The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History

Published 2nd Edition 1982

The old Crystal Palace shone like a star and died on its own pyre, but its ghost still haunts the empty heights of Norwood. Where the once glittering Palace of Glass stood, on the finest eminence of South London, anciently covered by the Great North Wood, is a wide desolate space. It is a human vacuum where once there were wonders. The Crystal Palace died in 1937 but to this day a whole neighbourhood is named after it, and many roads bear its romantic name. Four London Boroughs meet at the Crystal Palace, namely Southwark, Bromley, Lambeth and Croydon, and a fifth, Lewisham, laps its north-eastern boundary. Something like 12 London bus services carry on their destination blinds the name Crystal Palace. There is also a famous *Crystal Palace railway station. All the world knows where the Crystal Palace was. It was the early home of ballooning aeronauts in this country. Some of the first aeroplanes showed their paces there.

History goes farther back. The world’s first public railway came close to the Norwood district, which was clearly defined in the reign of William the Conqueror. The Croydon Canal climbed by 26 locks from the Thames at Deptford to Norwood and Croydon. The bold plan had been to extend it to Portsmouth as another nail in Napoleon’s coffin. But the Battle of Waterloo came first. The first Atmospheric Railway, which so captured the imagination of that great railway engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, rushed silently and swiftly by on tracks that later, in 1854, were to bring much of the Crystal Palace materials to the site, and later the millions that were to visit the great pleasure resort.

When the Crystal Palace came to Norwood the last of the old London spa gardens (the Royal Beulah Spa) which stood nearby, was to lose its hold on public taste and pass into silent oblivion. In their day the Norwood gypsies with their almost legendary Queen Margaret Finch were famous and notorious. Pepys mentions the Norwood gypsies in his diary, as did other contemporary writers. People came by coach and carriage and horseback from London to Norwood to visit the gypsies. The gypsies, like the canal, the Spa Gardens, the balloonists, the aviators, the great Palace of Glass, have all gone from this remarkable suburb that from ancient times was a place of pleasure. There is now that curious vacuum.

But today there is a stirring in the ashes: the stirring of a new Phoenix being born. This book, now in its second edition**, is the story of the Phoenix Suburb.

Article taken from the book jacket of the Second Edition.

*Presumably the High Level Station, sadly no longer there.

**Currently (2008) out of print.

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547

Go to top