On November 30, 1936, the Crystal Palace, an iconic structure which had come to epitomise the pomp of the Victorian era, was destroyed by one of the greatest fires ever seen in London.
The 990,000 square foot cast iron and plate glass building was constructed in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851, at the behest of the Queen’s husband Prince Albert. In 1854 it was redesigned and reconstructed on Penge Common, by Sydenham Hill in South East London.
At just after 7pm on the evening of November 30 the Palace’s manager, Sir Henry Buckland, was walking in the grounds of the building when he saw a red glow emanating from it. He found two nightwatchmen trying to douse a fire that had begun in the women’s cloakroom and spread to the central transept.
The blaze took hold with alarming speed as the flames, helped by a strong wind, swept across the Palace’s acres of timber flooring, up into galleries and along glazing bars. The Penge Fire Brigade was not called until nearly 8pm; by that time, the building was an inferno.
Its glow, which was said could be seen across eight counties, proved an attraction for Londoners; an estimated 100,000 made their way to Sydenham Hill to watch the conflagration.
Despite the best efforts of 88 fire appliances and 438 men from four brigades, the building could not be saved, its central transept collapsing with a deafening roar. Buckland told reporters that the magnificent structure would “live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”.