The Crystal Palace, 1920

Published 1974

Seen by the light of the times in which we were trapped, the children from the frayed edges of a severely shaken society saw nothing amiss with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1920. That Sir Joseph Paxton would have disapproved of it and Ruskin let fall some gems he never meant to lose was not a matter for sad reflection. Paxton was the name of a fish merchant in the High Street and Ruskin identified a London Park!

Such was the blissful condition of our innocent hearts, two chums with their parents and myself with mine.

From the outside the Palace was a wonder to behold, within, it was a miracle. The gulf between stuffed Victorian chickens and a restoration of the Greek Parthenon had been bridged with beaverlike efficiency.

In the embrace, under the spell of the magic and the banners of that titanic arcade, the clutter of an eel-and-pie shop civilisation and the machines of War were charmed into looking like a carnival of Art and beauty.

It demanded affection, even that monster of a gun which made no secret of a desire to blow off the roof, and the soldiers standing beside it who wouldn’t have minded if it had!

Mars was triumphant and enthroned. That he was on his best behaviour must be admitted. Smiling like Father Christmas, he petted and fed coloured sugar to the Doves of Peace with freshly washed and scented hands. The delighted objects of his attention were gobbling up the spice - a less charitable person would have said - greedily. How easily one can malign and misjudge a person!

As young people we were secure in the belief that our particular brand of Youth represented a phenomenon that had just occurred for the first time in History. The marvels of the Ancient World did not command much of our attention even when we caught a glimpse of them between what we thought to be the pillars of our own. The Penny Paradise of the slot machines was to us a far superior attraction.

Sounds of delight.

From panoramas featuring events of the late conflict, through a range of technically perfect models of just about everything, down to the catch-penny nonsense variety and the practical kind that sedately issued a bar of chocolate for your money. The ringing and cranking of these delights, the buzz of human chatter and cries of childish joy, the sound of falling fountain water and of little iron-shod feet punishing the planking of that JUDAS floor, mingled with and were further sweetened by the music of a brass band that played in a golden pavilion.

Juggernauts of steel, flowers, parrots and statuary, trumpery and treasures, the biggest of this and the smallest of that, were assembled in rigid obedience to rules laid down by the gods of confusion and all of it made to look resplendent by the same sunshine that had lit the Golden Age! What more could a shilling, even a real silver one, be expected to buy?

We young saints did not know then that the famous collection of statuary represented some of the finest of the World’s Art treasures. We supposed they were put there for amusement. The elementary and unbiased wisdom of the young confounds the sages more frequently than is generally realised! A dormant artistic sense on the point of awakening advised us that those wearing the brightest whitewash and nothing else were the most to be admired. The sound judgement of three little rascals, the one who became a celebrity, the one who didn’t, and the one for whom the race was short and nearly run.

Clocks and fountains

The great clock that dared anybody ever again to interrogate a policeman had no bells. A regrettable omission and I never ceased to lament it. We waited in vain to hear it strike and chime. A few bars of ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ would have been a very suitable addition. Should somebody have fancied to possess a similar timepiece, the enterprising makers had caused their name and address to be prominently displayed above it. DENT 61 STRAND.

Beauty that some water fairies had encouraged to grow from among the lilies of a fountain like won the admiration of even us little savages. An improbability had found substance in iridescence and rose aloft to dissolve and become an umbrella of diamond-bright water which fell back and broke into a shower of rainbow tears upon the crystal skirts and prismatic pinnacles of itself.

In all his renowned collection the Sun King never gazed upon the like. The Jewel of the Crystal Palace.

The inhabitants of the Roman villa of old Pompeii must have had a premonition of disaster, for they had fled and locked the front door. Other Courts of Art had suffered the mortification of being translated into Tea Rooms and worse, but it caused us no sorrow. In our unenlightened eyes the model of a wartime tank moulded in milk chocolate was a greater piece of craft than the carved doors of the Florentine Baptistry!

We were the children of our time! So were the sons and daughters of squint-eyed tinkers who were talking people into buying from their stocks of sublimated trickery. Things that never work when you get them home. My Japanese water lilies for instance! A gentleman visitor to the Palace years before, enchanted by the prospect from the garden terrace exclaimed: ‘It can’t be true . . . I don’t believe it!’ Could a poem as long as last Sunday, written by the Bard himself, have paid a finer tribute?

We, at least, had no doubts as we sat under a Lebanon cedar to eat our sandwiches and savour the Arcadian loveliness of the Park while a friendly Giant with sparkling eyes looked down upon us. It was never to look quite so wonderful again. What price can be put upon the quality of a first impression … or a point of view? Uninvited visitors, on nights when the moon was full to bursting, had no so long ago looked down and seen not a Giant, but a little bar of a brooch inset with aquamarines. The considerable value they placed upon the jewel did not, alas, spring from any appreciation of beauty.

In those corners of the grounds where carnival organs were churning out music like mincemeat, Prudence had quitted her post and left the coast clear for folks to indulge themselves in popular amusements. These, in great part, turned out to be forms of punishment that Dignity and Reason should have avoided at all costs. The long twin steel ramps of the famous Palace ‘chute’, one UP and one DOWN, still dived into a reservoir of water so clear that should anyone have fallen out the body could have been retrieved with the minimum of difficulty. Courageous folks must have been the first passengers - or too thick to be afraid. How could they have known with certainty that, apart from drowning or dying of heart failure, they were in no danger? The exclamation, ‘I’ve never had such an experience’ must be part of Palace history!

Flying free

The sensation of flying free in a wide circle high over the rose gardens in an aerial torpedo was so delightful that we had three rides upon it while our parents below lamented that ‘Children nowadays think we’ve got money to burn’. During these flights there sailed in and out of our visions a building which aroused my curiosity. I took a fancy to it! The Palace like a mature person treasured old memories and this was one of them.

It had been erected for an Exposition years before and by accident had become a valuable possession, for the original structure of which it was a scale replica had been destroyed by fire. The Parliament Building in Ottawa, Canada. From that day on it never had any other name for me than ‘The Crystal Palace Town Hall.’

Delights of the Palace gardens.

We lost our parents for a satisfactory length of time in the Maze Garden. Unfortunately they re-discovered us before we had found the youngest member of our crew whom we had lost in the meantime. Life for his custodians became difficult for a short while, but all came right in the end. The missing child was eventually traced to the middle section of that labyrinth, where, seated on a bench, he was unloading a cargo of information on to a delightful audience, an American lady and gentleman from Westminster (California). He had chosen well!

Our arguments did not prevail against the wiser counsels that forbade our paying to see the only living mermaid in captivity. I never die see her, either, though I searched fairgrounds for years afterwards; She must have escaped! How near, I wonder, did she approach my mental picture of Mary Pickford at one end and a silver salmon at the other?

Shiny ribands reduced to limp rags, wet patches on jerseys and pinafores testified to the popularity of the Palace fountains with children who had taken the precaution of leaving their parents elsewhere. We were dared to go near them, even if we were thirsty! We had, at that time, no knowledge of that ambitious Victorian scheme to rival the ornamental waterworks of Tivoli’s Villa D’Este in the Palace Park. We did not even recognise the evidence that remained for the fountain pools on the garden terrace did not reveal their playful hearts to us that day.

Our mothers avowed that after this day they would never look another flight of steps in the treads with any joy again. While the rest of us set out to conquer the North Tower by way of the stairs, they stayed below and listened to yet another band playing selections from Ketelby and Gilbert and Sullivan. How many stairs were there? Though I commenced to count them with every intention of finding out on that day and many other days afterwards, no conclusion was ever reached.

Was there a more glorious view in all the world? The summit of the tower was the only vantage point, unless you were an aviator, where the full complexity and immensity of the Palace building could be appreciated by looking at it from above. Some people considered the construction of the Palace on a hill was not the wisest thing. They declared it would have appeared more attractive and the beauty of it be seen to greater advantage had it been possible to view the Palace from a rise. One thing is certain. Had the site chosen been Streatham Vale, the same critics would have asked why the building hadn’t been placed on a hilltop and would have produced a volume of reasons as to why it should have been.

Those monsters.

I never did admire those prehistoric monsters. How Sir Joseph, with his love of beauty, fell for that idea puzzles me. If it was his own, then it must have been on one of his OFF days that he suffered it.

If we can sell old bridges that we’ve finished with, could we not offer the same folks those unlovely things and make ourselves a little extra pocket money?

That Concert Party, arrayed in sugarbag hats and tangerine pyjamas, is remembered for only two things. The leading comedian, who purchased his Christmas crackers at the same store we bought ours, and the Amateur Talent Competition. We were treated to the sight (and sound) of our Victorian style parents applauding the antics of a brass-faced little hussy, who was obviously a member of the troupe itself - and the winner of the competition! My first experience of a rigged election!

Tea with an elephant

It was a tradition with us that day excursions included ‘Tea in Lyons’. The bread rolls that we were served with on that occasions were hardly less in size than the ‘small loaves’ offered for sale nowadays. By way of supplement there were pastries of dimensions made to match.

We were seated, it was noticed a few minutes, in the shadow of an enormous African elephant with ears like cupboard doors. This luckless animal had been struck lifeless just as it was about to demolish a forest of potted aspidistras, as a prelude to reducing the tea-room itself to matchwood. It seemed almost a pity really! Our childish hearts had tender spots and we couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor frustrated beast, even though it had been stuffed and past worrying for longer than we had been in the world! In that year of promises that were never fulfilled, the revival of the world-famous spectacle was one that was kept, and we were brought to see a display later in the season. After that never-to-be-forgotten evening how could one ever again muster enthusiasm for those sparking, spluttering futilities that less privileged citizens than ourselves think worth burning their fingers with every Fifth of November?

We made our way towards the South entrance through an avenue of assorted missiles that shone like gold, the Pieces intended for their projection polished bright as jewellery, with in attendance physically unharmed young soldiers in tailored uniforms. On another hill in London, indeed maybe in the street outside . . . but, there, why spoil a lovely day!

Affable Uncle Mars bowed us out with a knowing smile, a nod and a wink, the full significance of which, at that moment, was lost on all of us. With our picture postcards and souvenirs (I had a tiepin made from a fragment of fallen Zeppelin) the children that climbed aboard the bus for home were not worried about the unwritten future.

To the more mature citizens of that odd year that will not fit into any arrangement of eras and periods, the re-opening of the Crystal Palace was seen as a symbol, a hopeful sign that some measure of reason was returning. Once more a few hours of relaxation and joy were to be found within that ‘mighty cage of iron filled with panes’ . . . The London of 1920 had no gold under her feet and a depleted supply in the Bank, but she still wore diamonds in her hair.

A two-part article by John C Watkinson

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