A Moment in London’s History – Crystal Palace burns…

The Crystal Palace fire in 1936. PICTURE: Unknown author (via Wikipedia)

This month marks 85 years since the Crystal Palace in London’s south was destroyed in a fire.

The Joseph Paxton-designed building had originally been located in what is now Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and, following the end of the exhibition, had been dismantled and relocated to Sydenham.

When the fire in broke out on the night of 30th November, 1936, two night watchmen tried to put it out. Sir Henry Buckland, the building’s general manager, was out walking his dog with his daughter Crystal (named, apparently after the building) when he spotted the flames and called the fire brigade.

They arrived at about 8pm but the fire, fanned by a wind, was soon out of control and so further aid as summoned with hundreds of firefighters and some 88 engines attending the scene. It has been said the blaze could be seen across eight counties.

A crowd of spectators – said to number as high as 100,000 – arrived to watch what was apparently a rather spectacular sight (special trains were apparently put on to transport people from towns in Kent and private airplanes were spotted overhead). Police, some on horseback, did their best to keep the crowds away but had limited success given the numbers who turned out (Winston Churchill, among those watching the building burn, is said to have remarked: “This is the end of an age” while Sir Henry told reporters later that the palace would “live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”).

By morning, the building was reduced to bits of twisted metal and ash but thankfully no lives were lost in the conflagration. The cause, however, remained a mystery – there was speculation it had been started by a stray cigarette butt or had been deliberately lit by a disgruntled worker. Television pioneer John Logie Baird, who had a workshop in the building, believed it could have been started by a leaking gas cylinder in his workshop.

Two water towers, located at either end of the building, survived the blaze but were later demolished. Among the few remains of the building which did survive the blaze is the subway located under Crystal Palace Parade. The park which surrounded the building remains home to the famous ‘Crystal Palace dinosaurs’.

10 London buildings that were relocated…6. The spire of St Antholin…

The St Antholin spire in Sydenham. PICTURE: IanVisits (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of medieval origins,the Church of St Antholin, which stood on the corner of Sise Lane and Budge Row, had been a fixture in the City of London for hundreds of years before it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

Rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, it survived until 1874 when it was finally demolished to make way for Queen Victoria Street.

But, while the building itself was destroyed (and we’ll take a more in-depth look at its history in an upcoming article), a section of Wren’s church does still survive – the upper part of his octagonal spire (apparently the only one he had built of stone).

This was replaced at some stage in the 19th century – it has been suggested this took place in 1829 after the spire was damaged by lightning although other dates prior to the church’s demolition have also been named as possibilities.

Whenever its removal took place, the spire was subsequently sold to one of the churchwardens, an innovative printing works proprietor named Robert Harrild, for just £5. He had it re-erected on his property, Round Hill House, in Sydenham.

Now Grade II-listed, the spire, features a distinctive weathervane (variously described as a wolf’s head or a dragon’s head). Mounted on a brick plinth, it still stands at the location, now part of a more modern housing estate, just off Round Hill in Sydenham.