A Palace in Flames and London's Gateway to the North

This is a transcript of episode 23 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dan Cruickshank, Emily Gee and Ken Kiss as we continue our journey through the history of loss and destruction in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and you're listening to 'Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places'. In this series we explore the amazing places that together tell the story of England. How does it work? Well 10 expert judges, 10 categories and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places which have helped make England the country it is today. If you are enjoying the series, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode and if you're listening on iTunes, please rate this podcast and leave a review.

In this episode we will be exploring two more locations in the Loss & Destruction category, as chosen by the judge Professor Mary Beard. This category is all about places that have been lost or destroyed, or those that have been witness to loss or destruction. Often they're places where the structures that remain are ruins and may no longer physically exist, but their loss is etched in memory. I'm joined today by historian Dan Cruickshank and Historic England's Emily Gee. It's certainly interesting to think about these places isn't it?

Dan Cruickshank:
Well yes I am enjoying it, I'll be honest [laughter]. I love lost buildings, and the prospect of sometimes bringing lost buildings back to life, and funnily enough we're gonna talk about The Crystal Palace.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We are, that's exactly how we're starting today, by thinking about this building which was one of London's most famous landmarks and a grand public spectacle before its destruction in 1936. We're talking about Crystal Palace in South London. So this once magnificent building that Professor Beard has described in the words "The optimism of Victorian England for good or bad". And of course it was designed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, temporarily erected in Hyde Park.

Dan Cruickshank:
Yes, yes.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And then moved to this large open space in Sydenham, but then disaster struck and the Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936, although they sent in something like 88 fire engines, nearly 500 fire fighters.

Dan Cruickshank:
It couldn't be saved. There's so much timber in it. People always think of it as pioneering use of cast iron mass-produced components, but there was still more timber than iron. What's interesting also about the Great Exhibition, when it was opened in '51 and as a temporary building (designed by Joseph Paxton- the great designer of greenhouses, out of cast iron), it wasn't much liked you know? At that age, people tended to like ornament and pedigree and reference to the past to give dignity to architecture. This was a bit too much like a greenhouse, a bit too ruthless, a bit too modern. And what's was interesting now if you go to site, it's famous for many things, lovely little park and the dinosaurs of course- the concrete dinosaurs that were the rather speculative dinosaurs of the 1850's- but the podium is still there. I've looked for the remains of The Crystal Palace you know, after the fire of the 1930's. I think I've found one or two, and there have been ideas to rebuild it, not using old stuff, but rebuilding it as new, on the podium. It would be wonderful.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And what else do we know about Paxton? I mean he was a pretty impressive architect of his era, wasn't he?

Dan Cruickshank:
Well the big thing in a way, but you can boil it down in a sense, was that he introduced the notion of how inspiration of natural history could be applied to architecture, at a time when natural history was a challenge for the Victorians because of course it challenged the notion of creation as according to The Bible, as with Darwin's ideas and so on.  And Paxton took natural history and extracted from it lessons that one could apply to construction and architecture: a great big lily leaf, for example, he used as a model for roof structure, which was in essence saying God is still behind all this because he's also, you know, the great architect of nature too.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And I suppose in terms of displaying modern learning and technology, that's what The Crystal Palace was all about in the first place wasn't it? If we think about 1851, the Great Exhibition, I mean let's talk about what that was, just in case people don't know.  And why did they need this amazing pioneering building to house it?

Emily Gee:
Well it was the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and they had this vision to showcase the industry of the world under one great roof. And it was a pretty forward looking time for England in 1851. They'd just passed through a period of sort of Chartist political unrest and they were looking forward to an age of industry and democracy and prosperity. And the idea that we could bring together these amazing, extraordinary things, from all reaches of the empire, into one vast space was the vision. And it was great that of course they had a champion in Prince Albert. He was deeply committed to these concepts, and also to architecture, and he was the one that took the form of the building into this magnificent temporary site in London's Hyde Park. It was really about a way of showcasing the empire and bringing visitors from all corners of the world to Hyde Park to see these splendid things.

Dan Cruickshank:
I mean, we forget it now, but the money made by this was used, ploughed back into culture by creating the museum's quarter.

Emily Gee:
Absolutely.

Dan Cruickshank:
The V & A was part of that. What's interesting though is that it was to promote the progressive nature of Britain socially and culturally, and of course through its commerce, which provoked people like Dickens to look at the underside. In 1851 he did a series of articles in Household Words where he looked at the slums of East London to say: don't forget this is this great world power, but it lives off the misery of many working people. He went round Spitalfields and wrote up stuff. It was a pivotal moment in the 19th Century.

Emily Gee:
Yes and of course, I think that's what Mary Beard was getting at when she talked about optimism for good or bad, because of course also it's a real testament to the empire and to a period of you know, when everyone had a sense of pride in colonialism and there was either perhaps ignorance, or perhaps deliberate ignoring of the damage that all colonialism was also causing at the time so…

Dan Cruickshank:
Yes well I mean Engels and Marx- Engels came to Britain in the 1840s and he made the same point: the world's richest city has the worst slums because the poor were exploited ruthlessly and not taken care of. And that kick-started what became you know, the Communist Movement, I suppose, through Marx. So this is all part of this wonderful and weird moment in British history.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But of course there is a sense you know, despite this underbelly, that Crystal Palace itself was designed to commemorate achievements and to showcase a whole huge number of objects. I mean how many things were on display there, do you know Emily?

Emily Gee:
100,000 objects on display. They were displayed by over 14,000 international exhibitors and it's quite remarkable. 6 million people came to see them. All these things were organised into different themes that you'd sort of visit as you went around the building: machinery, manufactures, fine arts and raw materials. And so within this great sort of glittering, glassy palace we had things from steam engines to textiles, diamonds to firearms. And people took advantage of the rapidly expanding railway network of course at this time, to come and visit, and to pay homage to the splendour of the empire.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It had kind of afterlives didn't it?  And it also became a part of its new neighbourhood. We can hear about what happened with its demise from Ken Kiss at The Crystal Palace Foundation.

Ken Kiss:
My name's Ken Kiss, I'm the Director of The Crystal Palace Museum, and Curator.  The Palace opened in June 10th 1854. From the top end of the park you can come from where the Palace stood, down to where the National Sports Centre starts, and get a very good idea of the geographical features of the park. The Crystal Palace structure itself was remarkable from outside and inside. You could look at the building from outside and see the clouds and the sky reflected in the glass. The building in Hyde Park of course was designed really as a very large tent, to look after 100,000 exhibits from all around the world. Here at Penge the idea was to move on, to be a place of education. In one case they had a baby hippopotamus live in the building! And when you came to the northern end of the building, Paxton had made sure that the heating was elevated to a new height. As you walked through the doorway into the northern end there was a luscious smell of oranges and various other tropical plants growing. There were great banana trees growing in the north end and with a lot of tropical birds flying around, it really set the scene.

When the new Crystal Palace Company was formed, with the intention of taking the building down in Hyde Park and re-erecting it at a suitable location in London, eventually due to a remarkable stroke of luck, if it could be called luck, Samuel Lang became Chairman of the new Crystal Palace Company. And one of his Directors, a gentleman called Leo Schuster owned Penge Place, which was a gentleman's country seat. Brighton Railway Company were very pleased because the line to Brighton ran at the bottom of the hill. It meant just a short spur could be added from Sydenham station to come right up to the Palace. On November 30th 1936 a fire broke out, under the floor, near the centre transept. It couldn't have been in a worse position because the centre transept contained, apart from all of the wooden floor, we had the great organ and it didn't take very long for the fire to spread from below the floor to above the floor, into the first gallery level. The building was virtually lost to everybody. There were many people in the crowd who really were shattered that they'd lost the building which was the heart of the Crystal Palace area.

The area, although technically known as Upper Norwood, SE19, was of course known to the world as Crystal Palace. You lived at Crystal Palace, although you don't live in the building. I think people that lived at that time never, ever got over the loss of that building. I think nowadays much has changed and the park is a very, very popular spot and has been again, over the years since the end of the war in 1956. This super aerial to supply Central London with a television image stands there like an Eiffel Tower and is quite an achievement and a sight that people recognise today. Wherever they are in London, ah there's the Crystal Palace transmitter.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's wonderful that the structure was reused and became part of a huge green complex for the people to enjoy and to escape the city. The Crystal Palace would have been such an amazing sight, but you can still see some quirky features in the park, like those huge sculptured dinosaurs.

Dan Cruickshank:
Concrete, concrete dinosaurs with all bits in the wrong place! They've been recently repaired and painted, they're lovely now.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But we're staying in London for location number seven, which is a monumental arch that once acted as a ceremonial gateway to the midlands. It's the Euston Arch, which stood at the railway in North West London, between 1837 and 1961, when it was demolished, to the shock of architects, historians and the public alike. Dan, you were behind the formation of the Euston Arch Trust. Can you tell us more about what the Architectural Review once described as the "Euston Murder"?

Dan Cruickshank:
Yes, it was the first great monument to the railway age: beautifully designed by Philip Hardwick in 1837, commemorating the connection of London and Birmingham, the entry to the north from here, and also the point of arrival from the north to London. A thing of great beauty. Interestingly, those railway companies wanted to commemorate this new age of steam and power and communications by a monument that looked back to ancient Greece, because they wanted to have their new enterprise bless by history (very interesting) and it was much loved and it was a listed building. Before the Second World War the railway companies agreed that in the rebuilding of Euston it would be preserved and moved because it would be a cultural crime not to do that, obviously: great monument to London, 70 foot high, huge blackened thing of wonderful Bramley Fall stone, like granite. However things changed, their promises were reneged on and despite vast opposition, British Railways with the then government, the Tory government, demolished it. The Victorian Society fought it, [John] Betjeman fought it, the produced proposals that showed how it could be put on rollers and moved, but no, it went and in a way the battle to save it started the modern world of conservation.

Other railway stations were saved, St Pancras and Kings Cross, because such was the public anger and dismay at the rejection of public sentiment and the demolition was unnecessary. What's odd about it, though there've been many lost buildings, it's never been forgotten. And strangely enough, 20 years ago, I followed myths that many people had you know, put around, that the stones had been saved. They had been saved by chance. British Waterways, as they were then called, wanted to fill a hole in a river in East London and they acquired the stones for nothing from the demolition guy who got rid of them for nothing. Off they went to East London. About 60% of the stones are there. I've had that confirmed by diving, by lifting stones, by talking to what is now Canal & River Trust. They were used to armour the river bed and the stones, the quality is such that the tooling on the surface of the stones is as good as the day it was cut in 1837.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
How amazing!

Dan Cruickshank:
So they're reusable! They're reusable. And the proposal has been and gathered some traction, I'd say, by the High Speed 2 plans to enlarge Euston, to remodel Euston. And currently the rebuilding of the Arch is back on the agenda, if one pursues it and if one can raise the money, to right a great wrong and to bring beauty back from the depths of the river by using as many of the old stones as possible. So that's the current proposal.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Before the demolition of the Arch there was prominent public opposition from the likes of the writer John Betjeman who had a passion for Victorian architecture, and other notable figures like the President of the Royal Society and various architectural societies. I mean I'm really struck by the fact that our attitudes to conservation have changed so much. I think back to the '50's, we were losing historic houses at the rate of four or five a week because of death duties. And of course this must be something you think about a lot at Historic England?

Emily Gee:
Absolutely. And I think what's so important about the Euston Arch, well so many things are, but partly because it's a really a early Victorian building, and it was a really pivotal moment in shifting the public perceptions of the value of Victorian architecture. You can see the series of catalysts over the last 200 years of what we value, what we choose to protect, and often there is a dramatic moment that comes in shifting public opinion to a new period of architecture. We see the Adelphi going in the 1930's and that suddenly enlivens this idea that actually perhaps Georgian architecture was important. And the Euston Arch, you know, devastating as its loss was, it has had this sort of pivotal moment in introducing the idea that actually Victorian architecture is of value and worth saving as well. So it has some positivity that's come out of the sadness from that.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So it's a major milestone really when it comes to protecting heritage.

Dan Cruickshank:
One tiny point worth making, if one broods on this, but the site is stood on, Drummond Street, is way to the north, and that cannot be reclaimed as part of the operational area of the station. That went as a street in the 1960s, so no one's saying it must go back to its original site- that is buried on the platforms basically. And so it's got to come to the south, between the lodges we mentioned on Euston Road. But then that's fine, I mean, but it has to be part of Euston, it can't be moved off to some park in the suburb, no, it must be… Well it says 'Euston' on it doesn't it?

Emily Gee:
And it's worth thinking about if there are other ways also of capturing that memory. I mean we do think about the importance of public art and the way of sort of drawing attention to lost places by some sort of new intervention or a sort of public commemorative way perhaps, in addition to thinking about rebuilding it…

Dan Cruickshank:
There's a big debate that has taken place. I'll stick to rebuilding it. You can say you can have some of the stones and organise them as a ruin, that's reasonable. But I've always thought that to right the great wrong you would have to rebuild it as far as possible, using as many of the old stones as possible.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what happens. If you have any strong feelings about this, do let us know, do Tweet us at #100places. Join in the conversation about this because there are different points of view on what to do when something's lost like this. Anyway so that's two more Loss and Destruction locations unveiled. Three more to go next time, so do join me, Dan and Emily again soon, and don't forget to subscribe to the show on your podcast app. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb and I'll catch you next time.

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