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Crystal Palace: the world's largest glass structure

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The front entrance to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park when it housed The Great Exhibition

The Crystal Palace was the world's largest glass structure, originally built in London’s Hyde Park to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. After that it was torn down and rebuilt in South London where it became the centre point of probably the world’s first theme park. But to begin at the beginning…


The year was 1847. The Prince Consort (husband of Queen Victoria) began work on a huge international exhibition of the works of industry from around the world. Hyde Park was chosen for the exhibition site and a competition launched, inviting British and European architects to submit designs for the building that would house it. Although 245 designs were received the Building Committee didn’t like any of them, and set about producing their own.


This is where Sir Joseph Paxton comes into the story. He began his career as one of the Duke of Devonshire’s gardeners, but by this time had risen to be a respected public figure and a director of the Midland Railway. He had previously designed Chatsworth Conservatory and a special lily house for the Duke. When he heard of the Building Committee’s ideas for the exhibition building, he had his doubts. The Committee wanted bricks and mortar. Paxton, thinking along the lines of what he had built for the Duke of Devonshire, thought more in terms of iron and glass – like a gigantic conservatory.


The Committee’s plans were due to be announced in two weeks. Paxton told them he would have his plans completed and ready for presentation in nine days. His initial thoughts were doodled on a piece of blotting paper, while presiding over a railway board meeting, then he and a small team worked day and night to complete the plans. The design was revolutionary, but any doubts the Committee might have had were swept aside when Paxton went over their heads and had the plans published in the Illustrated London News, where they won public acclaim. The Committee gave in to the inevitable and accepted Paxton’s plans, with one modification. Three giant elm trees stood across the path of the building site. Fearing condemnation for felling them, the Committee instructed Paxton to incorporate them in his plans, and the trees ended up growing inside the building. Work began in July 1850 with 39 workmen. By the time it was finished, more than 2,000 workmen had been engaged.Stakes were driven into the ground to indicate the position of the building’s columns. Every casting delivered was examined and painted before incorporating it into the structure. Only the choicest timber was selected. Up to 500 painters were employed. Teams of glaziers put in the glass, at the rate of around 18,000 panes a week. Work was completed in January 1851.

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The Crystal Palace under construction in Hyde Park

Three times the length of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it stood on a plot 1,848 x 408 feet, plus an addition on the north side of 936 x 48 feet, with a height at its tallest point of 108 feet. It contained 293,655 panes of glass, 330 huge iron columns, and 24 miles of guttering. It used 4,500 tones of iron and 600,000 cubic feet of timber. Several names were suggested for the building – The Glass Palace, The People’s Palace – before Punch magazine dubbed it The Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.


Opened by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851, The Great Exhibition consisted of more than 100,000 exhibits grouped in four categories: manufacturers, raw materials, machinery and fine arts. During the exhibition’s lifespan, visitors totalled more than 6,000,000, even though Sunday opening was not allowed. Neither were alcohol, smoking or dogs. Initially, the price of admission was £3 for men and £2 for ladies. Later, the masses were let in for one shilling (5p) per head. And if any of those 6,000,000 visitors got caught short, the Crystal Palace also saw the first major installation of public toilets, complete with flushing lavatories. Visitors to the exhibition were charged one penny to visit them – from which came the old euphemism of “spending a penny”.


The Great Exhibition closed in October 1851, leaving the problem of what to do with the Crystal Palace. It had been agreed from the start that, once the Exhibition was over, Hyde Park would be returned to its original status. So what to do with the world’s largest glass building? Once again, Sir Joseph Paxton came to the rescue, raising enough money to buy the building from its builders. It was then taken apart and transported piece by piece to the top of Sydenham Hill in South London. Here, it was rebuilt, in a style that emulated the original, without being an exact copy, and also larger and higher. Work was completed in 1854, and the result was even more impressive than it had been in its previous incarnation.


Inside, the Palace became a museum of world cultures, depicting both ancient and modern civilizations. Its central transept, with a diameter twice that of the Dome of St. Paul’s, could seat up to 4,000 people. Its organ, with air supplied by hydraulic machinery, boasted 4,384 pipes. The transept was used for numerous events and music concerts. Outside, the surrounding landscape of terraces, statues, ornamental English and Italian style gardens, gave Victorians a glimpse of what a future theme park might look like. At each side of the Palace, huge water towers were built to provide the volume and pressure of water required to power fountains that were said to rival those at the French Palace of Versailles. Containing nearly 12,000 jets and requiring more than 7,000,000 gallons of water for one display, they were soon deemed too expensive to run and were rarely seen in action. More successful attractions included tidal lakes, with rocks and rapids, where visitors could take out boats or plunge from a great height down a water shoot; the country’s largest maze; an area devoted to the study of geology; and the frightening Topsy-Turvy railway. A forerunner of today’s roller coasters, this involved cars that took two or four passengers, which raced down a steep incline, building up enough speed to completely loop the loop as the track turned in a vertical circle.


An underground pneumatic railway, also known as an atmospheric railway, linked two entrances to the park at Sydenham and Penge. A collar of bristles surrounded the single carriage, which had a door at each end, and travelled along a 600-yard airtight tunnel. The carriage itself had no means of propulsion. Instead, it was blown along the tunnel one way by a huge fan, 22 feet in diameter, which was then reversed to set up a vacuum that sucked the carriage back the other way. The railway ran, in 1864, for only two months. Another area of the park exhibited life size replicas of dinosaurs and other creatures, displayed on islands in a lake which represented a timeline through three prehistoric eras. As the tidal water rose and fell, different aspects of the dinosaurs were revealed. The parkland was also the venue for 20 FA Cup Finals between 1895 and 1914, during which, in 1905, Crystal Palace Football Club was formed.

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Inside the Crystal Palace

Left to right: the rebuilt Crystal Palace in South London, the pneumatic railway that ran between the two gates and the Topsy-Turvy railway.

In the years that followed the Great Exhibition, the Chrystal Palace became the venue for concerts and shows whose subjects included flowers, pigeons, poultry, goats, rabbits, cats, dogs, cattle and birds; exhibitions of electrical items, art, aeronautics, mining, photography and transport. Societies that ranged from the National Temperance League to German gymnasts met and held rallies there. Blondin, the man famous for walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls in 1859, made an appearance where, posters proclaimed, he would perform Unrivalled Feats, which included walking, running and cycling along a tightrope, and cooking an omelet in mid-air. The Palace was particularly famous for its Thursday night firework displays. They included such delights as a reenactment of the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, the flight of 20 monster dragon flies, immense cascades of fire and a finale of 2,000 rockets. Dr. Lynn, the electrifying conjurer, also made an appearance. In 1911, the Crystal Palace played host to the Festival of Empire, in which the countries of the British Empire exhibited products, displayed in specially-built scale models of their parliamentary buildings. The festival also included a Pageant with tableaux illustrating the history of London and the Empire. It was among the last of the great events at the venue and, despite attracting visitors from across the world, it still did not produce enough revenue to resolve the financial problems that the Palace had been suffering for some years previous  – a situation which eventually saw the Crystal Palace go into liquidation.


On the evening of Monday 30th November 1936, people living in and around the area, noticed a red glow in the sky coming from the direction of the Crystal Palace. A fire had started in the office area of the centre transept. Despite the efforts of night watchmen to put it out, the fire quickly spread, and soon engulfed the whole building. The first fire engine from Penge Fire Station arrived just after 8pm. During the night, 88 fire engines with more than 400 firemen fought a loosing battle against the blaze, whose flames could be seen from miles around. And in the morning, the wonderful and amazing Crystal Palace was no more. Arson was suspected but never proved, due to the size of the building and the immense amount of flammable material that it contained.


Today, only the dinosaurs and the maze survive. Otherwise, the remains of what was once the site of this fantastic building are now little more than overgrown terraces, flights of steps leading nowhere and damaged statues.

The recently restored dinosaurs that still remain in Crystal Palace Park.


Read more about the building and rebuilding of the Crystal Palace, as well as The Great Ehibition  in my book The Ingenious Victorians. Click here for more details 


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