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History of Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace – From Icon to Inferno


On 30th November 1936, as members of the Norwood Orchestra rehearsed in the Garden Hall, a small electrical fire erupted in the ladies bathroom of the Crystal Palace. Slowly the flames took hold, gradually gaining ground despite the best efforts of two night watchmen who attempted to tackle the blaze. Fanned by strong winds and fuelled by the dry timber flooring, the flames quickly swept through the building, devastating everything in their path. Eventually, the alarm was sounded, but even as fire crews from all over South London raced to the scene, the great Victorian structure was succumbing to the intense heat; its cast iron skeleton slowly melting as the inferno lit the dark Autumnal sky. The Crystal Palace, built just 85 years earlier, was no more.


There can’t be many visitors to the park who don’t shake their heads wistfully at the great empty space where the Crystal Palace once stood. It must have been an extraordinary site, a vast prefabricated greenhouse with a breathtaking façade dominating the local skyline. But of course, it wasn’t always that way.


Originally built at the request of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert, the huge glass and iron construction was first erected in Hyde Park, where it housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed by Joseph Paxton - remarkably in just 10 days - the building was quickly dubbed ‘the Crystal Palace’ when images of it first appeared in Punch magazine.


After the Great Exhibition closed, Paxton had the building - which had only ever been intended as a temporary construction - transported piece by piece to Sydenham in South East London, where it was re-built in 1854 at Penge Place. Penge Place was renamed Crystal Palace and for the next 82 years visitors to the park were able to walk their dogs in the presence of one of London’s great buildings.

During that time the Palace was home to a wealth of musical and sporting events - not least the various motor races that became a fixture of the park in the early years of the 20th century. And of course, the park also housed the world’s first collection of model dinosaurs, which must have come as quite a shock to the average Victorian out for a stroll. Unveiled alongside the Palace in 1854, the dinosaur collection was an instant hit with a public which had only just learnt of the existence of these strange beasts from another age. You can still see them today, emerging from the park’s lake, lazing in the sun, or snapping at one another in extraordinary detail.

During the First World War the Crystal Palace was given over to the Admiralty to be used as a Navel Training depot and in subsequent years it played host to an early Imperial War Museum; it was also closely linked to the development of television, when John Logie Baird established his own company their in 1934.


Sadly, all this came to an end on that cold winter’s evening in 1936 when crowds rushed from miles around to witness the fiery conclusion to the extraordinary story of the Crystal Palace.


Of course, the Park is still there, as beautiful as ever, and glimpses of its fascinating history can be found in numerous period photographs. But sadly little exists of the Palace itself; even the two towers which flanked the building, and which survived the fire, were demolished during the Second World War, as they were considered targets for the Luftwaffe. Today, all that remains of that once great building are its foundations, and a few terraces that sit incongruously amid the greenery, hinting at a time when the Crystal Palace defined not only a location, but also a nation’s pride in its ability. As for the Norwood Orchestra, thankfully they all escaped unharmed!