The slow demise of the Crystal Palace is a notable feature in its history. After the expensive reconstruction in Penge Common had left the company in debt, and after it had been reopened to a new class of public, the buzz of excitement surrounding it gradually declined until, in the years after the Festival of Empire, when the building had fallen into significant disrepair, the maintenance costs became unsustainable and bankruptcy was declared in 1911. The palace remained, a somewhat forgotten treasure slowly fading from glory, until on one fateful day in 1936, the legacy, preceding the Empire it had been built to proclaim, collapsed.
A brisk November evening, fraught with high south-westerly winds, the Palace crouched on the hill, proud and still; a dull glow appears in one of the wings, pulsing like a lone star. It grows, spreading out of control, not contained quickly enough. Tunnels of flames, walls of fire, the sky fills with blackened smoke. The fire brigade have been alerted, they turn up in droves. Ten, twenty, eighty fire engines, four hundred men in safety gear with hoses, half of the capitals forces are tackling the blaze. It's too late. Panes of glass are propelled through the sky to come crashing down on nearby streets. Great pools of molten glass bubble and froth like the acidic gut of some giant monster, vomiting tongues of yellow flame high into the night sky. In London, Surrey, Kent, Essex, people from over ten counties are awake, watching the palace burn. A deafening roar can be heard for miles as the main transept collapses. The fight is over. Crowds 100,000 strong, enticed by the fire, have come to bid farewell. Watching on, a solemn Winston Churchill is known to have remarked, ‘This is the end of an age.’
There were numerous factors cited for the inability to control the tempestuous inferno; the old timber flooring, the highly flammable contents, the tempestuous weather. It was, in all truth, a disaster waiting to happen. And one not without precedent; an earlier fire, in 1866, had caused the destruction of the north transept, never to be rebuilt. Sadly, with the palace in such debt, they had not been in a position to repair or prevent from future damage, even if they had wanted to.
No one is entirely sure how this second, and final, fire started but there are several theories. An explosion in the women's cloakroom. A cigarette carelessly disposed of, tumbling down through a gap in the floorboards into the now vast volumes of combustible dust. Whatever the cause, within hours, the entire palace, a bastion of Victorian Britain's legacy, had been engulfed. The Crystal Palace was no longer.