Eighty years after the Great Fire of south London, STEVEN DOWNES recalls a grand attraction which managed to delight the likes of Queen Victoria, Emile Zola and Winston Churchill
The destruction of the Crystal Palace on November 30 1936 was the Great Fire of south London — a vast conflagration which could be seen from the city centre, and drew tens of thousands of horrified spectators from miles around.
The blaze which destroyed the Crystal Palace 80 years ago today 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 that night to view what one of their number, Winston Churchill, described as, “The end of an age.” The railway company 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 Victorian age, built at the behest of Prince Albert for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and later moved, piece by piece, from Hyde Park to one of the highest points to the south 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 (at the time most of the buildings and its parkland surroundings were in the borough of Croydon), and it would remain on that site 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 to perform the official opening ceremony of the Crystal Palace at its new site. 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 after the end of hostilities. New ownership saw it enjoy a revival by the 1930s, until that night 80 years ago.
The wooden structure had caught fire in the past, but had been dealt with speedily on each occasion. 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 across eight counties.
Among the few reminders of the grandeur which once dominated the south London sky line is the subway, which once led from the high-level railways station (which has long since been closed and removed) under the main road and to the Palace itself. Dedicated local historians and enthusiasts continue painstaking work to restore and make safe the subway so that its splendid vaulted Victorian architecture might be utilised and seen by more people more often.
There have been various, some hare-brained, schemes to build hotels or replica glass palaces on what is now referred to as “the top site” beside Crystal Palace Parade, looking down on the park which once served as grand gardens and sports arenas for Paxton’s original building.
It is telling that, to this day no one has managed to come up with the ingenuity, or the money, to propose anything acceptable or workable as that which once stood, majestic, overlooking large tracts of London, Surrey and Kent. It says much for our modern age that the closest anyone got was probably the Chinese scheme, backed by Boris Johnson, for a vast supermarket.
Given that, maybe that prime site, with its Italianate terraces and out-of-place sphinxes, ought to remain undisturbed for a few decades more.
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