Amy Investigates - The Haunting Memory of Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace reigned aloft a mound in south London until its untimely demise in 1936. Fire was the culprit, reducing this leviathan to a mangled mass of molten iron. The warped skeleton smouldered for days, enveloped in a haze of smoke. Eighty years on and images of this calamity still evoke a deep sense of unease. One assumes greatness offers immunity to tragedy, but the Titanic proved this to be false. As the great ship slipped to its watery grave, the Crystal Palace slipped tragically to memory.
Crumbling terraces hint at the scale of this former Victorian icon, enough to induce nostalgia for a bygone age. One may discern the faint hum of an indiscernible crowd, while the former army of employees required to run this vast enterprise steal quietly about their business. Sudden temperature drops, or the inexplicable smell of smoke remind the visitor of its dramatic end as they trace the now invisible galleries. Having survived the 79 AD eruption, artefacts from Pompeii exhibited at the palace proved no match for the south London fire. The inferno destroyed so much more than metal and glass.
Crystal Palace was born from Prince Albert’s fascination with innovation and industry. Choosing to stage an exhibition in Hyde Park, Queen Victoria’s husband tasked a committee of architects, engineers, and dignitaries to house the many thousands of objects being loaned. As the building was funded by public subscription, it needed to be simple, inexpensive, and quick to construct. Numerous designs were submitted, but all were rejected, mainly down to cost.
Celebrated garden designer Joseph Paxton produced a sketch fitting the criteria after visiting Hyde Park. Using a medley of wood, glass sheets and cast iron, he employed the techniques he had developed for glasshouse construction to create a Goliath of a building with a rectangular, flat-roofed hall and wings. The large open gallery incorporated several of the park’s elm trees, prompting some to disparage Crystal Palace as a ‘glorified greenhouse’, yet it was anything but. The building exploited natural light to reduce its running costs, while its modular design allowed its self-supporting sections to be assembled with speed. Paxton’s project was completed on schedule and in budget and was itself a fine example of Victorian innovation.
The Great Exhibition ran from May – October 1851 and was heralded a success. Work started on relocating Crystal Palace to Sydenham Ridge in south London in 1852, with constructional parts from the original building being incorporated into the new, larger edifice. Changes to its appearance included covering the main gallery with a barrel-vaulted roof, and two new transepts created to augment the wings. Two water towers were also erected to feed the many fountains and cascades in the newly landscaped park. These water features are long gone, but Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s dinosaurs have evaded a second wipe out and continue playing sentinel to the night.
Two train stations (Crystal Palace Low Level and Crystal Palace High Level) were built to service the attraction. The Low Level station is still in use, but Crystal Palace High Level was demolished, and only its strikingly decorated subway survives. Passing beneath Crystal Palace Parade, visitors would have emerged to be greeted by the sight of the palace entrance – a void awaits them now.
In 1864, an experimental atmospheric railway (pneumatic railway) ran in Crystal Palace park for two months. A brick tunnel measuring five hundred and fifty metres passed between Penge and Sydenham park entrances, although what percentage ran underground is the cause of much conjecture. Iron doors sealed a bristle-collared carriage in the tunnel before a steam engine powered fan (acting like a vacuum), made variations in air pressure to force the carriage along the tunnel. The journey took fifty seconds. While reporters showed an interest in this railway, there are no records of what happened to it when it closed. Excavations have found remnants, but substantial evidence continues to elude. Construction work relating to 1911’s Festival of Empire celebrations may have destroyed much of the evidence, but the talent of Lidar has exposed a tantalising curved line, running between the Penge and Sydenham gates, which fits with contemporary press reports.
A fire in 1866 preceded the great blaze. Fortunately, only the north transept was destroyed and was replaced with North Tower Gardens. While musicians, circuses, and festivals drew audiences, maintenance costs were debilitating, and debt plagued the palace. It was in a state of disrepair by the end of the nineteenth century and bankrupt by 1911. Supporters came to its rescue in the 1920s, hoping to restore it to its halcyon days, but these days were never to materialize. Fire broke out on the evening of 30th November 1936, the ferocity of which could be seen many miles away. The hundreds of firemen and police officers were no match for high wind and flammable material, flames raced through the building consuming everything in their wake. Thousands came to witness this appalling spectacle, and maybe the spirit of Paxton joined them. Footage of the fire is particularly sobering, with one commentator likening the, ‘masses of molten glass falling down continuously’ to a ‘funeral pyre.’ His, ‘Above all a tragedy to the window cleaning profession,’ slipped out without mirth. The cause of the fire remains a mystery, but it certainly wasn’t the first crystal palace to suffer this curse; New York’s, Munich’s, Montreal’s, and Sydney’s great edifices had all experienced the same fate.
Thos. W. Ward Ltd (Sheffield) was given the unenviable task of dismantling the wreckage. Insurance didn’t cover a rebuild, and the park went to seed. A motor racing circuit opened in 1937, before the site was used as a dumping ground for rubble during World War II, a sign of how low it had sunk. It also served as a scrapyard to recycle metal for the war effort with vehicles being stripped on the terraces. The few statues to have kept their heads during the fire must have watched on with some bewilderment.
The two water towers survived the inferno, but not the war. Allies rather than the enemy deliberately demolished them without reason. Perhaps people feared they might be used as a navigational landmark. The North Tower was detonated in 1941, and the South Tower dismantled in sections due to its proximity to other buildings. Its base and foundations were excavated in 1985 and listed as a mark of Victorian engineering. Now shrouded by foliage, what little remains of the South Tower is a sad reminder of its animated past. A National Sports Centre and Athletics Stadium built in the 1960s revitalised areas of the park whilst developers have discussed rebuilding the palace again. Yet, it is unlikely this phoenix will rise – rose-tinted remembrances cannot erase the palace’s financial troubles, nor its steady fall from grace.
One might assume paranormal activity to be rife at such a site. Buildings as well as people are alleged to haunt, as Porter Biggleswade discovered with a demolished church in York’s King’s Square (Shadows in the Mist). But reports of ghostly phenomena at Crystal Palace are noticeably few, and there is only one account listed on The Paranormal Database. It states:
‘There is a train bricked up under the park, complete with dead passengers and crew - sometimes the hands of the dead reach up from the ground and try to grab the living! It is said that the story is based on the fact that an experimental railway was constructed here that worked by compressed air, but was abandoned after failure.’ (https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/london/lonpages/londdata.php?pageNum_paradata=15&totalRows_paradata=541).
Hearsay is presented as fact, although specifics here are frustratingly slim. The ‘experimental railway… worked by compressed air,’ presumably relates to the former pneumatic railway, which ran in the park in 1864, although it was not ‘abandoned after failure’, but simply removed due to it being a temporary installation. And while this railway is known to have run between Penge and Sydenham park entrances, its precise location, and what happened to it once the demonstration close remains a mystery.
The idea that the tunnel collapsed, trapping a carriage filled with passengers who were then left in their makeshift coffin is utterly implausible. Disasters are magnets for attention, and as the pneumatic railway was a popular attraction there would have been witnesses. Emergency services (such as they were in 1864), would have been involved, and the area would have been teeming with reporters, Crystal Palace employees, and many curious onlookers, yet there is no mention of this tragedy anywhere, nor any enquiry into how it happened.
And what of this mass grave? Surely there would have been a funeral of sorts which would have drawn a crowd. Yet again, there are no reports relating to such an event, nor any memorial marking the spot. While I am judging this by twenty-first century standards, it is incongruous to believe such a grave would have gone unrecognised.
Another version of this legend adds a young woman to the mix. Going by the name of Pamela Goodsell, she allegedly chanced upon an old carriage in 1978, complete with skeletons donning Victorian attire. How one chances upon such a thing is anyone’s guess, but chance Pamela did before she returned to obscurity, taking the location of this grisly sight with her. But if she had really suffered the misfortune of falling into the tunnel, wouldn't there have been evidence of it? The bodies would have been exhumed, followed by a very public enquiry. Perhaps Pamela entered the tunnel of her own volition, but that still doesn’t explain why others haven’t ‘chanced’ upon this macabre display too, nor why she didn’t go to the police, or show others what she had found.
An account based on childish prattle from the 1930s mentions a tunnel collapsing onto a commuter train and burying the passengers alive. Interestingly, this version relates to one of Crystal Palace’s railway stations rather than the pneumatic railway, specifically the Paxton Tunnel, whose barricaded entrance is to the west of Crystal Palace Parade. This version also includes a young woman who suffered the misfortune of falling down a hole filled with skeletons. Her fall must have been a graceful one, for no injury is cited nor are we told how she escaped. She did, however, walk away unscathed. Alas, in this account, our unfortunate heroine also fails to report her misadventure to the authorities, apparently indifferent to others experiencing the same fate. If anyone has, they have kept it to themselves.
So why does this legend haunt the park, and how did it come about? In a world of coal and steam, the pneumatic railway on show in 1864 must have been a strange sight indeed. Its temporary nature and lack of physical evidence will have helped shape this legend into what it is today. Versions of it passed down from one generation to the next have surely evolved with the telling until its current form bears no resemblance to reality. Pamela Goodsell’s brief emergence from obscurity supports my view that she is just another fictitious addition to an already embellished myth.
While the Sage and the Evolution Tower are just some of the structures bearing the mantle of glass building design, memories of Crystal Palace persist. Cloaked in an atmosphere of expectation, greatness, and loss, its fading terraces act as a memorial. If fire hadn’t felled this great structure, neglect surely would; along with vandals drawn to the many panes. It would have eventually been demolished much to its neighbours relief. So, perhaps one should be grateful for the fire’s macabre efficiency, for it saved the palace from an end of slow decay. Paxton surely is. As his ghostly form indulges in a nightly promenade, enjoying the quiet of the upper terrace, he is content with his masterpiece being consigned to history, for its memory and popularity lives on.