Subway history

The subway is described in a number of texts in a similar way. The striking Byzantine style, the quality of the craftsmanship and it's original purpose as an entrance to the Crystal Palace for first class passengers are often mentioned. These texts rarely reference their sources and evidence for these statements is hard to find. Over one year beginning in September 2013 "Inspired by the Subway" project researchers dug around in archives to try and find evidence for some of these comments. Below is the text used to produce a trifold information leaflet and below that a timeline of significant dates, click on the descriptions to expand the information.


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.


7th 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.

Pursuit of Pleasure under Difficulties: Getting home from the Crystal Palace on a Fête day. Printed in Leisure Hour on 10th May 1862

Image courtesy of

Timeline of events

1st August 1865 • Official Opening of High Level line

The High Level line was officially opened on the 1st August 1865, although the August report submitted be Frederick Turner to the Crystal Palace & South London Junction Railway Company states that "The works were completed, and the line opened for traffic on the 1st July last".


The subway that was supposed to convey 1st class passengers from the new terminus directly into the Crystal Palace had not been completed.

The Crystal Palace High Level Railway, John Gale

The New High Level Station at the Crystal Palace, Illustrated London News, Saturday, September 30, 1865

23rd December 1865 • Opening of the Subway

The arched subway leading from the High Level station of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway into the centre transept was opened on Saturday.


The Morning Post, Monday, December 25, 1865

Quoted by kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive

The New High Level Station at the Crystal Palace, Illustrated London News, Saturday, September 30, 1865

30th June 1911 • King George V Coronation Fete

On the 30th June 1911. The King and Queen visited the Festival of Empire Exhibition as part of their Coronation celebrations. 100,000 children, selected from all the London Boroughs were invited to the Crystal Palace to see the Royal visitors. The Railway companies provided 96 trains to take the children to the Palace. The London, Dover and Chatham Railway terminated at the Crystal Palace High Level Station which represented quite a logistical problem, since each train once vacated had to have the locomotive turned, re-connected and taken to sidings to be parked ready for the return journey, never-the-less, the turn round time was accomplished within an average of six minutes. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway being a through station was somewhat easier.


The Festival of Empire Exhibition and Pageant of London, Crystal Palace 1911 by Fred Peskett


The High Level station was heavily used for the Children's Day but we have no evidence that any of the young people used the subway.


The comment on turning the trains in an average of six minutes was reported in the Daily Mirror who ran a feature of the King's Day with the Children.

1st January 1917 – 1st April 1919 • Wartime closure of the High Level Station

R.C. Riley describes how during a war time economy the High Level Station was closed between January 1st 1917 and March 1st 1919.  The closure having a far reaching effect on traffic which never quite regained its former importance.


Riley, R. C. (1954, October).

The Stations of the Crystal Palace. Trains Illustrated. Vol VII No 10, pp. 430-435.

30th November 1936 • Crystal Palace Fire

Photograph taken by O. J. Morris 1st December 1936, the morning after the fire at Crystal Palace

Reproduced by kind permission of Melvyn Harrison and The Crystal Palace Foundation

1936 • Subway closed

On the 5th October 1979 the Croydon Advertiser reported on the first Subway Superday


The tunnel, connecting the site of the High Level Station and the site of the Crystal Palace, was open to the public for an exhibition of photographs, pictures and slides about the area...the first show of it's kind since the subway closed in 1936.

1939-1945 • High Level Station roof damaged by anti aircraft fire

R.C. Riley describes how during WWII both stations suffered slight damage. The Low Level station was hit by several bombs and the glass roof of the High Level station was much damaged by anti aircraft fire.  No attempts were made to repair the roof after the war ended and as the northern end of the station was no longer needed to serve the Crystal Palace, after its destruction by fire in 1936, it was allowed to fall into disrepair.  The High Level station was again closed for part of WWII; 1944-22-05 - 1946-03-03.


Riley, R. C. (1954, October).

The Stations of the Crystal Palace. Trains Illustrated. Vol VII No 10, pp. 430-435.

1st January 1941 • Plans drawn up for the subway to be used as an air raid shelter

3rd May 1941 • Camberwell Council contracts to pay the Southern Railway £5 per annum

1941-1945 • Use of subway as air raid shelter

Listen to the audio interviews where people tell their memories of the subway during WWII when it was being used as an air raid shelter. Interviews and editing by volunteers from the "Inspired by the Subway" project

22nd May 1944 – 3rd March 1946 • War time closure of High Level Station

R.C. Riley comments that the High Level station was again closed for part of WWII; 1944-22-05 - 1946-03-03.


Riley, R. C. (1954, October).

The Stations of the Crystal Palace. Trains Illustrated. Vol VII No 10, pp. 430-435.

19th September 1951 • Proposed withdrawal of passenger services by The Railway Executive

The 19th September appears to be the first mention of withdrawing passenger services from Crystal Palace High Level Station. It took exactly 3 years before the last train left Crystal Palace High Level station on 19th September 1954.


During that time there was considerable discussion about the pros and cons of closing the station and this dialogue can be seen in file LCC-CL-GP-2-51 at the London Metropolitan archive.

18 - 20th September 1954 • Closure of the High Level Station

The last day of train service from Crystal Palace High Level was 18th September with a steam train The Palace Centenarian running from Richmond as the last train on the Crystal Palace High Level Branch line. Seen here from the Huntley archives.

The station was completely closed on the 20th September.

1961 • Demolition of station began

On 12th March 1961 the Norwood News reported on the demolition of the High Level Station with a photo of the tower next to the subway being pulled down.

The building had been "the subject of a campaign to clean up the Parade in Norwood News" the previous July. This article was found in the Upper Norwood Library archives.

August 1964 • London County Council produced survey drawings of the subway

1 of 4 drawings (MD96/01382-5) reproduced by kind permission of English Heritage

July 1969 • Vandalism and lighting of fires in subway

On 31st July 1969 the Crystal Palace Advertiser reported the subway's "architecture was in danger of suffering severe damage at the hands of young vandals. Because protection was inadequate they were finding their way into the subway and lighting fires and causing damage."

Mr Baerdemaerker (Chair) and the Dulwich Society were urging the Greater London Council to take better care of the subway. This article was found in the Upper Norwood Library archives.

November 1971 • Subway to be bricked up

During 1971 the Crystal Palace Advertiser and the West Norwood and Dulwich News both reported on the bricking up of the subway. Two reasons were given, firstly to keep the residents of the mobile homes on the High Level station site from accessing areas of the park closed to the public. Secondly The Greater London Council were responding to pressure from The Dulwich Society and The Norwood Society to do more to protect the subway.  These newspaper clippings were found in the Upper Norwood Library archives.

27th October 1972 • Listing of the subway by English Heritage


List entry Number: 1385457


The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.


Grade: II

Date first listed: 27-Sep-1972

July 1973 • Subway in use as a statue store

18th July 1973 the subway was opened for the day for the purpose of inspecting the statues

Reproduced by kind permission of Melvyn Harrison and The Crystal Palace Foundation

August 1977 • Agreement that the London Air Museum could be housed in the subway

29th September 1979 • First Subway Superday

1979-1994 • Subway Superdays

Volunteers have found records of Subway Superdays at the following times though there may have been more so if you have evidence of other dates please get in touch via our contact page.

September 1979, September 1973, September 1985, October 1986, 1988, May 1993, September 1994

Subway Superday 1988, reproduced by kind permission of Ken Kiss Director, The Crystal Palace Museum

October 1996 • Chemical Brothers released 'Setting Sun'

The Chemical Brothers released the single Setting Sun which was to be their first number one. The accompanying video celebrates dance culture of the time and was partly shot in the subway.

20 - 21st September 2013 • Subway opened for the first time as part of Open House London

Friends of Crystal Palace Subway could not have opened the space without the support of Bromley Park Rangers. Photo by kind permission of Angie Davila

10th December 2013 • Arup announce that the subway "will be an integral part of the new Palace"

A section relating to the subway from the "Questions & answers about the proposal" document handed out at the drop in session on Tuesday 10th December at Living Waters Satisfies Café.

Go to to download the full document.

20 - 21st September 2014 • Open House and "Inspired by the Subway" exhibition bring crowds

Photos kind permission Veronica Barnett and Doris Kaleja

Thanks to Helen Lockstone for all her work on our previous website. Thanks to John Wilson for our logo design. Current site by Gemma Pettman and Sue Giovanni


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