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There was a wonderful turn out on Saturday 22 September 2018 for the first talk after the summer break – despite the drizzle and later rain.   Ian Gledhill gave a well-researched and amusing talk about the origins of The Crystal Palace – it is obviously a topic of much interest to him!

In its day, the Crystal Palace was the largest glass building ever built.    It all began in 1849. Queen Victoria was on the throne; Prince Albert was looking for something to keep himself occupied; Henry Cole came up with the idea of having an exhibition in London to showcase goods from all over the world.  A committee was set up with Prince Albert in the chair and the decision was to ensure that the exhibition was the biggest and best in the whole world.    An open area of Hyde Park was the site.  

Applications to exhibit came in from all over the world.   An area of 1 million square feet as needed to accommodate everyone and they had no building!    Plans came forward from many sources, including the committee and all were too expensive.   Joseph Paxton, the gardener at Chatsworth, had built a large greenhouse and when he heard about the need for a building for the exhibition, he had 9 days to come up with an idea.  It was essentially an enormous greenhouse.   His plan was accepted at an approximate cost of £150 000.   

Work started in 1850 and was finished in 18 months.   That would NEVER happen today!  Objections to cutting down trees in the centre of where the building was erected were overcome by increasing the height of the middle portion of the building to incorporate the trees inside!  A simple solution.

The exhibition opened in May 1851 and was visited by over 6 million people in the period to October that year when it closed.   A huge profit was made which was used to purchase the land in South Kensington on which was built museums (Natural History etc) and colleges.    But, what to do with the building?  It remained as a winter garden in Hyde Park whilst a decision was made on its future.  

Land was purchased on Sydenham Hill, south of the river, and bit by bit, in 1852, the whole structure was broken down in sections and re-erected at the new site requiring 5 000 men to re-construct it.   The final exhibition area, inside and outside, was bigger and better.   The eventual structure was six storeys high and the floor area doubled.    Vast gardens and fountains were built. The fountains required a large amount of water which was supplied from two large water towers. Keeping the fountains running became very costly; hence the fountains only operated five times per year.  

The exhibition included plants and animals from all over the world; it included areas showing historical architecture from many parts of the world; there were dinosaurs in the gardens and the railway station was opened nearby for visitors.   It showcased Britain!  Queen Victoria opened the new Crystal Palace in 1854 with a great flourish and large fireworks display.  The total cost was in the region of £1.3 million – what would that equate to today?   The project was in debt to the tune of £800,000 and adding the cost of maintenance meant that it never made any money.   More attractions were opened – crafts, concerts, fun fares, hot air balloon rides and then air ships.  The Cup Final was held there in the early 1900s.   The Festival of Empire was held there in 1911 after which the project was declared bankrupt.   Crystal Palace was bought by Robert Clive who sold it to London in 1913.  It became a Naval Training base during the first World War.    In 1920 repairs were carried out and new exhibits brought in to bring in the visitors.   However, its glory days were gone and on 30 November 1936, from a small fire which started in the staff toilets, the whole building caught fire and burned.  It burned rapidly as the floors and glass frames were all wood.  All that was left was a shell and the crystal fountain standing in the centre of the building and the water towers.   

A sad end to a glorious Victorian vision.   Nothing was ever again built on the site.   However, Crystal Palace gives us the legacy of glass buildings and buildings that were put together in sections.   

Text by Jane McEwen

The Story of the Crystal Palace

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For me, there was so much that I did not know (perhaps I had forgotten) and I spent a happy hour trying to scribble notes in a darkened hall and listening with keen interest.     I knew about the Great Exhibition and the building of the Crystal Palace but didn’t know that the building was only a temporary structure in a corner of Hyde Park and had to be removed after the Exhibition.   It was removed - bit by bit - and re-erected on Sydenham Hill south of the river – and remained there for some 80 years before it burnt down.  Hence the tube station and football ground called Crystal Palace – it had never occurred to me that the tube station was named because the building was close by.