All Souls Once Again

by Sheldon


It’s always nice to pop back to see Cemeteries we’ve visited before, and as we’ve found on previous excursions, highlighted in the last visit I made with Nick over nine months ago, Kensal Green is so big it’s impossible to see everything in one visit.

181 years on and 65,000 graves later, The Cemetery of All Souls still provides a resting place for Londoners and it was on an overcast Saturday last weekend I, Steve and a number of Westminster Guides met outside the Anglican Chapel for a special tour led by Henry Vivian Neal (a friend and head guide of this huge 72 acre Victorian Valhalla).


Thackeray, second only to Dickens in his time, now largely forgotten. He had a big head, apparently.

We were led into the crumbling Chapel and warmly welcomed. Henry gave us an overview on the situation that led to Kensal Green’s creation, and some of the fantastic solutions that were thrown around to try and deal with the terrifying situation that awaited all Londoners if they popped their clogs. Plans for a great Pyramid that would have covered an area the size of Russell Square and a necropolis that would have covered most of Primrose Hill – an area long earmarked for funerary needs – were just some of the radical ideas being passed around, before a particularly unpleasant Barrister by the name of George Frederick Carden gained enough support to purchase land for the new venture.


Although these angels look like they’re about to high-five each other on account of their beauty, they were originally holding a wreath, which has long since gone

Off we embarked on a tour of the great and the good.  A quick trip to the catacombs to see the rotting coffins slumbering quietly in perpetual darkness, to which I had to be firmly dragged away from as I found out they were still functioning and open to new residents. As we resurfaced, we were treated to the recently restored monument to the man who walked over Niagara Falls on a tightrope; the Egyptian-style Mausoleum to Prince William’s predecessor and Queen Victoria’s Aunt and Uncle, who’s burial made the fortunes of Kensal Green unstoppable.


The monument to William Mulready is one the finest I’ve ever come across. Mulready was an Irish genre painter who was known for his depictions of rural scenes, as well as creating Mulready stationery (at roughly the same time as the Penny Black). It featured the rear of a nude male, barely visible in all honesty, but fearful for the delicate sensibilities of young maidens in education, headmistresses up and down the land banned their students from receiving them, as this clearly flew in the face of proper Victorian standards. Nowadays, you only have to turn on the TV to see the likes of Geordie Shore and company flashing as much flesh as humanly possible. Oh, how times have changed…!

Made of artificial stone, this triumph of design truly reflects the man it seeks to commemorate. Around the waist of the intricately designed tomb are friezes of some of his best known paintings. It’s to the rear of his memorial that a peculiar thing can be seen – the grave of  John Phillip R.A. Literally forced right up against Mulready, its been insinuated, although never proven, that perhaps a homosexual relationship existed between the two at some stage and the fondness was represented after death.




The evening started to draw in and we retreated to the warm safety of the Dissenter’s Chapel where tea and biscuits were provided to counter the autumnal chill in the air. Once Henry was thanked for an excellent tour, we decided we needed sustenance to replenish us after our journey amongst the marble and granite. As with any Cemetery Club visit, Joanna, Ray, Steve and I decided to round off the day the only way we knew how…


Thank you to Henry, the Friends of Kensal Green and Lee Jackson for information regarding George Frederick Carden.

Posted in Heritage, History, Photography, Visits | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Penge: The Town at the ‘Edge of Wood’ and Its Memorial

by Christina


Most people who live in Penge, south east London who know anything about it’s history have learned it from the walls of the Moon & Stars pub, located on the high street next to Sainsbury’s. There, as well as an impressive selection of real ales and craft beers, you can find a veritable treasure trove of information about Penge history, from it’s ancient name (Penceat, meaning ‘edge of wood’) to the characters that adorned the high street at the beginning of the 20th Century (organ grinders and street sellers galore) and there’s even a framed piece on the wall in one booth about Mrs Beeton, who would meet her future husband under the railway bridge at the top of what is now the High Street. I recommend you go there if you want to learn the history of this small and colourful area. It’s often overlooked – right now on the Time Out web site you can vote for your favourite London hangouts by borough and then sub-categorized by town. Under the category for South East London, you can vote for places in Lewisham and Forest Hill and the like, but it’s as if Penge doesn’t exist. But guess what? It does, and it has since the 10th century, although it’s mostly been common land for farming pigs and sheep and cattle since then. It was only really during the 19th Century that it came to life – even more so when the Crystal Palace moved in to the neighbourhood, after which the area became a very fashionable place to live.


Fast forward a century or so and Penge is to be found nestled between Upper Norwood and Sydenham and Beckenham and Croydon, looking unsuspecting, half forgotten by the rest of London. There’s a lot of history here if you care to look but right now, at the forefront of it all is the War Memorial which was commissioned in 1921 and stands proudly outside Penge Recreation Ground (a beautiful green spot that’s worth a stroll around if you go there) next to a formidable looking Yew tree ( which incidentally has a Geocache in it – apologies for the giveaway).




After WW2, names of the WW2 dead never got added to it and this has been a source of concern for the people at Penge Partners and Penge Forum, as well as the Penge Councillors and local historians, who have been fundraising hard for the last 2 years to have these names added. This year they reached their target, raising over £4000 through quiz nights, sponsored events and special donations, and Penge Councillors donated the rest. Last Sunday there was an unveiling and a couple of days later, I went along to have a look at the regal old memorial standing tall with the four new plaques surrounding it.




The plaques bear the names of the members of the Armed Forces from Penge who died during WW2 and also members of the Civil Defence who died on duty, and you can see that among those who gave their lives serving their community from the Civil Defence side of things were Air Raid Wardens, members of the Home Guard, Firewatchers and Bomb Disposal Officers. Penge was badly affected by bombing between 1939-1945 and sadly there are a lot of names – but the Penge community has come together to raise funds to remember them and have them permanently commemorated. The plaques are now in place in time for Remembrance Day and the Centenary of WW1 on November 11 2014.



It’s a big achievement in a relatively small town to raise so much money to bring about this sort of positive and important change and I feel really proud to come from a place dedicated to fundraising to preserve and commemorate important parts of it’s history. At Cemetery Club, remembering those that have gone before us is something we like to focus on, and here it is in action. Well done Penge! If you happen to be passing through or you live nearby, head down to the High Street to see the memorial – it stands opposite St John’s Church which is a nice example of church architecture in the area.


Other things to see while you’re in the area:-

Watermen’s Square which is home to Penge’s Royal Waterman’s Almhouses, built in 1840-41.

The Crooked Billet pub – the oldest pub in Penge, located on the High Street. Historical records show that it was there as early as 1601. Today you can still nip in there for a cheeky pint and a game of pool.

Nearby Beckenham Crematorium which is home to several famous names including W G Grace and Thomas Crapper, who contrary to popular belief did not actually invent the flushing toilet…although he did invent the ballcock.

All photos by Christina Owen Copyright 2014.

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The London Month of the Dead 2014

by Sheldon


© Stephen Roberts 2013

October! Traditionally the month of ghosts and ghouls, as the veil between the living and the dead becomes that little bit thinner. Naturally cemeteries around this time take on a slightly more spectral appearance as the weather shifts from summer into Autumn: the very trees themselves becoming skeletal as the leaves drop slowly from their branches.


October this year also happens to be the inaugural London Month of the Dead and we here at Cemetery Club not only fully approve of it, but endorse it too. It explores the capital’s relationship with its deceased inhabitants as well as supporting Kensal Green and Brompton Cemeteries. It’s running a number of events at various places across the city, featuring events such as a private view of the Museum of London’s bone archive (18th October & 1st November), a seance in Kensal Green Chapel (26th October) and exploring what happens to our legacy once we’ve gone in ‘The World Without Us‘ (26th October).

Hendricks Gin will also be serving several special Death cocktails at a number of events, from the delicious ‘Wet Grave’ to ‘Highgate High Tea’. Slurp!

For more information and events, have a look at the official website!

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I Shot the Sheriff and Other Stories from the Wild West

by Christina



Rumaldo and Juanita Gonzales are buried in the Fort Sumner Military Cemetery in rural New Mexico. Frugal looking wooden crosses mark the approximate spots where they lie, and it looks like, more recently, they have been given a stone plaque with their names and dates on. The juxtaposition between the old and the new is interesting, and you might even be intrigued to learn more about them – except that you won’t, because they are only the side show to what lies across the cemetery from them – locked behind an iron grill and reinforced over and over again with concrete because it has been stolen so many times over the last century. It’s the gravestone of Billy The Kid.


Now there’s a name you’ve heard a lot, although maybe you don’t know much about the man behind the fable. Neither did I, and I found myself pulling up to the dusty old cemetery in the middle of the desert one September day with little or no recollection of how I got there (in reality we were driving along Route 66 and the road happens to go via Fort Sumner, and because it’s the only ‘attraction’ for miles around, it sort of draws you in. But it’s easy to forget everything, including your own name, when you’re on the road like this).



Billy The Kid, otherwise known as William H. Bonney (or William Henry McCarty Jr, or William Antrim – he went by many names) supposedly killed 21 men – one for each year of his life (it isn’t known exactly when he was born but he died in 1881 and it’s thought that he had been 21). It’s generally acknowledged today that the stories that are told about him are mostly myth, and in fact the truth is far less interesting, and he probably killed about 8 men. He lived in the New Mexico territory in the old American West, resembled a scarecrow (if the photographs of him are anything to go by) and, like so many in the area in those days, spent a lot of his spare time shooting people in the face.

You can read a more comprehensive account of Billy the Kid’s history here. It’s a story that paints a primitive picture of a territory that was largely still unsettled in the mid 1800s and this picture marries up with any number of images from wild west films you’ve caught the end of on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon at some point during your childhood. Of dust and desert and saloons and gunfights, and it’s a universe away from the sedate, ordered world of the British Victorians, who were, at the same period in history, running out of space and building enormous, ornate out-of-town cemeteries to house their deceased (and refusing to show anyone their ankles). In the territory of New Mexico and its surrounds, space wasn’t really an issue. Everyone shot at each other and often they died, and sometimes they were brought somewhere like here – this bizarre little ramshackle cemetery in the middle of absolutely nowhere.


On the day we go, there are storm clouds all around and the heavens are threatening to open. There is nothing but dust and sky and locusts for miles – and a gift shop next to the grave site – which incidentally can only ever be billed as ‘approximate’, as a flood washed away all the tombstones shortly after The Kid’s death – which might account for the haphazard spacing of some of the tombstones there today. There are in fact two places claiming to house the grave site of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner (we are reasonably certain we have gone to the correct one, as Google points out to us that the other one has ‘replica’ written all over it in large letters, and as a result we don’t bother going to check it out) but due to this act of God from over a century ago, it’s entirely likely that the real grave is, in fact, underneath the car park next to the cemetery.




The grave site of Billy the Kid is mixed up, oddly and perhaps sadly, with the other billed ‘attraction’ of Fort Sumner – it’s right next door to the Bosque Redondo Memorial to the Navajo/Apache genocide of the mid 1800s. Being the more famous name, you get the feeling that Billy the Kid overshadows this important memorial to a terrible event in US history, and well it might have for me too, except that I am travelling with a historian who has a special interest in genocides, and so this memorial is actually the reason we are here.

Beginning in 1863, the US army forcibly removed the Apache Indians from their home in the Sacramento Mountains to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in the territory of New Mexico (not a US state until 1912), the centre of which was Fort Sumner. Later, the Navajo people were taken from their homelands and forced to make the 450 mile journey to the reserve on foot – this is known as The Long Walk. Those that survived the Walk (several hundred died) were put to work building the camp they would live in for the next few years, and a fort for the US Army, which forced them to farm with the intention that they would become self sufficient and able to feed themselves eventually. It was a mass displacement of an entire culture and an experiment in social engineering that didn’t work. Some escaped (in fact, the 500 Apache people upped and left in the middle of the night one day in 1865 and essentially just went home), some died, and eventually the Navajo and the US Army signed a treaty that allowed the Navajo people to return home (they were initially offered an expenses paid trip to Oklahoma to see how they would like to settle there. But naturally, they just wanted to go back to their homeland).


I didn’t (and still don’t) know a whole lot about genocide, which was evident as before this trip I thought the word referred to the mass killing of a group of people, but my travel companion – the one who’s a historian, told me that this is not the case. In fact, ‘genocide’ refers to the destroying or attempted destroying of a whole race of people or a culture. Removing a people from their home and forcing them somewhere else while making them abandon their culture in favour of another way of living is just as much the destruction of that group of people as their deaths would have been. Given that several hundred of the Navajo people died here, this place is as much a cemetery as a memorial. It is very sad.


However, very bizarrely, it became twisted up in the Billy the Kid myth/legend/real thing that happened. By 1869, Fort Sumner was abandoned, and so a rancher bought it and turned part of it into a house with 20 rooms. It was here that Sheriff Pat Garrett supposedly shot and killed the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid in 1881. Today, among the memorials and plaques dedicated to the Navajo people, and the remains and foundations of the old fort buildings that stood here, there’s a lonely stone on the ground in the desert that refers to something entirely different. And it looks like this:




And so here this particular story ends – with me standing among alarmingly large bugs in nearly open desert in 90 degree heat, watching dark clouds roll in off the horizon and looking at a stone on the floor telling me that one of the greatest legends of the Wild Wild West breathed his last right here. A red ant crawls across my shoe. It is the size of an apple. I am a long way from Brompton right now. Sheldon would hate it here.


Want to learn more about the historical events mentioned in this post?

The Long Walk and the history of Fort Sumner

Billy the Kid

The history of New Mexico

All photographs taken by Christina Owen copyright 2014


Posted in Holiday, Lost, Rural | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

By the Shores of Loch Broom: Part 2

By Sheldon

We’d trekked up to Scotland to see what it was that lured Montague, his father and brothers to this remote part of the British Isles for nearly fifty years. Alas, the building they called home was long gone, replaced with a far less impressive modern building, yet the estate itself remained.

A bridge on the estate. Reminiscent of something else the same engineer designed...

A bridge on the estate. Reminiscent of something else the same engineer designed…

What we missed in the building was more than made up for with the discovery of a private, beautiful place that was so well hidden that we had a hard time trying to find out where it was. Ever since I’d written about it in a post during our World War One month, Ben and I had wanted to see if we could find the ‘private family burial ground’ that lay in the Braemore Estate.

This would be continued after we furiously stripped down to our pants by the roadside, almost mimicking Native Americans in attempting to do some sort of rain dance to bat the ticks off of our clothing. The insects up there have admirable persistence in trying to draw blood from your body – frankly we wanted the solace of a peaceful graveyard, where we would not be scared by the threat of having to receive a blood transfusion had we stayed there a moment longer!

After giving up on the Satnav and relying on good old fashioned ‘we’ll drive until we come across it’, I worked out it had to be down a very well hidden country lane that certainly tested the suspension of our rented Vauxhall Corsa to its maximum threshold. When we found it, we were struck by the eerie silence of the Glacial valley, Such unabounded nature is what ranks it as one of the best places I’ve ever visited for Cemetery Club.


We opened the new black gates and entered another world. Thick growth of bracken and grasses covered the ground to the point where I suspected a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park may come out and finish off where the midges had failed. A Knee high headstone to Alice Mitford was the first grave we came across, and then a celtic cross to Marjorie, followed by another cross to Alice, and then, at the top of the clearance, a massive cross to Captain John Fowler.


The memorial to Captain John’s younger brother Alan, whose body was never found.


Subsequent research shows that this was used by the wife, children and descendants of Monty’s eldest brother, John Arthur, who should have been buried here but died in London in 1899 whilst tying up Sir John’s estate, ending up in the grave of the illustrious engineer in Brompton instead.

The following day we spent in Ullapool, utilizing the fantastic Ullapool Museum. (Thankfully no blood sucking insects seemed to be in the town, so me and Ben rested easy for the first time in several days.) There was a wealth of information on the Fowler family, from the death of Captain Sir John and his younger brother Alan, to the sale catalogue of Braemore and the revelation that Monty tried to sell it in 1920: and that it was bulldozed in the 1960’s because of dry rot.


Lady Alice Fowler’s ashes lie beneath the cross

Image originally found at Am Baile

Image originally found at Am Baile

...she decided to ignore his instructions. Heartbreaking.

The grave today. We did try to get a photo from the same location to compare with the above photo, but it’s so overgrown with foliage it wasn’t possible.


Further research showed that Monty’s nieces and sister in law visited the same photographic studio as Lady Malcolm of Poltalloch – its nice to put a face to the memorials that commemorates them.

© Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Marjorie, Lady Alice Fowler and Mabel © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

We popped into a bookshop afterwards and began chatting with the bookseller behind the till, seeing if any books on the family or their contribution to the area was in print. A biography written in 1900 about the career of Sir John happened to be, missing a page which had to be folded in. “We get the odd Fowler fans in here from time to time – this page is from a copy held by  Sir John’s great-great granddaughter – she runs this place. Do you want to speak to her?”

We glanced at each other. For the second time, a living relative was about to communicate with us.

To be continued, obviously!

Posted in Estate, Family, People, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

By the Shores of Loch Broom: The Fowlers’ Retreat

by Sheldon

I despise insects. Pretty things like Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles I don’t mind, because they make no attempt at trying to make me anemic. Mosquitoes, midges and ticks however, I would willingly blast of the face off this earth with a bazooka, were I properly equipped. I’m allergic to insect bites too, so it made perfect sense to be in the middle of a Forest in the Highlands being besieged by a selection of these creatures as me and Ben sought to visit a place of pilgrimage that was of great interest to us.

© Neil King 2012

© Neil King 2012

This is Braemore House near Ullapool, north-west Scotland. It’s constructed out of Gneiss (which is a blue coloured stone which is abundant in the north of Scotland) and edged with durable Sandstone from Glasgow. It looks more like a castle than holiday home, and it was built in the 1860’s for Sir John Fowler as country retreat.

Fowler. Hmm. Now where have we heard that name before?


Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 00.52.47

Ever since we’ve been researching Montague Fowler here at Cemetery Club, one word kept popping up. Braemore. Braemore this, Braemore that. When we found out that Sir John Fowler, one of the most eminent Victorian men of the age and the man who co-designed the Forth Bridge was actually Monty’s father, the scale of the building captivated us and we wanted to see if it was still standing. We found the above image on Google but nothing more contemporary. The hunt was on.

Whilst chief engineer for the Metropolitan Line, he purchases the estate of Braemore and over the next few decades entertains the great and the good there – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edwin Landseer (painter and sculptor of the Lions of Trafalgar Square), John Everett Millais, the list goes on – many clattered nigh-on five hundred miles from London to witness and be party to the stunning views the house commanded of Loch Broom, nearly seven hundred feet above sea level.

We’d never been to Scotland before so decided to marry this little bit of rural exploring with a holiday, presumably in the same spirit that Sir John bought the estate as a place to get away from the grind of London. We mentioned this to the owners of the B&B we were staying at and the legacy of the family came to the fore. ‘Oh, John Fowler? Fascinating man. Do you know he built a bit of the Metropolitan Line behind his house up here to try out different tunnelling techniques?” Ben and I looked at each other and suddenly found ourselves in a car, hurtling towards the house.


The view of the estate looking down the valley

We parked in a quiet Car Park and vanished into the depths of a mature forest that held Spruces and Pines in a tight, insect-ridelled maze. What looked like a short walk on Google Maps had failed to reveal the topography of the Highlands, and when we saw a slope of about 50 degrees our task of finding the Fowler holiday home suddenly seemed to rival a mission led by George Mallory.

Ben marched on in his wellies like some sort of mountain goat, whilst I delicately stumbled over bracken, heather and grasses like a timid Heron. As we ascended, what we thought was the peak made way for another peak, and another peak, until we both found a picnic bench to collapse on, at which point I swore very loudly.


“We’ve come this far” Ben said. My legs were killing me and I was beginning to wonder if any blood transfusion services were nearby as the Midges and flies got bolder in every attempt to drink my haemoglobin. Resolving myself to his astute observation, we carried on until we reached the main gravel drive which Google Maps indicated was the main driveway. I’d run out of Irn-Bru by this point, and wondered what Monty would make of it all, resting peacefully beneath his granite cross in Brompton, probably wondering why two men in their late twenties would be doing this.


We followed the path for another twenty minutes and were confronted with a gate. ‘Braemore Estate. Keep out’. Up ahead, a driveway which led to a large turning circle, with a house directly behind it. This was it. Ben remained behind as the sign clearly indicated private property, but I was of a more forthright nature. Any questions asked – I’d say we were Fowler fans and that we wanted to see a place where genius was nurtured and executed.

I opened the gate and walked up the path. Flanked by sheds of tractors and cars on one side and a small lodge, the other, the house crept into view.



What’s this then? I was expecting a magnificent stone building. What must the Archbishop of Canterbury have thought if he saw one of the leading lights of British Engineering living in a Barratt home?

Part 2 on Thursday will look into a what happened to the Highland home of the Fowler clan and a rather surprising little feature of this Highland hideaway….

Posted in Estate, Family, Holiday, People, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Crystal Palace

By Christina

On the night of 30th November 1936, thousands of people gathered around Upper Norwood in south London to watch an iron and plate glass building known as The Crystal Palace burn to the ground. Many came because they had seen a strange orange glow in the sky, and they brought their families and friends with them.  Flames licked the sky and the crowds were mesmerized. The ground underneath their feet disappeared under twisted, tangled lengths of fire hose. Over 400 fire fighters battled the blaze through the night, but it was no good. By morning, the giant glass beacon that had shaped the skyline for nearly 100 years was gone. It had stood on the site since 1854.

Watch a video of the Crystal Palace Fire. 

In 2014, Crystal Palace Park, which sits atop Sydenham Hill on the Norwood Ridge and stretches downwards all the way to Penge, is somewhere that people go for many reasons. They go there to exercise – they swim at the National Sports Centre or they run along the terraces, limbering up on the steps and then dashing off across the pebbles. It’s somewhere they go to walk their dogs or their children. It’s somewhere they go to eat ice cream and hunt for dinosaurs, to sit and read or to bask on the grass. For the enthusiastic musician, it is somewhere to go to practice the trombone or the bagpipes without disturbing the neighbours. The Italian terraces sprawl out in front of you as you stand at the top of the park, and on a clear day you can look across Kent all the way to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford and the North Downs. If you cross the Parade and walk along Westow Hill, there’s a spot where you can gaze on all of London. It’s high up here, and it’s easy to feel like you own the world. It’s hard to imagine that a great iron and glass structure once stood here, reflecting the sky and housing a plethora of installations and displays, but it did, through almost the entire Victorian era and right up until very near the start of the Second World War.

High on the hill, the terraces of the Crystal Palace still stand

High on the hill, the terraces of the Crystal Palace still stand

The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was plagued by crisis and ruin right from the word go. It was moved from Hyde Park in 1854 after being built for The Great Exhibition of 1851, an idea by Prince Albert – the exhibition would showcase the various industrial triumphs of the British Empire to the rest of the world. It found a new home on Penge Place, which was owned by a friend of Joseph Paxton. But it’s new life was not plain sailing by any means. Before it’s untimely demise, a fire in December 1866 broke out and destroyed the north end of the building. In 1892, one person died in a hot air balloon accident in the grounds, and 8 years after that, an elephant escaped and trampled a person to death. By 1911 the palace was declared bankrupt because it was impossible to maintain financially. After that, despite new management and a trust fund set up to save it, the palace and it’s grounds were never the same.

On a cloudy day in 2014 my brother and I are walking along the Crystal Palace terraces. I am trying to learn things about the site that I can later write here to impress you all with, and I want to take photographs but the day is so miserable that I do not feel I can do the park justice. We walk along the top terrace towards what was once the Grand Central Walk leading up to the palace entrance. We stare up at the now deactivated  transmitter mast and the green slopes that lead away from us to the left. Behind them is Crystal Palace Parade. My brother says ‘well here’s a fact about the palace, although I don’t know if it’s true. Apparently when it burnt down they couldn’t be bothered to remove all the rubble so they buried it under these slopes instead.’ An interesting idea, and looking at the slopes now, thick with foliage, it’s easy enough to imagine twisted metal and plate glass hidden underneath the mounds and long forgotten. But is it true?

The next day I go back with my Dad, who lives in Upper Norwood. He says he heard the same story (it’s likely he told it to my brother) but Google turns up no results on the matter, although I’d like to believe that the ground we are standing on is a cemetery to a long lost Victorian architectural wonder.

DSC00488The white tripod structure in this picture appears to be either the only remaining part of the actual Crystal Palace itself or a reconstruction to show where it would have stood. Below is a 1950’s photograph of the then-remaining south wing of the building, which was destroyed by vandals that decade. You can see the white arch-like structure, although bigger and more ornate.

1950s south wingI grew up in and around this park – it serves as the backdrop for so much of my life as child and adult. I remember playing on the swings in the playground and having picnics and barbeques with friends on the grass on the Sydenham side of the park. As a child, I ran races there as part of an inter-schools cross country championship. As an adult I have run the Race for Life there in aid of Cancer Research UK. I have been swimming at the National Sports Centre and also to Merlin Premier League Sticker swap shops there, queuing up for hours and swapping stickers with other kids on the grass outside in the mid 90’s.

In 2012, when the transmitter was deactivated and there was an odd light show put on for the people of London to enjoy, I went along and stood in the pouring rain underneath the thing to watch (it was disappointing). I have attended fireworks displays there and concerts (classical music at the concert bowl and pop music on the terraces). I walk through the park every time I visit the dentist. I don’t have to do that – it would be quicker to walk up Anerley Hill. But the park is nice. And recently, during an impressive series of summer thunder storms, I hiked up the hill from Penge with my friend Katie so we could sit atop the terraces as it got dark, watching lightning strike the hills and valleys that were spread out before us. Crystal Palace Park has been a large part of my life, something always there in the background. And I guess when something is that much of a backdrop, it does BECOME a backdrop, and you don’t think about the whys and wherefores.


Walking through the park on THIS day, having done a little bit of Google research beforehand, it occurs to me that I am walking through a boneyard. A relic from Victorian times with some interesting history. The remains of these days gone past are everywhere around, if only you open your eyes and look. In the top corner of the park, on the Anerley side, next to the museum, there’s the base of one of the old water towers that was used to feed the enormous fountains in the park. It’s nothing to look at now – only 10 feet high ramshackle and covered in ivy. But it used to stand 280ft tall, along with it’s twin on the opposite side of the park.

I found it, hooray! The base of the south water tower,

I found it, hooray! The base of the south water tower, designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Different web pages have different accounts of why these towers were pulled down – they both survived the fire. Some state that they were taken down to avoid them being used as landmarks by German bombers during WW2. Other accounts report that this one at least was pulled down as it was structurally unsound and too close to the main road.

There are pairs of sphinxes flanking the steps at the ends of the terraces – I’ve been a fan of them for years, and now follow their spoof account on Twitter. They are damaged and graffiti covered but in tact, as are 3 statues from the original gardens that stand at intervals along the terraces.

Missing a head

Missing a head



And while a lot of the original features of the grounds are now lost, and replaced by the sports centre and it’s car park – Joseph Paxton’s giant head remains in the centre of it all.

The Head, looking foreboding on a questionable plinth.

The Head, looking foreboding on a questionable plinth.

The dinosaurs are still here too, although an air of neglect hangs around them also. The swamp in which they reside is one of my favourite features of the park. They were created in 1853 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Paleontologist Sir Richard Owen and unveiled the following year. So large were they that a 20 person dinner party was held inside one of the models on New Years Eve 1853.


The collection was the first ever attempt of life-size sculptures of dinosaurs. Victoria and Albert apparently liked them a lot, and visited often. They are considered wildly inaccurate in their portrayal of actual dinosaurs but represent a brilliant insight into the Victorian era, and how they viewed dinosaurs at the time.


this one is craftily hiding behind a tree



The question is, why is this great example of Victorian ruin in the largest city in the UK so neglected? Various proposals for the regeneration of Crystal Palace Park have been made over the years – the current one being put forth by a Chinese company that hopes to rebuild it. But nothing has ever been done and the grand terraces and statues, which you suspect would be revered and preserved in many European countries – attracting thousands of visitors – have been left to slowly fall apart with no-one paying any attention. Noone has ever rebuilt the fountains. Joseph Paxton’s head (a grade II listed bust) lives in a car park. Walking around the park today (a sunny day this time, so I can take nice photographs – hooray!) I start to wonder why this site hasn’t been shown quite the respect it deserves. It’s been through a lot.



A Quick List of Attractions that Crystal Palace Park has Played Host To Since 1854

The Crystal Palace (now gone)

Italian Terraces (still mostly there, Grade II Listed)

A grand maze (still there but not grand)

Football ground which hosted the FA Cup between 1895 and 1914 (now gone)

London Country Cricket Club between 1900 and 1908 (on site of athletics stadium)

Home of Crystal Palace FC between 1905 and 1914 (now gone to Selhurst Park)

Dinosaurs (still there, Grade I Listed)

English Landscape Garden designed by Edward Milner (now gone)

Crystal Palace Railway Station – High Level (now gone, subway remains but is closed to the public)

Crystal Palace Railway Station – Low Level (still open, Grade II listed)

400 ft Long Marine Aquarium (built 1872, now gone, site of transmitter)

Crystal Palace Circuit between 1928 and 1972 (now gone – closed due to noise pollution)

National Sports Centre, built 1964 (still there, Grade II listed)

Sir Joseph Paxton bust, by William F. Woodington, 1873 (still there but moved from original location)

Concert Platform (still there)

Crystal Palace Museum, housed in a building built circa 1880 by the Crystal Palace Company (still there)

Crystal Palace Zoo (now gone – opened 1952)

Things proposed but never built included a drive-in cinema and a butterfly house.



All photographs by Christina Owen copyright 2014 unless stating otherwise



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