Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Work begins on Victorian-era Crystal Palace Subway restoration

source - News Shopper

Work begins on Victorian-era Crystal Palace Subway restoration

The good news continues on the historic buildings preservation front now with this welcome article about the planned restoration of one of the last surviving sections of the original Crystal Palace site in Sydenham Hill, London.

(I previously covered the history of the Crystal Palace building in a blog post back in 2013, when plans for a Chinese-backed full-sized replica were mooted in the national press.  Alas the scheme seems to have come to naught - although these things do take time with our current relationship with China being what it is I can't see it happening any time soon, if at all.  However there is a consolation whereby The Royal Parks - the charity responsible for the upkeep of London's Royal Parks, which includes the original Crystal Palace site of Hyde Park - has created a fantastic virtual walk-around of the long-lost building complete with fascinating historical facts about the Exhibition.)

The New High-Level Station at the Crystal Palace.
Illustrated London News (30 September 1865)
source - Victoriaweb.org

The Crystal Palace (High Level) railway station was the second of two stations opened in Sydenham after the Crystal Palace was moved there from its original location in Hyde Park following the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The first station, named Crystal Palace, was built in 1854 by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway and operated by the West End of London & Crystal Palace Railway (they liked their long names back then, clearly!).  This would be the sole station serving the Crystal Palace area until mid-1860s when the rival London, Chatham & Dover Railway muscled in (operating as the Crystal Palace & South London Junction Railway), extending its Beckenham line to include a station at the Crystal Palace site.  Built into the side of the hill on which the relocated Palace stood, the somewhat confusingly-named Crystal Palace (High Level) station was opened on the 1st August 1865, with the station building being designed by architect Edward Middleton Barry - best known for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden - and boasting a beautiful red brick and buff terracotta motif.

Crystal Palace High Level station in 1908
source - Wikimedia Commons

In the following decades the station, along with its older sibling (renamed Crystal Palace Low Level in 1898 to avoid(!) confusion) continued to develop - the High Level station being one of the first on the Southern Railway line to be electrified in 1925 - and to decant visitors to the Crystal Palace site until that building's tragic destruction in November 1936.  Both stations suffered following the loss of the Palace with passenger numbers unsurprisingly dropping substantially.  The Low Level station, being on a through line, survived the downturn in traffic and continues to exist today as Crystal Palace railway station.  The High Level station soldiered on, being used as an air raid shelter during World War Two and suffering bomb damage in May 1944, leading to its temporary closure.  Although it was repaired and reopened its status as a branch terminus, coupled with rising maintenance costs, meant the writing was on the wall and on the 20th September 1954 the line and station were closed.  Five years later, in 1961, the main station building was demolished.

source - geograph.co.uk / Robin Webster

By great good fortune the main entrance and subway vestibule escaped the wrecking ball and were accorded Grade II* listed status by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1972, allowing the structure to survive to this day.  Although it remained sealed off and abandoned for much of the intervening years (save for occasional use as storage) the "Friends of Crystal Palace Subway" society was set up in 2013 with the aim of fully reopening it for public access (previously it had been reopened temporarily for local events organised by civic groups throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s) and bringing it back into use as a subway for the first time in over 60 years.

source - disused-stations.org.uk / Nick Catford

Now that aim looks to be a step closer with the news that survey work on the site has begun, following a grant of £2.34m from the City of London's Strategic Investment Pot and a donation from the FCPS to help restore what remains of this gorgeous and historically important structure that is the sole remaining link to the incredible building which stood nearby for over 80 years.  Everyone from the council to the architects clearly see the value in returning this forgotten gem to the community and all seem keen to pull in the right direction.  It heartens me to think that in a few years' time this wonderful piece of largely unseen Victorian architecture will have been given a new lease of life as a valuable civic amenity - in whatever form it takes - for the people of Bromley and visitors alike.  A hearty "well done" to everyone involved and I look forward to reading about - and hopefully featuring on here again - the outcome in 2022.


  1. Sad that grand old buildings like that get demolished rather than restored. Same thing happens all the time here in the USA. Seems only a rare few appreciate old architectural designs.

    1. Very true, Bill, and sorry to hear the U.S. is similarly affected. We do seem to be recognising more the importance of these old buildings (or what's left of them) as these articles prove, so hopefully this signals an improvement in the situation both here and across the Pond.


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