Fire destroys the Crystal Palace
Londoners watch in horror as one of Britain’s best-loved structures burns to the ground
When,at seven o’clock on the evening of 30 November 1936, Sir Henry Buckland stepped out of his front door to take his dog for their evening stroll, he could scarcely have imagined what lay ahead.
For more than 20 years, Sir Henry had been the manager of the Crystal Palace, the vast, glittering cast-iron and glass building originally designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, but which had been relocated to Sydenham, south London. Buckland loved his job; he had even named his daughter, Chrystal, after the building. But now, as father, daughter and dog meandered along Crystal Palace Parade, they noticed a strange red glow inside the great glass edifice.
When Sir Henry went to investigate, he found two night watchmen struggling to put out a fire inside the central office area. Within minutes, the blaze was out of control, and at 7.59pm the first telephone call reached Penge fire station. The first fire engine arrived just four minutes later. But already the Crystal Palace’s fate was sealed; as the Radio Times later put it: “The cavernous building glowed with an eerie incandescence, like some vast chandelier.”
So fierce was the fire that night that it could be seen from all over London, and reportedly from as far afield as eight surrounding counties. As word spread, thousands of people headed towards Sydenham, gaping at the scene of 200-foot flames, tumbling pillars and crashing glass. Among them, gazing openmouthed at the destruction of one of Victorian Britain’s most celebrated achievements, was one of the last Victorian statesmen, Winston Churchill. He reportedly stood there with tears in his eyes as the structure collapsed, saying softly: “This is the end of an age.”
The smouldering ruins of the Crystal Palace photographed on 1 December 1936, the morning after the Victorian landmark was devastated by flames