The Demolition of the Crystal Palace, 1936-1941

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By Manpreet Singh

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Essay on thr demolition of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England)created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
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University of Maryland Libraries
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Keywords:

  • Crystal Palace (London, England)
  • Great Exhibition (1851 : London, England)
  • Exhibition buildings
  • Essay
  • 1901-2000
  • Europe
  • United Kingdom
  • England
  • London
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No one will ever know what really did happen that night

(Beaver, 143).

Indeed no one after sixty-five years precisely knows why and how the Crystal Palace was set on fire. On November 30, 1936 at six in the evening, the manager of the Palace, Henry Buckland, noticed a red glow ablaze in a staff lavatory. He called firemen and workmen to extinguish the blaze and went on with his duties. Within five minutes, the fire had swept across the Palace, which eventually then was evacuated. Over half of London???s entire fire brigade eventually arrived with 381 firemen and 89 engines, but the blaze was too fierce. Stories of arson abounded because of the large amounts of flammable material the gigantic structure contained, but the true cause may have been a terrible accident (British Path??).

Built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was originally located in London???s Hyde Park. In 1851 England was the major industrial power in the world and the Crystal Palace symbolized such dominance. As the building was unprecedented in scale and destination, its future after the fair was uncertain and became a hot topic. Around that time its designer, Joseph Paxton, joined with his colleagues Samuel Laing, Arthur Anderson, Charles Lushington, John Scott Russell, Francis Fuller, Thomas Newman Farquhar, Charles Geach and Edmund Sexton Pery Calvert and formed the Crystal Palace Company. As the company issued shares and raised ??1.3 million, it was able to buy the palace from its builders, the engineers of Fox and Henderson. They were also able to secure 349 acres in Sydenham Hill, which was in Greater London. The site was very convenient, as it was located only fifteen miles from Hyde Park and very desirable because the palace could be rebuilt at the highest point of a hill, with a commanding view of London's southern districts. Paxton eventually won approval for the transfer and proceeded to alter and enlarge the new building adding several tiers and increasing the height of the central transept. He also replaced the inner ribs with steel instead of iron. The palace's dimensions were 1608ft in length; 312ft in width, and the central transept had a height of 106ft (for the Hyde park structure) as opposed to 1848ft in length, 456ft in width, and the height of 168ft. The Crystal Palace Company also decided to enhance the new surroundings with gardens and a series of fountains. The Palace reopened in June of 1854 and was used as a venue for major exhibitions, firework displays, balloon ascents, concerts and sporting events. Eventually, The Crystal Palace stood there until it perished in the hands of nature down and with it the symbol of England's industrial power and political prestige (Hobhouse, 164).

Our actual image measures four inches by four inches is in a set of two pictures and shows the dismantling by the Thomas W. Ward company, of Sheffield and London. This is not a professional photograph, but most likely a snapshot taken by a local tourist days after the fire, which probably never appeared in print. The Special collections at the University of Maryland preserved thirteen amateur photographs showing the demolition of the Crystal Palace. This series is of great, if not unique, documentary value. The picture you are seeing on the screen makes the Palace look smaller than it really was. It only shows the inner vault of the Crystal Palace and the remains of the long barrel vault of the transept. The other picture in this set of two shows the metal frame standing as two workers haul away rubble in the background. It is important to note that the removal process was mostly done by hand and not with machinery. Workers kept carting away elements of the destroyed Palace, totally removing it from the site. Only one tower was saved from the fire. The steel ribs that support the vault are clearly visible in the photo, as the glass membrane mostly had been destroyed. The strong contrast of black and white tones reflects the somber mood of the event, and adds to the drama of the great fire. One can also view the masonry foundation punctuated with classical pediments. Pieces of bent steel supports are also visible, bearing witness to the sheer force of the fire and its destructive nature. Iron and steel construction can carry very heavy loads, and this material is not flammable, yet it loses its ability to support great weight under the effects of high temperatures. The fire weakened the beams of the Crystal Palace, causing them to bend and curl under their own weight.

Countless books and articles have been written on the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of 1851, but few provide information on its demolition. During the fair, many famous architects and critics criticized Paxton's design. August Welby Pugin, a proponent of Gothic architecture, called it a "glass-monster" and even told Paxton "You had better keep to building greenhouses, and I will keep to my churches and cathedrals"(Harrison). Thomas Carlyle called it a "big glass soap bubble", and John Ruskin a "conservatory". Ruskin's term, albeit somewhat mischievous, held an element of truth as Joseph Paxton's building experience had so far been confined to greenhouses. More recently the Crystal Palace has been called "proto-modern architecture" and has served as a precedent for commercial architecture in Europe and North America (Illustrated London News). While in existence, the Crystal Palace stood as a symbol of the economic, industrial and political strength of England. Ironically its demolition came at a time when British political and economic superiority began to crumble.

After Paxton's death in 1865 at Sydenham Hill, the palace started to slowly go into decline, as admission fees did not cover maintenance costs. In 1913, as a result of the fund raising campaign launched by the Lord Mayor of London the Palace became the property of the nation. By that time the building, starved for so long of proper care and attention, was in a very poor condition. Under Henry Buckland's management the palace was repaired, cleaned, improved and even started to show a slight profit. In the 1930's, during the Great Depression, British economy was stagnating with high unemployment and England started to its supremacy as Hitler began to gain power in Germany. The Crystal Palace on fire brought the end of England's might in world???s affairs. No longer would royalty such as Napoleon III who went in 1855; the Sultan of Turkey in 1867, the Khedive of Egypt in 1869, the Shah of Persia in 1873, Tsar Alexander II in 1874, the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1875, the King and Queen of Greece in 1876, and the Kaiser in 1891 pay a visit. During World War II the dismantling continued and the water towers were demolished in 1940 and 1941, as they were likely targets for enemy bombers. The final blow struck at 10:40pm on October 24, 1950 when the remains of the south wing were destroyed by fire.

The British Press saw the demolition of the Crystal Palace as a big blow to the political power of England and the general public wondered, "how can steel and glass burn so fiercely" (Beaver, 144). The fire was witnessed by thousands of onlookers. The fire burned for the rest of the night with great intensity, but pockets of fire still were present 20 hours later. The London Times had reported that the country was very sad and grieved over the loss of London's most famous and favorite tourist attractions. Before it burnt, the palace had even been described as "a symbol of universal happiness and brotherhood of mystical significance" (Beaver, 144). The British Path??, a radio station, even compared it to a somewhat forgotten grandparent who was more decisively missed upon his or her death. A few members of Parliament demanded that the Palace be rebuilt to demonstrate England's enduring might. They continued to push the rebuilding campaign arguing that it cost less than one of the battleship used in the World Wars. The London Times said, "the tragedy of the Titanic in 1911 ended the Edwardian age", while the demolition of the palace would "be the end of old values of the British system" (Packer).

The fire left a void in the park, which has never been filled and the area lost much of its interest. The terraces and steps still exist and the site is still listed as a Grade II historic park. The site recently has been threatened by the local council of Bromley, which wants to build a 20-screen cinema multiplex with restaurants, bars and rooftop parking for a thousand cars. The Crystal Palace Foundation was founded in July 1979 and gathers enthusiasts who want to preserve the history of the Crystal Palace. In 1990 the Crystal Palace Museum at the Sydenham site was opened and staffed solely by Crystal Palace Foundation volunteers. For over 150 years, the Crystal Palace has stood the test of all that it was faced with and now hopefully the Park can stand the test of economic and political conditions. The demolition of a fair building had never created such a commotion, which is understandable given the unprecedented love of the Crystal Palace.


Works Cited

Beaver, Patrick. The Crystal Palace, 1851-1936: a portrait of Victorian enterprise. London: Hugh Evelyn Ltd., 1970.
British Path??. Video of Demolition of Crystal Palace. http://www.britishpathe.com (accessed March 2003).
Creveling, Elizabeth. Photograph of Demolition of Crystal Palace. http://www.lib.umd.edu/ARCH/honr219f/1851lond.html#CPDem (accessed March 2003).
Findling, John E. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions 1851-1988. New York City: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Harrison, Melvin. Crystal Palace, the End. http://www.crystalpalacefoundation.org.uk/history/default.asp?id=6 (acessed March 2003).
Hobhouse, Christopher. 1851 and the Crystal Palace. London: Murray, 1950.
Hyman, Isabelle and Marvin Trachtenberg. Architecture From Prehistory to Post-Modernism. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1986.
Illustrated London News. Burning of Glass Monster. Number 11, November 1936. 2-4.
Packer, Martin. 2001 Remember and Celebrates. http://65.107.211.206/ history/1851/2001coin.html (accessed March 2003).
Smithsonian Institution Libraries. The Books Of The Fairs. Chicago: American Library Association, 1992.