The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, 1851
To some extent my walk might be considered as a pilgrimage, for at its very centre is the lost lives of twelve men who died in 1853, when scaffolding fell on them during the construction of The Crystal Palace after it was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham.
With the starting point being West Norwood Cemetery, the halfway checkpoint of Crystal Palace Park, and the final destination St Bartholomew’s Church in Sydenham, my aim is to historically connect all three locations.
Turning right onto Knights Hill as I leave West Norwood train station at about 10 am on a cold and bleak Sunday morning, I find the area pleasantly quiet. I’m not too worried about the weather because I am prepared; decent boots will “protect thy feet” and “a proper coat for winter’s wear” (Gay, 2016, p. 2). On my right is St Luke’s Church, an early nineteenth century Grade II listed building, and on the other side is the Free Public Library, designed by Sidney Smith and built in 1887. Both buildings give an indication as to the wealth arriving in this area during the 19th century.
I continue walking, and in just a few moments over to my right is the entrance of West Norwood Cemetery. It is one of the Magnificent Seven which includes; Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets.
These new places of burial were a response to various factors including the high death toll of Cholera, churchyards becoming unhealthily overcrowded and fear of grave robbery (Curl, 1984). The Victorian desire to celebrate death and life in a respectful manner required burying the dead in a safe place to ensure they reached the afterlife, which allowed the survived to grieve and remember their loved ones accordingly (Rugg, 2000).
Whilst here, I will attempt to locate three graves; Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857) a significant contributor to the satire Punch, which effectively named the Great Exhibition. George Jennings (1810-1882) a sanitary engineer who introduced his idea of public toilets at the Exhibition and after its move to Crystal Palace, charging a penny for a clean seat and a towel, hence the term ‘spend a penny’. And finally, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) who preached to a Crystal Palace crowd of 23.5 k people.
Walking along the meandering paths and taking in the sights around me, the graves and overgrown shrubs mix well to create a tranquil state of mind. I am not alone for there are other people here too, paying their respects to loved ones and ancestors. Some are tidying graves and replacing flowers, others are just standing there perhaps in fond memory of loved ones. I have a rough idea where my three graves are, but it is not easy to locate them. Time drifts by, just as I drift by the many worn graves and find myself in a far corner of the cemetery where the architecture is strikingly beautiful, this is the Greek Necropolis.
From out of nowhere I can hear bells, my watch tells me it is 11.30, which means I have been wandering about for well over an hour and I have not found any of my graves. But online research proves fruitful, Douglas Jerrold has a family vault, George Jennings has an elaborate stone, and Charles Spurgeon has a tomb. It is as though the bells are signalling the end of my time here, I feel defeated and I leave the same way I entered but turn left up Norwood High Street.
As I pass under a railway bridge I notice an old pub over the road, once named The Gypsy Queen but now the Book and Record Bar. It has scaffolding fixed all the way to the top and it looks reasonably safe, so not worth stopping for a picture. As I look round to my left, I notice a road sign on the wall which reads Pilgrim Hill.
Thinking this is a good omen I smile and continue walking up Norwood High St which soon turns into Elder Road, and not long after that I can just see the top of what I grew up to understand as the Crystal Palace Tower, which began transmitting in March 1956. I decide to put my map away and trust my own judgement, with the tower in sight I have a bearing. So I follow the boundary of Norwood Park turning left where Elder Road meets with Central Hill, past the entrance to the Virgo Fidelis Convent School on my right (which can be seen in the picture below), and then left again into Salters Hill.
After a hundred yards I see a pathway between two houses, a sign post tells me it leads to Gibbs Square, it is time “to leave the noisie roads” (Gay, 2016, p. 22). I see this as an opportunity to mention the houses, because Charles Booth’s online map just falls short of this area. As I make my way through this housing estate of what appears to be two and three bedroom terraced houses I consider how Booth’s investigators would grade them. I do not think they would be too dark a colour, in fact I would estimate them to be fairly comfortable with good ordinary earnings. I work my way through the streets until I find myself on Central Hill Estate which consists of a lot of densely situated concrete flats.
I am not sure what Booth’s investigators would make of this concrete jungle, I very much doubt they would colour this area in bright pink or orange. But on the other hand, the community spirit of the residents, has recently been called upon to fight against demolition and redevelopment, or what might be considered as gentrification.
Without the tower as a bearing I move on blindly in the general direction of Crystal Palace Park. The brick terraced homes return, up Highland Hill, across Gypsy Hill and down into Woodland Hill, past the school on the left and terraced houses to my right. At the bottom of the hill I take a “silent wander in the close abodes” (Gay, 2016, p. 22) of an alley named Jaspers Passage, and from there I get a marvellous view of the Tower.
I’m not far now, following Jasper Road into Farquhar Road I come out at Crystal Palace Parade, with the park being on the opposite side of the road. I find a safe place to cross, because the roads are quite busy. I step into the park in good time, 12.30 and as luck would have it, I find a bench after making my way through the first group of trees, over-looking the site of the old Crystal Palace. It is a coincidence that it is dedicated by Transport for London to the Ring Walkers, and I feel blessed to have found such a significant place to rest my feet.
Having stopped to top-up with hot coffee and a sandwich, I am ready to find the general area of the park where the accident happened on 15th August 1853 and try to create in my mind the events of that fateful day. I try to imagine a busy site, with lots of noise, different groups of men, undertaking different tasks. The noise of the traffic is lurking in the background, a sign of our busy lives in the 21st century. There is a group of walkers on the terrace, gathered around a speaker and I wonder if they are being told about the twelve men. Below is a photograph taken in about 1890 which helps me to orientate my position, at least within the general area.
I would hazard a guess that the Ring Walkers Bench would be out of sight, further back to the left of the building, what I would consider as the upper left bank if I were looking from the fountain. So, from where the bench is, and looking down towards the fountain nearer the time of the accident, I might have seen the sight of men shoring up the uneven banks with brickwork, before it was covered with the finer masonry.
I am now beginning to grasp how big the Crystal Palace was, but I think there is one more image that will help me get even closer to understand what happened that fateful day.
It seems logical to suggest that the structure with the level platform is the protagonist of this inquiry. It appears to be balancing with no support from the ground and it is quite easy to imagine it collapsing and claiming the lives of the twelve men. I have already done some research on the Free BMD website and found the following deaths listed; William Hardy (Croydon-1853), John Foreman (Greenwhich-1853), William James (Croydon-1853) and Henry Fielding (Croydon-1853); with the results of James Wardlow, Joseph Copping, George Rolph Smith, George Topham doubtful. Although Henry Reading (St Olave-1853) and William Harris both died in hospital. I have been wandering and loitering for long enough and feel the need to get my blood circulating. So I step on, paying my respects to Joseph Paxton who received a Knighthood for designing the giant greenhouse known as The Crystal Palace.
Having taken a photograph, I decide to double back to the maze but it is no challenge due to the leafless hedges, so I make for a path, following the Sunday crowd. As I pass by the fishing lake, I notice a lone angler and think how nice it would be to sit there myself for a few hours. But then “I spy” (Gay, 2016, p. 25) some lads playing football which reminds me that I must keep moving. Walking along the path surrounding the pitch, I look at the name plates that are on the benches, which includes; a local fisherman who enjoyed the park and a former zookeeper who worked in the park.
As I continue to walk, I consider how every bench in the park has a special meaning to somebody somewhere, a train of thought that stays with me until the dinosaurs are in my sight. It is nice to see some conservation in progress, it means generations to come will be able to enjoy the dinosaurs which are are being refurbished. There is also the odd sight of a mechanical digger floating on the boating lake!
I exit the park, turning left onto Thicket Road, a hundred yards on the Crystal Palace Park Road, and then right into Lawrie Park Road. To my left is Sydenham Tennis Club and to my right is St Christopher’s Education Centre. A little further down the road I see another scaffolding, this one looks quite safe. I keep on walking until Lawrie Park Road meets Westwood Hill where I turn left. Ahead on my right I can see a church, and as I get nearer I can see it is St Bartholomew’s.
When I enter the Churchyard I feel a bit dismayed to see the front entrance boarded up with a sign directing pedestrian traffic to the side entrance. But in my next breath I see the grave I have been thinking about all morning, and the twelve names are on the refurbished slabs, clear as day.
But as I look closer, the stone with the names on is actually on top of a sub stone with inscription round the edge;
IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH FOR OF WHOM MAY WE SEEK FOR SUCCOUR BUT OF THEE O’LORD, which is from the Book of Common Prayer, The Order of the Burial of the Dead. The stone is also situated to the left of what was probably the original gravestone, why else would the information plaque be situated as it is?
I stand for a while, contemplating the difference between the graves of West Norwood and this one. I wonder why these men were interred here rather than the new cemetery just a few miles away. Was it something to do with money? Or was it just the wish of the families that they all be buried together. Is there any meaning to the difference? I think what really stands out for me is the very fact that right opposite this grave, only a hundred yards away, is a precarious looking scaffolding which made me question if those workers knew the story of the twelve men buried here.
My walk has presented me with the opportunity to discover that it does not really matter what type of monuments are left behind, especially if the Victorian celebration of death was centred around reaching the afterlife, what really mattered was getting there! Thomas Browne provides some nice words to close this blog;
“The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man” (Browne, 2008, p. 77).
Browne, Sir Thomas, Hydriotaphia [electronic source ] (Cambridge [eng.] : Proquest LLC, 2008)
Curl, James Stevens, ‘The Design of the Early British Garden Cemeteries’, in The Journal of Garden History, Vol. 4. No 3. (1984), pp. 223-251.
Gay, Jon., Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, (London: Penguin, 2016)
Rugg, Julie., ‘Defining the place of burial: what makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality, Vol. 5, No. 3, (2000), pp. 259-175.
The Crystal Palace education pack (London: Crystal Palace Foundation, 1992)