Remains of Brunel’s Crystal Palace tower granted listed status

The base and foundations of a water tower at Crystal Palace, the last remnants of one of the final engineering projects undertaken by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, have been given listed status by Historic England because of their importance to the “apogee of Victorian engineering” and their links to the birth of the television age.

Brunel’s towers provided the water pressure for the Crystal Palace’s fountain displays

The remains of the tower are next to the Crystal Palace Museum on Anerley Hill, alongside Crystal Palace Park which is itself Grade II* listed.

The tower was built between 1854 and 1856, at the time the Palace was being reassembled on Sydenham Hill after housing the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park.

The tower would later play a role in the pioneering years of television, used by John Logie Baird for his early and experimental transmissions in the 1930s.

The tower survived the fire that destroyed Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1936, though Brunel’s water tower itself was demolished during World War II.

The base of the building was recovered through excavation work in the mid-1980s.

IK Brunel: the Crystal Palace towers were among his last projects before his death in 1859

According to Historic England, which has listed the building as Grade II, the Reasons for Designation include “as one of the few surviving structures related to the relocated Crystal Palace, a project representing the apogee of Victorian cultural and engineering ambition” as well as “for the tangible evidence it provides for the design and construction techniques used by Brunel in the pair of water towers, a once iconic presence in the landscape”.

It is also an example of “the early use of Portland cement concrete for the foundations”.

Historic England describes the building as “one of the last major commissions by IK Brunel, the foremost engineer of the Victorian Age” and “as a reminder of John Logie Baird’s pioneering television transmissions”.

Brunel’s water tower was specially commissioned when the Crystal Palace was moved to south London.

The tower dominated the local street scene in Victorian era Upper Norwood

The new Palace, which opened in 1854, was based on a revised design by Paxton with input from the architects Matthew Digby Wyatt and Owen Jones, and developed by a private consortium known as the Crystal Palace Company.

It hosted a sequence of permanent displays illustrating themes from natural history and the development of civilisation, as well as a theatre and concert hall, several large commercial showrooms and an immense shopping bazaar.

Plans for the park and gardens of the Palace included a water display comprising almost 12,000 individual jets with a great circular fountain which occupied the central position below the Terraces, the main jet attaining a height of around 45 metres.

Paxton planned two water towers to provide the necessary water pressure. They were also to incorporate the chimney flues for the boilers which heated the Palace.

Only the base of the water tower remains after the towers were destroyed during WWII

According to Historic England, “The designs were produced by his assistant, Charles Heard Wild, but Paxton turned to Isambard Kingdom Brunel for advice after reservations about the viability of the designs.

“Brunel raised a number of engineering issues and eventually the directors of the company decided that Brunel should replace Wild as the engineer responsible for the towers. Paxton meanwhile decided to increase the capacity of the tanks from the original 500 tons to 1500 tons.

“Brunel’s re-designed towers were begun in August 1854, after the Palace had been formally opened. The foundations consisted of a Portland cement concrete ring one metre thick and three metres wide with an outside diameter of 18 metres. On this was built a drum of tapering brickwork to a height of 5.5 metres on which stood 12 cast-iron foundation plates from which rose the cast-iron columns and bracing with a cladding of cast-iron panels. The tower had 10 storeys, reached by cast-iron spiral stairs winding around the central chimney, each with metal-framed, multi-paned, arched windows set around the circumference.

“The columns supported the water tank itself and the brick chimney passed through the centre of the tank to an ornamental cast-iron cap surmounting the glazed conical roof over the tanks. The two towers were 86 metres tall and of identical design. Construction was undertaken by Fox, Henderson and Company, who had been the main contractors for the Great Exhibition building and its relocation to Sydenham.

“The towers became operational on June 2, 1856, and on June 18 the fountains were turned on in the presence of Queen Victoria.

The towers proved useful in John Logie Baird’s early experiments with television transmission

“Following the opening of the Crystal Palace School of Practical Engineering in 1872, the first three floors of the South Tower were fitted out as a lecture room, drawing office and workshops. They retained this function when the main college building (the surviving part houses the Crystal Palace Museum) was built around 1880, until the school relocated in 1916.

“Although the water towers generally functioned efficiently, the Winter Garden and Leisure Park were less successful (the Crystal Palace Company twice went bankrupt in 1887 and 1909) and many of the fountains fell out of use long before the fire of November 30, 1936, which destroyed the Crystal Palace.

“The towers survived the fire and, prior to this, John Logie Baird had used the South Tower from 1933 for an antenna mast for his experimental television transmitting station.

“During the Second World War, reputedly after concerns that the towers offered a distinctive landmark to German aircraft, it was decided to demolish them. The North Tower was demolished with explosives on April 16, 1941, but, due to the proximity of housing and the former engineering school buildings, the South Tower had been previously dismantled in sections during the autumn of 1940.

“The base of the south tower was excavated in 1985.”


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