Today (November 30) in London History – the Crystal Palace Conflagration

It was the great south London conflagration. The fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace. It happened on November 30, 1936. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

If you like facts, you’ve come to the right shop.

The Illustrated London News put it best. It said, “the celebrated home of firework displays itself became a gigantic pyrotechnic ‘set piece.’” The blaze – it was like a vast bonfire set on the great ridge which dominates South London from a height of over 300 feet – was visible from ten counties. Visible from 80 miles away. The sky over Sydenham resembled a brilliant sunset. A brilliant sunset that lit up the skies of South London. 

Flames and glowing smoke-clouds rose to an altitude double the height of the two great terminal towers. Little wonder it was seen by millions of people – more people than any previous fire in Britain. It was seen from an aeroplane in mid-Channel. It was seen from the Devil’s Dyke, near Brighton. It was seen from Spaniards Road on the Northern Heights of Hampstead Heath. And from Parliament Hill at the southern end of the Heath. 

Parliament Hill and the Northern Heights of Hampstead, those were practically front-row seats. At Harrow on the Hill, nine miles from Hampstead, people watched the blaze. Ditto people on the Hog’s Back near Guildford. And on the Chilterns. 

Fire engines were summoned from every station in the London area. More than 90 fire appliances and 500 firemen fought the blaze – a record for any London fire. 

Owing to the height of the Palace there was great difficulty in obtaining adequate water pressure. 

That was when the firemen reached the scene. All the odds were against the firemen that night. Beginning with the difficulties they had getting their firefighting equipment through the congested streets because of the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to the scene. 3,000 London police were called out to try to control the crowds. 

And the firefighters were unlucky with the winds. The wind was blowing freshly from the northwest. With the result that the fire, starting in the front of the transept, was blown right through it to the back and also down through the southwest wing. Within half an hour everything was ablaze. Completely out of control. It was a pyrotechnic display nobody who was there – or who watched it from afar – would ever forget. 

Short of the Great Fire of London it was the most spectacular fire ever seen in Britain. 

Well, you’ve guessed by now. 

It was of course the tremendous fire that destroyed the historic old Crystal Palace, London’s vast amusement centre on the top of Sydenham Hill in south London. The fire broke out at about 7 pm on this day, Monday, November 30th, 1936. 

The manager, Sir Henry Buckland, was doing his rounds. He was checking the Palace with his daughter. Her name was Chrystal. Sir Henry noticed that a small fire had broken out at the Sydenham end of the Palace. Chrystal recalled, “Father saw the flickering light of the fire and told me to run through to warn the choir. As I did so, I noticed a blue flash running along the floor.”

A blue flash running along the floor. Yes, bears repeating, the flames spread with astonishing speed through the great transepts and galleries, which were divided by partitions and filled with furniture. The mighty building – 1850 feet long and covering 25 acres – was ablaze from end to end in 20 minutes. Sparks were blown as far as Beckenham, two miles away. 30 minutes after the fire began, the North Transept fell with a roar that could be heard for miles. Streams of molten glass poured down outside the building, forcing the firemen back. The Palace looked like a great bowl of flame with the firemen dwarfed against it. The North Tower was like a huge chimney with smoke pouring from the top. 

The shorthand “mighty building” doesn’t begin to do the Crystal Palace justice. It took 2,000 men to build it. It was made of 4,000 tonnes of iron and 400 tonnes of glass. It contained 30 miles of guttering and 200 miles of wooden sash bars. Outside, fountains were supplied by two 300 foot high water towers.

Built in Hyde Park originally, it was of course the focal point for the 1851 Great Exhibition. After the exhibition it was removed from Hyde Park and re-erected across the river at Sydenham, where it was in fact enlarged and divided into courts. For 80 years, crowning its great hill, it was the central feature of an amusement park. It did duty as a concert hall, a theatre, a menagerie and exhibition rooms.

If there was a mercy, it was that no lives were lost. 

There were some close calls. 

The organist at the Crystal Palace for 40 years was in the middle of a rehearsal of the Crystal Palace Choral and Orchestral Society when he heard of the fire. He said, “I was informed that there was a fire but that there was no need to be nervous because it would soon be out and we could carry on with our rehearsal. In less than five minutes the same man who had told me of the fire came back and said that it would be wise if we cleared out immediately.” The organist, one Mr F. W. Holloway, lost all his personal music which he kept at the Palace. And the magnificent organ, said to be worth £4,000 – a lot of money then – was completely destroyed. In addition, the Handel Festival music, which, in Mr Holloway’s words, was “worth thousands of pounds” was also lost. 

Well, I warned you, didn’t I. This one’s nothing but facts, every one of them a spark. We’ve burned through no end of them but for good measure here’s a few more. And then to end, some speculation. 

People living in Anerley Hill, which faces the south tower, hastily collected their valuables and hurried from their homes. 

Local domestic water supplies in the district were reduced to half pressure owing to the requirements of the Fire Brigade. Hundreds of birds from the aviary within the central arch were released from their cages before the collapse of the roof. They fluttered through the smoke to safety in nearby trees.

This was the third great fire to hit the Palace. In 1866 a blaze destroyed the north wing. The south wing’s turn came in 1923.

Our fire, the great 1936 conflagration, was under control at 3 am. Under control because there was nothing left to burn. It had raged for eight hours.

And so we come to the big question. What caused it? We don’t know. Perhaps it was a spark from old and fault wiring. Perhaps it was a carelessly-discarded cigarette falling between floorboards. From a single spark a mighty holocaust.

And a today in London recommendation. I’d say a visit to Crystal Palace Park is called for. 

See what’s still there. For example, the two sphinxes. They’ll be there to greet you. As will the Victorian dinosaurs. They were the creation the most renowned natural history sculptor of his time, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. And they’re fascinating. You want to push the envelope, enlist Aaron – he’s our young fiercely intelligent Cambridge University palaeontologist – book Aaron for a private dinosaur tour down there. It’s a fascinating couple of hours. Not least because a lot more is known about dinosaurs now than Waterhouse Hawkins and his contemporaries knew – and Aaron takes you through all of that. It’s example after example of scientific evolution. We can see the giant strides Palaeontology has made in the last 170 years by seeing, with Aaron’s eyes, those giant-striding Victorian dinosaurs. How their chassis are a work in progress so to speak. Close but no cigar. Makes for a unique – and fascinating – couple of hours. There’s no other London tour like it. Get in touch if you’d like us to set one up for you. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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