History of the Crystal Palace (part 1)

Henry Cole's Idea

The Crystal Palace was first erected in Hyde Park in 1850-51 to house the world's first international trade fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Exhibition's origins lay in the national exhibitions of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and particularly in the Paris Exposition of 1849. One visitor to Paris who was particularly impressed was a leading RSA member, Henry Cole. On returning to London, Cole put forward his idea for a grand exhibition to other RSA members, including the President, Prince Albert. Albert gave the project his approval and he decided that the event should be international.

All Designs Rejected

At first, the intention was to house the exhibition in Somerset House but it soon became apparent that much more space would be needed and, therefore, a new exhibition building. The site chosen for the exhibition was a 22-acre plot in the southern part of Hyde Park. The site having been secured, the next stage was to select a design for the temporary exhibition building. A building committee was appointed and included no lesser figures than Sir William Cubitt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Barry and Robert Stephenson. The committee organised a competition for the design of the building and 245 entries were received. The committee was unable to decide in favour of any of the designs, and so produced its own version. This design proved so disastrous that it threatened to scupper the entire project. After being published in the newspapers the proposed edifice was scorned and ridiculed almost unanimously. With less than a year before the intended opening the exhibition needed a saviour. It was to find one in the unlikely form of a gardener.

Joseph Paxton, who at the age of 23 had been appointed head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire estate at Chatsworth, had been conducting numerous experiments in glass house design. The culmination of this work had been the Great Palm Stove and the Lily House. The design of the latter was said to have been based on the structure of the lily Victoria Regia (known today as Victoria Amazonica) which the glass house was built to accommodate. Paxton was told of the committee's dilemma and persuaded them to allow him to submit a design. The committee agreed, and nine days later he presented his plans. The new proposal was for a glass and iron structure based on the Chatsworth Lily House but on a much larger scale. It was to be of modular construction of three tiers, based on a 24ft cube and reaching a maximum height of 64ft, the length and width being 1,848 and 408ft respectively.

Saving the Elm Trees

The committee eventually accepted the design after one major modification had been made. Opponents of the exhibition had fought bitterly against the cutting down of elm trees on the proposed site, and in particular three large elms opposite the Prince of Wales Gate. The committee asked the contractors Messrs Fox & Henderson, to alter the design so as to enclose the trees. The result was the barrel-vaulted transept which was to be the building's most graceful and distinguishing feature. The building was dubbed 'The Crystal Palace' by Douglas Jerrold writing for Punch magazine in 1850.

Messrs Fox & Henderson's tender for the contract for £79,800 had been submitted together with Paxton's plans, with the proviso that they could keep the building's components when the structure was disassembled following the exhibition. They took possession of the site in July 1850 and immediately erected hoardings using the timbers that would eventually become the building's floorboards. Next came the setting out of the building, stakes being driven into the ground to mark the approximate positions of the cast iron columns. The positions were then determined accurately using a theodolite, and base plates for the columns were set into concrete foundations. The columns were elevated into position using shear-legs, a simple apparatus consisting of two poles lashed together at the top, and maintained in a vertical position by guy ropes extending from the apex of the triangle formed by the poles to stakes driven into the ground some distance away. Pulleys were suspended from the apex, and ropes passing over the pulleys were used to raise the columns, girders and other parts.

The Edifice Rises

A connecting-piece was attached to the top of each column prior to its erection. As soon as two adjacent columns had been erected a girder was hoisted into position between the columns and bolted to the connecting-pieces. The columns were erected in opposite pairs, then two more girders were connected so as to form a square or bay. The shear-legs would then be moved and an adjoining bay constructed. When a reasonable number of bays had been completed, the columns for the first floor (second tier) were erected. Longer shear-legs were used, but the operation was essentially the same as for the ground floor. The second floor followed when the first floor was complete.

The 16 semi-circular ribs for the vaulted transept were made of wood, raised into position as eight pairs. All were fixed into place within a week. Wood was also used for the floorboards, glazing bars and gutters. The downpipes for the gutters were the hollow support columns.

The huge quantity of glass required, 900,000 sq ft, posed a problem for the manufacturers, Chance Brothers of Birmingham, which they solved by taking on French and Belgian glassblowers. The panes of glass were generally four feet by 10 inches. The glazing of the roof, including the transept, was in a ridge and furrow pattern, this arrangement letting in plenty of light and facilitating drainage.


The building was competed within five months and the exhibition opened on schedule on 1 May 1851. The exhibition's success is well-documented and was due in no small part to the majestic beauty of the Crystal Palace. Following the exhibition Paxton, Fox and Cubitt were knighted. But what was to become of the Crystal Palace? Debate raged for many months, with Paxton vigorously appealing for its retention in Hyde Park as a winter garden, but to no avail. Parliament decreed that it must be removed. Anticipating the outcome, Paxton had already formed the Crystal Palace Company. The share issue raised £1.3 million and the company was able to buy the palace from Fox & Henderson and acquire a new site at the summit of Sydenham Hill in Kent.

(This article written by David Lancaster appeared in The Valuer magazine in October 1988)