Crystal Palace Subway is a beautifully designed and crafted relic of Victorian construction. Hidden under the Crystal Palace Parade it was built to provide access to the Crystal Palace.
The Crystal Palace was a cast iron and plate glass building originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the exhibition, it was rebuilt in an enlarged form at the top of Sydenham Hill. It proved a popular attraction and stood from 1854 until its destruction by fire in 1936.
The Friends of Crystal Palace Subway are working with local authorities towards re-establishing public access for such events as Open House.
Access to the Palace was provided from two railway stations. The Crystal Palace Low Level station, opened in 1854, from which passengers had to walk up hill some 500 yards.
To increase capacity and reduce the walking distance a new High Level Station was designed by Charles Barry this opened in 1865 on the western side of Crystal Palace Parade. This line was operated by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway Company though built by the Crystal Palace and South London Junction railway company.
1st August 1865 – official opening of the High Level Line
From the High Level Station it was intended that first class passengers proceeded to the Palace via a subway composed of groined arches of coloured brick and stone, resting on eighteen columns of the same materials. The corridor lead under Crystal Palace Parade to a vestibule roofed with glass and iron and communicating with four staircases, two for entry and two for departure, the grandeur of architecture was considered a fitting approach to the Crystal Palace.
23rd December 1865 – opening of Subway
There is some confusion as to who actually designed the subway! The Illustrated London News initially credited Edward Middleton Barry as architect but the following week issued a correction stating the architect was in fact Charles Barry, Edward’s eldest brother. The Morning Post in 1865 states the railway’s resident engineer William Shelford was also in part designer.
In a lecture to the Dulwich Society in 1969 Bill de Baerdemaecker stated that the ‘magnificent Italian subway that crosses under the Crystal Palace parade was built... by Italian bricklayers and stone masons’, however no evidence has yet been found in the archives of these craftsmen.
30th November 1936 – the Crystal Palace is destroyed by fire
1941-1945 – subway used as an air raid shelter
During World War Two the subway was used as an air raid shelter under the control of Camberwell Council. It provided accommodation by ticket for 192 local people to sleep or for 360 to stand.
To achieve this use a number of modifications to the subway were necessary. These included partition walls in order to subdivide it into nine sleeping areas with bunk beds, a canteen and lavatories. Drains were cut into the floor to establish necessary connections to the main sewer.
20th September 1954 – closure of the High Level station
The High Level station was little used and deteriorated after the war. Demolition, began in 1961 after a campaign by the Norwood News to clean up the area.
The Subway, already a favourite haunt of local youngsters, was used to facilitate access to the motor racing in the park. Young people and photographers where drawn back to the subway, while the vaulting beneath the parade survived, the roofed vestibule on the Bromley side was not so fortunate and was largely destroyed.
27th October 1972 – the ‘ruined’ subway was listed by English Heritage
29th September 1979 – first Subway Superday was held
During the 1970’s the subway was bricked up to prevent its use as a shortcut or playground. In 1979 The Crystal Palace Foundation and the Norwood Society held a Subway Superday bringing it back into public use, if only briefly!
October 1996, the Chemical Brothers ‘Setting Sun’ video is set in the subway
Over the next 15 years the Subway was opened regularly for cultural and community events, some without the approval of the local authority such as raves!  Numerous schemes have been proposed for use of the subway but none have yet come to fruition.
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