Crystal Palace (Low-Level) Railway Station
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In October 1851, Sir Joseph Paxton’s Great Exhibition of Art and Industry of All Nations concluded a triumphantly successful six-month exhibition attracting more than six million visitors. The building that housed the Exhibition was satirically christened ‘Crystal Palace’ by Punch magazine. Despite a Commission and a public outcry, the government would take no responsibility for purchasing the structure. Thus, the future of the Palace remained in the hands of Messrs. Fox and Henderson, the original contractors and builders.
It was at this juncture that a firm of solicitors, Johnson, Farquhar and Leech, conceived the notion of saving the Palace from destruction and of rebuilding it on an appropriate site. This would be accomplished by the creation of a private company. The solicitors submitted the project to an entrepreneur, Francis Fuller, who undertook and arranged, on their joint behalf, a conditional purchase of the Palace from Messrs. Fox and Henderson as it stood for £70,000. In addition, Leo Schuster (a Director of the Brighton Railway, later known as The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway) was approached on the matter of re-erecting the Palace on a metropolitan line of railway in the belief that transportation by rail was essential for the conveyance of great masses from London. Approving highly of the idea, Mr Schuster obtained the hearty concurrence of Samuel Laing (Chairman of the Brighton Railway Board of Directors) for aiding, as far as possible, in the prosecution of work and to complete the purchase of the building. Thus, on 24th May 1852, a group of English gentlemen became the owners of the Crystal Palace.
Upon securing the structure, the Crystal Palace Company (CPC) next arranged for the purchase of a mansion (Penge Place) and its 349 acre grounds in Sydenham (all owned by Leo Schuster) for £167,661. 200 acres of the land were reserved for the Palace and accompanying gardens, while the remaining 149 acres were sold to a business associate of Joseph Paxton for £100,000. The site was secured primarily because of its supposed ease of accessibility to and from London. Unfortunately, the first link to a railway station (the present Crystal Palace Railway station) was not fully completed until after the opening of the Crystal Palace on 10th June 1854.
Whilst lacking the architectural magnificence of the great glass edifice that it served, the most significant and publicised feature of the station was the 72-foot two-span roof supported by an intricate range of wooden arches suspended over the platform area. Thus, upon arrival, the visitors would proceed from the platform area up a substantial flight of stairs, through a wooden ticket shelter and then on up to the glass-walled ‘Crystal Colonnade’, leading to the South Wing of the Palace and finally to the Crystal Palace itself at the top of the park.
Because of huge crowds, the distance up to the Palace and inclement weather, the public soon began registering numerous complaints about the inconveniences they were encountering. Year after year, the number of complaints increased but nothing was done to rectify the situation. Finally, in a gesture of compliance, the CPC accepted the idea of a second terminus being proposed by the Chatham and Dover Railway who were opting to locate at the top of Sydenham Hill, running a parallel line with the Palace’s western façade. The station was completed in 1865 at a cost of £100,000.
The commissioning of the second station, known as Crystal Palace (High Level) (as opposed to the original Crystal Palace (Low Level) station by the CPC might at first appear to be excessive, or a conflict of interest especially when one considers the original ties with the Brighton Railway. During the Palace’s first 30 years, more than two million visitors arrived each year at Sydenham, the majority of whom travelled by rail. Such overwhelming numbers constantly taxed the Low Level station, making it quite inadequate from the very beginning. In fact, for twenty-two years, the station remained as it had appeared in 1854, with the only major structural change occurring in 1869.
Gradually, as user pressures became alleviated and stabilised, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway took time to reconstruct the Low Level Station in an attempt to remain competitive and to maintain modern standards. Thus, in 1877 at a cost of £13,000, Fred Dale Bannister (Engineer-in-Chief) and Whitney H. Mannering (Principal Assistant Engineer) redesigned the station and accommodation.
The redesigned facility comprised two large two-floor buildings. On the central ground floor was a general waiting room and booking office paved in Minton’s encaustic tiles. In the south building were spacious and separate male and female waiting rooms and toilets. On the first floor were the Station Master’s rooms including a living room, four bedrooms, kitchen and toilet areas (presently used by The Railway Consultancy).
The press had always criticised the old station as inadequate but made little mention of the new and improved station.
© Jeff Yentz 1979
and Crystal Palace Foundation 2012