(E5) A Whiff of Archaeology in the Air

by Ray Sacks, Chairman, Crystal Palace Campaign, notes from 29 March 2004

Last Sunday, a cool, overcast spring day, I took a walk round Crystal Palace Park with the intention of looking for potential sites for a dig. For me personally, there is a certain glamour in the notion of sitting in the mud armed only with a paint brush and trowel, busily unearthing the story of the past. As I walked, the past was all around me, in small tantalising morsels which suggested that there must be more there - a lot more.

I first walked along the line of the front wall of the Palace, that is, the east wall facing the fountains and the Park. The photograph was taken exactly along this line, defined between the figure and the photographer, myself. We are both standing astride what was once a wall of glass. The embankment on the right in the photograph is the boundary of the spoil heaped onto the top site. In the dim background is the Crystal Palace Museum.

This spoil is itself interesting since it was taken from bomb-damaged buildings in London and tipped over the place where the Crystal Palace once stood. It is a sombre thought that, in addition to relics of the Palace and artefacts from the 1940s, the spoil could possibly contain human remains, casualties of the bombs.

Cast Iron Column Base

Palace Front Wall


Barely visible in the foreground is the remains of one of the cast iron columns which served as a support and a rainwater drain.

Likewise the embankment close to the museum may also have significant deposits to examine. Nearby are the remnants of the South Tower. In July 1933 the Baird Company moved to Crystal Palace. They occupied 40,000 square feet (about 3700 m2) of space under the main concourse and adjoining the tunnel connecting the two water towers. The Company also had the use of the School of Arts building, the South Tower and, later, the Rotunda. The television facilities at Crystal Palace were unequalled anywhere in Europe. No other organisation could, from a single site, produce studio performances, transmitters and receivers, cathode ray tubes, photocells, film transmission equipment, magnetrons and microwave links. There were four studios: the largest, measuring 60 x 40 ft (18 x 12 m), could accommodate full scale presentations involving up to 40 actors.

The fire at Crystal Palace in November 1936 destroyed the Company's laboratories, studios and offices. Only the South Tower, the Rotunda and the School of Arts building survived. In fact, both of Brunel's towers survived into the 1940s but were then demolished since it was thought that they would act as a landmark for enemy bombers.

Embankment near Museum


Base of South Tower


The base of the South Tower has recently been tidied up, revealing the brickwork around the entrance and the main valves which took water to the fountains down in the Park. A network of 10 miles of piping for the waterworks was concealed underground. Put new wheels on the valve stems and you could easily imagine the gush of the huge quantities of water required to run the fountains, once again coursing down the cast iron pipes. With the full fountain display in action, a total flow of water of 120,000 gallons per minute (9080 litres/s) was required. The highest plumes from the fountains were sent up 280 ft. (85m) above the basins while thousands of smaller jets added to the spectacle.

Only one fountain basin remains in the Park - a sad memory to the once unique displays.

My walk northwards took me to the aquarium, now beneath the shadow of the huge television mast which is actually built on top of the aquarium site, covering some of the old ruins. The remains were being dug out by three people* intent on their work. The ramp seen in the picture drops fairly steeply downwards into a dark cavern as yet not fully explored and possibly with an unstable roof. It might have been a flue guide which was part of a water heating system. The work has progressed but, although there is a long way to go, the remains are taking shape; the gallery where attendants threw feed into the tanks can be seen, as can part of the floor where visitors would have walked.

*[some from the Orpington and District Archaeological Society working with the Crystal Palace Foundation]


Aquarium Flue?


Arch over Attendants' Gallery


One of the archways holding the roof over the attendants' gallery has been reconstructed - others are still in place. There are lots of small chunks of glass about: some must have come from the Palace and some from the water tanks.

Glass from the Palace


So many years have gone by, witnessing so many momentous events, that the historic atmosphere and mystique of the Park seem to have been heightened by the ghosts of the past. Curiosity about our heritage foments a powerful drive to delve into the remains of the people's Palace and find those elusive fragments which will give us a small window into that world.


PROPOSAL: Following talks with the Museum of London and in conjunction with the Crystal Palace Foundation, the Crystal Palace Campaign has proposed a scheme to conduct an "Archaeological Evaluation" of the top site of the Park. After many years of speculation, there is now a good opportunity to act - to find out the facts and so improve our understanding of the history of the Park. This proposal, which essentially comes out of the Stakeholders' Dialogue Process, may well uncover some significant finds from the past.

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Author Ray Sacks MIOA, FIChE, CEng; Crystal Palace Campaign - draft form of the project:

Site name: Crystal Palace Park - Hilltop

Borough: London Borough of Bromley


Crystal Palace Campaign
Crystal Palace Foundation
Museum of London


Current Situation
Scope of this Proposal
Aims of the Work
Site Conditions
Management and Organisation
Project Costing

Date: February 2004


The top site of Crystal Palace Park was once home to one of the most influential buildings of its age. Constructed originally in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 - a spectacular showcase for industry and art in the Victorian age - it was subsequently dismantled and reconstructed in a 'permanent' location at Sydenham Hill where it was opened by Queen Victoria in 1854. The Crystal Palace, as it was dubbed by Punch Magazine, was - until its demise in the fire of 1936 - a source of wonder and inspiration to generations of visitors and architects. There are many people alive today who have fond memories of "The Palace" and there are many buildings which bear the stamp of its design.

The Palace at Sydenham was used for a huge variety of entertainments from dog shows to enormous choral works, from acrobatic displays to peepshows. Its south tower also housed the laboratory of John Logie Baird, the inventor of television.

Surprisingly, since the fire, there have been relatively few efforts to dig, literally, into the past. It is perhaps assumed that anything significant was destroyed either in the fire or the subsequent clean-up operation. However, recent information suggests that there may be more material surviving than has been imagined. A geological study [1], which included the use of Ground Penetrating Radar, clearly showed some objects which may originate from the Palace. Another report [2], has commented on various activities on the site since the fire. to CONTENTS


A commercial development planned for the top site has recently been cancelled. Other possibilities which will bring the top site into better public use are yet to be defined. This now leaves a window of opportunity for investigating the underground remains. Such an investigation - with trial digs - is likely to excite interest both among the local community and further afield, and probably bring extra visitors to the Park. The future of Crystal Palace Park, including the sports centre, has already attracted national and international interest. If properly managed, an archaeological investigation will provide excellent publicity for the Park and its surrounds. Very importantly, the investigation could also be a valuable educational resource - for example to local schools, many of which study the Park and its history - supporting the current interest in the Victorian age and the early 20th century. to CONTENTS


A scheme for an Archaeological Evaluation of the site of the Sydenham Crystal Palace building is proposed. This will include:

the determination of the location of the part of the building to be excavated the digging of a two trial pits each approximately 10 x 10 metres in area, 3 metres deep the provision of secure fencing around the site the careful recording of material found the temporary, secure preservation of such material on site or e.g. at the Crystal Palace Museum the provision of signage and advertisement to indicate the dig location the provision of viewing points and walkways for the public to observe the dig the production of suitable bulletins to indicate the progress of the dig and nature of the finds the production of a final report and recommendations for future work. to CONTENTS


The scope of the work indicated above is fairly limited. It is principally a "preliminary evaluation" of the material to be found below ground which relates to the Crystal Palace building between 1854 and 1936. Other material may exist belonging to the period after the fire of 1936 and this will need to be properly considered as well.

Only two sites for a dig are currently proposed, representing a small area of the whole building plan, viz. two sized 10 x 10 metres on a plot plan of about 500 x 100 metres. It is. therefore, important to select suitable locations for the pits. Sufficient details survive of the layout of the building to inform the choice of sites.

The preliminary work will necessitate locating the building outline (at least in part) and marking and/or recording it for future use. This may indeed lead to the possibility of uncovering the entire footprint of the building - but that work would require an extension of this project and would then need to fit into any broader schemes planned for the top site.

The proposed work will produce: a better knowledge of what actually is underground - there has been too much myth and speculation without real substance up till now recovery of some artefacts which may have survived both the fire and subsequent activities on site a better fix on the plot plan than heretofore greater public interest in the park - through publicity and viewing access to the work in progress - and appreciation of the efforts of those maintaining it an education resource for both adults and children. to CONTENTS


The top site of the park (Grade II* listed) has had a somewhat mixed history of late in that there have been periods where it was open and freely used by park visitors. As part of the process against the (now abandoned) commercial development plans, eco-warriors inhabited part of the site and dug a number of tunnels; these have now been covered over. More recently there has been a spate of fly tipping in response to which Bromley Council has fenced off much of the top site and removed the debris. While some of the surfaces are not really suitable for casual park usage at present the general condition should not hinder digging activities. Access for digging machines is quite straightforward since there are suitable roads close by - the precise details of access would be decided later. The park is surrounded by mainly residential areas but touches on the busy Upper Norwood Triangle shopping area.

Some concrete rafts used to support structures put up during and after the second world war may still be in place although the structures themselves have been demolished. to CONTENTS


The project will be led by the Museum of London Archaeological Service under the local area project leader. They will control the activities on site and supervise the security. They will also be responsible for documenting the work and cataloguing and securely storing the finds. They will work in conjunction with English Heritage, the Crystal Palace Foundation and the Crystal Palace Campaign. Members of the last two bodies have good local knowledge and - in the case of the Foundation - a great deal of information about the Palace and the current site layout.

Helpers will come from a variety of sources including University Archaeology departments and possibly even local schools. It will be essential to have Bromley Council playing a leading role, since they are the owners of the site.

Strict safety measures will be in force for all site workers. to CONTENTS


It is difficult to draw up a precise budget at this stage but reasonable estimates have been made - they have not been reproduced here since they need updating based on further studies of the scope. to CONTENTS


There is an opportunity now to take advantage of the current hiatus in planned activity on the top site to perform an archaeological evaluation of the remains of the Sydenham Crystal Palace building. This is a project which will excite the imagination of the thousands of people who are interested in the Palace both locally and internationally. The investigation is likely to unearth - for the first time - the remains of a building which dominated the skyline of south London for over 80 years and which, through its innovative design and sheer boldness of concept, has had an influence on so many people - visitors, builders, architects and artists. It will also demonstrate publicly that the guardians of this remarkable site still care about its history. to CONTENTS


[1] - Batinica, Iliya, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Westminster, Geological Study(1998)
[2] - Kiss, K, An Historical Assessment of the site of the former Crystal Palace, August 1992 (prepared for the London Borough of Bromley)
[3] - Seeing by Wireless by Ray Herbert; PW Publishing (1996)
[4] - The Crystal Palace by Patrick Beaver; Phillimore (1986 ed. reprinted 1993)
[5] - Palace of the People by J R Piggott; Hurst (2004)

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Link to Orpington and District Archaeological Society website

15/4/04 Last Updated 15/4/04; 25/5/04(grammar, spelling);10/6/04(ODAS attribution altered)