine for forcing science into ordinary education.’

In retrospect the creation of the Department of Science and Art can be seen as a significant contribution to the development of the education system for this country particularly for technical education. Its formation was most certainly a positive consequence of the 1851 Great Exhibition highlighting the importance of science, design and art in manufacturing and the need to improve our competitiveness with other European countries and America. The Department initially provided grants for arts and design helping to create the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Therefore at last the government and state began to get directly involved in education. As a result a national system began to slowly evolve with government support but the view still persisted that it was not a direct function of the State to support technical education as the role of the Science and Art Department was to encourage and seek voluntary funding from the Livery Companies of London. From 1853 the Department began to support the creation of experimental schools and as a result Science Schools often in conjunction with Schools of Navigation were established across the country including Leeds, Newcastle, Wigan and Truro. Unfortunately many of these schools failed and by 1859 only Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol and Wigan survived only enrolling only 395 students in all.

In addition to the Department of Science and Art providing support for the development of technical education the Society of Arts also continued to be a significant player in its development. For example it continued to actively support the Mechanics’ Institution movement and in 1852 convened a conference of the Unions* of the Mechanics’ Institutions to discuss ways of further promoting and enhancing the movement. One very important consequence of the conference was the development of an examination system for technical and commercial subjects [see the history of technical and commercial examinations]. The diplomas so awarded for the first time recognised the efforts of the students and most certainly acted as an incentive particularly for students studying in the evenings. However this important development was received by many employers with suspicion as they were still not convinced that industry needed technically and scientifically trained personnel.

*The Unions were groups of Institutions and a good example of one was founded in Yorkshire that comprised 100 affiliated branches and 20,000 members. In 1853 the secretary of the Yorkshire Union James Hole suggested in a seminal essay (3) that the Mechanics’ Institutions should further develop and become constituent colleges of a national industrial university. As a result of this very far-sighted suggestion James Hole was awarded a prize by the Society of Arts but sadly the idea was too radical and did not progress further.

The Great Exhibition had provided a long overdue stimulation and added impetus to the development of technical education. The Society of Arts and the Department of Science and Art continued for a few years after the Great Exhibition to promote technical education each from different perspectives; the Society representing private enterprise and the Department representing the first faltering steps of state intervention and parliamentary responsibility.

Additional Information on Art Schools

So far the state had played little or no part in the development of education however one exception was in art and design. The first tangible example of state intervention was in 1835 with the creation of Schools of Design and the granting of money for elementary education. This development was supported by a number of manufacturers who argued that the state had a duty to make grants to improve their trade. Later in 1837 the Board of Trade established a Council of the Government School of Design and in 1841 granted a sum of £10,000 to create a number of Schools of Design in key manufacturing areas. Interestingly the Council tried to encourage the towns in receipt of the grants to link the Schools of Design to the local Mechanics’ Institutions but many towns refused and kept the institutions separate. This is one of the reasons that since the mid-19th century many towns and cities have maintained separate Schools of Art many of which evolved from the Schools of Design. However many did subsequently merge with technical colleges and universities but the art and design disciplines have played a significant part in the development of technical and vocational education. Many Colleges of Technology/Further Education had and still have excellent departments /Faculties of Art and Design that complement the Colleges of Art. The Great Exhibition also stimulated the government to appoint a select committee in the operation of Schools of Design and in 1852 it was established under the auspices of the Board of Trade which lead the merger that created the new Department of Science and ultimately the Department of Science and Art mentioned above.

Reflections of the barriers and resistances to the development of a national system of technical education to this point in time.

It will be helpful at this stage of the history to pause and reflect on some of the issues that have already been identified in the first few chapters. Up to the mid 19th century central government had shown little interest in developing a national system of education at any level – elementary/primary, secondary level or most emphatically not technical education/instruction – preferring to adopt a laissez faire approach. Most of the developments particularly in technical education were as a result of initiatives and contributions from a few far-sighted individuals that were not consistently recognised or acknowledged by politicians. People like Lyon Playfair, Bernhard Samuelson, and Thomas Huxley continued to face prejudice, inertia and complacency. But thankfully they continued their efforts and were joined later by other visionaries like Philip Magnus [see biography]. Many of these individuals were concerned about increasing overseas competition and the commitment of other countries to technical and commercial education. These early attempts to create a sustainable system of technical education failed because of a number of negative forces that included:

  • A non-existent national system of elementary education and a totally inadequate basic/elementary education of the workers/artisans
  • The limited influence that such a small number of existing schools and education institutions could have to make an effective and sustained impact across the country i.e. the lack of the necessary critical mass.
  • The continued equivocation by government to get directly involved in developing a national education system
  • The continued suspicion and resistance by the majority of employers to accept the value of accessing the opportunities afforded of technical education for their workers
  • The almost total neglect of provision for females. One depressing feature and fact is the absence of references to women and their education and training at this time in the historical source materials. Little or nothing can be readily identified promoting education for females. It obviously reflected the male dominated society and hostile culture at the time towards women and their emancipation. Clearly highly questionable attitudes and perceptions about the role and place of women in society existed and created massive barriers for women to get involved in educational reform. What limited provision existed in schools and institutions was associated reinforced the ludicrous belief that the women’s place was in the home or in domestic service. The belief of the stereotypical roles of women has most certainly held back the equality issues that continue to be discussed even today.

A portrait of Bernhard Samuelson is shown opposite he was supported by many people who were omitted to the development of technical education on his enquiry.

Bernard Samuelson

The influence of the Dissenting Academies, Mechanics’ Institutions, and the Working Men’s Colleges and other initiatives linked with the technical education for the workers also helped to lay the foundations of the national system of technical education that was gradually created in the late 19th century and beyond. Although the dissenting academies were a relatively short lived movement it attracted some luminaries such as Joseph Priestley (chemist/ researcher into gases) and John Dalton (chemist/ thermodynamics) and produced a number of influential former pupils who went on to make significant contributions to a wide range of disciplines including science and technology. The Mechanics’ Institutions and Working Men’s Colleges that survived formed the basis for technical colleges and universities established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Word About the Individuals Who Helped Create The Industrial Revolution.

Although the focus of this history is technical education the pioneers of and prime players in the first Industrial Revolution merit a mention. One of the most interesting if not surprising aspects of the first Industrial Revolution was the fact that the pioneers had no opportunities for formal education or training but gained their basic skills from craft apprenticeships, or were self-taught or were naturally gifted innovators and entrepreneurs. James Brindley (1716-1772) (canals), Thomas Telford (1757-1834) (roads), George Stephenson (1781-1848) (engines) and other great engineers began their careers as mechanics and learnt by direct experience in the workshop and on site. Scotland produced many of the most outstanding people some of whom were educated at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh which excelled in medicine, science and engineering and were far more enlightened than their English counterparts of Oxford and Cambridge. It is interesting to note that the Scottish Primary School movement in the 19th century was the foremost in Europe. 

Although it must be said that at certain times science and the more practical subjects were taught in the English ancient universities and in a number of public and grammar schools, this was an exception rather than the general rule and was not sustained over a period of time for it to achieve the required critical mass and subsequent impact. The achievements of such brilliant engineers as James Brindley (1716-1772) (canals), John Smeaton (1724-1792) (lighthouses and steam engine design), James Hargreaves (1753-1827) and Samuel Crompton (1753-1827) (both involved with cotton and spinning technologies) did not owe much to formal education or state influence as none had seen the inside of any of the universities that existed at the time while other pioneers had attended institutions that were in mainland Europe, or if in England, studied at dissenting institutions [see chapter 5 of this history].

Thomas Telford 1757 - 1834

A portrait of Thomas Telford is shown opposite surrounded by some of his constructions and plans. In addition groups of like-minded engineers and scientists formed societies across the country such as the Lunar Society in Birmingham founded around 1766 that met regularly to discuss the latest ideas and developments in science and technology and included such people as Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, John Murdock, Erasmus Darwin and James Watt [see biographies]. One recurring theme from these meetings was criticism of the traditional educational system and its institutions which were dominated by law and theological studies and an almost total neglect of technical and scientific instruction. This oasis that they created in the otherwise technical and science desert is a tribute to these great individuals who contributed so much to eventually gathering the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. In spite of the absence of any formal technical education the achievements of these and other individuals is truly remarkable. They greatly contributed to Britain becoming the first industrial nation and for its size unique in history for its achievements and industrial performance. Outstanding engineering triumphs were manifest throughout the country and beyond its shores whether in shipbuilding, railways, bridges, mining etc. The existence of the empire greatly assisted access to cheap resources, the so called ‘imperial bonus,’ but again even accepting this highly questionable advantage the magnitude of the achievements of these pioneers was truly remarkable. A portrait of James Brindley is shown opposite.


Chapter 7 will continue to describe the progress in the development of technical education including the continuing positive consequences of the Great Exhibition, the beginning of improvements in higher education, the various Royal Commissions and the creation of the City and Guilds Institute of London.


(1)  Playfair. L. ‘Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851.’ Journal SoA. 1852. (2) Balfour. G. ‘The Educational Systems of Great Britain and Ireland. Clarendon Press. 1903.

(3)  Hole. J. ‘An Essay on the History and Management of Literary, Scientific and Mechanics Institutes.’ Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 1853.

A more comprehensive book list is provided on this sitea long with a comprehensive chronology and glossary.

Series Navigation<< Chapter 5 – The Dissenting Academies, the Mechanics’ Institutions and Working Men’s CollegesChapter 7 – After the Great Exhibition – A Growing Recognition for the Need for Technical Education? >>
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