Crystal Palace

Classic engineering - The Crystal Palace

We take a look at the specifications behind one of the grandest endeavours of Victorian engineering.

The Crystal Palace or, more correctly, the Great Exhibition building, was designed and constructed specifically to house, as its name suggests, London's Great Exhibition of 1851. Brainchild of Prince Albert, the purpose of the exhibition was to act as a showcase for the wealth of technological and engineering achievement generated by Great Britain and the rest of the world. The building was erected in Hyde Park and was so immense that mature elm trees stood inside it. Indeed, the vast greenhouse appeared to have its own ecosystem, with Queen Victoria famously disliking the resident sparrows.

The overall dimensions of the Crystal Palace were 456ft along the north-south axis, by 1,848ft along the east-west. E&T doesn't usually use imperial units, but we make an exception for the most ambitious construction project of the Victorian era in order to demonstrate the simplicity of the design. All of the principle design elements had to be divisible by 24, allowing the Palace to be prefabricated off-site and reassembled in the metropolis. With efficiency typical of the Victorian age, an army of 5,000 workers took a breathtakingly brief 17 weeks to slot together the temporary building. Only three main materials were used: glass, iron and wood. The ironwork was provided by contractors Fox and Henderson, while the glass all came from one supplier in Birmingham. Chance Brothers were the only manufacturer in the UK with the capacity to produce the enormous amounts of glass in the allotted timeframe. To have any certainty of fulfilling the order, Chance were forced to import labour from France.

After the exhibition the Crystal Palace was dismantled and moved to open land in Penge, where it was re-erected with significant modification. The new Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham Hill was opened by Queen Victoria on 10 June 1854, but the Palace itself was never quite the roaring success it had been previously. This was largely due to Sunday observance laws preventing it from opening on the day of peak demand. By the turn of the century the Crystal Palace was in a sad state of decline.

The arrival of the Great War saw the Palace transformed into a naval training centre and between the wars become strongly associated with the development of television. John Logie Baird established a TV company in the south tower (which also served as an aerial). From 1926-36, Baird experimented with 30 lines and 240 lines black-and-white as well as colour transmissions. Today, the broadcasting associations are kept up in the form of the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station, the tower of which - sometimes called London's Eiffel Tower - is the third tallest structure in the capital.

The end of the Crystal Palace came on 30 November 1936, when it burnt down in a matter of hours. High winds and huge amounts of flammable material meant the fire was unstoppable, despite the efforts of 89 fire engines and 400 firemen. It's thought that more that 100,000 people came to witness the inferno, among them Winston Churchill.

The building was inadequately insured and so it was never restored. The park remains popular, as do the famous model dinosaurs.

There is constant speculation about how the site will be redeveloped. Earlier this year Crystal Palace Football Club announced plans to create a new stadium at the site. If this goes ahead the Glaziers - as the team was once known in honour of the men who worked on the palace construction - will return to their original home, where once stood the world's largest greenhouse.

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