Empire of India Exhibition, 1895

01 May 1895
Event location: 

Earl's Court, London


The twenty-four acre Earl's Court Exhibition Grounds were rebuilt in 1894 by the impresario Imre Kiralfy in a Mughal Indian style. The Empire of India Exhibition opened the site in 1895, and was the first of a series of annual exhibitions there, which drew heavily on the abundance of transport links in the area to attract a mass audience. Highlights of the site included the two-storey Empress Theatre, which could seat 6,000 viewers for Kiralfy’s spectacle plays, and the 300-feet high Ferris wheel, whose forty carriages could each accommodate thirty people.

Of the groups who helped Kiralfy arrange the exhibition, Gregory writes: ‘The Empire of India Exhibition of 1895…had as Patrons four Maharajas and four Rajas, headed by the anglophile Gaekwar of Baroda. The “Honorary Committee” listed nearly two hundred names, including one Duke, one Marquis, two Earls, two Viscounts, and twelve Lords. The “Old Welcome Club” was presided over by Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar...Asiatic specialists such as Sir George Birdwood, Sir C. Purdon Clarke, and Sir Edwin Arnold lent practical advice as well as support’ (p. 303). Hartley also mentions Proctor Watson, who acted as agent to engage ‘native craftsmen’ from India, and who purchased ‘some old condemned houses in Poona, which were taken down and all the lovely woodwork sent over’ (p. 71). Hartley writes of the care he took over the ‘natives’ during their residence in London, supplying them with live sheep and goats to be killed appropriately for their consumption, as well as taking them to destinations such as Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. Hartley also mentions the Amir of Afghanistan’s nephew’s regular visits to the exhibition.

One of the highlights was ‘India: A Grand Historical Spectacle’, written and directed by Kiralfy and performed in the Empress Theatre. The spectacle opened in July, two months after the rest of the site. It presented the history of India, from 1024 to the present day, in dance, mime and songs. It was the only one of Kiralfy’s spectacles to run for two seasons. When discussing the India spectacle, Gregory draws a distinction between this historical survey and the one at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 at the Imperial Institute, which ‘was the first of such surveys…but it is important to distinguish between the Government backed propaganda of the Imperial Institute and the commercial exploitation of a popular subject at Earl's Court’ (p. 362, fn151).

In 1896 Kiralfy held a revised form of the Empire of India Exhibition, entitled the ‘India and Ceylon Exhibition'. Gregory notes: ‘When the company decided…to revive the Indian exhibition, no doubt swayed by Kiralfy's insistence on presenting India for a second season, they were reliant on the individual co-operation of members of the Indian Military and Civil Service, foremost amongst whom was Sir George Birdwood. The Exhibition was essentially the same as that in 1895, but the frame of reference was widened to include Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Borneo, and Burma. New groups of "native villagers" were brought to England for the season, including Sinhalese craftsmen and a team of Burmese football players’ (p. 322).

Imre Kiralfy
People involved: 
Published works: 

Kiralfy, Imre, Empire of India Exhibition, Earl's Court, London, 1895: Official Programme, (London: J. J. Keliner & Co., 1895)

Kiralfy, Imre, Imre Kiralfy’s Historical Spectacle India, Libretto (London: J. J. Keliner & Co., 1895)

The Empire of India Exhibition, 1895, The Conception, Design and Production of Imre Kiralfy, Empire of India Exhibition, 1895 (London Exhibitions Limited, 1895)

Ward, Rowland, The Jungle and Indian Animal Life… [for the Empire of India exhibition] [a description] (1895)


See contemporary newspapers, including: The Times, 16 May, 28 May, 4 June 1895

Secondary works: 

Gregory, Brendan Edward, 'The Spectacle Plays and Exhibitions of Imre Kiralfy, 1887-1914', unpublished PhD thesis (University of Manchester, 1988)

Greenhalgh, Paul, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fair, 1851-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988)

Hartley, Harold, Eighty-Eight Not Out: A Record of Happy Memories (London: Frederick Muller, 1939)

Hoffenberg, Peter H., An Empire on Display: English, Indian and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (London: University of California Press, 2001)

Mackenzie, John M., Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 97-120

Mackenzie, John M (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1986)

Pes, Javier, ‘Kiralfy, Imre (1845-1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/53347]


The Empire of India Exhibition, 1895, The Conception, Design and Production of Imre Kiralfy, Empire of India Exhibition, 1895 (London: Exhibitions Limited, 1895)


Visitors arrived in ‘Elysia’ - a collection of popular entertainment buildings and ‘The Gigantic Wheel’. North of here lay formal gardens with fountains, surrounded by refreshment buildings, small entertainment halls, and the ‘Himalayas Gravity Railway’. Visitors could continue south-east through the ‘Indian City’ with Indian bazaars on either side of the ‘Indian Jungle’ and ‘Carpet factory’. The Indian City also contained a small mosque. They would then approach the largest buildings of the site – the Imperial Palace and the Empress Theatre. East of these, towards Earls Court Station, lay the Ducal Hall, pavilions exhibiting the liberal arts, and the less formal Reva and Nirvana Gardens. Throughout the site were refreshment halls.

Archive source: 

Original programme, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Photos of 1896 India and Ceylon Exhibition in Photo 888 series, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras