The Norwood Society

Around Crystal Palace & Penge

There have been many publications attempting to put into print what is known about the erection of a new Crystal Palace at Penge Place in 1854. This book goes back as far as the Norman Conquest in giving a comprehensive history of the commanding Penge Place site chosen for the new Palace. It brings together interesting maps and sketches not all of which have appeared before. One shows men felling trees and clearing the site for the Palace in 1852 with the Penge Place mansion in the background. Others show the less well-known original square water towers replaced by Brunel’s imaginative landmarks in 1855 - alas no longer with us. We are told, incidentally, that Brunel’s towers were not round but twelve-sided. The author has quoted a fitting description of the building by William Thackeray as ‘a blazing arch of lucid glass’.

Paxton was obviously taking a chance in putting such a large glass structure on top of a hill exposed to wind and storm. Some of the structure was blown down in 1861, and the prevailing wind in such an exposed position no doubt fuelled the fire in 1866 as well as the final disastrous fire of 1936. But it might be said that it was a fitting end to the Crystal Palace story for it to end its days in a blaze of glory – perhaps Thackeray had a premonition! The book dispels the myth that the Penge Crystal Palace was larger than the original Exhibition Building in Hyde Park. It was certainly taller, but otherwise on a smaller scale than the original. An aerial view in December 1936 shows the result of the 1936 fire. Less publicity attached to the destruction of surviving buildings by another fire in 1950. The ornamental gardens, the prehistoric monsters and the range of events in the Palace and grounds are well covered.

Transport in the area has its own section in the book. The picturesque Croydon Canal was replaced by the railway before photography was discovered but several paintings and sketches present a picture of a very rural and attractive scene. There is nothing about drunken bargees but several accounts of youthful misdemeanours. Our own friend the tram has a prominent place and of course the railways and station architecture are well-described.

Penge and its environment receive generous treatment. Old buildings and past residents and events of note are described in a mixture of old and recent photographs – the absence of cars or the abundance of them tells its own story. The book settles the arguments about Anerley versus Penge. It explains that a new railway station took the name of an isolated local property called Anerley House (anerley is said to Scottish for only or solitary). From then on the use of the name as a location on the railway system brought it into wider use, even to the extent that the Town Hall that served Penge has come to be known as Anerley Town Hall! The book has a number of such nuggets of interesting information.

We are then taken through the history of Penge, including both World Wars and the social development of the area – the commentaries attached to the photographs are well-researched and written. Fittingly, the book finishes with photographs of an ancient biplane flying over one of Brunel’s towers in 1910, and of Concorde in the same position in recent times. The last photograph is of the Queen visiting the Crystal Palace Sports Centre in 2002.

Britain in Old Photographs - Around Crystal Palace & Penge
by David R Johnson