For over 80 years, our Crystal Palace was a place of recreation to which the world could offer no parallel. Visitors came from every civilised country to enjoy the famous musical festivals, fireworks displays, bird and dog shows, balloon ascents, football cup finals and dozens of other forms of entertainment. Perhaps no event of any age created more enthusiasm the world over than the international industrial exhibition of 1851, sponsored by Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. ‘Albert the Good’ hoped that the exhibition would be a great festival of peace, so he invited all nations to send of their best in art and science.
The Queen gave her consent for a building to be erected in Hyde Park and Joseph Paxton’s design was accepted. Paxton, one of England’s greatest gardeners, was born of very poor parents. He showed great abilities as a horticulturalist and was appointed by the Duke of Devonshire to manage his vast estate at Chatsworth. Foremost of the wonders which Paxton created for the Duke was a conservatory of iron and glass, to house the Duke’s rare tropical water-lilies, the Victoria Regina. It was from the idea of this conservatory that Paxton planned his wonderful glass palace for the 1851 exhibition. It was so successful that several influential people wanted to preserve the building for the public for all time, so the Crystal Palace Company was formed to buy it. One of the directors of the Company was also a director of the Brighton Railway, and he thought it would be a good idea to remove the Palace to a site on the railway, so that visitors could easily reach the exhibition. Accordingly, Penge Place, of 300 acres, on the summit of Sydenham Hill, was chosen as the place to which the Palace would be transferred.
At this time, Norwood was a wild spot, the home of the gipsies and comparatively few besides; Sydenham was a common, celebrated for its mineral springs; and Penge was a vast expanse of woodland in the valley, an outlying hamlet of the parish of Battersea known as Pen’s Green. Here and there, there were farmhouses and thatched-roof cottages among the meadows and cornfields, and a few old windmills which added to the picturesque rural scene. Soon this became a hive of industry. The work of conveying the Palace to its chosen site was stupendous, for most of the material was brought by road in huge wagons, drawn by superb cart horses.
The first column of our Palace was erected in August, 1852. Nearly seven thousand workmen were engaged on the building and rough and disorderly scenes became frequent, especially when Army recruiters began to press them to take the Queen’s shilling at the start of the Crimean War. When finished, the Palace consisted of a grand central nave, two side aisles, two main galleries, three transepts, and two wings. The length of the main building was 1608 feet and the wings each 574 feet – in all 2756 feet. There was a water tower at each end of the building, each 284 feet in height. Above the floor level, the vast building was entirely constructed of iron and glass. So Sir Joseph Paxton (knighted for his great contribution to the 1851 exhibition) inaugurated the modern prefabricated style of iron and glass building, noted for its great strength, its light and elegant appearance and its durability. In the wings of the Palace were constructed the ten courts, each filled with the most beautiful and curious objects belonging to the country or the period after which it was named. From the Egyptian Court to Greece, from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Spain and its beautiful Alhambra, with its gold-fretted roof and its memories of the Moors. Most impressive of all was the Egyptian Court, containing giant statues, 65 feet high, of King Rameses the Great, who reigned 2000 years before our history began.
Sir Joseph Paxton, as director of the Winter Garden, Park and Conservatory, with his great skill turned the grounds into one of the principal attractions for the general public. The upper part was arranged in two terraces (one of them was made into an Italian garden) and beyond these were the great basins; the lake for fishing and rowing; cricket and archery grounds; a maze; and an open-air gymnasium. Finally, in one corner of the grounds (and still to be seen) were life-sized replicas of the monsters which lived on earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. The magnificent system of fountains was one of the most stupendous the world has every seen: the great circular one in the centre walk, the water temples forming a series of cascades rushing to form a grant cataract, using 12,000 jets and throwing 120,000 gallons of water a minute.
Unhappily, the financial side of the Crystal Palace was not very satisfactory, especially after a fire in 1866 in which the North End, including the tropical department, the North transept and 15 of the collections were destroyed. The shareholders never had a very promising outlook, and by 1911 our Palace was put into the hands of Messrs. Knight, Frank and Rutley to be auctioned. There was such a warmth of feeling in the country for it that it was bought by public subscription. During the First World War it was used by the Royal Navy, and then, after restoration, it was re-opened by King George the Fifth and Queen Mary in 1920. Late in the evening of November 30th, 1936, a fire broke out which completely gutted the great building within an hour or so. The flames could be seen from thirty miles away.
Remembering that our Palace was opened in 1854, before the days of general education, we realise what its magnitude and resources offered for the instruction and amusement of the many thousands who thronged there.
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