The Norwood Society

Screamin’ Alice

On 30th November 1936, the Crystal Palace burned down, but its fate may have been sealed nearly a century before when the Metropolitan Building Office agreed to the inclusion of open stairways and the use of combustible materials for treads and gallery floors within the glass and iron structure ‘in view of the impossibility that fire should spread in a building so constructed’.

A hint of the wrath to come was given on 30th December 1866 when the North Transept was completely destroyed by fire. At one o’clock in the afternoon all was well, but an hour later the whole area was a furnace and eventually the royal apartments, the Assyrian and Byzantine Courts, the Alhambra, the Library and much else were devoured by flames.

An urgent call had gone to London’s Fire Brigade and the Commander, Captain Shaw, reacted promptly, even to the extent of sending many of his men to the scene by train. But there was no way that the horse-drawn engines could be in position before half-past four, and in the intervening hours the blaze raged completely out of control.

Eventually the firemen subdued the flames, but not before about a quarter of a million pounds worth of damage had been done. Only a small sum, about £20,000, was recoverable on insurance. This part of the Crystal Palace was never rebuilt.

Grand Opening

The opening of the new Crystal Palace took place on 10th June 1854 and the vast throng assembled to witness the ceremony looked in wonder as the great glass structure glinted in the sunlight and its vast interior slowly filled with the most illustrious company ever invited there. There was the Queen with Prince Albert, the Royal Family, the entire Diplomatic Corps, Her Majesty’s Ministers, the Chief Officers of State, representatives of local government throughout the country, distinguished members of the principal learned institutions, the commissioners for the New York, Paris and Dublin exhibitions and other notables too numerous to mention.

It was a scene of unforgettable colour, pomp and ceremony, and one is tempted to speculate on how the course of history might have been changed if the ‘impossible’ fire of 1936 had happened instead on that far-off June day. Mercifully, everything passed off without mishap, the curtain was rung up and the era of the Crystal Palace began.

Sir Joseph Paxton conceived, designed and built the Crystal Palace and he fervently hoped that it would be a place where very large numbers of his less fortunate countrymen could come to see great works of art, to listen to good music and to rest for a time from their inevitable preoccupation with survival. The railways would bring them, the Palace would cater for their entertainment and all would benefit - not least the Crystal Palace Company which needed a high volume of visitors to make a profit.

Unfortunately the bonanza never got off the ground because Paxton forgot that the only day when most working people were free was Sunday, and the rules of the Victorian Sabbath decreed that on that day the Palace should remain shut! This single fact ensured that the Crystal Palace never really paid its way in all the years that followed.

Fireworks and Flying

Brock’s Crystal Palace fireworks originated in the regular displays started there in 1865 by Alan Brock, and so popular were these events that, except for the war years, they continued without interruption until 1936. ‘Brock’s Benefit’ was a term first used for a special Palace occasion in 1869 and it has long since passed into the language as denoting a spectacular display.

Crystal Palace was also a balloonist’s paradise and there are those who say that Norwood Cottage Hospital was built to patch up these intrepid men who cheerfully defied the laws of gravity and sometimes paid for their impudence with broken bones, cuts, bruises and more besides. By the 1870’s, ballooning had become a spectacle at which immense crowds would be on hand to see a shapely performer named Leona Dare hang by her teeth from a trapeze underneath the basket of a balloon in flight. Other such diversions were in constant demand to keep the turnstiles clicking.

In later years public interest switched to dirigibles and heavier-than-air machines, but whether one refers to balloons, airships or aeroplanes, those early flights from the Crystal Palace are now a part of history and the experience gained was an invaluable contribution to the pool of knowledge from which all subsequent progress flowed.

Music Man

In 1855, a remarkable former Prussian bandmaster first raised his baton at the Crystal Palace and began a process which was to make it one of the world’s greatest centres of music. His name was August Manns and, before he arrived on the scene, the local band had huffed and puffed its way through pieces from ‘accepted’ composers like Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, without much distinction and even less success.

Manns set to work to convince the Palace directors that they should have a symphony orchestra, and when they gave him one, the famous Saturday concerts began and critics and audiences alike were gradually coaxed into a wider musical appreciation. Works by the then little-known composers such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt and Dvorak featured regularly in the programmes.

The fame of August Manns and the Crystal Palace Orchestra spread and the cream of the music world flocked there. The ‘Swedish Nightingale’, Jenny Lind, sang for him, Liszt and Dvorak are reputed to have conducted their own works and Arthur Sullivan first tasted success when his early compositions were performed at the Crystal Palace. August Manns gave nearly 50 years’ devoted service. When he eventually retired the magic was gone, although the tradition lived on.

The Magnificent Crystal Palace

It is difficult to resist the most extravagant adjectives when describing the Crystal Palace. Paxton’s genius produced a unique building embodying fabrication techniques years ahead of their time, and his magnificent gardens and breathtaking fountains were said to rival and even surpass the glories of Versailles.

The fountains were probably the most extravagant feature of the whole Palace project, comprising in total over 11,000 jets and with a complicated feed system which originally gave such trouble that it was necessary to call in the legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to find a solution. Brunel recommended that 300 ft. water towers should be built at each end of the Palace, and at colossal expense this was done. The structures were piled to a great depth and when the water tanks were full the weight of each tower was about 3,000 tons. The figures show an enormity indicative of the whole Crystal Palace project and the lengths to which Paxton was prepared to go to achieve the desired result.

There is a story that Blondin walked a tightrope stretched between the towers, but like so many good stories this one was a non-starter for the simple reason that the towers could never have stood the strain of making the cable taut over such an immense distance.

Bankruptcy, War and the Brave New World

After many years it was clear that public support was waning and the onset of the 20th century found the Palace heading for bankruptcy. In 1911 it was put in the hands of the Receiver and auctioned to the highest bidder. Fortunately, this was the Earl of Plymouth who paid £230,000 to retain the site as a going concern. He subsequently passed it back to the nation after being recompensed from a fund organised by the Lord Mayor of London for that purpose. The whole operation took two years and the Crystal Palace was hardly safe again when wear broke out and it was commandeered by the Government for a naval training camp. With the conclusion of hostilities it was used as a demobilisation centre and, after that, as the first home for the Imperial War Museum.

Eventually the Palace returned to normal and the brave new world of the twenties and thirties was catered for with fresh attractions such as brass band festivals, dirt track riding, dog and cat shows and trade exhibitions. A motor racing track was put down, the famous firework displays returned and the fabric and ground were patiently restored. The crowds began to flock back and topped one million in a single year. Even the Palace tradition of being in the vanguard of progress continued, with the television pioneer Logie Baird conducting experiments and broadcasting programmes from the South Tower.


Then, just as it looked as though the tide was turning, fate struck its cruellest blow and on the evening of 30th November 1936 the ‘impossible’ fire happened.

At 7 p.m. a red glow was reported within the building and in no time at all it was a roaring inferno from end to end. Five hundred firemen and 90 pumps could do little more than prevent the flames spreading and, with its massive girders screaming in torment, the Palace died with what seemed like all England assembled on the Norwood Heights to witness its passing. The Cockneys put out the word that ‘Screaming Alice’ was dying and Churchill is reported as saying that the destruction of the Crystal Palace marked the final passing of a golden age.

Forty years on it looks as if he was right and only with difficulty will you discover some faint evidence of the glory which, for a brief moment in history, made Norwood the centre of the universe.

John Yaxley

The Norwood Review Edition #73. Published 1979