The Crystal Palace Was a Symbol of Victorian England Until It Burned to the Ground

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Tim NW/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

We would have loved to see the grand Crystal Palace that once stood in Hyde Park and later at Sydenham Hill. The Palace was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering that tragically burned to the ground in 1936. Today, only remnants of the once-astonishing building remain.

On display at the World’s Fair

exterior of the Crystal Palace
circa 1888: The southeast corner of the Crystal Palace after it was dismantled and moved from the Great Exhibition site to Sydenham in south London. (Photo Credit: London Stereoscopic Company/ Getty Images)

The Crystal Palace was originally built in Hyde Park, London, to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. This was an international exhibit highlighting the wonders of art and technology in Great Britain’s large empire. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first of the World Fair exhibits that became popular throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sphinx from the Crystal Palace
Original sphinx from the Crystal Palace (Photo Credit: Matt Brown/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

The Crystal Palace was designed in just ten days by Sir Joseph Paxton. Paxton drew on his experience from designing greenhouses when designing the Palace. The final product was a massive glasshouse that stretched 1,848 feet long, 72 feet wide, and 64 feet high.

Inside the Crystal Palace
Exhibits in the eastern nave of the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

The Crystal Palace was completed in only seven months and was constructed out of iron and glass. Nearly 14,000 exhibitors participated in The Great Exhibition. On the ground floor of the Crystal Palace, there were more than eight miles (13 kilometers) of display tables.

It was meant to be a temporary structure

Crystal Palace Low Level
Abandoned subway station, Crystal Palace. (Photo Credit: Tim NW/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

Sir Joseph Paxton was praised worldwide for his achievements with the building. Although the Crystal Palace was supposed to only be a temporary structure, it was so popular it was eventually made permanent.

view of the Egyptian Court inside Crystal Palace
Drawing depicting the ‘Egyptian Court’ inside the Crystal Palace. This is where the sphinxes come from that sit abandoned at the site that once held the Crystal Palace. (Photo Credit: Science & Society Picture Library/ Getty Images)

The Great Exhibition was limited to a time span of only six months. After it wrapped up in October 1851, it was decided that the Crystal Palace should be relocated to southeast London, at the top of Sydenham Hill. The reconstruction of the Crystal Palace began at Sydenham Hill in 1852.

The Sydenham Hill Crystal Palace was not an exact carbon copy of the original Hyde Park building. The new Crystal Palace was taller than the original, but not as long.

Sphinxes at Crystal Palace
(Photo Credit: Simon/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

Two railway stations were opened in anticipation of the number of people who would visit the new Palace. The Crystal Palace High Level Line was opened on August 1, 1865. The purpose of the High Level Line was to deliver first-class passengers directly into Crystal Palace. The High Level Line was very grand and consisted of a vestibule roofed with glass and iron with four staircases – two for entry and two for departure.

Crystal Palace Station
Crystal Palace Station, Bromley, London, 1955. Empty platforms and canopy of the disused Crystal Palace (High Level) Station, viewed from the footbridge. Arched walls hold up the glass roof. (Photo Credit: Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

The second station, known as Crystal Palace Low Level, was a subway station that opened on December 23, 1865. This subway stop was built away from the railway terminus. It was designed to resemble a crypt and consisted of octagonal pillars and warm palettes of reds and creams.

Ceiling of Crystal Palace Low Level
Ceiling of the Crystal Palace Low Level subway. (Photo Credit: Tim NW/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

The new Crystal Palace held concerts, special festivals, exhibitions, and circuses. During the First World War, the Palace was used as a naval training center. After the War, the Crystal Palace reopened as the site of the first Imperial War Museum.

Old Statue at Crystal Palace
Old statue located on the grounds of the old Crystal Palace. (Photo Credit: Magnus D./ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

The grounds around the Crystal Palace were also developed, and came to be known as Crystal Palace Park. The park originally included an Italian Garden, fountains, a maze, and an English Landscape Garden.

outdated dinosaurs at the Crystal Palace Park
Sculptures of dinosaurs located at Crystal Palace Park, London. (Photo Credit: RobinGoodfellow_(m)/ Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was hired to design a series of dinosaurs and other extinct animals. These sculptures, unveiled in 1854,  were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. However, by today’s standards, the dinosaur sculptures are quite inaccurate.

A mysterious fire destroyed the Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace Subway
(Photo Credit: Tim NW/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

The move from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill was an expensive one. Similarly, the development of the Crystal Park Garden cost considerably more than the rebuild of the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace Company was in deep debt right from the start and would never be able to repay these debts.

Crystal Palace Subway
(Photo Credit: Tim NW/ Flickr via CC BY 2.0)

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Crystal Palace was very much in decline. The building itself required extensive repairs which were very costly. The interior of the Palace had been divided up into booths and stalls which was unattractive to visitors.

Crystal Palace on fire
Scenes at the Crystal Palace fire, London, 30 November 1936. (Photo Credit: Daily Herald Archive/ Getty Images)

In the years before the First World War, the Palace had fallen into disrepair, and maintenance costs became unfeasible. Bankruptcy was declared in 1913. In 1920, a board of trustees was set up that set about restoring the Crystal Palace. This restoration was completed, and gradually people began visiting the Crystal Palace once again.

Ruins of the Egyptian Hall
The ruins of the Egyptian Hall at the Crystal Palace exhibition hall in Sydenham, south London, destroyed by a fire. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos/ Getty Images)

Sadly, the lifespan of the Crystal Palace was cut short on the evening of November 30, 1936 when a fire broke out inside the building. Over 400 firefighters and 89 fire engines attempted to put out the blaze. Tragically, within hours, the entire Palace was destroyed, along with much of the Crystal Palace High Level Line. No one knows for sure how the fire was started.

Ruins of the Crystal Palace
(Photo Credit: Ian Wright/ Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0)

More from us: Beautiful Abandoned Adria Palace in Budapest

Today, the only remnant of a once-great Crystal Palace is the subway line, which is in good condition but no longer in use. The outdated dinosaur sculptures can also still be seen in the old gardens.