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The 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park
The façade of the original Crystal Palace
Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition.

The Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and glass building originally erected in Hyde Parkmarker, Londonmarker, Englandmarker, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in the Palace's of exhibition space to display examples of the latest technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Great Exhibition building was long, with an interior height of .

After the exhibition, the building was moved to a new park in a high, healthy and affluent area of London called Sydenham Hillmarker, an area not much changed today from the well-heeled suburb full of large villas that it was during its Victorian heyday. The Crystal Palace was enlarged and stood in the area from 1854 to 1936, when it was destroyed by fire. It attracted many thousands of visitors from all levels of society. The name Crystal Palace (the satirical magazine Punch usually gets the credit for coining the phrase) was later used to denote this area of south Londonmarker and the park that surrounds the site, home of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centremarker.

Original Hyde Park building

The huge, modular wood, glass and iron structure at the top of Sydenham Hillmarker was originally erected in Hyde Parkmarker in Londonmarker to house The Great Exhibition of 1851, embodying the products of many countries throughout the world.

The Crystal Palace's creator, Joseph Paxton, was knighted in recognition of his work. Paxton had been the head gardener at Chatsworthmarker, in Derbyshiremarker. There he had experimented with glass and iron in the creation of large greenhouses, and had seen something of their strength and durability, knowledge that he applied to the plans for the Great Exhibition building. Planners had been looking for strength, durability, simplicity of construction and speed—and this they got from Paxton's ideas. The project was engineered by Sir William Cubitt.

Full-size, living elm trees in the park were enclosed within the central exhibition hall near the tall Crystal Fountain. Sparrows became a nuisance; Queen Victoria mentioned this problem to the Duke of Wellington, who offered the famous solution, "Sparrowhawks, Ma'am".

The Crystal Palace was built by about 5,000 navvies (up to 2,000 on site at once).

The ironwork contractors were Sir Charles Fox's Fox and Henderson. The 900,000 square feet (84,000 m²) of glass were provided by the Chance Brothersmarker glassworks in Smethwickmarker, Birminghammarker. They were the only glassworks capable of fulfilling such a large order and had to bring in labour from Francemarker to meet it in time.The final dimensions were 1,848 feet long by 456 feet wide. The building was 135 feet high, with 772,784 square feet on the ground floor alone.

The Crystal Palace also featured the first public conveniences, the Retiring Rooms, in which sanitary engineer George Jennings installed his water closets. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use them, and for this they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. This is the origin of the euphemism "to spend a penny".


Relocation commemorative medallion.

The life of the Great Exhibition was limited to six months, after which, something had to be done with the building. Against the wishes of Parliamentarymarker opponents, the edifice was erected on a property named Penge Place that had been excised from Penge Commonmarker atop Sydenham Hill. It was modified and enlarged so much that it extended beyond the boundary of Penge Place, which was also the boundary between Surreymarker and Kentmarker. Within two years, Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony. The new site hosted concerts, exhibits, and public entertainment.

Several localities claim to be the area to which the building was relocated. The street address of the Crystal Palace was Sydenham S.E (SE26 after 1917), but the actual building and parklands were in Penge. At the time of relocation most of the buildings were in Croydonmarker, as were the majority of grounds. In 1899, the county boundary was moved, transferring the entire site to Penge Urban Districtmarker in Kent. The site is now within the Crystal Palace Ward of the London Borough of Bromleymarker.

Two railway stations were opened to serve the permanent exhibition: Crystal Palace High Levelmarker (an impressive building by Edward Barry), from which a subway under the Parade led directly to the entrance, and Crystal Palace Low Level station off Anerley Road. The Low Level Station is still in use at Crystal Palace railway stationmarker, and the remains of the High Level Station can also still be seen, with its Italianmarker mosaic roofing. This subway is a Grade II listed building.

The South Gate is served by Penge West Railway Stationmarker. For some time this station was on an atmospheric railway. This is often confused with a 550-metre pneumatic passenger railway which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1864, which was known as the Crystal Palace pneumatic railway.

There is an apocryphal story, popular among local schoolchildren, that Crystal Palace High Level Station was closed because a commuter train was trapped by a tunnel collapse and remains there to this day. In reality, the closure in 1954 was a scheduled part of the decline of the railway network in the 1950s. This may have arisen as a result of the experimental pneumatic railway 1864, to which a similar story is attached. See below, and also Thomas Webster Rammell, the engineer behind the project.

Water features

Iguanodon at Crystal Palace

Joseph Paxton was first and foremost a gardener, and his layout of gardens, fountains, terrace and cascades left no doubt as to his ability. One thing he did have a problem with was water supply. Such was his enthusiasm that thousands of gallons of water were needed in order to feed the myriad fountains and cascades which abounded in the Crystal Palace park. The two main jets were high.

Initially, water towers were constructed, but the weight of water in the raised tanks caused them to collapse. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was consulted and came up with the plans for two mighty water towers, one at the north and the other at the south end of the building. Each supported a tremendous load of water, which was gathered from three reservoirs, at either end of and in the middle of the park.

Two years later, the grand fountains and cascades were opened, again in the presence of the Queen, who got wet when a gust of wind swept mists of spray over the Royal carriage.


While the original palace cost £150,000, the relocation to Sydenham cost £1,300,000—burdening the company with a debt it never repaid, partly because admission fees were depressed by the inability to cater for Sunday visitors: many people worked every day except the Sabbath, when the Palace had always been closed. No amount of protest had any effect: the Lord's Day Observance Society (as today) held that people should not be encouraged to work at the Palace or drive transport on Sunday, and that if people wanted to visit, then their employers should give them time off during the working week. This, naturally, they would not do.

However, the Palace was open on Sundays by May 1861, when there were 40,000 visitors on a Sunday alone.

In 1911, the Festival of Empire was held at the building to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary. The building fell into disrepair and two years later the Earl of Plymouth purchased it, to save it from developers. A public subscription quickly re-purchased it for the nation.

During World War I, it was used as a naval training establishment under the name of HMS Victory VI, informally known as HMS Crystal Palace. More than 125,000 men from the Royal Naval Division, Royal Naval Volunteers and Royal Naval Air Force were trained for war at Victory VI. At the cessation of hostilities it was re-opened as the first Imperial War Museummarker. In the 1920s, a board of trustees was set up under the guidance of manager Sir Henry Buckland. He is said to have been a firm but fair man, who had a great love for the Crystal Palace , and soon set about restoring the deteriorating building. The restoration not only brought visitors back, but also meant that the Palace started to make a small profit once more. Buckland and his staff also worked on improving the fountains and gardens, including the Thursday evening displays of fireworks by Brocks.

Destruction by fire

Despite attempts to revive The Crystal Palace, on 30 November 1936 came the final catastrophe, fire. Within hours the Palace was destroyed: the flames lit up the night sky and were visible for miles. On the night of the fire Sir Henry Buckland and his daughter Chrystal (whom he named after the Palace) were walking their dog when they noticed smoke emerging from the Palace. They went nearer, and upon closer inspection came across two night watchmen trying to extinguish a small fire. They were not able to extinguish the fire alone, so the local Penge fire brigade was called. Even though 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen attended the site because of the number of flammable materials and windy weather that night they were unsuccessful. Buckland commented on the events saying “In a few hours we have seen the end of the Crystal Palace. Yet it will live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”. Just as in 1866, when the north transept burnt down, the building was not adequately insured to cover the cost of rebuilding.

The South Tower had been used for tests by television pioneer John Logie Baird for his mechanical television experiments, and much of his work was destroyed in the fire. Winston Churchill, on his way home from the House of Commonsmarker said, "This is the end of an age".

Life ran a three-page photo article on the fire, titled "London's Biggest Fire...", in the 21 December 1936 issue.

All that was left standing were the two water towers, and these were taken down during World War II. The reason given was that the Germans could have used them to navigate their way to London. The north one was demolished with explosives in 1941; the south tower was dismantled due to its proximity to other buildings. After the war, the site was used for a number of purposes. Between 1953 and 1973, a motor-car racing circuit operated on the site, and some of the race meetings were supported by the Greater London Council.The noise was not so popular with the nearby residents but the hours of racing were soon regulated with a high court judgment.


Over the years a number of proposals for the former site of the Palace have failed to come to fruition. Currently, there are two rival plans. The London Development Agency wants to spend £67.5 million on developments to the park, including new houses and a regional sports centre. Recently, a private consortium has announced plans to rebuild Crystal Palace and use it to house galleries, a snow slope, music auditorium, leisure facilities and a hotel.

In popular culture

The Crystal Palace made a strong impression on visitors coming from all over Europe, including a number of writers. It soon became a symbol of modernity and civilization, hailed by some and decried by others.

  • Robert Baden-Powell organized a meeting of Boy Scouts there in 1909, when he first noticed how many girls were interested in Scouting, leading to the founding of Girl Guide and Girl Scouts.
  • French author Valéry Larbaud left a short text describing his impressions of the Crystal Palace.
  • The Crystal Palace appears as a full chapter in the Edward Rutherfurd novel "London" where it is a pivotal part of the book's sub-plot in that chapter.
  • In What Is to Be Done?, Russian author and philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky pledges to transform the society into a Crystal Palace thanks to a socialist revolution.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky implicitly replied to Chernyshevsky in Notes from Underground. The narrator thinks that human nature will prefer destruction and chaos to the harmony symbolized by the Crystal Palace. Raskolnikov, a character in Crime and Punishment also makes a reference to it.
  • The replacement for the East window in the St John the Evangelist church in Pengemarker High Street installed following damage during World War II, features an idyllic view of the local landscape at the time the church was built, including the Crystal Palace.
  • The Crystal Palace serves as the location in the finale of the fantasy book Ptolemy's Gate.
  • The Crystal Palace is the name of a nightclub run by Larry Otter in the Wild Cards fictional shared universe.
  • Italian writer Alessandro Baricco incorporated the Crystal Palace into his novel Land of glass using a mixture of fiction and fact.
  • German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk uses the Crystal Palace as a metaphor for the European project.
  • Contemporary artist Tori Amos mentions the Crystal Palace in her song Winter, singing, "Mirror mirror, where's the Crystal Palace? But I only can see myself."
  • Having previously appeared in at least one Doctor Who comic strip (printed in the Radio Times), the Great Exhibition was properly featured as the setting for one of the audio adventures of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor in 2005: Other Lives, which also featured as a character in the drama a contemporary figure associated with events, the then-age whicd Duke of Wellington.
  • Famed children's author E. Nesbit made many references to the Crystal Palace in her work, most notably in the short story "The Ice Dragon," which commences with the child protagonists watching the Crystal Palace fireworks display from their backyard.
  • The Crystal Palace Restaurant in the Walt Disney World Resortmarker (Magic Kingdom, Main Street, USA) is inspired by the Crystal Palace.
  • In book 3 of The Invisible Detective series by Justin Richards, the finale takes place at the Crystal Palace and it is the final destruction of the Ghost army that causes the fire that destroys the palace.
  • In the Book The Death Collector, the Crystal Palace Gardens and Large Dinosaur statues contain a secret which leads to the solving of the mystery in the book.
  • In September 2007 the Anglo-Dutch martial neoclassical music group, H.E.R.R., released a mini-album concerning the rise and fall of the Crystal Palace, entitled Fire & Glass: A Norwood Tragedy.
  • When Queen Victoria's avatar is on-screen in the computer game Civilization IV, the palace can be seen in the background.
  • There is a scene in the 1979 Sean Connery movie The First Great Train Robbery wherein Connery's character strolls around outside the Crystal Palace whilst a fireworks display is being held. The Palace is a miniature used in a foreground projection shot.
  • In the VeggieTales episode The Star of Christmas (which takes place in 1882 London) Larry the Cucumber's character Millward Phelps was going to drive a "rocket carriage" through the Crystal Palace to avoid being late for the church Christmas pageant. (His fellow passengers quickly dissuaded him from this idea.)
  • NORADmarker headquarters in the movie WarGames is code-named "Crystal Palace".
  • The Crystal Palace appears in both The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and its sequel Heart of Empire.
  • Katsuhiro Otomo's steampunk movie Steamboy takes place during the 1866 Great Exhibition and shows a building similar to the Crystal Palace (but much larger).
  • The Crystal Palace appears in the manga and anime by Kaoru Mori, Emma .

See also

Further reading

  • Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Dickinson Brothers, London, 1854.
  • Kate Colquhoun - A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton (Fourth Estate, 2003) ISBN 0-00-714353-2
  • George F Chadwick - Works of Sir Joseph Paxton (Architectural Press, 1961) ISBN 0-85139-721-2
  • Ian Leith: "Delamotte's Crystal Palace", London, 2005
  • Jan Piggott: "Palace of the People", London, 2004


  1. The 1850-11-02 Punch issue is credited with bestowing the "Crystal Palace" name on the design by (And .) Punch had originally sided with The Times against the Exhibition committee's own proposal of a fixed brick structure, but featured the Crystal Palace heavily throughout 1851 (for example in included the article "Travels into the Interior of the Crystal Palace" of February 1851). Any earlier name has been lost, according to . However, this use by Punch is predated by a reference in The Leader, no.17, 20 July 1850 (p.1): "In more than one country we notice active preparations for sending inanimate representatives of trade and industry to take up their abode in the crystal palace which Mr.Paxton is to build for the Exposition of 1851." Source: British Periodicals database or Nineteenth Century Serials Edition
  2. The prefabricated parts were constructed in the manufacture's ironworks and sawmills (page 36).
  3. The peak figure of 2,000 workers daily is given in: and by the University of Virginia's project:
  4. Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, and Barbara H. Rosenwein. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. P 685.
  5. These amounts are in successive years, and partly reflect the extension to five stories made at Sydenham. The £150,000 cost of the Hyde Park Crystal Palace includes the (re-usable) component material cost, so the extent to which the reconstructed Palace had an (unexpectedly) higher construction cost is even greater than the comparison of totals implies.
  6. The Great Exhibition was always closed on Sunday, see: . The Crystal Palace at Sydenham continued the observance, opening only to shareholders on Sundays:
  7. Google Books: Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854-1936
  8. [1]
  9. [2]
  10. [3]
  13. Will Crystal Palace rise again? | News

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