Crystal Palace exhibition reveals answers on the fire of 1936

One of the two towers which remained after the Crystal Palace blaze in 1936

One of the two towers which remained after the Crystal Palace blaze in 1936


Some 75 years since the world's first theme park burnt to the ground in a spectacular blaze, historians claim they finally have the answer to one of London's great unsolved mysteries.

Crystal Palace senior ranger Peter Joy with the famous dinosaurs in 1991

Witnesses from the time said the flames enveloping the Crystal Palace could be seen from Dover as Joseph Paxton’s celebrated building was engulfed.

Now visitors to the Crystal Palace Museum — which starts its seasonal tours this Sunday — will be shown evidence which, curators insist, will extinguish any doubt of how the icon burnt to the ground in November 1936.

Theories of how it started include insurance fraud, a discarded cigarette, arson and faulty electrics.

Crystal Palace Museum chairman Barrie McKay, said: “Some even suspect enemy agents — at the time, suspicion of Germany was strong. The drama of spies was everywhere, even though there was no war yet.

Pictures of site of Crystal Palace and Barrie McKay

“We have looked into it and have come up with the solution of how we believe it started. We have the evidence from written research, statements from the time and the schematics of the architecture which weren’t available back then

“This has been put together and we have found out where it started and who could have been there at the time to come up with the 

Despite his assurance that the riddle had been solved he remain tight-lipped about the findings, wishing to not deter visitors to the venue where the secrets will be revealed.

Originally housing the temporary Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the glass and iron structure was moved to its permanent home in Crystal Palace Park in 1854 after being bought by entrepreneur Samuel Laing for £70,000.

He foresaw the attraction’s potential for massive profits. From 1854 to 1936, the Palace pulled in 90million visitors and bank-rolled many of South Kensington’s museums, including the Victoria & Albert and the Natural History Museum.

At the time, the area was surrounded by countryside and all of Victorian high society would flock there for entertainment and ‘enlightenment’.

Queen Victoria was huge fan, performing the opening ceremony, while other prominent visitors included Charles 
Dickens and Conan Doyle.

The Palace was akin to a modern day Las Vegas — visitors could move from one giant themed court to another.

They were transported through countries by passing through a doorway. One minute they were in Medieval Britain, the next Egypt or the Roman Empire.

Palaeontologists had just discovered dinosaur fossils, inspiring Laing to build life-sized dinosaur replicas which have become synonymous with the park today.

News of the blaze first filtered through over BBC radio airwaves around 9am on November 30 — some 89 fire engines and 400 firefighters attended but could not save the Palace from destruction.

Mr McKay added: “To this day people say their grandparents could see the flames from the Channel. Only the two towers were saved.

“These tours are important because we have to keep the Palace’s memory alive. It is a part of our heritage, our social history.”

Visitors will see a close-up of the 60ft diameter structure that was once the base of Isambard Brunel’s south tower and the tour will feature the Victorian time keeper’s office, the former Palace’s marine aquarium, plus much more of the Crystal Palace site.

The guided tour starts from the museum at noon. Tickets are available from the museum, in Anerley Hill on the day. £3.50 concessions apply.

For more information call 020 8676 0700 or email

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