(P.160) The Garden, November 2006: RHS Lindley Library


Sale of the 20th Century

One of the landmarks of Victorian London, the Crystal Palace, was never a financial success, and by 1911 was up for sale. BRENT ELLIOTT describes the history of Sir Joseph Paxton's masterpiece in the light of a recent Lindley Library acquisition.

ONE OF THE Lindley Library's most interesting recent acquisitions has been a copy of the sale catalogue of the Crystal Palace and Crystal Palace Park dating from 1911. A tall volume, 42 x 28 cm, bound in brown linen wrappers with a scenic photograph on the front and printed on linen paper, it contains an itemised description of the structure, the park, and the various leasehold properties around the park's perimeter - including Rockhills, the former private garden of the palace's creator Sir Joseph Paxton. It is illustrated with a variety of photographs, some taken for the sale, others historical photographs of the palace's construction. It comes complete with a coloured plan, measuring 100 x 125 cm.

Many readers will not be aware that the palace and its surroundings were once sold, and as the future of the park continues to be a matter of dispute, it seems a suitable time to review the history of the site, and the sale.


Victorian splendour

The Crystal Palace began life as the building to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, in Hyde Park. After the exhibition had ended, Sir Joseph Paxton, it's designer, builder and impresario, acquired its structural members and erected a bigger and better version on Sydenham Hill in south London, which opened to the public in 1854.

Inside the great glass structure were displays of exotic plants, a huge collection of sculptures, and areas devoted to different eras and archeological sites. The park's exhibit of life-size dinosaurs around the Lower Lake was a favourite with the crowds (recently restored, these are one of the few original features to remain) and there was a series of enormous fountains.

Throughout the 19th century, Crystal Palace Park remained the property of the Crystal Palace Company. People paid an admission fee to enter; notoriously, in 1859, Paxton opposed the introduction of flowerbeds into the Royal Parks, presumably because he feared that people would be less likely to pay the admission fee if they could see flowers elsewhere.

Harder times

A serious fire destroyed the north transept of the palace in 1866, and by the end of the century, its fortunes were in decline. The park became one of the pioneers in Britain of thrilling rides for the public in an attempt to keep visitor figures up, but the collapse into bankruptcy continued inexorably. Despite the Festival of Empire which attracted hundreds of thousands of people in 1911, King George V's coronation year, the affairs of the company were wound up that year. The sale of the palace and park, as a single lot, was entrusted to auctioneers Knight, Frank and Rutley, to take place on 28 November.

The future of the palace was debated heatedly in the press and elsewhere. The Prime Ministers Of the Overseas Dominions wanted to use the building as an 'Exhibition Empire Centre'. On 23 October, at a public meeting, the Lord Mayor of London announced that it should be acquired for the public, and a fundraising campaign began. By the date of the auction, the necessary amount had not been reached, but Lord Plymouth, the President of the British Gardeners' Association, stepped in and bought the palace and park for £230,000. He then offered them to tile nation for the same price.

Negotiations to find a means of repaying Lord Plymouth soon got under way. London County Council announced that it would offer £50,000, and a Bill was rushed through Parliament to allow local authorities to contribute money to the campaign. At the end of June 1913 however, £90,000 still remained, so The Times opened a fund and within 14 days, it had achieved the total.

Then came the retrenchments. Penge Council had promised £20,000, but sent only £5,000; Camberwell Council was, even more extreme, and reduced its contribution from £15,000 to £600. Lord Plymouth accepted the situation with good humour, despite his compensation beiing nearly £30,000 less than he had paid. But in October 1913, Crystal Palace was finally secured for the nation, to be administered by Bromley Council (now a London Borough).

Neglect and disaster

Since then, of course, the history of the park and palace has been troubled. The palace itself was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936, and decades of occasional suggestions have not yet resulted in any choice for a replacement structure, nor even an agreed use for it.


After the Second World war, a National Sports Centre was built in the south of the park, cutting directly across the major axis of the design, in 'a major intervention' in the landscape. Nearly a decade ago, this building was listed Grade II* (the whole park was already registered Grade II*).

The various authorities cannot agree about the relative merits of the park and new buildings. Plans for a redevelopment of the park, proposed in the late 1990s, were initiated by Bromley Borough Council, but only the first phase has been carried out - the Heritage Lottery Fund declined to fund most of the project.

The London Development Agency, part of the Mayor's Office, recently appointed landscape architect Latz and Partners to draw up a new master plan for the site. The air is full of accusation, complaints and proposals for discussions, much of it online.

Personally, I would like to see the sports centre demolished and the main outlines of the park as laid out by Paxton restored. At present, the future of one of Britain's most important parks, one of London's largest green spaces, and one of the most influential of public-garden designs remains uncertain.

Ed. Notes:

Park Ownership & control...

In 1951 Parliament passed the L.C.C. (Crystal Palace ) Act where the responsibility for the Crystal Palace site was given to the London County Council which was created in 1889. It was the first metropolitan-wide form of general local government. The Greater London Council (GLC), created in 1963, replaced the LCC and its first members were elected in 1965. The GLC itself was abolished in 1986 and the services previously provided by the GLC were carved up between central government, the boroughs and a new set of London-wide bodies. The ownership of the Park then passed to the London Borough of Bromley.

One of the main manifesto pledges of the Labour Party in 1997 was a referendum on the re-introduction of a democratically elected strategic authority for London, with a directly elected Mayor and Assembly. The referendum, held in May 1998, endorsed the setting up of the Greater London Authority by a three to one majority. The Greater London Authority Act received Royal Assent at the end of 1999.

The London Development Agency (LDA) which have an option to take over the running of Crystal Palace Park, state that:

"We are the Mayor's agency responsible for driving London's sustainable economic growth - it's our job to ensure that London remains a global success story. To help us deliver this we work with partners from industry, public and voluntary sectors. As well as driving forward equality, health and sustainability, our work is prioritised by four themes.

• Regenerating London
• Supporting People
• Encouraging Business
• Marketing London"

Under the "Regenerating London" remit falls Crystal Palace Park.

Future of the Park...

The article states that "The air is full of accusations and complaints...". However, the public consultations show a remarkable degree of agreement with the concepts proposed by Latz and Partners (the Master Planners). There are a few points of dispute (inevitably) with some members of the public, but for the first time since the great fire of 1936, the future for the Park looks very promising.

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14/3/07 Last Updated 14/3/07