Given our current series on great London projects of the Victorian age in honour of the Tube’s 150th birthday, it’s only fitting that we should take a look at the Crystal Palace, a wonder of the age which once adorned the grounds of Hyde Park.
Built as the centrepiece to the Great Exhibition (more properly known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations) of 1851 – an event enthusiastically supported by Prince Albert, the Crystal Palace (pictured left in an image published in 1854) was a vast cast-iron and glass exhibition hall which took its nickname (apparently first mentioned in Punch magazine) from the enormous amount of glass used in its creation.
Designed by gardener and architect Sir Joseph Paxton (his designs were chosen after an international competition failed to come up with anything suitable), the enormous and innovative structure, located just south of the The Serpentine, owed its design inspiration to his previous work on glasshouses.
Measuring 1,848 foot (563 metres) long, it was completed in just five months. The building, which needed no artificial lighting during the day due to its massive expanses to the glass, was so large that full-sized elm trees already growing in the park could be enclosed within it.
More than six million people visited the building during the Great Exhibition, held from 1st May to the 15th October, 1851. As well as hosting 14,000 exhibitors, the building also housed the first major installation of public toilets in which George Jennings had installed his ‘monkey closet’ flushing lavatory. While the structure was only meant to be temporary, such was its appeal (Paxton was knighted for his design efforts) that following the closing of the exhibition, it was purchased by the Crystal Palace Company.
A massive feat of logistics saw it dismantled and relocated to a site on what was then Penge Common at Sydenham Hill in south London where it was rebuilt (albeit to a different, much larger, design). It reopened in 1854 and contained a series of courts, illustrating art from various periods of history as well as other exhibits and performance spaces.
The grounds, meanwhile, were decorated with gardens and fountains designed by Edward Milner which drew water from two water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There was also a maze (still there) and also featured some terrific life-sized statues of dinosaurs created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (these Grade I-listed specimens, the first of their kind in the world, are still located in Crystal Palace Park).
Interestingly, the fountains were later grassed over and one was used as a sports stadium, famous for hosting the first 20 FA Cup Finals. The site also became home to the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science, and Literature and later, the Crystal Palace School of Practical Engineering.
The Crystal Palace remained in use for various purposes – including as a TV studio for John Logie Baird – until late in 1936 when it was destroyed by fire, the origins of which apparently remain somewhat mysterious.
The name Crystal Palace has remained, however, as well as being given to Crystal Palace Park – the actual site where the building once stood – it also continues to lend itself to the area in which the structure once stood.
There’s also now a foundation – the aptly named Crystal Palace Foundation – which works to “keep alive the memory of the Crystal Palace and its major role in the story and social development of Victorian and Edwardian England” and a small museum, The Crystal Palace Museum, housed in a building constructed around 1880 as a classroom for the Crystal Palace Company’s School of Practical Engineering. Plans for building a replica of Crystal Palace have been mooted but there’s no sign of it rising once more at this stage.
For more on the Crystal Palace, see Patrick Beaver’s book, The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise.
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