‘What to do with the Crystal Palace?’

What better time to appreciate second chances than at the the beginning of a new year. The Crystal Palace [a name of fairy tale splendour, if ever I heard one] sparkled as the stage for Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851 but after five months and 11 days, when this first international exposition came to an end, the Palace’s future was an uncertain one.

Joseph Paxton

The Act of Parliament that gave authority for it to be built in Hyde Park had contained a condition that it should be removed when the show was over. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, very much wished for his structure to remain a national ‘winter garden’ and secured a temporary reprieve. However, the contractors still retained ownership and were considering selling it and dismantling units to send them to New York for its forthcoming Exhibition. In April 1852 a ‘Grand Promenade’ at the Palace of 100,000 people signed a petition to keep the Palace at Hyde Park. Charles Burton thought to transform it into a 1000ft tower, others wanted to transform it into a riding-school, a sanatorium, an international library, or a home for invalids. Meanwhile, numerous campaigns sought to keep it in England but to remove it to a new site. Lord seymour wanted to relocate it in Kew Gardens; whereas builder William Cubitt favoured a riverside location in what is now Battersea Park (one of the original locations considers for the Great Exhibition).

Just two weeks after the decision to dismantle the Palace, it was given a second chance as a palace of the British people. A dramatic change of direction was revealed. It was announced that the Crystal Palace had been sold for £70,000 in cash to a consortium of railway proprietors and others interested in ‘floriculture and the fine arts’. The Times regarded this move by the newly formed Crystal Palace Company (CPC) to be an act of ‘healthy commercial enterprise’, although beyond initial success this would not prove to be the case. Registered provisionally on the 17 May 1852, the CPC was a private company with railwayman and ex-politician Samuel Laing as its Chairman. Also on board were Paxton as the ‘director of Winter Garden, Park and Conservatory’; Matthew Digby Wyatt as ‘director of works’ and Owen Jones as ‘director of Decoration’ – all had of course been heavily involved in the Great Exhibition.

So, saved in-part by its originator, Paxton’s Palace was eventually transported with remarkable success, piece by piece, south of the Thames to purpose-built pleasure gardens in Sydenham. Built of iron and hand-blown glass, it really was a marvel that it could be successfully dismantled and rebuilt at all. The cultural and educational intentions of the the scheme’s supporters proved much harder to retain. The Crystal Palace Company claimed to have at its core the preservation of the high moral and educational tone of the Palace. However, despite Paxton’s involvement, not everyone put much store in these claims. Many were sceptical that the private motives for the formation of the Company were not so public spirited. After all, the financial backing for the speedy and secretive purchase of the Palace had been provided by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, whose chairman, Samuel Laing, then became the Chair of the CPC. In addition, the land purchased for the Palace, Penge Place, was owned by Leo Schuster, also a director of the same railway company. Nonetheless, Penge Place itself, and its location in Sydenham, was in contrast considered very agreeable: ‘occupying one of the most commanding situations in the world, overlooking London, the Valley of the Thames, and the plain of Kent’.

‘Near Sydenham Hill’ by Camille Pissarro, 1871 (Kimbell Art Museum)

Upper Sydenham had been a desirable suburb long before the arrival of the Crystal Palace. A smart area, where well-off people built their homes, it already had grand houses respectably spaced along wide avenues. Along with Dulwich and Norwood, it was one of the only areas in South London to acquire a social milieu argued by some to be comparable with parts of Kensington. Furthermore, neighbouring Penge, which borders the Park along Thicket Road, was less genteel but popular with the lower middle-classes with its access to the South Eastern Railway line into London. Penge provided a scaled-down version of Paddington or Primrose Hill, where the bourgeoisie could ape their betters in their pursuit of taste, decorum and anxious gentility.

Park development commonly relied on funds raised form an accompanying residential housing development, a park villa estate. Many urban park ventures had to work hard to attract the right calibre of residents to their housing developments, but the CPC had secured parkland in what was already a desirable suburb, full of highly respectable potential tenants. And yet, presumably so confident in the funds already raised through shares and the predicted successes of their venture, this useful investment (and one that Paxton would have been familiar with from his earlier park schemes) was slow to emerge. Even the land the CPC held outside of the grounds it designated for its Park, land that was valuable and ripe for development, was regarded as a ‘suspense account’. Paxton had included plans for four large hotels at the top end of the Park, by Dulwich Wood. These were to be connected to the Palace by a glorious glass walkway over the road. In any case these plans did not come to fruition. Instead, the CPC were content to make a quick profit of £51,000 by selling off leftover land to local building contractor, George Wythes – a man well known for his grand villas. True to form, he created Avenue, Westwood and Lawrie Park Road, along which he built grand detached residences, some with two or three acres a piece.

Despite the reticence of the CPC to use villas within the Park as a way of raising revenue, on an individual basis those investing in the success of the relocated Crystal Palace, were canny enough to also invest in the development of the surrounding residential space. Nearly all the directors and officials had their residences thereabouts. In addition, Paxton had also become the President of ‘The Norwood Villa and Investment Society’. Its subscription-raising pamphlet speculated on increasing land and property values associated with the arrival of the Palace. It argued that the Palace, along with the suburbs’ unrivalled reputation for beautiful scenery and for its pure and salubrious air, would create a great demand for residences of a superior class. The Society predicted the value of the land (purchased on a 97-year lease on an estate granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners) would double within seven years! They did have good reason to be optimistic. Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal had recently reported that the price of an acre of land in the vicinity had risen from £300 to £1600 in just 12 months. The CPC’s Palace and Park certainly delivered significant new amenities: a concert hall, theatre, menagerie, exhibition space, gardens and walkways for promenading, and Owen and Hawkins’ model dinosaurs to view, along with various other statues. The Edinburgh Guardian reported:

Yet behold it already rise glittering to the sun on Sydenham Hill, with loftier mass of fairly architecture, with sublimer swell of roof, and more imposing transept, than its prototype; with domed centre and triple cross shape, topped each by crystal towers; no longer chiefly dependent on its bulk, its novelty, or strange material, but on fresh forms of structural effect; a fabric which, seen far and wide on the outskirts of London smoke, will soon be majestically familiar as the bulbous outline of St. Paul’s, or the fringed columns of Westminster.

Edinburgh Guardian, 18 March 1854

There was no doubting that the Palace and its grounds were magnificent and attracted both investors and residents. However, this magnificence came at a price for the CPC. Unrestrained by the considerations of patrons and space, Paxton had designed a building that made the original seem modest in comparison – five stories rather than three and a capacity nearly half as large again as the original Palace at 44,500,000 cubic feet. When it opened in 1854, the expenditure totalled £1,350,000 and yet Kingdom Brunel’s signature water towers were still to be completed. Consequently, it was always going to be a challenge to build a healthy balance sheet.

At the same time, pleasure garden parks elsewhere were falling out of favour.  All had to struggle to come up with more and more fanciful entertainments to entice the masses. The Flora Gardens in Camberwell offered Lady Godiva in procession by torchlight and the Montpelier Tea Gardens in Walworth once offered a cricket match between eleven one-legged and eleven one-armed pensioners of Greenwich Hospital. In its early years, however, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham drew the crowds with more refined entertainments – the Saturday Concert, the Handel Festival, speeches by the famous Italian soldier Garibaldi, sermons by Spurgeon, and the breath-taking performances of Blondin on the high rope.

Nonetheless, the public were limited by the ticket prices and their own restricted free time. Despite its attractive entertainments, not all benefited from the new Saturday half-days and the Park’s charter meant that it was closed on Sundays – an increasingly distressing restriction for the directors and shareholders. Even in its first year, fees from exhibitors were at £5000, a tiny fraction of the £145,000 anticipated. The CPC also had to struggle with a series of catastrophes: In 1861 the north wing tower was toppled by strong gales; in 1865 Paxton, its great visionary, died; and the year after a fire destroyed the north end of the Palace. The Company were accused of neglect following the fire – Repair bills were avoided in the short-term, leading to more expensive problems later. There were also allegations of share-fraud, embezzlement, imprudent speculation and gross mismanagement. None of which helped the CPC to raise fresh funds from an increasingly sceptical investment community. It was following these setbacks  and two decades of failing to make a profit, that the CPC secured Royal Assent in 1869 and conceded some of the land within the Park boundaries to residential development. [You can read more about this here.] The PArk’s fortunes failed to be revived and

In 1911 the CPC put on its biggest and last show – The Festival of Empire. The British Empire was represented in miniature within the Park grounds. Although it attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, it did not stave off the impending bankruptcy. And so, in the same year that the Titanic sank, so too did the Crystal Palace Company. The Palace, the Park and the freehold on the residential villas the CPC had eventually built to raise money were put up for auction as one lot. They were valued at £230,000, less than a third of the sale price named by the CPC for national acquisition back in 1897. Initially rescued by Lord Plymouth and the Lord Mayor’s Fund, the ‘what to do with the Crystal Palace’ debate began again. Although it temporarily remained an exhibition venue the arrival of war saw its transformation into the Royal Naval Volunteer Headquarters  - H.M.S. Victory IV (popularly referred to as H.M.S. Crystal Palace).

After the war, in 1915 Sir Henry Buckland was appointed general manager of the Palace and he was responsible for a substantial turnaround, restoring the now almost derelict Palace from an overdraft of £4,072 to a credit of £18,ooo. The Handel Festivals were revived and between 1920 and 1936 some 15 million people came to visit the Palace. Buckland loved and appreciated the Palace but understood the shifting entertainment palate of the public, even if this did mean going more low-brow. However, on the evening of November 30th, 1936 his enormous efforts were to be blighted. Fire consumed the Crystal Palace with 89 fire-engines and 438 firemen proving futile. The wooden floors, chairs and orchestra burned, the glass melted and the iron buckled. 500,000 people gathered to watch the demise of the fairy tale palace. Many, including Buckland, wept openly.


This is part of a series of blog posts on Victorian park villa estates and the Crystal Palace Park in particular.

You can also read more about my research into the Crystal Palace Park estate in my academic journal article:

Alison Kay, ‘Villas, values and the Crystal Palace Company, 1852-1911’, The London Journal 33:1(2008), pp.21-39

For further information on Crystal Palace Park and the Crystal Palace at Sydenham see the website of heritage charity The Crystal Palace Foundation.

Two excellent sources of information the Crystal Palace, both packed with images, are:

Patrick Beaver, The Crystal Palace (Phillimore, Chichester, 2001. First printed in 1970 and subsequently in 1977, 1986, 1993, 2001)

Jan R. Piggott,  Palace of the People. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854-1936 (Hurst & Company, London, 2004).

If you would like to know more about Joseph Paxton, I highly recommend Kate Colquhoun’s book: A Thing in Disguise. The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton (Harper Perennial, 2003)

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