The Crystal Palace was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park. Its innovative construction from pre-fabricated cast iron and glass suited the aims of the exhibition. The Great Exhibition was a contemporary 'museum of all nations', showing the material culture, arts and new technologies from all over the world.
Crystal Palace moved to Sydenham Hill in 1854, becoming the highlight of a 200-acre Victorian 'theme park'. The surrounding park was laid out to a formal design containing water features and fountains. Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the two water towers built at either end of Crystal Palace to serve the fountains.
Football was one of many sports played at Crystal Palace; others included speedway racing on motorbikes, cycling, archery, fishing, croquet and even roller hockey.
In 1911 Crystal Palace hosted the Festival of Empire in the year of George V's coronation. This was the high-point of Crystal Palace's fortunes. Three-quarter size, architecturally correct models of parliament buildings from all over the empire were erected in the grounds. Models of a South African diamond mine, an Indian tea plantation, and a Canadian logging camp were also on display.
The exhibition attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately the Crystal Palace Company went bankrupt the same year. In 1913, Crystal Palace became the property of the nation. During the First World War, Crystal Palace became a barracks and naval depot. Without proper care and attention or sufficient funding, the buildings deteriorated.
In 1920 an all-but derelict Crystal Palace was reopened to the public. The Trustees, under the able and energetic leadership of Sir Henry Buckland, took control. The building was repaired and the contents redisplayed. Work was also undertaken on the fountains and gardens. The visitors started to return, bringing with them an annual revenue of 80,000.
Crystal Palace burnt down on 30 November 1936, probably as a result of faulty wiring. The resident fireman and some workmen tried to put out a small fire in the staff lavatory, but their efforts were in vain and fire spread quickly, driven by the prevailing wind. The musicians who were rehearsing in the concert hall only just escaped with their lives. Eventually 89 fire engines and 400 firemen, half of London's fire brigade, arrived, but they failed to extinguish the blaze.
The fire drew spectators from all over London. Buckland wept openly seeing the destruction of 25 year's work.
The building was never rebuilt. Insured for much less than its true worth, there was simply no money available. Although the two water towers had withstood the fire, they were demolished as a precaution during the Second World War, in case they provided a landmark or target for enemy planes.
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