The Norwood Society

Paxton’s Folly

Sir Joseph Paxton was determined that the great new Crystal Palace should oversee a prospect not less sparkling than itself. What most becomes a diadem if not emerald and diamond?

With the glitter of playing water he laid down upon the lush green hill before the Palace a delight of ‘fountain jewellery’ intended to outshine any similar display elsewhere in the world. His largest gems he reserved to form the grandest Parterre d’Eau then in existence, the setting for the crystal sky-scraping spires of the world’s highest fountain jets.

This - as ambitious a scheme as ever survived the glare of daylight - would have strained the finances of anybody anywhere. In a location with no surface water immediately available it was a bank breaker. Paxton’s Folly!

How Sir Joseph coaxed - indeed forced - water up from London’s hidden store to reservoirs and tanks on the summit of Norwood Ridge has been fully described by our late friend Alan Warwick in his excellent ‘The Phoenix Suburb’.

Even this was not enough for our dreamer; the Folly demanded the pressure of water to be placed even higher. Water tanks suspended from gas balloons was out of the question, but raised on high stilts? Even with this concept one can imagine the misgivings of the more cautious shareholders. In my opinion they were far from being a happy addition to the Palace. Those two masterpieces of engineering were to be more permanent, more conspicuous and far less pleasing to the eye than the cascading beauty they made possible.

The first towers were slimmer than those we remember and were the result of a miscalculation. They were almost complete before it was realised that they were not robust enough to perform the function required of them. They were demolished.

At this point it would have been understandable if someone had suggested to Sir Joseph Paxton that he take his ‘Water spouts’ to the Vale of Llanberis! The Crystal Palace opened by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on 22nd June, 1854* had no towers and therefore no ‘Grands Eaux’. The lack was unlamented unless by Sir Joseph as the fountains already in operation on the Terrace and in the circus of the Centre Basin made for a display as splendid as most people had ever seen. To the hydraulic feast in preparation they were merely an appetizer, however. The entire banquet was not served until two years after the opening of the Palace. It took that time for Sir Joseph to talk the Company into accepting and then building the new water towers with the expensive genius of Brunel hired to make sure they were secure.

What a pity we have no-one on our side now with his powers of persuasion - we might have got our viewing tower.

Naturally, John Ruskin took the opportunity to be rude and he wasn’t entirely wrong on the subject of the towers, but demoting the rest of the Palace to a Cucumber Frame was unworthy of him. Some ‘Frame’ - some ‘Cucumber’!!

At last Paxton’s MAGNIFICENT FOLLY was complete and his great Water Theatre presented what was hailed as a wonder and delight by all who were present at the performances. These were programmed as even high towers and powerful steam engines could not continuously sustain the force of water required. The fountain displays, like the firework displays in later years, were only to be seen at specified times and viewed in the same way, i.e. not admired in individual bits but as one glorious eye-bewitching spectacle. At a later date those enchanted evenings at the Palace when Water and Fire were played together became acknowledged as one of the world’s splendid sights.

The steps before the Grand Transept were a favourite viewing point or, as an alternative, the knoll above the great basins in the lower park. The choice was of looking down upon the plumes and lilies of white water, or up to them and beyond where the great Palace gleamed - itself like a gigantic playing fountain.

When newly landscaped the Palace Park more resembled a ludo board than it did later as there were no obstructions then to prevent ALL the fountains to be seen at one time. English gardens are the loveliest in the world and make good use of water for decorative effect, but they do not cherish a great tradition for ornamental fountains. These embellishments are more often found in foreign gardens. All the more attractively unfamiliar, then, to the largely untravelled masses of the mid-nineteenth century were the creations of an enthusiastic ‘fountaineer’ who’d been let loose with a carte blanche.

That the great Fountain Park did not become permanent as one of London’s famous sights would have saddened its creator, I believe. Early in the eighteen-nineties the Great Water Garden was drained and levelled; the golden Temples, waterfalls and high-rise fountains were sacrificed so that an up and coming institution could attract a more profitable crowd. Where water had played SOCCER was played instead!

Sir Joseph Paxton had thought the people would sing a song of ‘Hope and Glory’ if he gave them a dreamland of art and beauty in their own backyard. He never knew that all they sang in the end - perhaps all they’d ever wanted to sing - was ‘Boiled Beef and Carrots’. At least he was spared that mortification.

If you knew where to look the cracked, weedgrown, dry steps of the old cascades were still to be seen as late as the nineteen-thirties. There have I sat many times to eat my sandwiches and to reflect upon all that remained of one man’s magnificent dream that really did come true for a little while - PAXTON’S GLORIOUS FOLLY.

*Note: the date of opening by the Queen was 10th June 1854.

John C Watkinson 1978

The Norwood Review Edition #70. Published 1978