The hidden Victorian Crystal Palace Subway in London, Grade II*, has been approved for restoration.
It’s a beautifully designed and crafted relic of Victorian construction, but the subway has not been open to the public since 1954.
Historic England say it’s currently being repaired and restored as a new cultural venue.
First opened to the public in 1865, the subway was originally designed by Charles Barry Jnr, and provided access to the Crystal Palace from the high-level station.
The main structure of the subway is a series of spectacular vaults, built from red and cream brick, with an elaborate floor paved in two alternating types of stone.
It was designed and constructed by Italian cathedral specialists, its vaulted roof is supported by octagonal pillars faced with cream and terracotta bricks and tiling, which fan outwards as they climb to the ceiling.
In 1936, the Crystal Palace was famously destroyed by a fire, and as a result, the subway is one of the last remaining features of the original Crystal Palace.
On the evening of 30 November, General manager of Crystal Palace Henry Buckland was walking his dog near the Palace when they noticed a red glow within it.
When Buckland went inside, he found two of his employees fighting a small office fire that had started after an explosion in the women’s cloakroom.
Realising that it was a serious fire, they called the Penge fire brigade. Although 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen arrived, they were unable to extinguish it.
Within hours, the Palace was destroyed: the glow was visible across eight counties.
The fire spread quickly in the high winds that night, in part because of the dry old timber flooring, and the huge quantity of flammable materials in the building.
The station was eventually demolished in September 1954, and the ornate subway began to decay.
However, the subway was occasionally used over the years, especially in the war.
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.
Unfortunately, in 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.”
During 1971, the Crystal Palace Advertiser reported on the bricking up of the subway to protect it.
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.
Following the war, the subway lay derelict for half a century, until a group of local enthusiasts called the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (FCPS) formed in 2013.
They began exploring renovation options. In 2019, a £2.34m grant was secured from the City of London and £639,000 from Historic England, with FCPS chipping in £5,000.
In 2020, Thomas Ford & Partners was appointed as lead architect for the renovation and design of a new roof over the courtyard at the eastern end of the Grade II*-listed subway, with a view to turning this space into an events venue.
In 2022, Bromley council gave planning permission for the scheme and in February appointed heritage contractor DBR for the project.
Currently, the subway is closed until further notice for the works – but it’s expected to be complete this autumn.
The present phase of repairs to the Subway is restoring the East Courtyard and stairs and is being carried out in accordance with established conservation principle of minimum intervention, so that as much original material as possible is retained and conserved in-situ.
Traditional materials and techniques are being used throughout.
Where the original bricks were missing entirely, or were structurally unsound, they have been replaced with carefully sourced new or salvaged bricks.
The north wall of the courtyard was leaning so badly that it had to be entirely reconstructed although, even then, it was possible to save the Victorian retaining wall that stood behind it.
For regular updates on the works, you can check out their official website HERE.
If you’re a fan of the Chemical Brothers – You’ll likely have seen this Subway before.
They used it in their music video for 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.
The trains may have long departed, but this grand vestige of Victoriana will soon be open to the public once again!
Crystal Place Subway is located half way down Crystal Palace Parade, just inside the park, between bus stops B and W.
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