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Leighton Buzzard Industrial & Arts Exhibitions 1868 and 1875

Mr Theodore Harris

Theodore HarrisTheodore Harris was a partner in Bassett Son & Harris bank (later to become part of Barclays Bank) and was related through marriage to the Bassett family. He also served for 30 years as secretary and manager of the Leighton Buzzard British School at Beaudesert. Theodore Harris served as president of the Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society for many years.

Edward W Lewis

Edward W LewisEdward W. Lewis was headmaster of the Leighton Buzzard British School 1861 to 1881. Secretary of the Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society.

John Dollin Bassett

John Dollin BassettJohn Dollin Bassett was a quaker and another partner in the in Bassett Son & Harris bank. John Dollin Bassett was the founder of the Leighton Buzzard British School at Beaudesert.

Brief background

In 1851 a new kind of event hit the world stage, when The Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park in London. The event was the idea of Prince Albert and was a truly international fair and was organised as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design, with countries from around the world displaying their best achievements. The event was held from May until October in a unique building, the Crystal Palace, constructed of cast iron frames and glass, and conceived and designed by Sir Joseph Paxton (a person originating from a village near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire). The event was so successful that over the following years it triggered a whole sequence of similar exhibitions to be held across the world (and indeed back in London again in 1862).

These exhibitions were of course international ones, however, their popularity and general theme were picked up and reinvented for Industrial Exhibitions at a more local level, and as a result the then newly formed Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society held two such events; one in 1868 and another in 1875; the latter of these events being on a spectacularly large scale for a small market town such as Leighton Buzzard.

Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society

The society was formed on the 6th of September, 1866, when six working men held a meeting in the field known as Parson's Close (now known as the Parsons Close Recreation Ground). They met to discuss what they perceived as a pressing issue amongst working men, this was a lack of education i.e. literacy and numeracy etc. and they decided that by forming a society, that would create a vehicle by which the working men members would be able to mutually educate themselves. Following on from this meeting Mr Theodore Harris, provided space in his rooms in Hockliffe Street for the new society to meet. Mr Harris was made president of the society, a position he was holding at the time of both of the Leighton Buzzard exhibitions. By the time of the 1868 exhibition the membership had reached around 130, of which around 100 were working men.  The society had a three-pronged approach for the mutual improvement of its members and this was firstly by providing lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic, secondly by providing a series of lectures which members could attend, and thirdly from readings, recitations, essays, and discussions.  As part of this the society felt it should build up its own library, and through the assistance of the president and also John Dollin Bassett, it built up an initial collection of 100 books. The failure of the Literary and Scientific Institute in the town provide an opportunity for the society to buy the institute's library of around 1,000 books, which it did at a cost of £23. At the same time it was seen as critical, that the membership fees for working men should be low, so that it was affordable for the people who the society was intended for. Clearly, the money for the library had to be raised somehow and the solution the committee arrived at to achieve this was to hold the 1868 Working Men's Industrial Exhibition. seven years later, the idea behind holding the 1875 industrial and arts exhibition, was similarly one for raising money for the society. In the case of the 1875 exhibition the society knew that to keep membership costs down for the working men, yet provide for good quality lectures and further expand the library etc. required more money than was simply being raised through membership subscriptions, so the idea was to raise sufficient money from the 1875 event to be able to provide a lump sum of money which could be invested to provide an on-going income for the society. Both the 1868 and 1875 events appear to have easily reached the goals they set out to achieve.

1868 Working Men's Industrial Exhibition

Corn Exchange
Corn Exchange,
Lake Street
The 1868 exhibition was held from the 1st to the 9th January. This was an extension of two days beyond that originally planned due to its popularity. The exhibition was sited in the Assembly Room of the Corn Exchange building in Lake Street, Leighton Buzzard and consisted of approximately 200 exhibitors and 3,000 items being displayed. The event was opened with a procession by working men and the society's committee, accompanied by the Woburn drum and fife band, from the Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society's rooms in Hockliffe Road to the Corn Exchange, where an opening address was given by Lord Charles James Fox Russell.

The exhibits displayed were predominantly the curiosities collected by the exhibitors and creative productions the people had produced in their spare time, although there was also commercial displays relating to the manufacture of steel pens, silk hats and straw bonnets etc. Amongst the items displayed were a number of items donated by local gentry such as the racing trophies loaned by Baron Mayer de Rothschild from Mentmore.

The town newspaper, the Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette, gives a very detailed picture of the event from reports before, during and after the event and gives a list of the exhibits and exhibitors.

Pre event adverts in the Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette:

Reports on the exhibition in the Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette:

  • 31 Deecmber 1867 - article published in the paper the day before the opening.
  • 7 January 1868 - report in the issue after the opening, reporting on the opening ceremony and giving a descriptioon of the exhibition, exhibits and exhibitors.
  • 14 January 1868 - report after the end of the exhibition giving details of the closing ceremony.

1875 Working Men's Art and Industrial Exhibition

Exhibition Medal
Exhibition Medal
The 1875 exhibition was conceived in April of the preceding year. As mentioned above the aim was to raise money for funding the society's activities whilst keeping membership fees within reach of working men. This exhibition was on a considerably larger and grander scale to that of the 1868 exhibition. It was open from Wednesday, 12th May to Wednesday, 9th June 1875. There were approximately 600 exhibitors and over 10,000 exhibits. Like the 1868 exhibition, the event was held in the Corn Exchange in Lake Street, however, as interest in the event grew after its announcement the organising committee soon realised they were going to need a lot more space. Consequently they managed to secure the entire Corn Exchange building for use for the exhibition, however, the committee soon realised even that this large building, with all its rooms, was insufficient, and Mr George Franklin permitted a temporary building (called the annexe) to be built in his yards that backed onto the rear of the Corn Exchange. The annexe was 1,600 ft2 and even with this extra capacity, the committee still needed to erect a tent as well.

Photo Gallery

1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition
1875 Exhibition

Photos with kind permission of
The Rothschild Archive London

The event had a list of very eminent patrons, including: the Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Buckingham, Earl Cowper, K.G., the Prime Minister, Earl Brownlow, the Marquis of Tavistock, Lord Charles Russell, the county members of Parliament, the members for adjoining counties plus all the main local gentry. In addition the event had considerable backing from the Rothschild family (who owned a number of large properties near Leighton Buzzard, including Mentmore House and Ascott House). Particular assistance was given by the Rothschild's from Mentmore, that is the family of Baron Mayer de Rothschild. The baron, who had supported the 1868 exhibition, had recently died (6 February 1874), but his widow, the baroness, continued with enthusiastic support, so that the event had many very valuable articles provided for display from works of art, porcelain, jewellery and horse racing cups etc. In addition, the baroness opened Mentmore House to visitors during the exhibition, and more than 3,000 people took advantage of this.

A taste of the scale of the event was given by the manner of the events on the opening day. The whole of the centre of the town had been decorated with flags and bunting. The event started with a procession down the High Street from The Cedars (the home of John Dollin Bassett - now part of Leighton Middle School). At the same time the bells at All Saints were rung. The procession was led on foot by the committee of the Leighton Buzzard Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society, and amongst others the Mayor of Bedford and his mace bearer and the Mayor of Dunstable (all in their ceremonial finery). Following those on foot were carriages for the dignitaries present for the opening ceremony including: Earl and Lady Cowper, Sir Harry Verney, Lord Charles J. F. Russell, S. Whitbread, M.P., C. Magniac, Sir Philip Duncombe, Bart., the Marquis of Tavistock, M.P., and the Archdeacon of Bedford. The procession was greeted at the Corn Exchange by the band of the Scots Fusilier Guards who played a selection of music and led the way into the interior of the building for the opening ceremony. The opening was followed by a public luncheon for the dignitaries and 100 guests at the Swan Hotel.

Over the duration of the exhibition entertainment was provided, by lectures, piano and organ recitals, choir concerts and performances from a conjuroror. Unlike the previous exhibition, the exhibitis were also judged with certificates being were awarded to the winning exhibitors over a wide range of different categories. A commemorative medal was struck at the exhibition and sold to visitors as a memento (see photo above).

The 1875 exhibition also had more commercial exhibitors than the 1868 exhibition, including a high class jeweller from London, a renowned glass engraver, representatives of the straw plait industry, Fry's chocolate company from Bristol, Brown's ironworks, blacksmiths, saddlers, photographers both from Leighton Buzzard and also neighbouring towns, and agricultural fertiliser exhibitors and many more. Like the 1868 exhibition there were also a considerable number of private exhibitors displaying their works of craft and curiosities. As can be seen in the photos, the walls of the rooms were also hung with many works of art, and the Education Department at South Kensington also exhibited a large collection of electrotypes.

Amongst the paintings on display were a number of great significance, including a paintings by Gainsborough, Godfrey Kneller, Andsell, the Princess Royal and Jerre Barratt. The painting by the last of these artists being the well known painting of Elizabeth Fry reading to the prisoners at Newgate - a painting which in more recent times was used as the basis for the illustration on the £5 note.

A few other interesting facts about the exhibition -

  • There were approximately 22,500 visitors.
  • The total money received through entrance fees, donations and commission on sales of goods at the exhibition was approximately £1,330
  • The local newpaper (Leighton Buzzard and Linslade Gazette) published a special supplementary paper at the start of the exhibition and covered the event with extensive reports each week.
  • For one day of the exhibition a train was specially commissioned to bring in visitors from Bedford.
  • A police officer was continually present on site during the entire exhibition (stationed between the London jewellers exhibit and the jewellery belonging to the Baroness de Rothschild).
  • The building was insured during the exhibition with the Royal Fire Office for £30,000
  • A fire engine and a large tank of water were stationed at the exhibition throughout, with watchers keeping an eye on the building over night.

The details of the exhibition above are but a brief summary. The exhibition was covered extensively, from before it started until after it closed, in the Leighton Buzzard Observer & Linslade Gazette, including the publishing of a supplement to one of the issues exclusively to cover the exhibition. These reports are well worth reading and list many local people. Full transcripts of these articles are available from the links that follow:

  • 11 May 1875 - article published in the paper in the issue before the opening.
  • 18 May 1875 - report in the issue after the opening. The main event coverage is in the supplement to this issue of the newspaper. This article in the main part of the paper contains a summary of the opening, details of several of the commercial exhibitors plus a list of the exhibitors and their exhibits that were awarded prizes.
  • 18 May 1875 - SUPPLEMENT - This lengthy supplement to the newspaper includes a comprehensive reporting of the opening ceremony and the lunch for the dignataries, and also a listing of the exhibits and the exhibitors.
  • 25 May 1875 - The article covers events at the exhibition since the last issue of the paper. It includes a summary of visitors and also has some additions and corrections to the list of prizes that had been published in the previous weeks issue of the Leighton Buzzard Observer & Linslade Gazette.
  • 1 June 1875 - The article covers events at the exhibition since the last issue of the paper.
  • 1 June 1875 (poem) - Reader's poem about a trip to the exhibition from Woburn published in the local newspaper.
  • 8 June 1875 - The article covers details of the prize giving ceremony and a summary of admissions and takings for the exhibition up to this point.
  • 15 June 1875 - The article covers a visit to the exhibition by the Duke of Bedford and his family and also covers comprehensively the closing ceremony.
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