Disaster strikes, 1936

Crystal Palace fire 1936 In 1914 a charitable trust under the control of the Ministry of Education was formed and the trustees hired Henry James Buckland (lately Manager of Harrogate Spa) as the Manager of the Crystal Palace. He was a firm but fair man who had a great love for the Crystal Palace - so much so that he even named one of his daughters Chrystal. Because of the War he was not able to take up his duties until the Navy had moved out. When Henry took over it was evident that the deterioration suffered by the building up to 1913 had worsened further still during the First World War through being used as a Royal Naval Shore Station - HMS Victory. Over 125,000 men and women serving in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), Royal Naval Division (RND), Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and Women's Royal Naval service (WRNS) were trained there for war service.

Shortly after the War John Logie Baird opened workshops, a television studio and tube manufacturing plant in various parts of the Palace and grounds. Henry and his staff performed miracles on the building and Park, repairing, cleaning, improving and the Palace was even starting to show a slight profit. But on Monday 30th November 1936 something happened to change the now Sir Henry's life and that of the whole area for ever.

At about 7pm he and Chrystal left their house ('Rockhills') on the northern corner of Crystal Palace Parade, to walk their dog. He walked towards the Crystal Palace and noticed a red glow in the building. He ran inside to see two night-watchmen attempting to extinguish a small fire in the office area in the centre transept. It soon became obvious that the situation was very serious. The first fire brigade call was received by Penge fire station at 7:59pm, the first fire engine arriving at 8:03. By the morning of Tuesday 1st December the building was no more. There had been 88 fire engines, 438 officers men from 4 fire brigades and 749 police officers on duty that historic night. The cause was never truly established and stories of arson abounded but because of the size of the building and the huge amounts of flammable material it contained, the cause was probably just a terrible accident. Shortly after the fire there was held a pre-booked engagement that opened a new chapter in the life of Crystal Palace - work started on constructing a tarmac motor-racing track. Following the fire, work started on removing the ironwork and by 1937 most of it had been removed by W. Ward & Co. Ltd, scrap merchants.

During the Second World War the Park was once again closed to the public, this time because of various classified work by Baird and his company in the south tower and in the Rotunda building. The north tower was used for various war work by government departments. It was requisitioned by the Radio Counter Measures Committee as a reserve transmitting tower, but in fact was never used. The tower (like the Pagoda at Kew Gardens) was used for a short while by the Ministry of Projectile Development for testing dummy bombs. On the 16 April 1941 the north tower was demolished by explosives. During the winter of 1940-41 the south tower was dismantled because of it proximity to the road. The intention was to blow that tower up as well but it was not done as there were fears that so many hundreds of tons of iron and brick falling nearly 300 feet would start an earthquake. There were also great fears about the potential damage that would be caused to houses on Anerley Hill. The demolishment of the tower was therefore achieved by placing an upside down umbrella like structure around the tower to catch sections sliced off and moving it progressively down the tower as it got lower and lower. The umbrella structure was removed once the tower was low enough. This task was complete by the end of 1941.Throughout the War parts of the grounds were used for the storage of armaments and timber salvage and from 1942 to 1944 the Italian Terrace, the Reservoir and the area bordering Crystal Palace Parade were used for a government vehicle reclamation and disposal scheme.

Upon Sir Henry's return to the Park after the War he commented to the press that "The general devastation which we have suffered would lead one to suppose that our acres had been chosen as the field for the most realistic battle of the war". So even after the demise of the building the deterioration had continued. The final destructive force to hit the Crystal Palace struck at 10:40pm on Tuesday 24th October 1950 when the School of Art and the remains of the south wing were destroyed by fire.

For many books, DVDs and souvenirs on this subject please go to the Fire section of our shop.

Copyright Crystal Palace Foundation 2022
Compiled By Melvyn Harrison, Chairman