© spurensucher - 31.05.2020

Iron and glass on fire? The enigmatic history of the Crystal Palace


Crystal Palace 1851 (picture public domain)


A unique project of the first half of the 19th century, launched by great Victiorian personalities. Strangely enough, with the help of an "expert" in greenhouses and gardening named Joseph Paxton, the British elite decided to build the largest glass building ever built: The Crystal Palace, site of a 1851 World's Fair. . 


What do we know about this exhibition? The Crystal Palace was built in London's Hyde Park, but the world exhibition lasted only 6 months for a total of 6 million visitors. Obviously, this gigantism (I will describe the data of this building later) should be remembered a little more sustainable, as the Palace was then dismantled and rebuilt much bigger: In Sydenham Hill in South London. But it never really became clear why people took the trouble to leave this special location in the centre of the city. In retrospect, it is claimed that the opposition for the project might not have wanted to continue to make Hyde Park available for such attractions. Too much criminal potential could be attracted by the Crystal Palace. A strange explanation, which certainly does not form the core of the truth.



The Crystal Palace in the 2nd edition, South London, Public domain


The new monstrous glass palace main body measured 563 metres long and 124 metres wide. The "central nave" alone was already 33 meters high. The total area of the building was 92,000 square meters. The ground floor and galleries provided a total of 13 km of exhibition space. Just to get an impression of the sheer size of the facility - a building three times the size of St. Paul's Cathedral and four times the size of St. Peter's. The building was even big enough to accommodate three large elms. 6 million visitors in just 6 months speaks for the huge acceptance of the exhibition worldwide.


Photo from 1851 with one of the tall trees in the middle of the Crystal Palace (public domain)






Public Domain; Picture source



The ultimate non-architect and gardener Paxton is said to have made a concept drawing in just 2 days (brace yourself), which he scribbled on the back of an envelope. This rough sketch (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum) contained all the basic features of the finished building, and is considered a sign of Paxton's ingenuity and hard work, allowing detailed plans, calculations and costs to be submitted in less than two weeks. OK, even though Paxton had already built a large glass house (2,600 square meters) in the 1830s, this spontaneous selection of this concept candidate for such a gigantic project is, to put it mildly, "amazing". Interestingly, however, 233 alternative committed proposals or designs have been swept aside ad hoc. These were certainly more "elaborate". Paxton was also not involved at all in the official call for proposals; it is said that his advance on vitamin B was enough to cheat his way forward out of line.
Joseph Paxton, in the 1860s (picture public domain).




Paxton scribbled his proposal on the back of an old absorbent envelope, which apparently was enough for the presentation. Some refer to it as a simple blotter... A real joke.
The Blotting-Paper Sketch (Source); George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library.





Same collection; (Source)




Somehow even more incredible: Built in only 4-6 months


Because of its comparatively low weight, the Crystal Palace required absolutely no heavy masonry for load-bearing walls or foundations, and the relatively light concrete foundations on which it stood could be left in the ground after the building was removed. However, 84,000 square meters of glass from the Chance Brothers glassworks in Smethwick are said to have been produced to get the system up and running. 80 glaziers are said to have installed 18,000 panes in a week, which seems a bit odd and difficult to achieve. More than 5,000 workers were employed on the building during the construction phase, and up to 2,000 at the same time during the building construction phase. These were so-called "Navvies", basically simple workers, who are usually used for railway or tunnel construction, more likely for earthmoving work, but not for rather filigree building construction projects. Very strange. A total of 4,000 tons of iron were used for columns, trellis beams and gutters.


Plan of the Crystal Palace area from 1857 (illustration public domain)




The whole thing is said to have lasted only 5 months, some speak of 9 months, others of 4. Is this credible? Not from my point of view. Even with a construction of prefabricated parts, which would cause problems even in today's production lines with automation processes, this story does not make sense to me. And then with grossly motorized unskilled workers?

A civil engineer from today's world rightly criticizes: "I am a civil engineer and consider the construction of the Crystal Palace in 39 weeks from approval to opening to be complete nonsense. The glass they apparently had to use is cylindrical glass measuring 1.25 x 0.25 metres (approx.), which was very labour-intensive. It had to be blown in a trench, cut and then polished. So the glass alone would have been impossible to produce in the 4 months indicated; about 153,000 square meters of glass. Without machines, only horses as a source of power. You couldn't make it 39 weeks today, let alone 1850."
Another article even mentioned 10 weeks of necessary production time for the panes in which these quantities are supposed to be produced.


Plans without measurements, so far I could not find anywhere clean architect drawings or construction plans, which also show measurements. Floor plan of the draft of the building committee for the 1851 major exhibition.
1. machines in motion. 2. more machines. 3. seats for visitors. 4. refreshment places. 5. raw materials. 6. products. 7. sculpture and plastic arts 8. small courtyard 9. the rotunda 10. main entrance and executive offices 11. the other entrances 12. the entrance to the park 13. The Kensington Road. 14. The Queen's Private Road. Plan: public domain.





Selbst bei Wikipedia kann man nachlesen:
"Ein früher Fortschritt bei der Automatisierung der Glasherstellung wurde 1848 von dem Ingenieur Henry Bessemer patentiert. Sein System erzeugte ein durchgehendes Band aus Flachglas, indem es das Band zwischen Walzen formte. Dies war ein kostspieliger Prozess, da die Oberflächen des Glases poliert werden mussten und später von seinem Sponsor, Robert Lucas Chance of Chance Brothers, als unrentabel aufgegeben wurde. Bessemer führte 1843 auch eine frühe Form von "Float Glass" ein, bei der Glas auf flüssiges Zinn gegossen wurde.
1887 wurde die Massenproduktion von Glas von der Firma Ashley in Castleford, Yorkshire, entwickelt. Bei diesem halbautomatischen Verfahren kamen Maschinen zum Einsatz, die 200 standardisierte Flaschen pro Stunde herstellen konnten, ein Vielfaches schneller als die traditionellen Herstellungsmethoden. Die Gebrüder Chance führten 1888 auch die maschinelle Methode des maschinellen Walzens von gemustertem Glas ein." (Source


So we can see that at the end of the 1840s this was far from being an automated process and that the new flat glass process was also very expensive at that time. This probably did not correspond economically to the original concept of the operators, who were looking for the cheapest supplier of a solution. And I have my doubts about the process technology here as well. So what story are they trying to tell us here? After all, automation processes for glass did not develop until 30 years later. And this was first of all a simple plant for glass bottle production.


Exhibition splendour at the world exhibition in the 1st edition of the Crystal Palace (pictures public domain)







Photo taken at the Handel Festival between 1887 and 1889 (picture in the public domain)
The large "Handel Orchestra with Choir" regularly performed the always popular oratorios at the Crystal Palace and encouraged the love of the English for Handel's music. The size of this hall with the corresponding organ suggests great acoustics.


Which surprised me: In the left foreground of the Crystal Palace, one sees in a photo of 1911 the replica of the Canadian Parliament House (photo in public domain). The Festival of Empire or Festival of the Empire took place on May 12th at the Crystal Palace to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Who would think that this front building was built of wood and plaster to be used only temporarily. Of these supposed wood/plaster buildings, there were probably several that were connected by an electric tram, the so-called "All-Red-Route". The tram invited the visitor to a round tour through the individual Bezierke with country-typical landscape, which led around the buildings listed above. Bridges over small lakes represented sea voyages between the countries. The route is marked in red on the map below, and some of the carriages can be seen in the picture above.




Hier das ebenfalls nachgebaute Parlamentsgebäude Neuseelands auf dem Gelände – angeblich ebenfalls aus Holz und Gips gebaut – jedenfalls täuschend echt.




Here the corresponding map including the additional buildings in the outer area on the occasion of the Festival of Empire 1911.


Site plan of 1911 on the occasion of the Festival of Empire 1911 including the additional buildings.



So everything had to be produced by hand in the run-up to the construction project: "This glass was made by blowing long glass cylinders, which were then cut lengthwise and then flattened on a cast-iron table before being annealed. In the case of table glass, the glass is ladled onto a cast-iron bed where it is rolled into a plate with an iron roller. The plate, which is still soft, is pushed into the open mouth of a cooling tunnel or temperature-controlled furnace, a so-called annealing furnace, and is conveyed downwards by a roller system. In 1847 James Hartley introduced the rolled plate method. This allowed a ribbed surface and was often used for extensive glass roofs, such as inside railway stations". (Source



The presentation of the first armoured vehicle in April 1902 in front of the Crystal Palace was also a highlight for the establishment with the black hats. Here the Simms Motor War Car. Picture public domain


Next question - how should the construction have gone? All about ladders? Wooden scaffolding? Elevator-like equipment did not exist at all at that time. By the way, the distance from the glassworks in Smethwick to Hyde Park is 130 miles today as it was then. A proud distance, which should have been bridged in this short time. The Chance Brothers are said to have hired Belgian and French glassblowers to support them, but even that didn't help much in terms of production. 


Today, the reason for this turbo construction period is the neglect of health standards and the maintenance of unscrupulous working conditions - which, in my view, only puts the manpower aspect into perspective. From a technical point of view, however, tons of questions remain unanswered.



Fire liquefies glass and iron



A simple fire is said to have razed the huge building to the ground in 1936. However, no investigations were made in this matter.(Source), Aerial view of the fire; Citation/reference: Cartophilic reference books, ZA5-2; New York Public Library


Here again in better quality and from a slightly different perspective (picture public domain):




A major fire destroyed the aging building on November 30, 1936. It took 500 firemen and 90 fire trucks to put it out, and another 749 police officers to control the crowds (Edwards and Wyncoll, 1992).
Witnesses described "so much molten glass that it looked like a waterfall," even "like a Niagara Falls of molten glass" (Edwards and Wyncoll, 1992). According to one eyewitness, "the glass actually caught fire, and when it was really hot, there was a sodium flame, and the liquid glass just poured down.
Mrs Ford from Sydenham described "hot molten glass and metal flowed down the street and the adults formed a human chain and handed buckets of water from hand to hand to stem the flow of hot glass". Another witness recalled that people "picked it up and rolled it into balls that they could keep as a souvenir. (Source)


Burning Crystal Palace (picture public domain)




"In the evening shortly after 7 p.m., the manager of the Palace, Sir Henry Buckland, was walking on the grounds of the building (note: accompanied by his daughter) when he saw a red glow coming out of the building. He found two night watchmen trying to put out a fire that had started in the women's dressing room and spread to the central transept.
The fire spread with alarming speed as the flames, supported by a strong wind, swept across the huge wooden floors of the palace, up into the galleries and along the rungs. The fire brigade of Penge was not called until about 8 p.m.; by that time the building was already an inferno.
At the time of the fire, the Norwood Orchestra was practicing in the Garden Hall. A fleeing violinist recalled a horrible groaning from the building, which she later discovered was caused by hot air and was flowing through the pipes of the huge Handel organ". (Source)


The cause of the fire is still unclear and there has never been an official investigation. This would certainly have revealed some undesirable facts. Rumors of arson were circulating, as well as an electrical fault or a cigarette butt in the office area of the building. Officials, on the other hand, report in film reports from the area of the Egyptian exhibition area from where the fire is said to have started.
The palace contained wooden parts, wooden floors and some areas that had been largely patched with wood over the years. It also contained a lot of wooden furniture - admittedly. Wood that had been standing in a greenhouse for decades was certainly dry enough.


However, the two towers of the palace are said to have even been "deformed" by the fire. The flames were accompanied by clouds of sparks and violent explosions. By the way, the reference to the explosions is only noted in a few records.


So what kind of fire is it supposed to have been? Glass melts at about 1,500 °C, the same is true for iron. So we must have been dealing with a heat development of this magnitude. Where would this temperature have come from? From some floorboards and furniture? How could the fire have spread upwards and melted these basically incombustible materials?



Another source says that "when the building caught fire in 1936, there was no more water to put out the fire. The towers survived the fire, but were destroyed in World War II for fear that they would have been an easy target for German bombers." (Source)


It is possible that quite mundane economic reasons played a role in this accident. I'm thinking of a "warm demolition"!


"The British press saw the destruction of the Crystal Palace as a severe blow to England's political power, and the public wondered "how steel and glass can burn so violently" (Beaver, 144) ... The fire burned with great intensity for the rest of the night, but 20 hours later there were still sources of fire." (Source)


It is possible that the English or certain circles of society themselves tested the effectiveness of the incendiary bombs on this object, which were then used effectively over Dresden during the Second World War.


Another topic in itself: 8,000 people a day got off the train from the Crystal Palace Subway Station, which was built in 1865 (!!) especially for this purpose, a masterpiece of engineering and, in my opinion, hard to imagine how this was possible with technical means at that time. What was left of the pedestrian tunnel can still be visited today. The beautifully tiled or fan-shaped vaulted tunnel, designed by Victorian craftsmen, once connected a train station with the Crystal Palace and looks like the crypt of a medieval cathedral. The subway was no longer in use after the building was destroyed by fire in 1936:



"Probably designed by Charles Barry Jr.," is the statement of the "Führer" of the underground. Apparently, they're not sure who did the work back then.
The Illustrated London News initially attributed Edward Middleton Barry as the architect, but the following week issued a correction stating that the architect was Charles Barry, Edward's oldest brother. The Morning Post of 1865 stated that William Shelford, an engineer with the railways, was also partly a designer.
In a 1969 lecture to the Dulwich Society, Bill de Baerdemaecker explained that the "magnificent Italian subway, which runs under the Crystal Palace Parade, ... was built by Italian masons and stonemasons", but no evidence has yet been found in the archives of these craftsmen (Source). This raises the serious question of whether this structure was really intended to serve the purpose of a simple pedestrian underpass or whether it had not already existed there for some time.


Another contribution of a modern contemporary: "I think fire should be on the conspiracy list. I checked the palace manager's report on the discovery of the fire. I lived in a house overlooking the grounds. There is no possibility that he could have seen the NW corner where the fire started from the grounds. Priceless antiques from all over the world went up in flames: Why didn't their owners ask? Why was the palace closed at 7 pm on a Monday evening? ... etc. etc. I submitted my questions to the Crystal Palace Association and received no answer. I suspect that there is a WW3 war bunker under the grounds. I could hear strange noises under my house."


Judge for yourself.