Sunday, 12 June 2011

'Miraculously Improbable,' - The Crystal Palace.

‘Miraculously Improbable’ – the Crystal Palace.

Following my midweek post ‘Regency Panes’,  let’s look at a Victorian glass building:
“As miraculously improbable as a giant soap bubble.”

Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, 1851. (Thanks to

The building is, of course, the Crystal Palace – home of The Great Exhibition, 1851. But this wonderful edifice didn’t start life with such a snappy name; it’s original title was,
‘The Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.’
When the Punch columnist, Douglas Jerrold, saw the finished building he dubbed it ‘The Crystal Palace, and the name stuck!

 Punch Magazine, reknown for its dry wit and caustic humour.
The idea for the Great Exhibition is credited to a civil servant, Henry Cole (incidentally, Mr Cole is also credited with the invention of the Christmas card – as a way of encouraging people to use the penny post.) But designing a suitable building to house the exhibition did not go smoothly. A competition ran, but of the 245 entries, all were rejected as unsuitable. It fell to the unlikely person of the head gardener at Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton, to have the idea of a giant building based on hot houses.

Contempory view of Crystal Palace.

With a certain serendipity, two events meant his design became possible. First was the invention of sheet glass (which cooled more quickly, required less polishing and could therefore be produced more rapidly than plate glass) and secondly, the abolition of the Window Tax (1696, tax on the number of windows) and Glass Tax (1746 tax on the weight of glass in a window)
The beauty of Paxton’s design was that the building was made from interlocking parts which could be manufactured off-site, and assembled on-site; like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Cast iron trusses measuring 3 foot by 23 foot 3 inches, formed a giant frame from which a total of a million square foot of glass  hung – a third of England’s glass production for a year.

St Paul's Cathedral during The Blitz, WW II.

The finished building measured exactly 1,851 feet long (as a tribute to the year, 1851, when The Great Exhibition was opened). The interior volume was so vast that four Saint Paul’s Cathedral would fit inside; but the Crystal Palace took a mere 35 weeks to build, whereas Saint Paul’s Cathedral took 35 years.

In 1851 this glinting, transparent building was almost beyond the public’s imagination,
“ miraculously improbable as a giant soap bubble.”

The magnificent interior, large enough to accomodate Hyde Park's elm trees.

[ Next Wednesday – NEW blog post on:  Terrific Great Exhibition Trivia ]

1 comment:

  1. Lovely! I was (audiobook) "reading" about it in "At Home" by Bill Bryson today.


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