After The Crystal Palace Was Burnt Down

Published 1969

So the Palace had gone. For 85 years it had played a considerable part in the life of the nation. But after the Great War its prospects became more and more doubtful; it was clearly a survival: less and less in keeping with the times. Suppose it had not been burnt down and was there today; what would our young people make of its Victoriana? No, we can apply to the Palace the Roman epitaph: felix opportunitate mortis.

The end of the Palace produced a furore of discussion. Numerous plans were mooted for using the finest site left in the London area. These discussions raised many questions in my mind. Who owned the Palace and its site? What powers had the owners? How had they become the owners? No one seemed to know. As a Civil Servant, I had been trained to assemble all the known facts before submitting a proposal. Everybody submitted proposals but nobody knew the facts. So I started to delve and uncovered the following:

The Crystal Palace had been owned by a company which shortly before the Great War had found itself in such financial difficulties that it was planning to sell the Palace and the valuable 200 acres on which it stood. Obviously, if the site were sold, the Palace would be pulled down and the builders would get to work. A cry of horror went up. Would Paxton’s masterpiece, fostered by Prince Albert, be destroyed to make way for eligible residences? Lord Burnham, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, started a campaign to save the Palace for the nation. The Lord Mayor of London launched an appeal which raised sufficient money to buy out the company; local authorities, such as the City of London, the London County Council and those near the Palace, such as Croydon and Lewisham, contributed substantially. In 1913 the Crystal Palace Act was passed, setting up a new regime for the Palace, Where could I find this Act? The Librarian at the Board of Trade arranged with the Librarian of the House of Commons to produce his copy. The Act created a Trust which owned and managed the Palace. The Trustees were appointed by the local authorities which had contributed to buying out the Palace company; the most important were six trustees appointed by the City of London and six by the LCC.

A clause in the Act which intrigued and mystified me provided that 20 acres shown in an annexed map were to be opened free to the public subject to the right of the Trustees to close the area six days a year. The annexed map was missing in the House of Commons Library, but I tracked it down in the House of Lords Library; the area was to the north of the Palace itself with an entrance on Crystal Palace Parade. As nothing had been done for 24 years to provide this open space for the public, I wrote to Sir Henry Buckland, the general manager, asking why this provision of the Act had not been carried out. He invited me to come and see him. He explained that the War had started soon after the Trustees had taken over; that the Admiralty had requisitioned the Palace till about 1920 as the HQ of the Royal Naval Division; that after the War the Trustees had decided they could not afford to fence adequately the 20 acres and had asked a Trustee, who was an MP, to arrange for an amending Act to relieve them of their obligations; unfortunately the MP died shortly after. Then he suggested (offering me a cigarette from a gold cigarette case) that as a man of the world I would understand the difficulties of the ‘twenties, how funds were scarce and how the whole question had faded into oblivion. I protested that the ‘statutory obligation’ was still there and that the matter could not be shrugged off in this way.

So I obtained an interview with Herbert Morrison, Leader of the LCC, explained the situation to him and accused the LCC of falling down on their statutory obligation. The LCC were spending millions in acquiring a Green Belt; yet they had taken no steps to secure for the public the 20 acres which Parliament had provided. I told Mr. Morrison that I had been advised that the legal case was so clear that an application to the High Court for a write of mandamus, ordering the Trustees to carry out their obligation, would be readily granted. How would the LCC like that? Mr Morrison, somewhat taken aback, immediately promised that the Council’s solicitor would investigate and that he would write me in a few days. He kept his promise and informed me that Mr Silkin (now Lord Silkin) who was a Trustee and lived in College Road, would raise the matter with the Trustees, Incredibly, the Trustees, headed by an ex-Lord Mayor, refused at first to obey the law; but at a second meeting they gave way. The area specified in the Act was fenced and duly opened to the public; a few months afterwards the Second World War broke out the Palace grounds were again requisitioned.

In the period between the fire and the War, the Trustees tried hard, under the guidance of Sir Henry Buckland, to find new sources or revenue. The racing track was built and opened almost before we knew it was there. Residents in Crystal Palace Park Road, nearly driven mad by the roar of the racing cars, sought and obtained from the High Court an injunction limiting the hours of practice. Then Sir Henry negotiated an agreement to set up a greyhound racecourse in the grounds. When this leaked out there was such an uproar that the Trustees refused to ratify the agreement. Shortly after the end of the War an Act of Parliament abolished the Trustees and handed over the Crystal Palace site to the LCC (now the GLC). Nearly 33 years have passed since the fire and the site is still undeveloped and a disgrace to us all. How long, O Lord, how long?

R Kelf-Cohen.

Note: Since this article a National Exhibition Centre was proposed and abandoned. Then the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre was built. Further developments, some of them controversial, are being considered (2008).

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