Fire de­stroys the Crystal Palace

Lon­don­ers watch in hor­ror as one of Bri­tain’s best-loved struc­tures burns to the ground

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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

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