The Norwood Society

Crystal Palace

Richard Jefferies (1848-87), the author and naturalist was born in Wiltshire and specialized in rural subjects. His work included ‘The Amateur Poacher’, ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ and ‘After London or Wild England’.

Richard Jefferies lived about 12 miles from London and studying nature in the vicinity of town, found a greater variety of wild life existed than he thought there would be. He wrote a number of sketches which were published in ‘The Standard’. With permission from the newspaper, a book was published in 1889, entitled ‘Nature Near London’. He rarely mentions places but did mention the Crystal Palace, although this is seen from a distance.

The first extract comes from the sketch ‘A Barn’ – “Intent day after day upon the earth beneath his feet, or upon the tree in the hedge yonder, by which, as by a lighthouse, he strikes out a straight furrow, his mind absorbs the spirit of the land.  When the plough pauses, as he takes out his bread and cheese in the corner of the field for luncheon, he looks over the low-cropped hedge and sees far off the glitter of the sunshine on the glass roof of the Crystal Palace. The light plays and dances on it, flickering as on rippling water. But, though hard by, he is not of London. The horses go on again, and his gaze is bent down on the furrow”.

The next excerpt is from the sketch ‘Wheatfields’ – “The roof of the Crystal Palace yonder gleams and sparkles this afternoon as if it really were crystal under the bright rays. But it was concealed by mist when the ploughs in the months gone by were guided in these furrows by men, hard of feature and of hand, stooping to their toil. The piercing east wind scattered the dust in clouds, looking at a distance like small raindrops across the field, when grey-coated men, grey too of beard, followed the red drill to and fro.”

The fields described in ‘Wheatfields’ may possibly be the same fields as described when being ploughed up in ‘The The Barn’ with the same view of the Crystal Palace. Also in Richard Jefferies’ description of the barn and adjoining fields he tells us that – “Suddenly there comes a hollow booming sound – a roar mellowed and subdued by distance, with a peculiar beat upon the ear, as if a wave struck the nerve and rebounded and struck again in an infinitesimal fraction of time – such a sound as can only bellow from the mouth of cannon. Another and another. The big guns at Woolwich are at work. The Shepherd takes no need – neither he nor his sheep”. Obviously the place was within hearing distance of Woolwich.

Looking at some old postcards of the 1900’s of views of Crystal Palace, several had been taken from a distance with the Palace on the skyline from such places as Hill Fields, Brockley, Blythe Hill, Catford, Bromley and Beckenham; all of which are about three to six miles away from the Palace.

The scene of the fields may possibly be from the area three or four miles further out as the Bickley, Orpington area or the Downs of Bromley Common.

The area was very rural 100 years ago, and although much is built on now, some spots still retain their rural aspect.

In the 1930’s I used to go that way to visit my grandmother, who lived in a small village, Perry St., near Gravesend and the route went through much farm and woodland from about Bromley.

Betty Griffin

The Norwood Review Edition #123.