Jeremiah James Colman ("the Mustard King")

and his exhibition memories

by Ken Harman


            Some interesting pieces about exhibitions were written by Jeremiah James Colman and fortunately included in a book written and privately published in 1905 by one of his daughters, Helen Caroline Colman. The book (“Jeremiah James Colman: A Memoir by one of his Daughters”) was really a tribute to her father after his death in 1898. Obviously Helen had been to a lot of trouble to write this 464 page volume and have it printed on thick laid paper by the famous Chiswick Press. Jeremiah James Colman’s main memories were of the Manchester Exhibition of 1857.


The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857


            Colman had prepared an article as a supplement for the “Norfolk News” to show how much he appreciated the exhibition and in an unpublished supplement, he contrasted it with the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace.

            “Just as emphatically as 1851 saw the homage to Industry, so does 1857 witness the homage to Art. The Hyde Park collection was fine, but there is a marked difference in the fact that its contents were modern, and could easily have been replaced, perhaps improved. In the present instance we have what ‘Once destroyed, could never be supplied.’ “. Colman then went on to emphasise his love of pictures and how in his view a good painting told its own tale.

            In the main article there is a more light-hearted account of the day the exhibition was opened by Prince Albert, on the 5th May 1857. “The Prince, with his suite, having marched through the building, the barriers were removed, and then followed a rush to the refreshment room, and a scene such as “Punch’s” pencil alone can describe. Imagine scores of little tables, with plates, and knives and forks, and people, hungry as hunters, keeping up a perpetual ringing of bells, and call of “waiter,” “bitter beer,” “fowl,” “beef,” etc., etc., the poor bewildered waiters rushing about in a frantic state, giving you a bottle, and forgetting to draw the cork, or two glasses for half a dozen people, champagne and sherry in hock glasses or tumblers, and ale and porter in champagne and sherry ditto, imagine first Pater Familias rushing away with a knife and fork in one hand, and carrying a chicken by its leg in the other, to his hungry spouse, second ditto, able to get a bottle of porter and one glass for his party, but no cork-screw, knocking off the neck, and receiving the contents of the bottle quicker than he wished or expected, third ditto bringing a tribe, and waiting round a table which a party was leaving, so as to seize the chairs almost before they were vacated, fourth ditto, of a meeker turn, going away unfed and in utter despair! Such and similar scenes give a notion of the refreshment room.”

            It may be worth adding a few notes about this exhibition. Instead of highlighting the industry and technology of the great manufacturing city of Manchester, it brought together the many private art collections of Great Britain. When this was first suggested by leading citizens, the establishment was shocked. The organisers then suggested that a special exhibition hall should be built and furthermore, one that would be well away from the worst pollution by constructing it on the Old Trafford cricket ground to the Southwest.

            Henry Mayhew who did so much to highlight the plight of the poor in London, wrote about the Manchester of those days in his light-hearted book “1851: or The Adventures of Mr. & Mrs. Sandboys and Family who came up to London to enjoy themselves and see the Great Exhibition” which was embellished with etchings by the famous George Cruikshank. “Manchester at any time is, perhaps, one of the peculiar sights that this country affords.

            To see the city of factories in all its bustle and all its life, with its forests of tall chimneys, like huge masts of brick, with long black flags of smoke streaming from their tops, is to look upon one of those scenes of giant industry that England alone can show. As you pace its busy streets, you can hear the drone of a thousand steam-engines, humming in the ears like a hive. As you sit in your home, you feel the floor tremble with the motion of the vast machinery, whirling on every side.

            Here the buildings are monstrous square masses of brick, pierced with a hundred windows, while white wreaths of steam puff fitfully through their walls. Many a narrow thoroughfare is dark and sunless with the tall warehouses that rise up like bricken cliffs on either side. The streets swarm with carts and railway-vans, with drivers perched high in the air.”

            Nevertheless the organisers managed to persuade the great noble families of Britain to lend their art works mainly by setting out three main aims: to educate the masses, to promote British wealth, and to gain Royal patronage. The latter was sought by sending a deputation to Buckingham Palace and fortunately the Queen and Prince Albert supported the scheme. The building on over three acres of land was designed by a local architect, Edward Salomons, and was called the Art Treasures Palace. This was a metal and glass structure adopting not dissimilar methods to those used at the Crystal Palace.

            The exhibition marked the summit in the history of private art collecting in Britain and is now regarded as the outstanding British artistic occasion of the nineteenth century. There were 2,000 paintings by old and modern masters, around 1,000 water-colours, together with many other drawings, plus 10,000 examples of the “ornamental” arts. The total ran to 16,000 exhibits and actually held one third of the country’s art treasures, a massive feat of organisation and local enterprise. Fortunately the show was a big success, it ran from May to October 1857 and was visited by over 1,300,000 people.

            The absence of the Queen from the opening ceremony was because she was recovering from the birth of Princess Beatrix and thus Prince Albert attended - although I have the feeling he would have gone anyway with his interest and support for such things. However, the Queen did visit it later on.

            Out of the exhibition came a lasting effect on British music - the Halle Orchestra. Charles Halle, who had come from Hagen, Westphalia, Germany but had by then altered his name from the original Carl Halle, had assembled a group of musicians to entertain exhibition guests and so successful was this that he formed his orchestra the next year. This is now Britain’s longest established symphony orchestra.

            In 1957, the Manchester authorities held a centenary exhibition to commemorate the event.


The International Exhibition of 1862


            Colman also wrote about his firm’s visit to the 1862 exhibition in London. Arrangements had been made for an excursion for the workmen so that they could see the International Exhibition at South Kensington. Five hundred people went from Norwich at the firm’s cost. Colman wrote to his sister:

            “If you had happened to be in London last Monday you would have liked to see the men - they were out for a day’s frolic which they meant to enjoy, and enjoy it they did with no mistake about it. A good many, I understand, were up at two o’clock. Our time for starting was 4.30, and within five minutes we were off, reaching London most comfortably at 9, and in ¼ of an hour the twenty buses started, and in about an hour landed their passengers at the Exhibition ready for breakfast. As I had several things to do in the City I did not go with them, but I believe they did justice to the provision, and whatever the “Times” may say about the refreshments department, at all events we have no reason to complain. The men enjoyed it, having no doubt been appetited, and one of them told Gandy he had often tasted ham, but never such ham as that before, and did not suppose he should again as long as he lived.

            I got up to the Exhibition soon after 1, and met with a good many wandering about, and was pleased to see their look of contentment and wonder, though towards the end they began to look as if they had had enough. After tea they got back to the omnibuses, and without much difficulty were got to the station, and we started at 10 minutes to 7. The day was unfortunately wet, but that did not matter much, and it did not make the men in love with London - most of them thought it a dirty place such as they should not like to live in. They did not either fancy the people they saw, and one said he ‘did not see a decently fat man the whole time he was there.’ I am very glad we took them, they seem so thoroughly to have enjoyed it. Several told me they never enjoyed a day so much in their lives. I am especially glad that I made up my mind to go with the men in the same train.”

            Thus we can thank Helen Caroline Colman for providing us with an unusual resource: interesting and genuine records of two visits to nineteenth century British exhibitions. They may not be the ones we remember most these days but the writing gives a true flavour of the times and events.


© Exhibition Study Group 2009