Hyde Park swelled with crowds of people and the sounds of music and festivity. Under the brilliant May Day sun, the Crystal Palace gleamed, its glass windows winking in the light. Inside, jewel-bright flags of foreign nations fluttered from towering columns. It was the opening day of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Queen Victoria wrote later in her journal, “This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives…It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness…The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decoration and exhibits, the sound of the organ…all this was indeed moving” (“Queen Victoria’s Journal”). The Crystal Palace fulfilled many roles through the years, first holding the Great Exhibition, and then functioning as a museum, winter garden, and Royal Navy base. From 1851 to 1936, the Crystal Palace served Britain and the world in many valuable ways.
Reasons for the Crystal Palace
The Crystal Palace was initially built to house Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Clearly, the thousands of people and exhibits that the Royal Society expected at the Exhibition called for a special structure that was large, open, and distinctly British. This made British architect Joseph Paxton’s glass-and-steel mammoth an excellent choice. With its replication of the shape of the Victoria Regia water lily, the building honored Queen Victoria, and its soaring ceilings and wide avenues made it perfect for the hall of the Great Exhibition.
One reason why the Royal Society chose to build the Crystal Palace specifically was because it displayed the innovative architectural techniques of the day. A new cast-iron style of architecture was emerging during the 1800s, and, with its use of wood, iron, glass, and prefabrication, the Crystal Palace became one of the first and most notable examples of this novel style (“Cast-Iron Architecture”). To the foreign visitors who attended the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace served as an imposing example of Britain’s industrial prowess and technology.
In addition to giving it an imposing look, the style of the Crystal Palace was also very practical. The iron skeleton of the Crystal Palace allowed it to be large, perfect for holding huge crowds and the Great Exhibition’s more than 14,000 exhibits (“Crystal Palace”). Because of its strong iron girders, the Palace required fewer walls and columns than a normal 19th Century building. This gave it an openness which aided the flow of large crowds and allowed for the window-filled walls which flooded the interior with natural light. Two other ways in which the style of the Palace proved practical were that it enabled the building to be very tall and composed of prefabricated parts (“Cast-Iron Architecture”). Because of these two features, builders were able to erect the Crystal Palace over the ancient elms in Hyde Park – saving them from being cut down, and workers were also able to assemble and disassemble the Palace easily (Piggott 8).
Constructing the Crystal Palace
Work on the Crystal Palace began on September 26, 1850, and ended on February 1, 1851 (Stevenson 68). Because of its prefabricated design, the Crystal Palace was easy to erect. It required only a maximum of 2,260 people working on it at a time, and these workers completed it in less than six months (Piggott 47; Stevenson 68).
Joseph Paxton, an architect who had previously worked as head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, designed the Crystal Palace. Some of Paxton’s previous work for the duke aided him in the Crystal Palace project. According to one historian, the Palm House, a greenhouse for which Paxton had developed the construction system, “served as a prototype for the design of the Crystal Palace” (Stevenson 69).
Not surprisingly, an edifice like the Crystal Palace required some special features in order to function well, and Paxton’s structure contained several clever systems. One was a gutter design. On the roof of the Crystal Palace stretched 24 miles of gutters. These gutters were made of machine-profiled timber, formed into trusses in the shape of a bow, and had cast-iron brackets and wrought-iron cords (Stevenson 68). This construction strengthened the roof, while at the same time channeling rain down the main structural columns, which were hollow. Paxton’s second system controlled air circulation. The Crystal Palace contained steel louvers which could be mechanically operated to control ventilation. Also, for hot days, the glass roof of the Crystal Palace had retractable canvas awnings to cover it, which workers could spray with cool water (Stevenson 68).
When it was finally complete, the Crystal Palace extended 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide, occupied around 18 acres of ground, contained a total floor area of about 990,000 square feet, and reached a height of 108 feet in its central transept (“Crystal Palace”). During the Great Exhibition, there were more than 8 miles of display tables on the ground floor and in the galleries.
The Effects of the Crystal Palace
During the five months and eleven days of its occupation by the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Palace became an icon to the world and a model for succeeding exhibitions (Piggott 29). According to one historian, “The Crystal Palace established an architectural standard for later international fairs and exhibitions that likewise were housed in glass conservatories” (“Crystal Palace”). Some examples include the Cork Exhibition of 1852, the Dublin and New York City expositions of 1853, the Munich Exhibition of 1854, and the Paris Exposition of 1855.
One of the first schemes for what to do with the Crystal Palace after the Exhibition finished was to sell it and ship it overseas to New York for the upcoming New York Exhibition (Piggott 9). This plan was rejected, however, and after much debate Parliament formed a Crystal Palace Company to oversee the building and sold the Palace to Francis Fuller for £70,000. Fuller, who was acting on behalf of some railway proprietors and others, moved the structure to Sydenham, where, as at Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace served primarily as a museum and winter garden (Piggott 34; Piggott 11). According to Fuller and his friends, their aim for the Crystal Palace was “floriculture and the fine arts” (Piggott 34). Workers disassembled the Palace in 1852 and finished reassembling it at Sydenham in 1854 (“Crystal Palace”). Upon its relocation, the Crystal Palace received alterations and became nearly 50% larger, with almost twice the amount of glass (Piggott 40).
After being transferred from Hyde Park to Sydenham, the Crystal Palace became home to an Egyptian Exhibit which greatly influenced the British people. One of the reasons why the exhibit had a great impact was because it “provided the strongest visual impression of ancient Egypt available in nineteenth century Britain” (Schoer 6). In the Crystal Palace, the British were able, for the first time, to somewhat experience Egypt and the ancient Egyptian monuments without leaving their native soil. Being easily accessible to the common people, the Crystal Palace and its Egyptian Exhibit generated British interest in Egyptology.
When World War I began, the Crystal Palace served as a base for the Royal Naval Division and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Force. On February 9, 1915, for perhaps the first time in its existence, the Crystal Palace and its grounds became entirely closed to the public (Piggott 179). Soon after its occupation by the forces of the Royal Navy training establishment HMS Victory IV, the Crystal Palace earned the division the popular name HMS Crystal Palace. And, despite the fact that authorities tried to resist the popular nickname, it stuck (Piggott 178).
Although its leaking roof and Fine Arts Courts full of delicate valuables and unclad statues made the Crystal Palace hardly ideal for a military base, its spacious interior and grounds proved useful to the occupying soldiers (Piggott 179). Sleeping quarters and mess-rooms spread throughout the courts of the Crystal Palace. Outside, men trained in boats on a lake on the edge of the Crystal Palace grounds, on the “battleship” marked out on the Terrace, and on the stone stairs, where some men practiced a visual signal system called semaphore.
With its new occupants and purpose, the Crystal Palace gained new, nautical names. The Lower Terrace was now the “Quarter-Deck.” Officers gave the palace “port” and “starboard” watches, and men went “ashore” when they left the Palace on alternate nights (Piggott 179).
In the midst of the destruction of nearby London, the Crystal Palace survived the First World War unscathed, largely because German pilots used its prominent towers as bombing landmarks (Piggott 179). Following the end of the war, the Crystal Palace served as a mass demobilization center for nine months. Then, on January 1, 1920, the Navy departed (Piggott 179). Once again the Palace was a museum.
On June 9, 1920, King George V opened a new Victory Exhibition within the Crystal Palace, which contained “the lumbering and menacing objects salvaged from the continental battle fields as mementoes” (Piggott 182). Other war memorials at the Crystal Palace included a trophy and bell situated on the Lower Terrace. These commemorated the four years during which the Royal Naval Division and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves occupied the Crystal Palace (Piggott 179).
In 1936 a fire started in the Crystal Palace and destroyed most of the building. No one knows exactly how the fire began, but fires were not unknown in the Palace, and throughout its history it had suffered from small ones. The Crystal Palace was never rebuilt. For many years it remained in ruin, until the British government demolished what remained of the Palace in 1941 so that its surviving towers would not serve as guides to enemy bombing planes during World War II (Columbia University).
Though it only survived for 85 years, the Crystal Palace had a remarkable impact worldwide. It faithfully served in many varying capacities and shone as a bright reminder of the glory of the Victorian Era and the British Empire and of the beginning of modern architecture. Beautiful in a way that no building had ever been before, it stood as an example of what man’s creativity and ingenuity could accomplish. And, although fire devastated it in 1936 and the government destroyed its surviving towers during the Second World War, the Crystal Palace continues on, for its legacy of innovation, beauty, and service to Britain and the world are memorialized forever.
Columbia University, Press. “Cast-Iron Architecture.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2013): 1. History Reference Center. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
“Crystal Palace.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/145293/Crystal-Palace>
“Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).” Victoria Adventure. 28 Apr. 2014.
Piggott, J. R. Palace of the People. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Schoer, Birgit. “Egypt At The Crystal Palace.” Ancient Egypt Magazine 12.3 (2011): 18-24. Humanities International Complete. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
Stevenson, Neil. Architecture. New York: DK Publishing Inc., 1997.
“The Great Exhibition: Queen Victoria’s Journal.” V&A. 8 Apr. 2014.