The Crystal Palace Fire

by Chris • December 1, 2010


The Crystal Palace Fire: The End of an Era

The Crystal Palace fire occurred on 30 Nov 1936. The “people’s palace” in Sydenham which had stood dominating the skyline of Upper Norwood for over eighty years as a beacon for culture and enlightenment and an emblem for Victorian invention and engineering was no more.

“A dramatic cliff of glass which had the quality of changing its colour with the changing of the weather or the time of day”, was how Alan R Warwick described Crystal Palace in The Phoenix Suburb. This otherworldly structure not only awed the local inhabitants of Norwood but also captured the imagination of the general population. Famous throughout the UK and visited by millions.

The “Crystal Palace”, as Punch dubbed it, was originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Hyde Park. It was the brainchild of Joseph Paxton, Head Gardener to the Duke of Devonshire who had a passion for building giant conservatories, which he constructed on the grandest scale. It housed art and craft treasures from all over the world and the best of the Industrial Revolution’s new technology.

Open for only five months, it attracted 6 million visitors. Due to the great success of the exhibition, a newly formed Crystal Palace Company purchased the Palace and it was dismantled and re-erected at a new permanent location on the crest of Sydenham Hill, alongside what was to later become Crystal Palace Parade. Queen Victoria reopened it here on June 10th 1854.

In 1866 the first Crystal Palace fire destroyed the north wing and transept. As the Crystal Palace Company was underinsured the north transept was never rebuilt and the building was unsymmetrical from then on. The night the Palace burnt down with the second Crystal Palace fire was a more spectacular event than could ever have been dreamt up by the Palace trustees. The irony was not lost on them or many of the national newspapers. The Palace’s swansong brought the largest crowd ever to assemble at the top of Anerley Hill. The event was deeply ingrained on the memories of Londoners with crowds thronging to investigate the red glowing sky and witness the collapse of their “Palace”.

Crystal Palace fire – time line

At approximately 7.25 pm on 30th November 1936 a staff fireman noticed a flame at the rear of the staff offices. Three staff firemen began fighting it but with no dividing walls to resist it and fanned by a strong northwest wind the fire spread rapidly. The Palace had been almost empty at the time apart from the Crystal Palace Orchestra rehearsing in the nearby Garden Hall. BH Matthews later said that the band didn’t take much notice when told there was a fire in the Palace. They soon fled after a staff member ran in crying, “Run for your lives! The Palace is blazing!” Thick smoke was by then bellowing out of the main door and glass was raining down “like red hot treacle”, according to Dorothy Crump of Sydenham.

At 7:59 the Penge Brigade received the call and got reinforcements from Beckenham Fire Brigade. West Norwood Fire Station received a street alarm call from Farquhar Road at 8.00pm and New Cross Fire Station received a call at 8.02pm. The call to West Norwood brought the whole of the London Fire Brigade into action.

The crowd of spectators gathering around the Crystal Palace soon grew to enormous proportions. The police estimated 100,000 people watched the fire. This caused inevitable delays. Seven hundred and forty-nine police were kept busy controlling the milling crowds. The BBC Radio News contained the first reports of the fire at 9 o’clock. This had brought many people rushing to the scene. Others had seen the glare of the fire, which lit up the sky like an exaggerated sunset and were mesmerised.

The whole of the Crystal Palace area was ankle deep in inter-woven fire hoses, and within an hour of the arrival of the first Penge fireman, over 70 pumps and other appliances crewed by over 400 fire-fighters were at work. Every available fire appliance from the London Fire Brigade had been summoned, totalling 90 engines and 500 firemen. According to some reports, the flames reached 300 feet. The glare could be seen from Brighton and by ships on the English Channel. Hills for miles around were packed with people watching the blaze. The rich could charter private aeroplanes from Croydon Aerodrome at £1 per trip to get a spectacular view over the fire. Motorcars were also arriving from the West End filled with the more well heeled who had finished watching the evening performances at the London shows.

For an eyewitness account read Ken Gibbons, Memories of the Crystal Palace Fire on Dulwich On View:

The sight of molten glass bubbling and squeeking down Annerley[sic] Hill’s gutters and the police pushing the crowds back out of harm’s way will always be with me. (K. Gibbons)

The Crystal Palace fire raged until midnight. Of serious concern to the residents of Anerley Hill was the safety of the 275-foot south tower. Not only did it have vast densely populated streets in its shadow but also the top of the tower held approximately twelve thousand gallons of water. Residents of nearby homes were evacuated in fear of it collapsing. Luckily, the London Fire Brigade managed to stop the fire some 15 feet from the tower.

The next day all that remained were the two water towers blackened with smoke and a few hundred feet of the nave to the north. About two hundred of seven hundred Palace employees received their notice the morning after the fire. Some were re-employed to clear the debris. Six years later the towers were demolished as they were thought to be an easy navigation point for German bombers. Explosives felled the North Tower and the South Tower was dismantled brick by brick due to the proximity to housing. Metal from the towers was sold off to the German manufacturers Krupp who later became involved with making bombs for the German war-machine. Therefore, some of the metal from the Palace may well have returned during the war!

Although there were a number of conspiracy theories as to the cause of the fire, the most logical seems to be explained as an electrical fault. The floor of the structure was made up of thick planks of wood with half-inch gaps to aid under floor heating. The floorboards themselves were extremely dry due to the constant exposure to the under floor heating. Many people felt that the poorly insulated wiring short-circuiting and creating sparks that fell onto the dry timber framing and accumulated dust in the centre of the building could have been the cause of the fire breaking out.

Causes of the Crystal Palace fire

As regards the cause of the Crystal Palace fire – this is unknown. However, there are a number of theories that bear credence – accident is a possibility, and some that do not – such as wanton arson by person or persons unknown for various reasons.

There was no enquiry into the cause of the fire because it was literally the wrong side of the road.

In 1936 Crystal Palace Parade was split in two by the line down the centre of the road. The Railway Station side (where the houses now are) was (and still is) Southwark and in London and the park side was Kent. The rule then was that any fire in London that required more than a certain number of pumps (the correct term for fire engines) had a public enquiry. But for any fire in Kent (parkside of the road) there had to be a death as a result of the fire for there to be an enquiry. There were no known deaths as a result of the fire. A few injuries but no deaths.

As for the insurance, the building was massively under insured because (like today it was very expensive and earned no money – it was a precaution. As the Crystal Palace Trustees were very short of money, insurance was not kept up to the correct value. There were individual aspects within the building that were insured to the correct level like for instance the equipment kept by J.Lyons & Co caterers and the huge organ. They got their correct payout.(Melvyn Harrison)

Thus the largest peacetime fire Britain had ever seen signalled the end for Paxton’s Palace.

Whatever happens with the current development of the Park we will never quite see the scale and grandeur of what went before.

The Crystal Palace fire is still firmly embedded in the minds of the eye-witness who where there.