The Crystal Palace - My Grandest Memory

Published Fredk. Willis 1965

My grandest memory of those days was the Crystal Palace. It was natural that people of our temperament, having the Palace at our doorstep as it were, should be frequent visitors. Familiar as it was, I always got a thrill when I surveyed the Palace from the Crystal Palace Parade. It was a monument to the Victorian’s capacity for showing off, and I am very sorry it has gone. We have nothing left that so perfectly conveys the magnitude and assurance of the Victorian era. Sideshows of the Palace were frequently of scientific interest; there was the Camera Obscura, for instance. Here one went inside what was really a gigantic camera and saw the moving panorama of the Palace grounds on a plate like a cinema screen. It was at the Palace, too, I had the pleasure of going down in a submarine, and of looping the loop, but the last experience I had no desire to repeat; terra firma and the perpendicular are more suitable for one of unadventurous spirit.

The great attraction of the Palace was of course the fireworks. ‘Fireworks Every Thursday’ was as familiar a slogan for the Palace as ‘The Place to Spend a Happy Day’ was for Rosherville Gardens, that other beloved haunt of the cockney. What fireworks they were! Few people in those days knew what a real firework display is like. Brock‘s let themselves go at the Crystal Palace, and every Thursday an accepted feature of the landscape for miles around was the blue, red and gold of rockets and the rumble of the exploding gunpowder. At dusk the first warning boom was heard, the maroon to clear the grounds behind the ‘Set Piece’. Anybody stopping there after that did so at his own risk. What happy crowds! They had never heard the boom of guns in anger, the wail of descending bombs, and the dreadful, crackling crash of collapsing buildings.

Brock’s firework factory was at Norwood, close by. It occupied about fifty acres of land, and was like a pioneer town in the Wild West, with about one hundred sheds dotted all over the area, mostly connected by tramlines. Here were made fireworks that were sent all over the world, with skilled men to operate them. Amateur firework displays are usually notable for contretemps and failures, for fireworks are more temperamental than Italian operatic maestros. But nothing ever went wrong at a Brock’s display because it was conducted by experts. Some of the largest shells would scatter debris a quarter of a mile from the point of explosion, and there were set pieces an eighth of a mile in length which, of course, discharged great clouds of sparks. But I never heard of an accident.

The cost of a display at the Palace worked out at about £10 a minute, and the whole display cost anything from one to three thousand pounds, yet a comfortable seat on the Terrace, facing a vast panorama of Kent and Surrey countryside fading into the evening shadows, cost only sixpence. The ‘set pieces’ were usually topical or historical, such as ‘The Battle of the Nile’, or, in the Diamond Jubilee year, ‘Queen Victoria’, with a glittering crown of Roman Candles, golden rain, and a host of other pyrotechnic achievements. Sometimes five thousand fairy lights (little coloured glass globes with candles inside) were destroyed in a single display. ’Living Fireworks’ were very popular with children. They consisted of two gigantic boxing figures or fighting cocks, but it was reported that the boxing men ‘caused unbounded delight to the German Emperor’.

A quarter of an hour after the warning maroon the show began. It usually opened with a flight of hundreds of rockets. Up, up they soared with a satisfying swish, to break into myriads of multicoloured sparks which spread out into fantastic patterns and descended with the lightness of feathers, rebursting and changing colour as they fell. It was indeed, as the small bills described it, ‘a fascinating display of scintillant irradiance’; or, as the programmes immortalised it in a purple passage, ‘For brilliance, novelty, size and magnificence the Palace display is unsurpassed. Enormous spectacular set pieces that are gems of transcendent beauty, comic pieces that delight the children, brilliant rocket flights that amaze everyone, when hundreds of fiery ribbons cleave the heavens and scatter their beautiful rain of fire and myriads of brilliant stars against the drifting smoke cloud. No pen can adequately describe the wondrous magnificence of it all, no artist could do justice to its dazzling brilliance. There is one way only: to witness it yourself!’

It is obvious that the poet who composed that was fully aware of the inadequacy of his art to do justice to the magnificence of the spectacle. He does not mention the rockets which burst and descended, in all their glory with melodious whistling as they fell, nor the grand finale with one thousand rockets bursting in all colours of the rainbow over a landscape illuminated with thousands of fairy lights and Japanese lanterns. Meanwhile the famous fountains, excelling, it is said, those of Versailles, spring into life, their graceful arches, bows, and fleurs de lis tinted in everchanging colours by limelights playing upon them. Amid the rose and golden clouds of vapour the stately statues stood in silhouette, statues that were beautiful reproductions of classic masterpieces. It was then that the coloured lightning, flights of rockets, and exploding shells announced to the neighbourhood for miles around that the show was coming to a close. The audience never applauded in the usual way. All they could do was to emit a long-drawn ‘Oooooo’ of admiration. This chorus was as gratifying as any ordinary applause. ‘Ooooo!’ - and then, aside, ‘Isn’t it beauuuutiful.’

Brock’s excelled themselves at ‘Brock’s Benefit’, held once a year. So splendid was this spectacle that it entered the cockney language. Whenever a man had the misfortune to get a blow on the head or in the eye (accidentally or with malice aforethought) he did not say ‘I saw stars!’ but ‘Lumme! It was like “Brock’s Benefit”!. Finally, like a gigantic Brock’s Benefit, the Palace itself disappeared in a mighty set piece of flame and smoke that was seen for miles around and caused all roads leading to it to be blocked with car loads of people anxious to be in at the death. I hope the time is not too far away when the two hundred acres will accommodate a worthy successor to that strident Victorian monument to confidence and hope, and become once again the centre of wholesome pleasure in a world of sanity and peace.

Extract from ‘A Book of London Yesterday’ by Fredk. Willis.

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