Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 22 - 1858-9 - Crystal Palace - Spain Poises the Javelin

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Crystal Palace - History - Sir Joseph Paxton - Fountains - Balloons -  Antediluvians - Railways to - When the Crystal Palace owned a railway - Crystal Palace Station - Divers attractions - Court of Lions - Protest from the Moorish Ambassador - Refreshments - Photographs - Flying machines - Later visits - Dangerous bridge - Colonel Burnaby - Shadow Show - Perfect Cure - Green's Balloon - Pepper's Ghost - Handel Festival - Concerts - Express trains to Palace - Declaration of war by Spain - Bad business - Royal Charter.

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THE remaining incident I have to chronicle in 1858 constituted a land-mark in my personal history - my first visit to the Crystal Palace; often longed for, come at last! The Crystal Palace formed a great feature of metropolitan life in the late 1850s and 60s. It was the Exhibition building of 1851 re-erected, with additions of transepts and water-towers on a beautiful elevated site at Sydenham, where its glistening expanse could be discerned counties away. I have seen it shining, even in winter, from Wormwood Scrubs, in spite of intervening miles of roofs and smoking chimneys. Alas! during the air raids it served as a beacon to the Huns - it, old Father Thames and Lady Moon, all three turned traitors and coalesced to direct their evil flight. It would have formed one of the safest shelters, for great care was taken not to injure such a guiding mark.
    A magnified and glorified green-house essentially, the idea of Sir Joseph Paxton, it had been adopted for the Great Exhibition with some misgiving, but in practice had proved so successful and commanded such admiration that its destruction seemed a sort of sacrilege, and public opinion rejoiced when a limited company acquired the material with the intention of re-endowing it with life and splendour. [-181-] I am fortunate in possessing a large picture, signed by Sir Joseph Paxton, showing the Palace as it appeared when first put up at Sydenham. It would seem that the tops of the water-towers - which are likewise chimneys - were then finished on flush, so the sloping caps with which we are familiar must have been the fruits of after-thought. It was from the northernmost of these towers that a poor fellow intent on suicide jumped in February, 1868.
    Only a year or two ago I read that the famous greenhouse, an acre in extent, at Chatsworth, designed and built by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Duke of Devonshire of his time, had been blown up as too expensive to maintain. I have an idea that the Great Exhibition design originated from this vast greenhouse. Blown up when the growers under glass in Guernsey and elsewhere were busy making fortunes and unable to secure sufficient carriage to transport their products to the English markets!
    The Sydenham Palace was inaugurated with great ceremony by Queen Victoria on June 10th, 1854. Chaucer, in his House of Fame, written nearly five hundred years before this event, speaks of "The Queen in her Crystal Palace." Well, Londoners saw her there on this occasion. Paxton's great structure remained a leading popular attraction for many years, pleasant to everybody but the poor shareholders who truly found that "all is not gold that glitters," for they secured but few and inadequate dividends from their shining investment.
    One of the great glories at Versailles of the Grand Monarque was revived and surpassed in the beautiful grounds, for there were installed the greatest fountains ever seen. Fountains have quite gone as popular attractions in 1924, but in the '50s the taste for multiplied watersquirts, the bigger the better, survived, and with fireworks - also pretty moribund in these later days - charmed the public fancy and were worth catering for. There were also several beautiful fountains inside the Palace, and advertisements that the grand fountains would play on a special day would be sure to attract crowds. Sometimes the jets d'eau and their auxiliary cascades would be started during fireworks [-182-] and coloured lights turned on them, yielding a magnificent, fairy-like spectacle, although not so varied and gorgeous as Colonel Bolton produced in the late '80s by locating his tinted lights under and within tumbling waters.
    Balloons were often sent up from the grounds, and the names of Glaisher, Green and Coxwell became famous in connection with such ascents. In the '60s Nadar' s great balloon, Le Géant, with which lie had ascended from Paris with some six or eight passengers in a regular cabin, was on show after that exploit.
    There was a lake in the grounds, and on peninsulas jutting into it were placed reproductions in stone of antediluvian animals and extinct monsters, which are still there, although once more well on the road to extinction, for, splendid and impressive in 1854, they are shabby and more prehistoric than ever in 1924.
    Then there were terraces and grand flights of steps up or down which the Queen of Sheba, with her peacocks and apes and all, might have approached Solomon in his glory without the slightest loss of dignity.
    In the '50s there was only one railway to the Palace, a branch from the LB. and S.C. line from London Bridge, which took off near Sydenham Station and accomplished a pretty smart climb up to its destination. The local down- trains, on leaving the main line, ascended an embankment and passed over the trunk metals by a bridge, thus avoiding the danger incidental to the usual crossings on the level: it was one of the first examples of this expensive but eminently safe method. At first passengers from the main line had to get out at Penge or Anerley and tramp up the hill, there being no facilities for changing trains at Sydenham. To remedy this the Crystal Palace Company bought an engine and some carriages from the Brighton Company and with them themselves worked a passenger service between Norwood Junction and the Palace over a branch which had been made for the conveyance of material during construction. The engine was one of the small Sharp Roberts type; the Crystal Palace Company painted it bright blue. They only employed one driver and fireman, and when, on one [-183-] occasion, the former had to go to Lewes to give evidence at an inquest, they had to borrow a man from the Brighton staff. Ultimately the Brighton Company took over the line, which has for many years past formed part of the important link by which the London and North-Western Railway service to Croydon is conducted.
    The Crystal Palace Station, at first a terminus, was of substantial character, with wide stone platforms and staircases, all on a scale commensurate with the crowds which were expected and duly came. At the beginning the station was entirely covered by a fine glass roof, but this was removed many years since. The platforms were at a considerable distance from the Palace proper, but, being joined to it by long glass corridors embellished with flowers and climbing plants and affording views of the beautiful grounds, the hiatus was not much felt; indeed, it served to heighten expectation by avoiding a too rapid transition between the prosaic puffer and fairyland.
    It was from London Bridge Station that I made my first trip to Sydenham. The Crystal Palace trains then invariably used the platform on the extreme left, still there, for the 1858 station, apart from a new, greatly improved roof, with increases in the lengths and height of the platforms, together with a big expansion of the gathering space for passengers, has altered little. There was a separate booking-office for the Crystal Palace situated in the centre of the corresponding left-hand entrance hall, the wooden carcass or box of which is still in situ, although no longer employed for booking. There were exactly similar boxes in the other approach halls for Croydon and main-line tickets; but these disappeared many years ago.
    To us boys the Palace seemed indeed little short of Fairyland. The figures of various outlandish tribes brandishing spears in their native jungles, then new and bright, were startlingly realistic, but at the same time educative; the marble-rimmed ponds, with their water-lilies and gold-fish that followed one round for crumbs; the high-perched organ, with its mountainous amphitheatre; the statuary, past some of which we were conducted rather hastily (there [-184-] was a group called The Three Graces, which I once heard a young lady refer to as The Three Disgraces); there was a Venus, mute and unashamed but yet eloquent; a replica of the Court of Lions at the Alhambra-my elder brother had told us some of Washington Irving's Tales; the warm atmosphere, the murmur of distant music sounding weirdly and soothingly under the vast roof; the ripple of the fountains, commingling with the perfumes of flowers,-all these united to produce a feeling of pleasure not unqualified by awe.
    The Court of Lions reproduction was so realistic that, some years later, a Mahomedan pundit visiting London, wrote to the Times protesting against the name of God, inscribed in Arabic on one of the flooring tiles, being trodden underfoot daily by hordes of unbelieving Christians. And I think the Moorish Ambassador - we haven't seen him lately - made representations to the same effect. It was sought to excuse the fact by alleging that the Moors who built the Alhambra were not so strict in such matters as their latter- day successors; but more probably the tile was not one of the originals but had been innocently used by the Spaniards to replace a broken or worn piece - and so copied without its import being realised.
    And then, the refreshments! It was here. that I tasted my first ice-cream, and a jolly big one it was. They used to put the creams in glasses in vertical strips of pink and white, and we wondered how this could be managed without mixing the colours. Round-bottomed soda-water bottles were likewise novelties in our eyes, and again we marvelled why they were made so that they wouldn't stand up.
    The refreshment contractor was a Mr. Strange, and strange some of his arrangements were. One had to decide how much one was going to spend for lunch, tea, or dinner, pay the amount at a window, obtain checks for the value and hand these to the waiter, who rationed accordingly in meal or malt - usually beef, mutton, chicken and ham, and bottled beer. Drinks meant checks of another colour. But checks were necessary - the reddest gold tendered direct would not procure sustenance sufficient for a lady-[-185-]bird. It was no use fancying pickles after sitting down to one's cold meat unless prepared to travel to the window for the necessary voucher. How tips were managed did not come within my purview, but I feel pretty certain that they were-somehow. If Strange did not make a fortune it was neither for want of customers nor customs.
    There was a photographic artist who made you stare unblinkingly (if you could) for some two minutes while Father Sol was busy transferring your image to the slow wet plate. Then you took away your portrait on glass-printing on paper not having yet been evolved-framed according to fancy and financial resources, and generally smelling heavily of collodion. Some of the work was quite good, however, and I still cherish a picture taken in this studio on that very visit of my dear mother arrayed in bonnet and mantle and crinoline.
    Then there was a French magician who sold mystery toys and conjuring tricks. One of his productions was quite interesting in view of modern aeroplane developments. He launched a light disc from a handle, giving it a high rotative velocity by drawing out a wound-up string, and the thing flew round about the stall and neighbourhood for quite a distance. With a purchased specimen we succeeded in effecting flights at home; but, as the machine developed an uncanny instinct in finding out articles specially liable to breakage and in clearing the mantlepiece of vases and odds and ends it was soon confiscated.
    I went often to the Palace during the following years, and noted changes and additions. In the '60s there was in the Central Transept a model under glass of Gulliver asleep being tied down by the Lilliputians which we never failed to visit. And after the Danish War of 1864 a good model of Duppel, the fortress which the Danes defended so stubbornly against the Germans, was exhibited in the same Transept and remained many years on view. That also was interesting, for I sympathised with the Danes very much.
    One of my most enjoyable visits was in January 1861, while the seasonable festivities were in full swing. We went from New Cross Station over a snow-besprinkled railway. [-186-] Then and for a long time afterwards the next bridge south from New Cross was a dangerous one, several passengers, it was reported, having been killed through knocking their heads, incautiously protruded from the carriages, against its brick piers. The bridge was of two arches, one wide, spanning three of the four tracks in the rather deep cutting, and the other narrow, accommodating only the down slow metals. This latter arch gave no proper clearance between the carriages and its piers, and anybody happening to look out even a few inches was liable to be trapped.
    The Company put bars across the windows of the first- and second-class coaches; but, as many of the third-class were windowless trucks with roofs supported on stanchions, the remedy was only partial and ultimately the bridge had to come down. How any engineer could have had the conscience to design such an arch or any licensing authority the temerity or carelessness to pass it when erected, defied comprehension. We were on that down slow track that morning and held our breaths until the dangerous piers had almost scraped past. The Folkestone entrance to the Shakespeare Cliff tunnel on the South-Eastern Railway used to be similarly closely cut.
    The engine drawing our train was No. 131, which some three years later went off the road and blew up near Streatham while travelling at sixty miles an hour with a troop- train carrying Grenadier Guards commanded by the subsequently celebrated Colonel Burnaby, the hero of Khiva, who, escaping scatheless from the slaughter at Streatham and many another peril, was many years afterwards killed by an Arab lance at the battle of Abu Klea. However, No. 131 was on her good behaviour that Christmas time, and got us to the Crystal Palace safely. No one could have anticipated, that happy day, that in a few years' time she would do what the French and Russians had never accomplished- burst up one of Her Majesty's crack regiments of Guards.
    The delectations provided included a shadow show in which the action of an acrobatic sort of pantomime could be followed by the figures of the actors being cast on a big sheet by powerful lights behind. It might appropriately [-187-] have been called a phantom-mine, and was quite good fun. Then there was Mr. Stead, who sang and danced The Perfect Cure. And he was all that. He sprang a couple of feet in the air at every bar, and never paused for some ten minutes. The words were the merest drivel, the attraction consisting solely in the eccentric appearance of the singer, his antics, agility, and endurance. There was a splendid Christmas tree and a jolly old Father Christmas who, to the tune of Jenny Jones, dismissed us with "I wish all here present a happy New Year!" Mr. Green's great balloon, Le Continent, hero of dozens of ascents, stood inflated in the north nave, and in the grounds there was plenty of ice for skating and sliding, some fourteen degrees of frost having been registered the previous night.
    On a subsequent visit I witnessed a good performance of Pepper's Ghost, and eerie it was; and of course did not miss the famous Handel Festival in which massed choirs from all parts of the kingdom aggregating, it was said, to 10,000 voices, annually attracted vast crowds. A member of one of these choirs once told me that there was a deal of humbug about it all. Some of the choirs were too imperfectly trained to be trusted, and stood mute the whole time, the noise made by the others and the organ sufficing to cover up the gaps cunningly distributed. A German, Augustus Manns, was Musical Director for many years and had hosts of admirers. Afternoon concerts, for which the most talented artistes were engaged, formed a long-standing feature of the Palace entertainments. These were so well patronised that the Brighton Railway in the 60s ran an express train from Addison Road, Kensington, straight to the Palace for the accommodation of West-End enthusiasts. Fancy an express train to the Crystal Palace nowadays!
    The 24th of October, 1859, I shall never forget. Going to school that morning I noticed on a Morning Herald contents placard, "Declaration of War by Spain," in big letters. I had not heard anything about a quarrel with Spain, and wondered whether she had at last made up her mind to avenge the Armada, our English Salamis, and to take Tilbury Fort, which I hoped Queen Victoria would find in [-188-] proper defensible condition should she review troops there even as her great forerunner Elizabeth had done. Little did I dream that that brief and obscure announcement contained any special signification for myself. But it did.
    In the evening papa informed us that Spain had declared war against Morocco in consequence of repeated outrages by the Riff and other tribes and that he was anxious about the event. For, let it be known, at that time his chief business was with Mogador and other Moorish ports. The Spanish Generalissimo (a word I became acquainted with for the first time), Marshal Prim, beat the Moors after some smart fighting, with the consequence, amongst others, that many Moorish merchants declared themselves ruined and unable to pay for goods already delivered. Which might, or might not, have been the case. Amongst them were several with whom my father had done business for years and trusted implicitly, and his loss was serious. I have never thought much of Othello since, and should any enlightened student start out to prove him an undischarged bankrupt from Mogador skulking in the Venetian army, such an investigator would command my respectful and sympathetic attention.
    Two days afterwards occurred the dreadful wreck of the Royal Charter, a fully rigged auxiliary screw steamship of 2,700 tons and 200 horse-power. Two months out from Melbourne for Liverpool with 498 passengers and half a million of gold on board, she was driven on the rocks of north-east Anglesey in a very violent gale while lying-to for a pilot. She dragged all anchors and got knocked to pieces, only thirty-nine souls being saved in spite of most gallant attempts at rescue. I well remember the sensation this sad event occasioned and the pictures which professed to represent it. Truly the name Royal Charter became even as a household one throughout the land. She had been built in 1856, and when new once ran under sail and steam 352 knots in twenty-four hours. Not all the gold in her treasure room was salved, and fully hail a century afterwards sovereigns were still being found about the site of her destruction.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924