Before The Blitz, there was The Blaze.
On Monday night at Crystal Palace, there are a couple of public events to commemorate the fire which destroyed the building that gave its name to the area.
The 1936 blaze was the Great Fire of South London, a vast conflagration which could be seen from the city centre and drew curious spectators from miles around.
An estimated 100,000 people gathered on and around Sydenham Hill on the night of November 30, 1936, to view what one of their number, Winston Churchill, described as, “The end of an age.”
The blaze saw the BBC, for the first time, go to “live breaking news”, providing a dramatic radio broadcast, avidly listened to by a substantial portion of the population of Britain. The private railway company which operated one of the stations even laid on special trains to bring sightseers to witness Paxton’s great Crystal Palace burn and melt to the ground.
The Crystal Palace had been a wonder of the Victoria age, built at the behest of Prince Albert for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and later moved, piece by piece at terrific expense, from Hyde Park to one of the highest points of the capital, its presence and reputation prompting artists such as Emile Zola and Camille Pissarro to move to the south London suburb so that they could visit or sketch and paint the attraction on a daily basis.
In 1850, a grand committee which included Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster, the Duke of Buccleuch and chaired by the noted engineer, William Cubitt, had staged an international design competition to find the right building for the exhibition. It had to be inexpensive – it was being paid for by public subscription – temporary and quick to build.
Eventually, the committee chose a design by the gardener at Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton, who offered a gargantuan glass house which was 617 yards long – the length of six football pitches – and 128 feet high, made of wood, cast-iron and a new development, plate-glass, which together provided 990,000 square feet of exhibition space for 14,000 exhibitors to celebrate Great Britain, its rapidly growing Empire, and the Industrial Revolution. The building had the greatest area of glass ever used in a structure at that point, its clear walls and ceilings reducing the need for interior lighting.
Such was the success of the Great Exhibition – a precursor in concept for the Festival of Britain a century later, and even the Millennium Dome – that The Crystal Palace, as it had been nicknamed by Punch magazine, was dismantled, re-designed substantially and re-assembled in 1854 on land owned by one of the railway companies, where it would remain until that fateful, fiery night in 1936.
Less than three years after she had opened the Great Exhibition, Queen Victoria was taken to deepest south London in 1854 to perform the official opening ceremony of the Crystal Palace. Served by two railway stations, it would stage exhibitions and provide a fashionable attraction for London’s rapidly growing middle classes, drawing 40,000 visitors in a day when it was first allowed to open on a Sunday in 1861.
But over time, dwindling visitor numbers saw the Palace run-down and in need of repair, before the owners were declared bankrupt in 1911. Crystal Palace was used as a Royal Navy training base in the First World War and as the first home of the Imperial War Museum. New ownership saw it enjoy a revival by the 1930s, until that night 79 years ago.
The structure’s wooden framework had proved a fire risk before. This time, what began as a small office fire quickly caught hold in the high winds of the winter night, and the heat and molten glass made it impossible for the 400 firemen and their 89 fire engines to control, as the glow was seen across the sky from eight counties.
On the 79th anniversary of the great blaze this Monday, the Friends of Crystal Palace Park will be holding a ghost walk on the site led by John Greatrex, who has been promoting the history of Crystal Palace for more than four decades. All are welcome to join him at 7pm, starting from the Crystal Palace railway station.
And on the same evening, the Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway – named after one of the last remains of one of the railway stations – are screening a documentary at Anerley Town Hall. The doors open at 7.30, and the film starts at 7.45pm.
“What Remains, the Ruined Subway at Crystal Palace” is about the famous crypt-like structure under the Crystal Palace Parade which in times gone by allowed First Class passengers arriving at the (long gone) High Level Station to enter the Palace without suffering any exposure to the elements.
The Subway will be 150 years old on December 23, 2015. The film shows the subway in a new light and shares the stories of local people enchanted by the magical space.
The screening is in support of the gate fund for the subway, which its supporters hope to be able to re-open to the public. The admission price of £7 includes a glass of wine. Tickets are available in advance only, not on the door.
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