30th November 1936. Crystal Palace.

The Magazine Punch coined the phrase ‘Crystal Palace’ for the innovative structure built for the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works and Industry of all Nations: 85 years later Today in 1936 the Press was full of pictures showing its destruction by fire.


The 1851 Exhibition was open for less than six months but visited by 6 million, at a time when the country’s population was 21 million.

The inspiration came from Prince Albert and Sir John Cole, keen about the notion of Free Trade bringing nations together. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, whose first sketch was on a blotter.(1)

The structure was prefabricated using cast-iron, utilising the new technology of sheet glass and thus setting a trend for all the market halls and seaside assembly rooms for the rest of the century.

The main contractors Fox and Henderson turned Paxton’s sketches into working drawings for the ‘Arabian Nights’ structure which was erected in six months, using the revolutionary ‘Just in Time’, delivery of parts.

The real significance of the Crystal Palace was not in the spans, nor the materials, but in the process of assembly in modular form. The main girders were not bolted to the columns but slotted into brackets and wedged into place, thus facilitating its re-erection when it was moved to Sydenham. (2)

On the original site two giant elms were enclosed in its transept along with 12,000 exhibitors, nearly 7,000 of, which were British.

There were 100,000 exhibits sent by 14,000 individuals and corporate exhibitors which included railway engines, sewing machines, the electric telegraph, Prince Albert’s model working class house designs.

Then Schweppes Ginger Ale, using the new bottle glass and Kilner Jars for bottling fruit demonstrated the wide variety on show.

Though the Exhibition was heralded as a supreme example of peace, progress and prosperity and praised by Free-Trader, Richard Cobden for its beauty and variety, it was opposed by Tory MP for Lincoln one Colonel Sibthorp appalled at hordes of ‘hypocritical foreigners’ flooding into London.

2006am9515_jpg_ds-1For some it was the eighth wonder of the world, but artist John Ruskin hated it as being ‘ugly and full of old things’. Even Charles Dickens after a visit wrote that he felt ‘used up,’ William Morris, the designer, found the exhibition ‘wonderfully ugly’.

(1) It was once remarked of Albert that ‘the Prince has a lot of taste… and all of it is bad’.

(2) The exhibition closed on 15.10.1851 the building being re-erected in Sydenham in 1852 where it had an  enlarged form with three transepts instead of one, with the construction again carried out by Fox and Henderson.







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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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