The Norwood Society

1903 Christmas at the Palace

While you are looking around for a pantomime for your children or grandchildren this coming Christmas it is at least of interest to recall what the lucky children of Norwood in 1903 could look forward to, once they had persuaded their elders to take them to the Crystal Palace. One suspects that very little persuasion was needed because there would have been plenty of entertainment for grown-ups too.

The Pantomime

Everybody would have been pleased that the arrangements were again under the charge of Mr. Hunphrey Brammel and that the pantomime was to be ‘The Babes in the Wood’. It would be a ‘spectacle of beauty as far removed from the dreams of a nursery myth as it is possible for the inventive genius of the up-to-date stage manager to make it’. The story would be traced through ‘scenes of striking grandeur culminating in a blaze of lights and gorgeous splendour AT THE PALACE’.

It was confidently hoped that a combination of the spirit of pantomime and artistic interpretation would present the best traditions of the old Yuletide entertainment in the manner synonymous with the luxurious tastes of the day’. That’s what it said and I suspect the show lived up to all the claims made for it.

The Circus

Those who opted for a circus would make for the Central Transept where, we are assured, everything would be modelled on the most modern lines. This meant there would be a ring for equestrians and no less than three stages forming the background of the house. Each stage would be independently illuminated and decorated and would have ‘many novel features as a result’.

To stress the scale of magnificence in the production it was said that fitting up one stage for a single ‘turn’ would cost £500 which, however you look at it, was a lot of money in those days!

The Rink

Keen roller skaters could combat the effects of too much turkey and plum pudding by racing around the largest asphalt skating rink in the country. This was in the North Nave and youngsters could ‘romp and tumble to their hearts’ content’ whilst their elders disported themselves rather more sedately to the strains of a band, thoughtfully placed in attendance.

Special attractions at the rink over Christmas would include exhibitions of the roller skating art, a fancy dress carnival and a gymkhana. (With horses?)

The Largest Christmas Tree in the World

This would occupy a position of honour beside the Crystal Fountain in the South Nave. Its toy-laden branches would be an unfailing delight to young and old and, with the Palace as a background, a joyous image of Christmas for the young to take through life.

Other Christmas Treats

Bailey’s Royal Punch and Judy Show would be found in the old corner of the Arcade Gallery though why the ‘old corner’ is not explained.

I suspect students of the fair sex perambulated carefully towards the Electric Theatre to see a ‘moving’ picture called Venus Aphrodite.

The story concerned a young lady of that name who would be seen apparently rising from the sea and, with nothing whatever to support her in space, would turn round and round performing graceful evolutions in mid-air, assume various attitudes and altogether defy every known law of gravity. This sensational performance would end when she finally appeared to dive back mysteriously into the sea. Hmm…


Finally, no one with any spirit could leave without visiting the Crystal Maze. Billed as ‘the latest invention in mazes’ it consisted of a collection of mirrors cunningly arranged. After passing through passages of apparently interminable length the Comic Gallery was reached and, if you survived the shock of seeing your image distorted in the most incredible manner, you would then pass on to the Fairy Oasis. This naturally took you on through the Land of Promise to the Mysterious Door.

If you were lucky enough to get through that you eventually arrived in the Dark Room where it couldn’t have been that dark because we are told the gaze would be captured by the spectacle of seemingly hundreds of electric fountains. The Chamber of a Thousand Visitors had to be crossed before returning to the outside world. The worrying thing is that the report doesn’t mention whether anyone actually did!

What a lot of fun and what a wonderful thing to have lived in the shadow of the ‘Christmas Palace’ in those far-off days of 1903.

John Yaxley

The Norwood Review Edition #84. Published 1982