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But in fact this set of volumes of the
1851 Great Exhibition, pictured right – the summation of Victorian artistic and scientific achievement – had been presented to a 21-year-old lieutenant of the Royal Engineers, William Crossman. The young subaltern had been honoured, along with a dozen fellow officers of his regiment, with the logistical tasks
of running the exhibition.

Crossman’s duties, mentioned in various texts, were the allocation
of display space and the maintenance of good ventilation, as well as ‘Group B machinery’. These minor tasks would probably have been performed by stewards and conference managers in today’s world of ‘contracted-out’ services, but the military played a more important role in public life during the Victorian age; these mundane tasks would have been an inspiration to the young Crossman, who would later play a more important role in the Empire. After serving the Exhibition, Crossman travelled to Australia, where he erected several prisons and other public works. During the 1860s he was busy engineering defences for British garrisons in hot spots such as Canada and the Far East, rising to the rank of Major-General.

The set was consigned from the Crossman family estate of Cheswick, a Victorian Gothic mansion on the Northumbrian coast, to Christie’s South Kensington for sale on October 3, where it attracted £55,000 (plus 17.5/10 per cent premium). A modern copy of the catalogues on their own, says books correspondent Ian McKay, costs around £500-600.

Very rarely does a single volume appear on the market, and the offering of a complete set appears to be unprecedented.