02 December 2023

Crystal Palace: huge success, tragic end.

Crystal Palace was a glass and cast iron structure 
in Hyde Park, for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton

The origins of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park lay in the national exhibitions of the Royal Society of Arts/RSA, particularly the 1849 Paris Exposit­ion. A leading RSA member, Henry Cole returned from Paris and prop­osed a grand exhibition to other RSA members, including the Presid­ent and royal consort, Prince Albert. Albert wanted the proto-modern cent­repiece for London’s Great Ex­hib­ition to be a proud show­case of the technological advances of the Industrial Rev­olution.

Crystal Palace Sydenham, transept, trees and statuary
The world’s largest glass­ house

An executive Building Committee was formed to oversee the build­ing’s design, comprising engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous architects, Duke of Buccleuch and Earl of Ellesmere etc, and chaired by eng­ineer William Cubitt.

Built in what is now Kensington Gardens, it was an amazing prefab­ricated edifice, created on wide park lands. Designed in glass, iron and wood by architect Jos­eph Paxton (1803-65), this was the man who had already achieved fame as a hor­t­­ic­ul­tur­alist! The world’s largest glass­ house showed advanced British tech­nol­­ogy at its best!

The giant 1,851’ long and 128’ high construction, made from British mat­erials, took just nine months to build and cost £150,000 (£15m today). Completed on time, the Great Exhibition was offic­ially opened by Queen Vict­or­ia in May 1851. On the first day there were traffic jams of horse-drawn cabs and car­riages stretching back to the Strand - 20,000 paid to enter the Crystal Palace on the first day alone. And in the six months, 6 million visitors arrived, a third of the pop­ul­­­ation of Britain. Until Oct 1851, it was the first in a series of World Fairs, exhibitions of culture and industry around the world.

Architects like Owen Jones (1809-74) designed a series of histor­ical fine-art courts, each court illustrating a particular period in the history of art. Augustus Pugin (1812-52), who didn’t approve of modernity, designed the original Mediaeval Court, and courts illus­trating Egyptian, Roman, Renais­s­ance, Chinese and Grecian art. Statuary around the fountain basins, urns, tazzas and vases were added, along with 12,000 jets, water temples and cascades.

Crystal Palace Sydenham,
Surrounded by parks, terraces, lakes and fountains

There were 100,000 exhibits. Among the exhibits the public could see inside the Crystal Palace were locomotives and cameras, excit­ing inventions in 1851 that later generations took for granted.

In Oct 1851, the Great Exhibition closed, having made a profit of £186,000. They knew Hyde Park had to be returned to its original state but the building had become so popular that Paxton wanted to move it, for protection. Paxton secured a reprieve from Parliament to leave the building intact until May 1852. However an ultra-conservative Colonel MP for Lin­coln, who disliked the Great Exhib­ition, persuaded Parl­iament to immediate­ly dismantle the Palace.

Crystal Palace Mark II opened in 1854. The Crystal Palace Co. directors raised and contributed £500,000 to buy and re-erect the building in Aug 1852, in Syden­ham Hill in SE London. During a time of high unem­ployment, the project provided jobs for 7,000 workmen. Sadly in Aug 1853, tons of scaffolding support­ing the centre transept collapsed and twelve labourers died.

The Sydenham site covered 389 acres, and consisted of woodland and the grounds of a mansion owned by a railway entrepreneur. 17 acres were sold to the Brighton Railway Company to construct the new Crystal Palace Railway Station which was, in turn, connected to the Crystal Palace by a 720ft glass colonnade.

The new building had five storeys instead of the original three and, because of the additional length, two extra transepts were added to give balance. Sydenham Pal­ace opened to the public in 1854. c100,000 people went to the opening, along with 200 instrum­ents and 500 voices. The whole comp­lex averaged 2 million vis­itors a year, but the orig­inal £500,000 budget was grossly inad­equate. Crystal Pal­ace Mark II never shook off its debt.

Fire struck in 1866 and the Courts, Indian & Naval Galleries, and the zoo were destroyed in the north transept. Who or what caused the fire? How did so much glass catch fire?

Crystal Palace National Sports Centre opened in 1895. Since then, Crystal Palace came to denote the area where the building HAD stood! It also named the sports stadium that was built on its grounds. The FA Cup Final was played there in most years from 1895-1914. A new football team called Crystal Palace was formed to play there in 1905, Crystal Palace Park bec­om­ing the Football Club’s home from 1906.

The Palace's popularity eventually faded. The directors had worked for 45+ years, but more modern facilities and entert­ain­ments had become available elsewhere. The financial problems of the Palace peaked in 1911, the year of George V's Coronation and the year of the biggest Palace show ever: The Festival of Empire. The British Emp­ire was at its peak, reflected in the opening con­cert where Elg­ar’s Land of Hope and Glory was sung by a choir of 4,500. Ex­hibits told the history of ALL the British Empire’s count­ries!

Alas the revenue raised couldn’t keep the Palace solvent, so its im­minent sale by auction was announced. Some Save the Palace Schemes were mobilised and the Earl of Plymouth raised the money to pre­vent it being sold to developers. London’s Lord Mayor set up a fund to repay him, and in 1913 the Palace was nationalised.

In the inter-war era, Crystal Palace played a key part in the dev­elopment of British television. In 1933 John Logie Baird set up a fully-equipped television broadcast­ing station, using the south tower of the Palace for his test transmissions. 

Osler's Crystal Fountain at Crystal Palace Sydenham

Then in Nov 1936, disaster struck again. The general man­ag­er of the Palace, Sir Henry Buckland, was walk­ing and saw a small red glow inside the Palace. He ran inside and found two night-watchmen trying to put out a small fire. The fire brigade arrived but soon hundreds more firemen were needed. c100,000 people went to Sydenham Hill to witness the dest­ruction, the site that had contained the greatest amount of glass ever seen in a building. Only Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s two water towers re­m­ained, and were later demol­ish­ed. Architects lament­ed the loss of great C19th architect­ure.

Now the theories started re the reason for the devastating 1936 fire. Now people saw that once the Blitz started in 1940, the Palace might have been dest­royed anyhow.

The Crystal Palace Museum opened in 1990 to tell the story of both Crystal Palaces, housed in the only surviving C19th building con­structed by Crystal Palace Co. Many thanks to The Crystal Palace Foundation for its detailed history.


roentare said...

A lot of heritage buildings are often lost to war or fire.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

What a place, don't remember hearing of this place before so really found the post very interesting but then history is always very interesting

Margaret D said...

What an amazing place.
Thank you for the very interesting read on it too.

Hels said...


not just earthquakes, floods, bombs and cyclones, but in Australia people have to prepare for bushfires almost all summers.
Of course Crystal Palace was in the centre of London, so the cause of the uncontrollable fire was probably due to the size of the building and the huge amounts of inflammable material it held.

Hels said...

1851 was a huge attraction, the hugest World Exposition where people from all over flooded into London in 1851. The concept became very popular and was repeated every four years in the world's most ambitious cities, including in Sydney then in Melbourne's Exhibition Building.
Crystal Palace was perfect.

Hels said...


Sir Joseph Paxton’s design for the Great Exhibition building consisted of prefabricated elements of sheet glass and iron. His glass structure covered four times the area of St Peter’s in Rome! In 1852–54 its components were moved to Sydenham Hill, where they were re-erected in a different form from the original (until the 1936 fire). The glass was so popular, it was everywhere.

Thanks for the reference to the Crystal Palace Railway Station,

Hels said...


I have read and written a lot about Universal Exhibitions for decades, and still have more to learn. The trouble was that most cities' Committees of Management had to agree to pull down their architectural masterpieces within a shortish time after the exhibitions ended. The 1915 Exhibition in San Francisco was totally destroyed except for The Palace of Fine Arts. The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition of 1939 remained until it was used as a WW2-storage space, then burned down. Of the 90 pavilions built for Montreal’s 1967 World’s Fair, only two remained intact.

What unbelievably tragic decisions :(

jabblog said...

It is extraordinary that it was built and rebuilt so quickly. HS2 has been rumbling on for years, at ever-increasing cost and looks likely never to be completed.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These giant exhibitions were meant to be marveled at, and the Crystal Palace certainly achieved that ambition. Many world fair and exhibition buildings were not meant to be permanent, and so were constructed of material that would not have stood the test of time, even if a decision was made to keep them. Also, many were built on land that was public parkland or earmarked for other uses, so we are lucky for the one or two such special buildings that are extant. I think we discussed once before the surviving Panama-Pacific International Exposition buildings in San Francisco that still grace the city, and possibly the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition whose main building is now part of Washington University in St Louis.

DUTA said...

Fire is a very destructive element. Glass is not resistant to fire. However, nowadays, there's technology that makes it possible to integrate in architecture specific types of glass, using special work methods, which could prevent fire damage or any other major damage.

My name is Erika. said...

It's too bad it was lost to fire because I would have loved to have seen that building. I bet it was beautiful. I'm glad you wrote this post Hels because it is always interesting to read about something that doesn't exist any longer but that there is so much information about. Hope you are having a nice start to December.

hels said...

Cities fought so hard to get the sole right to a 4 yearly universal exhibition, and it cost them so much, they would never have delayed or cancelled the work (except during WW2).

The HS2 mess is hideous for Brits, but it has little impact on the rest of the world.

hels said...

I saw a photo of Crystal Palace reduced by fire to the ground :( If only they had the techniques you mentioned back in the 1850s. Pre-fire the glass had looked glorious.

hels said...

6 million visitors admired this treasure for the rest of their lives "sigh*. I hope you see the Museum one day, but of course it isn't the same experience.

hels said...

Wealthy people often planned their overseas trips to fit in with Exhibition dates. But once the buildings were pulled down, there was very little to see.
At least in San Francisco, Melbourne etc, the City authorities retained some gorgeous architecture.

amazon.com.au said...

"The Crystal Palace" was written by Patrick Beaver in 2001. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it was built in Hyde Park to house the treasures of the world for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and became a microcosm of Victorian life, industry and leisure, reflecting every aspect of its age. This book was widely regarded as the most authoritative book written about the history of the famous glass Crystal Palace.

Hels said...

Thank you.

Here was an important issue for me to consider. Even before construction started, Paxton had already been told by the Parliament that the original building was temporary and would only remain in Hyde Park for six months. There was such public uproar at the loss of this gorgeous palace that Paxton agreed to seek a new location.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - the Crystal Palace certainly has an amazing history - especially being built at possibly the height of the Victorian era. I, at some stage, must write a bit more about the early beginnings of its history ... I have to find the book first - it'll come to light. Cheers Hilary

mem said...

Yes it was a great era for giant glass houses . Those Kew Gardens are wonderful . I cant help thinking though that it must have been FREEZING in winter . All that glass and open space .I think I saw an episode of Antiques road show where they went into the station which is still there and in use . I guess that the great Melbourne exhibition at Carlton would have been inspired by this . There were a lot of exhibitions around the world weren't there . I guess it was pride in the relatively new business of industrialized production ?

Sue Bursztynski said...

That is an amazing, if sad, story. I hadn’t realised the Crystal Palace was around for so long, even in two versions. I can’t help thinking that if I could time travel for fun, that first exhibition would be good to visit.

Hels said...


Both timing (1851) and place (London) were not accidents. The entire project was specifically intended to showcase the peak of industrial and cultural products from Britain and across the globe. No wonder Crystal Palace became a miniature world of the blossoming mid-Victorian era.

Until 1936, millions of people could enjoy the magic of the mid-Victorian world, at least for the the moneyed classes. Most people could not :(

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde. Parabéns pela aula de história. Nem todos os Artistas Urbanos tem a possibilidade de expor a sua arte em uma galeria ou exposição. Muitos acabam demonstrando sua arte e dom, muitas vezes na rua ou muros.

Hels said...


That is true! Not all Urban Artists are capable of, or allowed to exhibit their art in a gallery or exhibition nowadays.

I imagine that was even more so in the mid 19th century, when the various nations sent expensive, traditional art objects to Universal Exhibitions. Each nation was given an independent space to display its cultural objects to the host nation.

Fun60 said...

I would loved to have seen the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Nowadays Crystal Palace park is very popular with families. The sports centre has numerous sports taking place there. The athletics track is still in use. Giant models of dinosaurs around the boating lake are loved by the children as is a small farm where they can visit the animals.

Hels said...


I imagine that although the purpose of Crystal Palace Sports Centre has nothing to do with the original facility, the inspiration for pleasure, leisure and national pride was the same. Even the beautiful Sports Centre park and lake continues the pleasure.