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Reflections of empire: glittering monument to Britain's colonial achievement or fragile symbol of a fragmenting imperial dream? Jan Piggott charts the efforts to make Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace flourish as an 'Acropolis of Empire'.


In November 1911 the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, the world's largest building, was for sale, bankrupt after decades of financial troubles. The Crystal Palace Company declared with a heavy pun in their Sale Catalogue that: 'The idea of Empire might be crystallised at the Sydenham Palace.' Although an ambitious Festival of Empire had been staged there during the summer the idea went back 60 years.

At the original Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park, the Great Exhibition of 1851 had in fact promoted hopes of international unity, rather than British interests; Prince Albert's speeches urged progress (through commerce) in love and peace towards the unity of nations. In the nave of the Palace a Krupp six-pounder cannon sat beneath an elegant canopy, an ironic portent. The great exhibition of manufactures and commodities (classified by Albert) amounted to an immense encyclopedia of resources and technology; the polymath Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell, spoke for the visitors: 'we were students together at the Great University of 1851'.

The Empire nations, other countries and the British East India Company sent items to the Exhibition. Indian fabrics were preferred for their design to the luxurious products of French looms. Reviewers were less impressed with the 'rough and colourless specimens of colonial industry' of the Canadian Court in contrast to Pugin's adjacent Medieval Court of Gothic Revival artefacts with their 'blaze of gold and colour'; some liked the white-birch canoe (paddled by 20 men for 3,000 miles before dispatch to London) suspended from the galleries over the Court. Naturally there was a competitive British element to the Exhibition but there was little imperial swagger, although the press described the Koh-i-noor diamond (lent by Queen Victoria) as 'the forfeit of Oriental faithlessness and the prize of Saxon valour" 'Human displays' in the Palace of Tribesmen and Tunisians in native dress were not intended to emphasise British supremacy.

The second Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton's masterpiece on Sydenham Hill, was inaugurated by the queen in 1854; with almost twice the glass of the first palace, it had 50 per cent more space. Twenty-six large allegorical statues on the Terraces represented 'the most important commercial and manufacturing' countries and cities of the world (including India and Australia) but the palace essentially promoted British success. John Ruskin sneered at the architecture, of 'no more sublimity than a cucumber flame between two chimneys' but also divined its politics 'haughty with hope of endless progress and irresistible power: At the inauguration, repeating the formula of the Great Exhibition ceremony with the Hallelujah Chorus and prayers, Queen Victoria announced its aims: 'to elevate and instruct' as well as to 'delight and amuse all classes'. This was a commercial enterprise with shareholders but its constitution kept alight Albert's idealism of 1851. An overt aim was to refine the masses, promoting education through recreation. Paxton and his colleagues, especially the architects Matthew Digby Wyatt and Owen Jones, promoted what they called 'the education of the eye': botany, with conservatory specimens great and small from all over the world, and the history of civilisation through architecture, with the 'Fine Arts Courts' which were brick and painted plaster reproductions of ancient and historic buildings intended to inspire Victorians to improve their own architecture and decoration and to use bolder colours. The greatest collection of plaster casts ever assembled taught the history of sculpture and included a national portrait gallery of busts of over a hundred British worthies. This was quite unlike the contemporary focus of what had been on view at the Great Exhibition.


Paxton conceived palace and park on a colossal scale, especially the megalomaniac water system with its two huge water-towers, twin jets higher than Nelson's column, numerous fountains, water temples and a cascade that out-glittered Chatsworth's. Completed in 1856, as a matter of national pride the waterworks surpassed the grandes eaux at Versailles though they very soon failed. The system cost as much as the palace and all its contents. Its first performance on Waterloo Day June 1856 was attended by the queen. The vast palace, aloft above the sloping park, elevated British achievement and culture as though it were the culmination of evolutionary process. This literal and metaphorical ascent was reflected in the landscaping. The lowest level of the park was artificially afforested, 'primeval', dark and wild, the setting for life-size models of dinosaurs and other 'Extinct Animals'. Further up the segmented circles of water basins and arched garden structures indicated rational mankind applying geometry and art controlling nature. At the summit Paxton's Crystal Palace set a glittering crown on the hill, the most brilliant example of inventive British design and technology.

Inside the palace racial and imperial ascendancy was implicit in the ethnographic wooden models such as the life-size African tribesmen (as John Leech pointed up in his teasing Punch cartoon 'Some Varieties of the Human Race', where fine young ladies eat ice creams, their backs turned to warlike Zulus); it was explicit in the Handbook to the Natural History Courts, with its descriptions of low and 'degenerate' peoples. On the other hand, the Fine Arts Courts served as warnings of the dangers of immoral imperial administration: Nineveh, Egypt and Pompeii represented high ancient cultures but were also reminders of great empires that fell through pride, sin or sybaritic decadence.

The palace became a site for state and national occasions soon after its opening. Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie attended with Victoria and Albert in 1855, Garibaldi was welcomed twice with great acclaim. In 1856 a royal ceremony marked the end of the Crimean War with a Scutari Monument and a Peace Trophy. At a similar event after the Boer War Clara Butt sang Land of Hope and Glory. The Indian Mutiny was marked with a National Humiliation Day in 1857, when the evangelist Charles Spurgeon accused Britain of deserving the massacres for the sins of her own people. A Victoria Cross Gallery exhibited 55 oil-paintings of heroic British exploits in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. By the turn of the century the palace had become specifically an imperial arena. In 1895 at an Africa Exhibition 100 Somali female warriors performed spear drills on the terrace in animal skins, red mud in their hair. Colonial exhibitions were held, among them for Canada and New Brunswick in 1856 and in 1873 for Australasia, with a kiosk for prospective settlers and 80 per cent of passage money advanced.




Festival of Empire, 1911

An Empire Festival was proposed for 1910 but following Edward VII's death it was postponed for a year to coincide with George V's coronation and the unveiling of the Victoria Memorial (attended by her grandson, the Kaiser). On the Council of the Festival were public spirited dukes, earls and specialists, such as the architect Sir Aston Webb, the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Edward Poynter, and the theatre manager, Beerbohm Tree. The chairman was the first Earl of Plymouth (1837-1923), Conservative politician, philanthropist and landlord of 18,000 acres of South Wales. He declared that the festival was not for 'self-glorification' but knowledge. It was billed as 'the social gathering of the British family', aiming to teach 'the average Britisher' to understand 'the gospel of Empire'. The festival cost a shilling to attend and the newly electrified railway line took just ten minutes from Victoria.

The palace, reglazed, repaired and redecorated with 25 tons of new paint, was entirely taken over, as was the park. The great upper terrace became the Imperial Terrace; Paxton's broad promenade on the axis of the park was now the Empire Avenue, overlooked by a 30-foot bronze statue of the king in coronation robes; an original Great Fountain basin was the Empire Sports Arena. The Extinct Animals, possibly seen for this celebration as an embarrassing distraction, were tactfully not featured on the official map of the park.

There are few accounts of the All British Imperial Exhibition of Arts and Industry and Applied Chemistry inside the palace, which proclaimed 'our commercial supremacy'. Below the great barrel-vaults of glass and lofty galleries (from which on a high rope in 1861 the great Blondin carried a miniature stove, cooked an omelette and lowered it on a tray with wine and glasses) visitors might study engineering, fashion, shipbuilding, perfumes, textiles, shipping, decoration and furnishings, arts and crafts, home industries, agriculture, fisheries and photography. There was also a section for women's work.

Outside in the park a Tudor street was reproduced. The prospectus also mentioned a fantasy display of London in the year 2000: the idea was to give a free hand to 'scientific, mechanical experts, and others' in materialising a 'New London: This fascinating project degenerated into a facetious side-show, farmed out to a specially formed company. It was devised by a writer, Walter Emanuel, and by John Hassall, the illustrator and highly successful poster artist. There was litigation when the fastidious Lord Plymouth, not amused by the 'farcical' enterprise, removed its facade as 'unsightly' and then had it entirely dismantled the day before the king attended.

Three-quarter-size replicas of imperial parliament buildings were erected, on steel and wooden skeletons: Canada (paid for by itself), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (the latter paid for by Lord Plymouth when the dominion declined to do so). Inside these was to be seen a variety of products and industrial examples, working models, big game trophies, 2 million [pounds sterling] worth of De Beers' diamonds, pictures of colonial life and cinematograph lectures. The great Parliament House at New Delhi was not yet built but a lofty Mughal-style domed India Temple contained a significant historical cultural exhibition. Here there was a muted descant of imperialist triumph but Buddhism, architecture and archeology were presented seriously and many magnificent artefacts were lent by private English collectors and Indian princely families.

The most entertaining and popular feature of the festival was the six-penny guided tour on a mile and a half of electric railway called the All Red Route (after the Royal Mail steamers). Advertised as 'the most magnificent educational spectacle ever seen in London', it gave 'a tabloid replica' of the entire Empire at work, stressing the enormous productive wealth of the Dominions.

Painted 'panoramas' had been popular with Londoners for decades and since 1881 a circular building in the park at Sydenham had shown a series, including the Siege of Paris; the All Red Route added to scenic backdrops (created by 90 artists) 300 buildings, real people, live animals (others in plaster of Paris), trees and plants. The 20-minute ride began with Newfoundland (the oldest colony) and a whaling station, crossed a Canadian mountain cutting on trestle bridges and passed by animated scenes of imperial and colonial life; Irish cottages, men felling timber, orchards, a Malay village on a lake populated with Malay villagers, Jamaican sugar plantations, a Maori village with a grey-bearded chief, 20 warriors and 19 women of the Arawa tribe who brought their children, huts and totem poles with them and sang and danced. In 'New Zealand' there were also geysers, a sheep farm and the Nelson docks at Port Lyttleton loading mutton for the mother country. Australia included Sydney harbour, pioneers building log cabins, a waterfall. South Africa featured veldt and kraals, gold and diamond mines and an ostrich farm. There was also 'a delightful view of Delhi' with temples, a palace and a bazaar and a backdrop of the Himalayas. Of a total 60,000 [pounds sterling] spent, 2,000 [pounds sterling] went on an Indian tea plantation. Lit by electricity at night, the ride must have been enchanting. Passengers could alight at the Dominion stations for closer inspection. In the lower park a section of Small Holdings and Country Life showed how British farms could be recreated in the colonies. Camps were set up for Boy Scouts. A horseback 'Wild Australia' entertainment showed 'stirring scenes' from the Bush, such as 'Kelly's last stand'.


Cockney features that betrayed the ideals of Paxton's refined park were highly popular: the Joy Wheel with rotating floor, Maxim's Flying Machine with aerial gondolas, the Sea Chute where the cars whirled up a lighthouse to plunge into a lake, the Egyptian maze, the Hobbledy-Gobbledy Castle, the Pell Mell and the Human Laundry, where rollers pitched you out mangled. Confetti battles took place on the Terraces.

King George and Queen Mary attended the Opening Concert and 4,500 voices sang Parry and Elgar. Henry Wood's Empire Concerts followed.

Imperial Sports Championships, forerunner of the Commonwealth Games, took place in the park on Saturdays organised by Lord Desborough.

The Pageant of London

A pageant was originally a scene or act of a medieval mystery play: from 1805 the word referred to a procession or parade for spectacular effect. The 20th-century historical pageants were tableaux vivants celebrating events and people connected with a place. The best pageants must have generated a more than sentimental interest in the past, like the costume dramas of early cinema, however absurd or tendentious their 'history'. Such performances originated at Sherborne Castle in 1905, directed by Louis Napoleon Parker (1852-1944).

The Pageant of London at Crystal Palace was directed by Frank Lascelles (1875-1934), also a minor artist and sculptor. At Oxford he had played Romeo for the university dramatics society. He then spent two years with Beerbohm Tree's famous theatre company and upgraded his surname from Stevens to Lascelles. Tree introduced into his Shakespearean productions pageant-like scenes of historical events. Lascelles became a highly successful pageant master, making his name as 'the man who staged the Empire'. His first pageant in Oxford in 1907 was described by Mark Twain as 'the noblest spectacle' he had witnessed. Lascelles followed this with ten more productions in Britain as well as overseas spectacles in Canada, South Africa (complete with 'Portuguese grandees', bushmen and Hottentots) and Calcutta (a Coronation Durbar held in 1912 with a cast of 300,000 including troops).


The Pageant of London was performed on 50 acres of Paxton's English Landscape Garden and viewed from a large amphitheatre, designed by Aston Webb, opposite a small lake. This sheet of water, where today there is a rusting concert bowl, served for the Thames as well as for scenes of landing in the colonies and other waters. The 15,000 performers, who gave their services free for four months, took part in 32 scenes. As many as 5,000 were on the stage at one time; The Times noted that the pageant was slow and that the performers were reluctant to leave the stage. Sections were performed on different days from May to October. It was emphasised with satisfaction that roles were taken by peers and peeresses as well as by 'artisans" Three hundred horses took part along with deer from Blenheim Park, elephants, camels and llamas from Bostock's menagerie in the palace grounds. Marches by Frank Bridge, folk songs by Vaughan Williams and battle music by Hoist were specially commissioned and lutes and flutes were played. Walter Crane advised on costumes. The cost of the pageant was 66,000 [pounds sterling].

Lascelles was described and pictured at his 'Napoleonic task' in The Illustrated London News and The Sketch in wing-collar and deer-stalker with an enormous megaphone, commanding 'Ladies! Keep still, don't wobble, please', or 'Make the dirge longer, please. The man is burning- you cannot burn a man in a minute and a half" Behind the scenes he had placed mottoes reading 'Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!' Speeches were hardly audible during the performances but Lascelles was praised for his painterly 'colour massing' and the 'fluid and evanescent' movements. Lascelles had made use of hundreds of props and of 15 state coaches. The 'striking scenes of the Empire City' were performed and costumed by London Boroughs and Urban District Councils, including Kensington and Wimbledon, Hackney and Penge. The latter presented Roman London with the Emperor Carausius in a chariot and 'hundreds of picturesquely-clad early Britons'. 'Here and there are women prettily attired in flowing robes of bright tint, which harmonise exquisitely; the pageant programme claimed.


When members of the congregation of Westminster Cathedral performed the coming to London of the Fragment of the True Cross and the Coronation Stone, a Protestant Society responded by objecting to inadequate reference to the Reformation. Richard II, confronting War Tyler, was played on horseback by Victor Guinness, a 13-year-old Dulwich College boy. A vicar from Marylebone played the Black Prince, his armour and trappings costing 120 [pounds sterling] . Lady Jane Herbert rendered Elizabeth's speech at Tilbury. 'Merrie England' sported Cecil Sharp dances and the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a magnificent heraldic procession. King Charles passed to his execution, London flamed and Nelson was buried. Part IV, performed by imperial and colonial visitors, was a Pageant of Empire, including an unintentionally hilarious scene of Captain Cook talking to natives at Botany Bay. A loyalist representation of the Battle of Chateauguay (where in 1813 American invaders were roundly repulsed from British Canada) caused diplomatic pother in the United States and questions in the House of Commons and was withdrawn. The style of the pageant narrative now seems precious, even absurd but it also makes modern school textbooks seem drab, as in the close of the Cloth of Gold scene:

Two young knights bring in symbolic trees, artificially designed: the hawthorn for King Henry, the raspberry for King Francis. Placed close together their branches mingle as if they were but one, and upon them are hung the shields of the monarchs and those of their chief supporters. High in the air a huge salamander of fire shoots arrows across the sky from Ardres to the castle of Guisnes. Amidst renewed voices of 'Good friends, French and English, good friends all the gorgeous cavalcades ride away and disappear.

The finale, Masque of Empire, was written by Francis Hartman Markoe (1884-1960), the son of a wealthy New York doctor and a recent graduate of Yale and Oxford. Markoe had assisted Lascelles with the Pageant of Oxford:

The Genius of the World summons Britannia to her trial, to lead the bands of weary people--the shades of the Heroes who have made great sacrifice for her sake-past the barriers made by the Damozels of Death on the steps of the Temple of Achievement. Britannia breaks their cordon through by discovering that Hope is deathless, and so proves her right to the vast Empire whose representatives now appear in vast procession to lay their riches at her feet, and with her to enter the Temple. As they do so, they sing 'The Earth is the Lord's; and when all have passed within, while the Genius, now well content, sinks back to rest in the Earth's heart, we hear from inside the Temple, growing softer and softer the Litany beginning 'O Lord save the King'.

A military band of 50 and a choir of 400 assisted. On their visit the king and queen were pelted with flowers by player kings and queens, peasant maids, cardinals, clowns and courtiers, to the accompaniment of trumpets and bells; 'loyalty was exuberant'. The Maoris from the All Red Route saluted and danced.



The text of the pageant was illustrated and made into a book by a historian, Sophia Lomas, with the help of respectable academic referees who wrote or 'passed' sections, such as Sir Laurence Gomme (the folklore expert), Alfred Pollard (who devised the scene of the Canterbury Pilgrims) and the nationalist Oxford historian Sir Charles Oman (who wrote the episodes of Carausius and Wat Tyler). Historical credibility was further emphasised by the inclusion of notes and quotations from sources, such as Banners and Badges of Early Tudor Ballads.

The king's day with the children

On June 30th the king and queen, who bought their own children, Edward, Mary and the 'lost prince' John, entertained 100,000 London children at a fete. Fetched by 92 trains the children were at the palace for six hours, where they cheered, watched a section of the pageant and enjoyed fairground rides and motorboats on the lake. Actors from the pageant dressed as Vikings or Romans wandered among the children. Sir Joseph Lyons provided packed lunches in brown paper bags with papier-mache cups and lemonade. The Times remarked that thorough organisation was indicated by the special lunch bag prepared for Jewish children. Each child was presented with a Doulton coronation mug commemorating the visit. Ernest Husey, general manager of the palace, organised the event. His satisfaction over its military precision is revealed, with some justification, in his book published afterwards, The King's Day with the Children: the young visitors were coded into divisions of nine colours (including heliotrope), the girls by their large hats and sashes, the boys by their caps and badges. They sang songs or whistled tunes while being marshalled for the king to be driven past in an open carriage; canny arrangements were made for sickness and accidents. The children were praised for their self-restraint and for how clean and tidy they were; not a single tearful face was seen.

In spite of all the efforts the 1911 festival mysteriously did not pull the expected crowds. Just 200,000 came to Sydenham as opposed to the 500,000 drawn to the competing lively exhibition pavilions and fairgrounds at White City that year. A colossal loss of 250,000 [pounds sterling] was borne by the Earl of Plymouth, who at a dinner of December 12th called the attendance figures a 'grave disappointment'. The palace had been actually advertised for sale in June during the Festival and the 200 acres of the park were almost lost by the public to speculative builders. In 1913 Lord Plymouth bought the palace for the nation for 230,000 [pounds sterling] and it was placed in the hands of trustees. Public funds were raised from local boroughs and Lord Plymouth was refunded a large part of his outlay.

The festival was followed in April 1913 by a six-month Anglo-German exhibition; conceived by Lord Plymouth as a last-ditch attempt 'to dispel distrust, enmity and other undesirable feelings', it was a miserable fiasco.

During the First World War the palace was a successful naval training base HMS Victory IV (popularly known as HMS Crystal Palace) handling 125,000 men. Brock's firework displays, thought to have saved the Crystal Palace Company from collapse in the 1870s and 1880s, had always featured a patriotic set of 'fire pictures', such as Britannia Rules the Waves, and now presented colossal animated firework tableaux, resembling silent films; probably the most famous of these was The Battle of Jutland. In 1920 the Great Victory Exhibition was also the origin of the Imperial War Museum, impressive with 10-ton guns, tanks, models of the trenches and Sargent's painting Gassed. King George praised the trustees for their patriotism and returned the palace to public use, saying he hoped it would fulfil for centuries its original purposes laid down by royal charter: education and recreation and the promotion of industry, commerce and art. Further colonial exhibitions followed in the 1920s. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 was much more successful than the 1911 Festival of Empire but the five-week Pageant of Empire produced for it by Lascelles was a shadow of his first version at Crystal Palace.


At Sydenham the apocalyptic fire of November 30th, 1936 destroyed the palace, 'symbol of an age'. In 1941 the surviving great water towers were being used by German bombers to mark a portal to the City and were demolished. However, the imperial notion of the Crystal Palace lingered and in 1951 Sir Henry Buckland, a former general manager of the palace, proposed for the Festival of Britain to present half a mile of 'Imperial Shop Window' on the site of the palace--to 'promote the miracle of the British nature and character" His efforts were in vain. The Valhalla of the British Empire had flamed on that November night; the foundations of the ruined hill-top palace had been used as land-fill, with 385,000 tons of rubble from bombed London.

Further Reading J. R. Piggott, Palace of the People (C. Huts-t, 2004); Festival of Empire Archives, Coll. Mist 549, British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics; The Sphere and Illustrated London News, 1911; Sophie Lomas, Festival of Empire, Book of the Pageant, (Bemrose, 1911); Ernest Husey, The King's Day with the Children (Simpkin, Marshall, 1911); the Earl of Darnley, (ed.), Frank Lascelles, "Our Modern Orpheus" (Oxford University Press, 1932); Deborah S. Ryan, 'Staging the Imperial City: the Pageant of London, 1911', in Felix Driver and David Gilbert (eds.), Imperial Cities (University of Manchester Press,1999).

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Jan Piggott is the former Head of English and Keeper of Archives at Dulwich College, In 2004 he was the curator of an exhibition The Crystal Palace at Sydenham at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
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Title Annotation:Crystal Palace
Author:Piggott, Jan
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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