Disaster and misfortune were always associated with the Palace. The first major disaster was in 1861 when the building was badly damaged in a gale. The first major fire was on 30th December 1866 when the north transept containing among other areas the Alhambra, Assyrian, Byzantine Courts, and the Indian and Naval Galleries were destroyed along with the whole of the tropical department. Many animals in the zoo were also killed. It took two years to rebuild the north nave but because of the lack of money, the transept was never rebuilt. Because of the destruction, the Crystal Palace Company introduced the North Tower Gardens as a way of maintaining income without expenditure on the transept.
The entertainments comprised various water sports in a large reservoir. They also built a 400ft-long Marine Aquarium in 1872. Parts of both still exist today. The Crystal Palace Company also introduced educational institutions into buildings in the grounds. Art, sculpture, needlework, and engineering schools abounded.
The Palace's popularity continued until the end of the Nineteenth Century when, sadly, it began to wane as it looked as if the directors had run out of ideas. They had tried very hard for over 45 years but habits changed and different and more modern facilities and entertainments became available. The financial problems of the Palace came to a head in 1911, the year of George V's Coronation and the year of the biggest show the Palace ever had - The Festival of Empire. The Festival brought dozens of high street brand names to the Palace such as Oxo, Maynards, Bewlay Pipes and many more. All countries of the British Empire displayed their produce in miniature examples of famous buildings from their country. To enable visitors to view the buildings easily a railway was constructed known as the All Red Route Railway with many stations en route.
The Festival included pageants and displays, the main being the Pageant of London consisting of dozens of tableaux reflecting the history of London and the British Empire from the earliest times to the present day. Despite hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, it still did not produce enough revenue to resolve nearly sixty years of financial problems. A bankruptcy application was made to the High Court on 27 May 1909 and it was announced in The Times on 11th September 1911 that Messrs Knight, Frank & Rutley, auctioneers, would sell the Crystal Palace on 28th November 1911.
The news that the Palace was to come under the hammer caused instant controversy. Long before the actual auction announcement however, Mr (later Sir) Howard Frank, with his flair for public relations, was mobilising public opinion. The firm’s sales brochure (of which this an exact reproduction) was lavish even for a Coronation Year production, and a work of art in every sense. It was produced by the Manager of the London office Cecil W. Ingram, a past-master at sales brochures such as this. Its generous layout and typography were years in advance of its day. Printed on hand-woven paper by Hudson & Kearns, London, SE, it contained fifty-two pages of photographs and engravings and sixty-four pages of text, running to more than 20,000 words. It weighed approximately 3¼lb, without the loose map and substantial cardboard case, and its size was a large 16½in by 11in. The company sold copies for £1.1s and some subscribers bought as many as 20 copies. The Times reported on 3 December 1936 that ‘an offer of £5.5s had recently been refused for a single copy’.
It was 11 September 1911 when The Times broke the news that the auction was to be held on 28 November. Was there not a risk that this ‘Home of Science, Art, Literature and Music’ could fall victim to such unworthy commercialism? Would not the land alone tempt speculative builders if the property were to be broken into several lots? There were just over ten weeks to do something.
Those ten weeks were to generate many letters to the press. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Strong, called a meeting at the Mansion House for 23 October, for ‘all public bodies and persons interested in the acquisition of the Crystal Palace and its grounds for the use of the public forever’. The Mayor of Hampstead, William Woodward, wrote the first letter to The Times. He was worried about speculative builders. The Palace was now in a ‘heartrending’ state of neglect. It was in danger of being given over to ‘football matches and other attractions for vulgar mobs’. Surely the money to save it could be raised somehow? What about a subscription of £1.1s each from a million people?
By the beginning of October it was known that more than 200 acceptances to the Lord Mayor’s invitation had been received – from local government representatives all over south-eastern England. It was now believed that £300,000 was needed to save the Palace, £210,000 of it to buy the property.
At this point the two auctioneers, Howard Frank and Roy Lancaster, wrote a joint letter to The Times adding fuel to the controversy. They were worried about letters they had received which seemed to imply a belief ‘that the interests involved are so vast that the chances of the property being acquired for national purposes are remote’. Could the property be broken up to advantage? ‘Assuming the Crystal Palace itself to be razed to the ground’ (with hindsight there is a terrible irony here) ‘there would be about 100 acres… which might be dedicated to the public for ever… the area surrounding this open space would at once become more valuable and would readily let. We should be pleased to submit plans of a scheme to this end’ The rumours of speculative building were causing a depreciation in property values in Sydenham. ‘We hope and believe that the Palace will be bought for the nation. Our duty, however, is to sell to the highest bidder’.
This letter was dated a week before the Mansion House conference. Meanwhile ‘Save the Palace’ schemes had multiplied. Lord Strathcona and other notables had already contributed gifts totalling £7,000. At the meeting Mr Francis Fox of Fox & Henderson, who had surveyed the Palace structure, said that it was ‘good for another 60, 80 or 100 years’. The Lord Mayor moved a resolution that the building and its grounds should be acquired for the public: seconded by Lord Plymouth.
On 31 October, in a half-page advertisement, positioned amongst those for several large Scottish sporting estates, Knight Frank and Rutley announced the auction, as they were bound to do; but they must have been reasonably certain by this time that the property would be withdrawn. On 9 November The Times, under the heading the Crystal Palace saved, announced that Lord Plymouth, who was Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan, Mayor of Cardiff, an authority on Constable, and owned 30,500 acres including his own St. Fagan’s Castle, had provided a deposit of £20,000. It was now a matter of applying to the Court of Chancery to arrange a private sale.
Nine days later The Times reported: ‘We are authorised to state that the contract for the sale of the Crystal Palace entered into by Howard Frank of Knight Frank and Rutley representing the vendors, and Lord Plymouth, was £210,000. The sale by auction, which was to have taken place in the Estate Room, Hanover Square, on 28 November, has accordingly been cancelled.’
Please visit our shop to purchase a reproduction copy of the catalogue or to purchase a reproduction copy of the accompanying map
In the weeks leading up to the sale much correspondence appeared in the press and many meetings were held, including several by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Strong. On the 9th November The Times, under the headline 'THE CRYSTAL PALACE SAVED', announced that thanks to the 1st Earl of Plymouth: Robert Windsor-Clive [1857-1923] Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan and Mayor of Cardiff and The Times newspaper the building and grounds were purchased for the nation He had put down a £20,000 deposit on the building. Nine days later, having got the approval of the Court in Chancery, he signed the contract to pay the balance of the sale - some £210,000.
The Lord Mayor of London set up a fund to raise the money to relieve Lord Plymouth of his financial responsibility and finally, in 1913, the Palace became the property of the nation. By that time the building, starved for so long of proper care and attention, was in a very poor state.
Copyright Crystal Palace Foundation 2012
Compiled By Melvyn Harrison, Chairman