Illustration of the plants and fountains inside the Crystal Palace
Architecture Historic photography Parks and Gardens

The Life and Death of London’s Crystal Palace

From the opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to the tragic fire that destroyed it, the Crystal Palace inspired photographers on the ground and in the air.

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was one of the world’s most inspiring buildings.

The interior of the Crystal Palace’s ‘Tropical’ end with its Winter Garden, which was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. © Historic England Archive. DP004607.

From the opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to its final demise, its compelling glass and iron design and awe-inspiring vastness attracted the attention of photographers on the ground and in the air.

Here we take a look at some of the remarkable photographs of the life and death of the Crystal Palace that can be found in the Historic England Archive.

The Great Exhibition

The 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was an important event for photography. Photographic equipment and photographs were exhibited, including some lent by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were keen patrons of this relatively new invention.

A print of an engraving of the interior of the Crystal Palace
A print of an engraving of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. The engraving by Thomas Sherratt was made from a daguerreotype photograph taken by John Mayall. Seventy-two Mayall daguerreotypes were displayed at the Great Exhibition. © Historic England Archive. OP10855.

The building itself – the largest in the world at the time – and the tens of thousands of objects on display were documented by amateur and professional photographers, and their images were distributed worldwide. However, an unfortunate incident occurred when photographer Nicolaas Henneman broke some fingers off a statue when moving it to a better position to photograph it!

Photographs were used to illustrate the official ‘Reports by the Juries’ – books listing the categories of objects on display at the Great Exhibition and the awards given. However, each book required printing individual photographs that had to be inserted into each volume.

Our image above isn’t a photograph but a print made from an engraving, made from a daguerreotype – one of the first photographic processes. Engravings could easily be printed multiple times and used to illustrate books, whereas photographs could not. This image was one of many used to illustrate Tallis and Strutt’s ‘History and Description of the Crystal Palace’, published in 1852 and 1854. 

The move to Sydenham Hill

The Great Exhibition was an enormous success. Over six million people visited it during its 140-day run, from 1 May to 15 October 1851; this was the equivalent to almost one-third of the population of Great Britain.

A road going up a hill with a water tower in the background
This view shows one of two water towers and part of the main structure of the Crystal Palace from Anerley Road. Isambard Brunel designed the water towers as reservoirs for the many water features in the gardens fronting the Crystal Palace. The photograph is a stereograph – a form of home entertainment that, when viewed through a stereoscope, presents the viewer with the illusion of a three-dimensional image. © Historic England Archive. CC97/00546.

A group of businessmen proposed that the Crystal Palace be relocated to Penge Place on Sydenham Hill, a suburban area in southeast London. The Illustrated London News reported that the Palace’s designer, Sir Joseph Paxton, described the location as ‘the most beautiful spot in the world for the Crystal Palace.’

A large crowd with Queen Victoria in the centre on a raised platform.
This albumen print, possibly by Philip Henry Delamotte, shows Queen Victoria in the centre of the royal party at the opening of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham Hill, on 10 June 1854. © Historic England Archive. AL0327/009/02.

The reconstruction of an enlarged Crystal Palace for recreation and education began in 1852. Two years later, on 10 June 1854, Queen Victoria officially opened the new Crystal Palace at a grand ceremony attended by 40,000 people.

Photography was to play an important role in the transition from Hyde Park to Sydenham. The photographer and artist Philip Henry Delamotte was commissioned to record the taking down of the Palace and its reconstruction in its new home.

Two giant statues of Egyptian pharoahs seated inside the Crystal Palace.
A mounted albumen print by Philip Henry Delamotte showing the giant figures depicting the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II in the north transept of the Crystal Palace. © Historic England Archive. AL1906/011.

Delamotte also photographed the Crystal Palace after it had been built and filled with exhibits in themed ‘courts’. The Historic England Archive holds a collection of forty-seven albumen prints taken by Delamotte around 1859. Digitally enhanced scans of the prints can be viewed on the Historic England website.

Interior of the Crystal Palace with greenery, statues and a large fountain in the cenre
An interior view of the rebuilt Crystal Palace at Sydenham. This hand-coloured photograph hints at the interior colour scheme and reveals the grandeur of the space and the large amount of exotic fauna displayed and used to help show off the exhibits. © Historic England Archive. FF91/00334.

The Archive also holds a small collection of four hand-coloured transparencies of Delamotte photographs. These re-imagine the vibrancy of the décor and exhibits on display at the Crystal Palace soon after it opened at Sydenham.

The fire of 1866

On 30 December 1866, a fire destroyed the north transept of the Crystal Palace. The Alhambra, Assyrian and Byzantine Courts were damaged, as were the Abu Simbel figures, colossal reproductions of the seated figures of Ramses II from the temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt.

A pile of metal
A mass of twisted metal attests to the damage caused to the east end of the Crystal Palace following the fire of December 1866. The remains of the Abu Simbel figures can be seen in the distance. © Historic England Archive. OP04456.

The Crystal Palace was costly to maintain and repair, and despite its early popularity at its Sydenham location, finances were tight. As there were insufficient funds to rebuild the areas damaged by the fire, only the North Nave, the Alhambra, and Byzantine Courts were restored.

Snow on the damaged walls
This stereoscopic view of the interior of the Crystal Palace shows winter snow settled on damaged Court walls and the metal frame structure behind. © Historic England Archive. BB92/15895.

The Crystal Palace survived its financial difficulties and continued to receive visitors until 1915, when it was used as a depot for the Royal Navy. Following the war, the building was restored and witnessed yet another royal opening in June 1920. As well as hosting concerts, displays and festivals, it was, for a brief period, the home of the newly founded Imperial War Museum.

Aerial photography: The Crystal Palace from above

Photographers took to the air as early as 1858, and tethered balloon flights were regularly undertaken from the site of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Aerial photo of Crystal Palace
From a height of 2000 feet (610 metres), this view of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham was taken between 1882 and 1892 by photographer and balloonist Cecil Victor Shadbolt. © Historic England Archive. CVS01/01/026.

This photograph is believed to be the earliest known surviving aerial photograph of the Crystal Palace. It is a lantern slide used in Cecil Victor Shadbolt’s illustrated lecture ‘Balloons and Ballooning, Upward and Onwards’.

Aerial photo of Crystal Palace
This relatively low-altitude photograph of the Crystal Palace in 1928 frames the building and its flanking water towers. The truncated north end, the result of the 1866 fire, is visible. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EPW021373.

The Crystal Palace and Crystal Palace Park were popular subjects for Aerofilms Limited, the country’s first commercial aerial photography company. Established in 1919, the firm photographed the site in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. You can see a selection of Aerofilms photographs of the Crystal Palace in Britain from Above.

The fire of 1936

The Crystal Palace’s ultimate demise happened dramatically on the night of 30 November 1936.

Panorama of the ruined Crystal Palace, after the fire
This remarkable photograph is a panoramic view, which shows a view greater than that normally seen by the human eye. It was taken by the local firm of TH Everitt, whose caption reads: ‘A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE CRYSTAL PALACE TAKEN THE DAY FOLLOWING THE DISASTROUS FIRE, 30th NOVEMBER, 1936′. © Historic England Archive. OP04491.

A small fire grew into the biggest peace-time conflagration in London in the 20th century, laying waste to one of the marvels of the Victorian age. Predictably, the fire’s aftermath was photographed from the ground and the air.

Aerial view of Crystal Palace
This oblique aerial photograph from the Robert H Windsor Collection shows the destruction wrought on the Crystal Palace following the fire of November 1936. The North Nave survived in part, as did Brunel’s water towers. © Historic England Archive. RHW11521/H6133/TQ3470/4.

The fire started in the administrative offices and rapidly spread as a strong wind advanced the flames through the tunnel-like structure. Glass melted, and ‘the great iron framework of girders and pillars writhed and twisted like a soul in torment.’

When the transept roof collapsed, the flames shot up to a height of ninety metres. The fire could soon be seen from miles away. Masses of people crowded nearby streets. Crowds gathered as far away as the Palace of Westminster, Hampstead Heath and on the South Downs near Brighton. The crews of eighty-nine fire engines from all over south London tried desperately to save the building, but they could not prevent its destruction.

After the fire

The Crystal Palace site continued attracting photographers despite the fire destroying one of the country’s most photogenic buildings.

Aerial view of Crystal Palace Park
This Aerofilms view of Crystal Palace Park shows a Ministry of Works vehicle salvage depot stationed on the destroyed Crystal Palace and Garden Terrace site. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EAW000568.

The site was highly sought after, and numerous suggestions were made about what to do with the site. Some wanted it rebuilt, other suggestions included using the site for a hospital, a university and a film studio.

None were built, and following the outbreak of the Second World War, the site was used as an anti-aircraft gun emplacement and military store. Fearing their use as markers for German bombers, Brunel’s water towers were demolished. Rubble from the blitzed buildings of London was used to level the site.

Steps to the garden terrace
This Paul Barkshire view from 15 February 1984 shows the remains of steps and an arcade to the Garden Terrace built in front of the Crystal Palace following its move to Sydenham. Just visible is one of several sphynx statues that overlook the park. © Historic England Archive. DD002087.

After the Second World War, London’s South Bank, rather than Sydenham, was chosen as the site of the 1951 Festival of Britain. A proposal for the Crystal Palace Park to become the new home for the Festival’s Dome of Discovery and Skylon was also rejected, as was a plan for a building to celebrate the new Millennium.  

Whilst Crystal Palace Park attracted new investment – the National Recreation Centre and a Concert Bowl were added in the 1960s – the site of Paxton’s gem remained empty, apart from the addition of a television transmitting station in the 1950s. However, surviving elements of the Crystal Palace, such as Paxton’s garden terraces and the remains of one of Brunel’s water towers, continued to attract photographers. The Historic England Archive’s Paul D Barkshire Collection includes large-format photographs that convey a bleak, ruinous, unloved site in the 1980s.

Byzantine-style red and cream brick subway with columns
A digital photograph of the Pedestrian Subway that formerly linked the High Level Station to the Crystal Palace, decorated with Byzantine-style vaulting in red and cream brick. The subway was originally listed at Grade II in 1972 and was upgraded to Grade II* in 2018. © Historic England Archive. DP232791.

More recently, our photographers have recorded elements of the Crystal Palace site’s heritage that have been considered ‘at risk’, and those structures that have been given recognition for their architectural and historical significance, such as the Pedestrian Subway built in 1865 to link a new railway station to the Crystal Palace.

For 170 years, photographs of the Crystal Palace in all its guises have delighted, educated and shocked viewers. The Historic England Archive is a great place to find images of this iconic structure, from the age of the daguerreotype to the modern digital photograph.

The Historic England Archive
We hold an outstanding range of photographs, plans and drawings in our public archive, covering England’s historic environment. You can browse thousands of historic and modern photos.

Further reading

11 comments on “The Life and Death of London’s Crystal Palace

  1. Ken Lewington

    I am preparing an issue of The Crystal Palace Foundation News, which I hope to publish circa mid-December. Please may I include a link to this blog?
    Kind regards, Ken Lewington, Vice Chairman, The Crystal Palace Foundation (Regd. Charity No. 285563)
    PS As you’re no doubt aware, in 2004, the Crystal Palace Foundation contributed to to purchase of the Delamotte images when they went under the hammer, and Ian Leith’s book is now available via our website.

    • Yes, please share!

    • Linda Terry

      My 94 year old mother still talks today about watching the Palace burn from the window at the top of her house in Woodland Road. She has great clarity of the event. Linda Terry.

      • Roddy Atkinson

        My Dad watched it from his bedroom when he was 6.

  2. maggiemoo2015

    Wonderful , ive not seen a few of these Interesting photos possibly on another history site but the Egyptian image is superb in quality and clarity. My husbands grandmother said she remembered watching it burn sat on a small hill close by with her mother. Her mother was crying and she still know why ?

  3. Our new publication, Crystal Palace – Accident or Arson?, by Robert Knowles is available via our website. It may not answer why the Palace burned down, but it’ll be a fascinating read. See our Shop page at: Ken.

  4. Mary Cooper

    Thank You very helpful I am writing my first novel (I am a novice to writing) based on my personal story and memory’s of growing up near the Crystal Palace Park and my story goes back in time to the glory days of The Palace . It is a big subject so much happend there so many stories within the Big Story . I found the article and Ariel photograph by Cecil Victor Shadbolt very helpful as I have the story of photography and film as a major part of my story . Is it possible to access the lecture that Mr Shadbolt gave Upwards and Onwards. Thank You . Mary Cooper

  5. We moved to Crystal Palace area in South London back in 2017. When we visited Crystal Palace park for the first time I felt that this place has a special energy, a history, something that you feel in your soul. I didn’t know about the background of Crystal Palace until about 2-3 years later. I am a local audiologist attending patients in Crystal Palace but whenever I pass by the park I feel strange. Thanks for collecting the history of the monument in here.

  6. Annabelle Indge

    Fascinating!! Thankyou

  7. I’m following up the Harvard edx course on the architectural imagination and this building isn’t just fascinating, it’s iconic.

    The Glory of its time no doubt but a sad take to both ending of the initial and latter construction.

  8. Warren McAdam

    Thank you for the information and amazing photographs and images.

Leave a Reply to Koorosh NejadCancel reply

%d bloggers like this: