Crystal Palace High-Level Station Subway
Published in Subterranea, September 2014
Written in August 2014
The Crystal Palace subway is a beautifully designed and crafted relic of Victorian construction hidden under the Crystal Palace Parade, a four-lane road that runs along the top of Crystal Palace Park and is apparently home to little more than a few trees and a bus terminus, oh and a stunning piece of broadcast engineering known locally as The Transmitter. The Crystal Palace Transmitter can be seen for miles in all directions rather like the Crystal Palace could when it stood on the same site. The subway is the antithesis of The Transmitter being underground and completely hidden from view. Despite its secretive aspect the subway is a source of pride for the selection of locals who know of its existence. New visitors are always amazed to find such a spectacular space propping up a main road but remaining out of sight and neglected.
Following many years of regular heritage tours and successful Subway Superdays hosted by The Norwood Society and The Crystal Palace Foundation, the subway was closed to the public in 1997 due to concerns about the stability of the brickwork in the courtyard area on the park side. Out of sight was never out of mind with the subway and previous enthusiasts did not give up hope of seeing the space restored. Given the location of the subway, a short (possibly drunken) stumble from a main road, it was just a matter of time before a new generation of locals came across the space and asked the first question everyone askes, ‘Why is this space not being used or at the very least why is it not open to the public?’
This is exactly what happened when two locals Rolf Peruzzo and Karl Richter discovered the subway on their way home from the pub. A survey of the space led to a proposal in 2010 for community use of the subway, which actually didn’t get very far, but the energy around that proposal did effectively kick start the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (FCPS) who are now actively campaigning to reopen the space.
Since the launch of the FCPS in 2012 there has been a trial opening of the subway on 17th October 2012 for local people and last year in September 2013 the subway was part of Open House London for the first time. The Open House weekend also saw the launch of a Heritage Lottery Funded project called Inspired by the Subway (IBTS) set up to gather memories of the subway though oral history recordings and to research the history of the space.
Stephen Oxford will share his research work done to date on the earlier history of the subway through to the closure of the High Level Station (HLS) as well as detailing a bridge load assessment survey from 1997. Sue Giovanni will share information about the more recent uses of the subway obtained both from archives and oral histories, this research in particular has been supported by project researcher Gillian Edom.
The birth and death of a station
The Crystal Palace was a cast iron and plate glass building originally erected in Hyde Park, London, England, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the exhibition, the building was rebuilt in an enlarged form on Penge Common next to Sydenham Hill, an affluent South London suburb. It stood there from 1854 until its destruction by fire in 1936.
Anticipating the Palace would attract many thousands of visitors the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) constructed a line that ran from Sydenham Station to a terminus, later referred to as the Crystal Palace Low Level Station, in the Palace grounds. The station's platforms were some 100 feet below the level of the Crystal Palace and some 500 yards distant. A covered walkway was constructed to enable visitors to walk up to the Palace.
In order to increase the capacity for rail passengers and to enable them to avoid the arduous climb from the Low Level Station the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway was promoted by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR); by 1860 the LCDR had a line running to Beckenham Junction via Loughborough Junction, some three miles to the north-west of the Crystal Palace site. In order to capture traffic from the LBSCR, the LCDR constructed a branch line from the latter station, with a junction at Nunhead to run directly to the Crystal Palace. This station was known as Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood, later referred to as the HLS. The line opened on 1st August 1865. The station was a lavish red and buff brick building with four covered platforms and a turntable. The station was excavated into the ridge below Crystal Palace Parade requiring major engineering works, carried out by Messrs Peto & Betts.
The platforms were level with the machinery basement of the Palace and only 30 yards distant from the Central Transept. There were two sets of booking offices and waiting rooms, one at each end of the building. The first class passengers were to proceed to the Palace by way of 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 style of architecture matching the general design of the Palace as much as possible. The whole ascent from the railway into the Palace is only about 20ft.’ The subway was illuminated by 'ornamental gas jets suspended from the key of each arch.'
The Engineer journal goes on to claim that 'the station was designed by Mr Charles Barry, architect, and was built by Messrs Lucas.' Thus begins the confusion over which architect designed the subway as The Morning Post describes the subway's materials and style as 'clearly supporting the concern for the charm of beautiful materials in engineering projects much beloved by Edward Middleton Barry’. However, later in the same article it claims that the architectural firm of Messrs Banks and Barry designed the subway alongside Mr Shelford, resident engineer.
By 1865 Sir Charles Barry had been dead five years so it is possible that the Charles Barry referred to by the Engineer was Charles Barry junior who was in partnership with Robert Richardson Banks at this time.
A more reliable source, The Institute of Civil Engineers comes down clearly in favour of both the HLS and the subway being designed by Edward Middleton Barry. The obituary says that Edward Barry often ‘lamented the shortcomings of many engineering works in artistic taste and pointed out that there was no necessary incompatibility between engineering necessities of such works and artistic conception…
With his knowledge of construction and use of materials, combined as it was in him with great artistic power, he often wished that the union of architectural and engineering professions, securing both the aesthetic and scientific aspect of construction had never been broken’. Barry's love of combined skills can clearly be seen in the design and construction of the HLS and it's subway. However they do not appear in any of the published lists of works attributed to him.
The confusion over the architect continued with its design being attributed to Mr Banister, engineer and Mr Gough, architect. They claim it was built by Messers Dove citing The Builder, no date, as their source.
Charles Barry was claimed to be the architect in 1982 by Searle.
The builders of the subway are also the subject of some confusion which first surfaces in a lecture to the Dulwich Society in 1969 by Bill de Baerdemaecker. He stated during the lecture that the 'magnificent Italian subway that crosses under the Crystal Palace Parade was built in 1861 by Italian bricklayers and stone masons, there being no British bricklayers skilled enough' to carry out the task. A friend of Baerdemaecker and Vice-President of the neighbouring Norwood Society, Alan Warwick, repeats this view in his book The Phoenix Suburb. Baerdemaecker appears to have his dates confused as the subway was not completed for the opening of the station in 1865. The assertion that 'Italian bricklayers' constructed the subway reappears up to the present day but does not appear to be supported by any primary source.
Little mention appears in print about the HL Station until 1954, when Riley notes that the station was closed between January 1st 1917 and March 1st 1919, during World War One. The closure lead to a loss of traffic from which it never really recovered. Both stations at Crystal Palace were brought under the ownership of the Southern Railway in 1923 and given the names the Low and High Level to differentiate between them. Some improvement in traffic was evident after the electrification of the line in 1923.
Riley goes on to describe the further reduction in traffic to the HLS following the fire which destroyed the Palace in November 1936, saying it's sidings were used to store steam trains used as holiday specials or hop picking traffic during the summer months.
During World War Two the station was closed from 22nd May 1944 until 3rd March 1946. The glass roof of the station was much damaged by anti aircraft fire. After the war no attempts were made to repair the roof and as the northern end was no longer needed to serve the Palace it was allowed to fall into disrepair.
The subway was used as an air raid shelter during World War Two as shown in a number of documents and plans drawn up by Camberwell Council, currently held in The National Archives. Plans drawn up by the Council's Borough Engineer show that it was planned to provide accommodation for 192 people to sleep or for 360 to stand.
The plan shows modifications included partition walls in order to subdivide the subway into nine sleeping areas containing bunk beds, a canteen and men's and women's lavatories. Drains were cut into the floor of the subway to establish necessary connections to the main sewer, which ran below and parallel to station railway lines. Various letters illustrate progress of implementation including an agreement to pay Southern Railway an annual lease of £5. A recent oral history interview by IBTS recorded the memories of a brother and sister who described the experience of sheltering there.
English Heritage listed the subway in 1972 as a Grade Two. At that time the stone paving between the subway and the station was 'largely covered by concrete.'
The HLS was closed from 20th September 1954 mainly because the projected revenue would never be enough to carry out the necessary repairs to the line and station buildings. The subway remained but for many years was bricked up, the resulting damp causing damage to its fabric.
High and dry
Demolition of the HLS began in 1961 after a campaign by the Norwood News to clean up Crystal Palace Parade. By all accounts the building was in a very dilapidated state causing concern to the police, as children were known to be playing there. With the station gone the subway became an underground tunnel between two derelict sites, the ‘Closed Lands’ of Crystal Palace Park and the cleared track level site opposite.
The London County Council (LCC) had their eye on the subway as in 1964 a beautiful set of survey drawings were produced by a draughtsperson with the initials M.E.W. A detail of one drawing is shown below.
The subway, already a favourite haunt of local youngsters, was only enhanced by a set of wooden steps built to facilitate access to the park when the station site was used as car parking for motor racing and other events. This made the poorly fenced subway a perfect cut through from the park to track level wasteland only a short distance from a real adventure, the walk through the Paxton Rail Tunnel. This was well known for its S-shaped form making the central stretch pitch dark and quite disorientating. Several interviewees on the heritage project recount the dare and a flavour of the time can be seen Tony Harden’s photos taken in the late 60s.
The subway was known further afield with enthusiasts and photographers also visiting, notably Nick Catford has photographed the space since 1968.
Young people and photographers were drawn back to re-visit the striking space and while the fan vaulted structure under the road remained in remarkably good condition the courtyard area on the Bromley side was not so fortunate with serious damage to the entrance steps. The Greater London Council (GLC) plans and drawings of the time note the space as the ‘ruined subway’.
The date of listing, 27th September 1972, did not prove to be the turning point in the subway’s prospects that might have been hoped for. The 70s were a busy decade for the subway with suggestions for its use ranging from an aquarium and sculpture gallery; to a pedestrian link between proposed housing and the park; or a home for the London Air Museum. In 1971 amid fears of vandalism local newspapers reported the subway was to be bricked up to prevent residents of the mobile homes on the HLS site from accessing the race track and other parts of the park including the subway. Concerns were also raised at the GLC that children from the homes where using the site as a playground.
The bricked up subway took on a new role as a statue store during the early 1970s. As yet no start date for this use has been found in the archives but there is reference to a break at the store and there is also a pastel sketch of statues in the subway by artist Kate Thorpe held at the Lambeth Archives and the photographs below are in a private collection.
On the 29th September 1979 an event was organised by The Crystal Palace Foundation (CPF) and The Norwood Society to commemorate 25 years since the closure of the HLS. The ‘Subway Superday’ was to usher in a new phase for the subway. It included stalls, information and displays with a highlight being an exhibition and talk about the history of the Crystal Palace. This first event was attended by 2000 people, with an evening cheese and wine party for 300 accompanied by music, where the acoustics were said to be ‘out of this world’. Over the next 15 years it seems the subway was open regularly for cultural and community events such as the superday, which by 1986 was billed as having “non-stop entertainment” ranging from street theatre to film.
Less family-friendly uses of the subway continued too with one example outlined in a letter from Alan Watson Chair of the CPF to Lord Birkett, Director of Recreation and Arts at the GLC. This detailed an incident that occurred when a primary school party visited the subway and came across ‘a gang of youths with their heads in plastic bags completely intoxicated from glue vapours and displaying unruly behaviour’. This and other complaints about systematic vandalism resulted in Lord Birkett visiting the subway with Allan Tyler the Area Manager on the 1st August 1980. Mr. T.G. Bidwell then the Acting Director of Architecture made various suggestions but the problem centred around the futility of restoration if policing the area with staff or though other means (such as extending the Crystal Palace Caravan Site) could not be improved.
This pattern of use and misuse continued until October 1997 when there was a discussion about temporarily closing the subway for ‘weights and strains’ tests to be undertaken. By the 29th October 1997 formal notice of closure on a permanent basis had been received by the Crystal Palace Foundation from the London Borough of Bromley (LBB).
Tunnel or bridge, bearing the load
In 1997 a survey of the subway was carried out by Bullen Consultants on behalf of the LBB. This was part of the national bridge load assessment programme to check capacity for 40 ton lorries. As they could find no records of the subway's construction an intrusive investigation was carried out.
Radar was not precise enough and as there was concern about the damage coring the structure might cause so it was decided to investigate first from above with a trial hole. As such structures rely on the dead load of fill on top of them an excavation represented a risk of disturbance and movement, consequently scaffolding was set up underneath instrumented with dial gauges.
Unfortunately the site chosen for the 2m by 1m trial hole was obstructed by concrete and uncharted iron ducts. The concrete was broken out and although vibration could be felt inside the subway the lack of movement on the instruments showed how strong the structure is. The columns supporting it within the subway moved apart laterally by one 20 thousands of an inch.
Eventually the structure was revealed including part of one of the octagonal columns. The columns continued higher than the stone rings that appear on top of them from inside the subway. Waterproofing was found to be black pitch. Small patches of pitch were broken away, revealing the joint pattern of the brickwork. It soon became apparent the top surface was almost a direct reflection of the fan structure beneath. ‘The masonry surrounding the gas roses was only one brick thick, with a second layer overlain to form a roof with an average thickness of 350mm'. They found 'No traces of any other supporting structure’. The findings were to be subject to analysis by computer programs to determine whether the structure might fail or would need protecting by an overlying bridge.
Bullen consultants were later engaged to examine the subway retaining walls and report on any proposed interim measures that might be necessitated. It was determined that the effect of live load pressures from traffic were small in magnitude compared to the in situ soil pressures. It was determined that the walls would fail at some time in the future due to the soil pressure. Various proposals for supporting the walls were considered. These included scaffolding, a raking shore option and a portal frame option. It was recommended that scaffolding be erected to shore up the walls and help prevent future collapse. The scaffolding would require a concrete slab to prop the scaffolding against and due consideration would need to be given to avoiding disturbance or deterioration of the wall, fortunately this never happened.
The condition of the subway has continued to be monitored and today Aecom carries this out.
The most positive news for the subway in recent years is that English Heritage and LBB have jointly commissioned a feasibility study for the subway. Aliza Ross, project lead gave this comment following a meeting on Tuesday 15th July. ‘Donald Insall Associates has been appointed by Bromley Council through a heritage grant to undertake feasibility stage works to the Grade II listed Crystal Palace Subway. The impetus for the project is to remove the structure from English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk List and review the possibility of opening it up to the public once it has been made safe. The project has three principal components: survey and investigatory works to establish the overall condition of the structure’s fabric and factors that have been accelerating decay; the production of a Conservation Management Plan, and lastly, a costed options appraisal of various remedial work packages, from stabilisation of the structure to a comprehensive repair programme, with recommendations for the best option. It is anticipated the project will be complete by early December 2014.’ So in 2015, 170 years since the subway first opened, there should be a clear picture of the current state of the subway and the possible solutions for more regular opening.
However, as research has shown previous surveys and suggestions have not resulted in reopening or reinvented reuse.
2012 to the present day
Picking up from where previous generations of subway fans left off the FCPS have negotiated and worked positively with LBB to secure access two open days to date and in September 2014 the subway will take part in Open House for the second time. This time the weekend will showcase much of the work done by the IBTS project. There will be an exhibition showing research, photographs and extracts of oral history interviews; as well as an exhibition of young people’s artwork carried out during workshops partly conducted in the subway; and newly trained Tour Guides will be on hand to assist visitors to the subway. This year’s Open House also coincides with the 60-year anniversary of the closing of the HLS. To mark the occasion Southwark Model Railway Club’s model of the HLS will be included in the exhibition and Gary Cross will be running exact models of the two trains involved in the ‘last train’ events on 18th September 1954.
FCPS have planning approval for a new gate and handrails on the Southwark side of the subway. Southwark’s Cleaner Greener Safer programme and the Heritage of London Trust have contributed funding towards this work and at the time of writing the FCPS are negotiating details of the proposed work before it can commence. The gate will reinstate safe street access to the subway from Crystal Palace Parade using steps on the Southwark side as these are concrete and in good condition. Access from this direction avoids the most hazardous part of the subway, the steps and courtyard on the Bromley side. The range of visitors able to negotiate the steps after the proposed works would be greatly increased, an important aim for FCPS.
Negotiations for any type of access agreement no matter how temporary have been hindered by the inclusion of parts of the subway in an exclusivity agreement granted to ZhongRong Group and announced in October 2013. However as this agreement ends in February 2015 and LBB have become more open to negotiation in recent weeks.
Positivity and collaboration have got the FCPS to the point they are currently, therefore FCPS are optimistic for the outcomes of the structural survey and for developments towards a formal access agreement. The Friends hope that the significant anniversary at Open House weekend will mark a new phase in the fortunes of subway.