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The Crystal Palace

A huge iron and glass building, The Crystal Palace was one of the wonders of Britain, if not the world. A rebuilt and expanded version of the building that originally housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, it stood in Sydenham from 1854 until 1936, and attracted many thousands of visitors from all levels of society. The name "Crystal Palace" was coined by the satirical magazine Punch.

The name was later adopted by a football club and generally to denote that area of south London.

Another view of the Crystal Palace
Another view of the Crystal Palace

Original Hyde Park building

The huge glass and iron structure atop Sydenham Hill was the successor of the similar but smaller building erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition, which itself had caused a sensation, embodying the products of many countries throughout the world.

Seen in its grand magnificence, the new Crystal Palace again displayed the genius of its creator, Joseph Paxton, who was knighted in recognition of his work. Paxton had been head gardener at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, where he had befriended its owner, the Duke of Devonshire. Here he had experimented with glass and iron in the creation of large greenhouses, and had seen something of their strength and durability. He applied this knowledge to the plans for the Great Exhibition building -- with astounding results. Planners had been looking for strength, durability, simplicity of construction and speed -- and this they got from Paxton's ideas.

The 900,000 square feet of glass was provided by the Chance Brothers glassworks in Smethwick, Birmingham. They were the only glassworks capable of fulfilling such a large order, and had to bring in labour from France to meet it in time.

(The Hyde Park article features a poem written about this construction.)


The life of the Great Exhibition was limited to six months, and something then had to be done with the building. Against the wishes of Parliamentary opponents of anything to do with the scheme, the edifice was re-erected at Sydenham, much modified and enlarged, and within two years Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony.

Two railway stations were opened to serve the permanent exhibition. The lower is still in use today as Crystal Palace railway station, and part of the higher, which gave access to the Parade area, can also still be seen with its Italian mosaic roofing.

Crystal Palace was built by about 5,000 navvies who worked very hard for little and completed their tasks in a very short space of time. Their welfare became the concern of Catherine Marsh , who noticed the poor conditions they were working in and treatment they received: she spared no effort to see that they received fair and just treatment. She made sure that meals were provided for them. Subsequently the navvies came to look to her with respect.

The framework was similarly adapted to make the iron and glass ceilings in Waterhouse's Museum of Natural History.

Water features

Joseph Paxton was first and foremost a gardener, and his layout of gardens, fountains, terraces and cascades left no doubt as to his ability. One thing he did have a problem with was water supply. Such was his enthusiasm that thousands of gallons of water were needed in order to feed the myriad fountains and cascades which abounded in the Crystal Palace park. The two main jets were 250 feet (76 m) high.

Initially water towers were constructed, but the weight of water in the raised tanks caused them to collapse. And so Isambard Kingdom Brunel was consulted and came up with the plans for two mighty water towers, one at the north and the other at the south end of the building. Each supported a tremendous load of water which was gathered from three reservoirs at either end of and the middle of the park.

Two years later, the grand fountains and cascades were opened, again in the presence of the Queen -- who got wet when a gust of wind swept mists of spray over the Royal carriage.


Waterhouse Hawkins's Iguanodon statues
Waterhouse Hawkins's Iguanodon statues

Among the attractions were the dinosaurs, life-size models designed and made by Waterhouse Hawkins , situated by the Lower lakes, near the Anerley entrance. These are still there today, although it is now known that they are anatomically inaccurate. A dinner party for 22 was held by Hawkins inside one of the Iguanodon statues. The Victorian statues were renovated in a 4,000,000 project. They were officially unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2002.

Among the exhibits were just about every marvel of the Victorian Age, encompassing the products of many countries thoughout the world. There was pottery and porcelain; ironwork and furniture; steam hammers and hydraulic presses; perfumes and pianos; houses and diving suits; firearms and barometers; fabrics and fireworks -- and much more.

Queen Victoria loved the place and said she found it 'enchanting'. This was to some extent due to the degree of esteem in which she held the ultimate architect of its fortunes, her beloved husband, Prince Albert.


The fortunes of the Crystal Palace began to decline when the place ran down and money was not available for maintenance. This was to a large extent due to the failure to obtain sufficient money by way of admission fees, in turn due to the inability to cater for a large portion of the population. The mass of people who would gladly visit the Palace were unable to do so because the only day on which they could get away from work was Sunday, and Sunday was the day on which the Palace was firmly closed. No amount of protest had any effect: the Lord's Day Observance Society (as today) held that people should not be encouraged to work at the Palace or drive transport on the Sabbath, and that if people wanted to visit, then their employers should give them time off during the working week. This, naturally, they would not do.

There was a Festival of Empire in 1911, to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary, but things went from bad to worse, and two years later the 1st Earl of Plymouth purchased the Palace for the nation to save it from developers.

Then came the Great War, when it was used as a naval barracks under the name of HMS Victory VI. At the cessation of hostilities it was re-opened as the first Imperial War Museum. Sir Henry Buckland took over as General Manager, and things began to look up, many former attractions being resumed, including the Thursday evening displays of fireworks by Brocks .

Destruction by fire

But on 30 November, 1936 came the final tragedy. Within hours, fire consumed all that had stood for a mighty empire and boundless imagination. The Palace was destroyed, the fire was seen for miles and thousands of people saw the night sky light up due to the flames. Just as in 1866 when a fire burnt down the north transept, the building was not adequately insured to cover the cost of rebuilding. Some said that it should never be rebuilt, as it was a symbol of a past age of outdated values.

Winston Churchill on his way home from the House of Commons said: "This is the end of an age".

The South Tower had been used for tests by Logie Baird for his mechanical television. Unfortunately for him, a lot of his work was destroyed in the fire.

In memoriam

All that was left standing were the two water towers, and these were taken down during World War II. The reason given was that the Germans could use them to navigate their way to London, but the same could have been said about St Paul's Cathedral. The north one was dynamited, the south one was taken down brick by brick as it was very close to other buildings.

The Crystal Palace Foundation was created in 1979 to keep alive the memory and respect for this epic age in Britain's history. Discussion regarding its future continues, various plans (which some people have called hideous) have been put forward but none have been put into action on the Top Site.

The park which surrounds the site is now home to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-18-2005 00:08:44