History of The Crystal Palace | Look Up London

History of The Crystal Palace | London Remains and Its Derbyshire Inspiration

Within the extensive grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire you can find remnants of inspiration for one of London’s most extraordinary buildings, The Crystal Palace.

It gave its name to an area of London (and a football team!) but thanks to a disastrous fire you won’t find the magnificent glass and cast iron structure standing in London.

History of The Crystal Palace | Chatsworth House | Look Up London
Chatsworth House

However, its story is well worth telling.

Inspiration for the Crystal Palace

In 1826 the energetic and ambitious Joseph Paxton became Head Gardener at Chatsworth. At only 23 years old his love of engineering, architecture, landscape design and horticulture heavily influenced the 6th Duke of Devonshire and together they transformed the estate.

Statue of Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace Park | Look Up London
Bust of Joseph Paxton in Crystal Palace Park

Between 1836-40 Joseph Paxton oversaw the construction of the largest glass building in England. At 84m long, 37m wide and 19m high, The Great Conservatory contained a vast array of exotic plants within a tropical climate. It had a pond, ferns, moss, rocks and stairs up to a gallery where you could admire the top branches of palms and trees.

Image Credit: Public Domain – The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth House

To heat the building a complex network of tunnels transported coal on small wagons along an underground railway to boilers that heated seven miles of water pipes. This lead to its nickname as ‘The Great Stove’.

In 2002 Chatsworth House excavated and refurbished the tunnels so you can walk along them.

History of The Crystal Palace | Look Up London
Restored tunnels that served to heat the Great Conservatory

During the First World War the conservatory fell into neglect and in the years after was seen as an unnecessary luxury and expense. In 1920 The Great Conservatory was demolished, or more accurately, blown to smithereens from “a very heavy charge”. 

History of The Crystal Palace | Look Up London

Today a maze stands on the site of the Great Conservatory and an impressive stone archway marks one of the approaches to an entrance.

History of The Crystal Palace | Look Up London

This wasn’t the only glass house Paxton built for Chatsworth. He also created a specialist home for a giant Amazon water lily (also demolished in 1920) and a heated Conservative Wall (built 1838) which could protect figs, peaches and nectarines during the Winter.

History of The Crystal Palace | Look Up London

Even earlier is the Vinery (built 1834) which once housed the East India Orchid House but now contains a huge vine of dessert grapes.

If you want to imagine the Great Conservatory today, you could visit the surviving Victorian glasshouses at Kew.

Temperate House, Kew | Look Up London
Temperate House, Kew

The Palm House was built in 1848, designed by Charles Lanyon with the engineer Richard Turner. The much larger Temperate House opened in 1863. It was designed by Decimus Burton and engineered by Turner.

But on to the London connection…

The Great Exhibition

In 1850 an executive Building Committee was established to oversee the design of a building to host The Great Exhibition.

Masterminded by Prince Albert, it was to be an extravagant display of British talent in art, design, manufacturing and engineering and included international exhibitors too. The brief was for a building that was temporary, simple, quick to build and – most importantly – cheap.

Public Domain – The Crystal Palace by Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851

From almost 250 entries one forerunner was a huge glass and iron structure by Richard Turner (based on his Palm House design at Kew) however it was too expensive.

On 11 June Paxton, interested in the building commission and having met with committee member Henry Cole, submitted his own glass and cast iron design. Thanks to the modular aspects, uniform glass panels and new innovations in mass production, Paxton’s plan came in at almost 1/4 of the cost of Richard Turner’s.

He planned to make this one 25 times larger than the Great Conservatory.

The Crystal Palace

On 1 May 1851 Queen Victoria opened The Great Exhibition. With 100,000 objects on display, visited by over 6 million people. The event was an undeniable success, making over £21m today which would fund the building of the V&A, Science and Natural History Museums in South Kensington.

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851

Arguably the key attraction was Paxton’s Crystal Palace itself. Visitors flocked to see this extraordinary cathedral made of glass, scarcely believing it was real.

With the closure of the exhibition on 15 October the Crystal Palace’s future was uncertain. Though designed as a temporary structure, there was huge public pressure to keep it and a group of businessmen decided to relocate it to Sydenham Hill.

The building appeared quite different to the original, raised level metres on stone terraces and enlarged with a new barrel-vaulted roof. 

Public Domain – Philip Henry Delamotte (1821–1889) – Smithsonian Libraries

It hosted music concerts, art exhibitions as well as very niche events like the world first cat show in 1871. You can see a lovely interior photo from Historic England here.

In 1911 it hosted the Festival of Empire complete with a remarkable replica of Canada’s Parliament building, then during the First World War it was used as a naval training facility.

Public Domain – Festival of Empire 1911 with a replica of the Canadian Parliament Building in the foreground

As explained previously, one of the key draws of the Crystal Palace design was its economy, however the cost of actually transporting the materials to Sydenham were huge – estimated at around £120m today – so the company never recouped their debts. They twice declared bankruptcy, in 1887 and in 1901.

In a last attempt to save the building, In stepped Sir Henry Buckland – who loved the Palace so much he named his daughter Crystal! – who put on new events and partially restored it, but sadly there was disaster on the horizon.

Around 7pm on 30 November 1936 a small fire started. Within hours it had spread across the whole building, helped by strong winds and the wooden flooring. The iron frames buckled under the heat and glass shattered, one can only imagine the terrifying spectacle and noise.

Remains of The Crystal Palace

Today only the stone terraces of The Crystal Palace serve as a reminder of this staggering building.

The huge water tower was taken down ahead of WWII, seen as too-conspicuous a target for German aircraft.

You can also see six of the original twelve sphinxes, restored in 2016

If you visit, you’ll probably also want to visit some famous old neighbours too…

I’m of course talking about the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, the Grade I listed sculptures constructed 1852-55 by the Crystal Palace Company.

Although very inaccurate today, these sculptures are extraordinary as they were the first attempt to reconstruct three specific dinosaur species. 

You can read more about the history of Chatsworth House here.

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