It was – and still is – a Wonder of the World. When the Crystal Palace was constructed in Hyde Park in 1851 by the formidable Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of industrial artefacts from around the globe, it was the biggest building on Earth. You have to run nearly a mile to get around the site. Go there and see.
Over six million visitors, equivalent to a quarter of the nation’s population, made the journey there. It marked the first time that people of all classes mixed together on a big scale (well, after the first few weeks, during which the price was so high only the rich could afford to go). It marked the high point of Britain’s industrial power, when we were self-confident enough to invite the rest of the world to come and match our products.
The Palace was, amazingly, built in only nine months from prefabricated standardised bits of glass and iron – eat your heart out, IKEA – and, wait for it, not only made a handsome profit (£186,400), which helped to finance the museums of South Kensington, but it is still making a profit of over £2.4 million a year today. The money is distributed to worthy innovative causes. The finance was raised largely by public subscription. No other industrial exhibition was able to equal that achievement.
It was, of course, a temporary structure which was moved to South London after only six months, where it lent its name – which the magazine Punch had coined – to the area and the football club around it before it was burned down in 1936. Virtually nothing of it remains in Hyde Park now, apart from the Coalbrookdale Gates, which were moved to their present position at the south end of West Carriage Drive) after they failed to attract a buyer at a post-Exhibition auction.
The only other remnant there, apart from some underground pipes, is a latrine which, according to the man who uncovered it, Edward Strickland, may have been used by the workers building the Exhibition building. Some people think it may be the origin of the phrase “spend a penny“, as 675,000 pennies were spent there, though there are other candidates for that prestigious coinage.
Until recently there was nothing at all to show exactly where the Crystal Palace stood, but now there are five plaques dotted around the huge expanse of what is now called the old football pitches. These give its almost exact dimensions, though it is a bit like hunt the thimble to find them.
Nobody in the cafe near the Exhibition Road end of Hyde Park had even heard of them when I asked, and were quite surprised when I located one of the plaques on the floor of the terrace where they are serve their coffee and snacks (see photo above). It is always the same: the nearer you are to something the less likely you are to see it.
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