Several years back, before children and a lectureship at Lancaster University beckoned, I bought a flat in London on Crystal Palace Park Road. It was a neo-gothic, red brick villa and its garden backed onto Crystal Palace Park (of dinosaur sculpture fame). The flat was in a very poor state having languished for decades as social housing for Bromley Council, who owned the Park and the houses in its borders. Nonetheless, the Park was improving rapidly due to massive reinvestment and my flat had potential. My neighbours had similar feelings about their own flats and two in the villa next door even featured on Homes under the Hammer. Despite the buzz however, I found it enormously difficult to find out any detail on the history of the houses. The houses received only passing mention in the numerous histories of the Park and the villa-form was also not exactly historian’s topic of the month, except for studies of its interior which had cultural historians in fits of rapture.
After several visits to the Park’s museum and following a chat with The Crystal Palace Foundation Chairman Melvyn Harrison, I felt the hook of my next project pulling me towards the National Archives. I’d recently finished my PhD on the relationship between women’s business and the dwelling house and was ready for a new Victorian obsession. At this stage I had no idea how important the houses were or that I was going to bump into landscape architect and park designer Joseph Paxton, architect Edward Norton, publisher Charlie Dickens (son of the more famous Dickens), or railway magnets Samuel Laing and Leo Schuster. But then neither did I realise that just as my historical research was putting the houses of Crystal Palace Park Road back into the history of the Park, that the London Development Agency would be putting together plans to demolish some of them and to build new houses and leisure buildings in their place.
I no longer live in London but the Crystal Palace estate is still very close to my heart. Park estates have been neglected and yet they are integral to the history and heritage of Victorian parks and the development of the suburbs as well, of course, as being of heritage interest in their own right. I’ll be adding more posts on Victorian park estates and the villas of Crystal Palace Park over the coming weeks. See my ‘Victorian Park Estates‘ category for full listings.
My research on the houses of the Crystal Palace company will be reproduced in a booklet by the heritage charity The Crystal Palace Foundation this winter.
The bibliographic details for my academic paper on this topic are: A. Kay ‘Villas, values and the Crystal Palace Company, 1852-1911’, The London Journal 33:1 (2008), pp.21-39.