Aviation and the Crystal Palace Exhibition.


Bob Tough

The connection between Aviation and the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 started right from the very opening of the Exhibition by Queen Victoria on May 1st. While the Queen was performing the opening ceremony in the building designed by Paxton, the Chaiman of the Organising Committee, being her husband, Prince Albert, a balloon flew overhead. The balloon was piloted by Charles Spencer, a family who were leaders in ballooning for well over half a century. No doubt some of the exhibits referred to ballooning. The Crystal Palace was re-erected on Sydenham Hill and re-opened by Queen Victoria on 10th June 1854. Ballooning had taken place in Britain for nearly half a century, either using hot air or domestic gas. Vauxhall Gardens were a favourite ballooning site.

Stanley Spencer's Airship

With the Exhibition being on a hill it was not long before the idea of ballooning from the Exhibition taking passengers was commenced in 1859 by Mr Lythgoe who worked for the local gas company. By 1862 Harry Coxwell had been appointed Crystal Palace Aeronaut, and was regularly
taking passengers at 5 per flight. The Royal Aeronautical Society has a lithograph coloured by Josiah Taylor showing his mammoth balloon flying over the Crystal Palace; it was 55 ft. in diametre. This did not compare in size with the French Aeronaut and photographer Nadar's giant balloon, the basket of which contained a saloon, captain's cabin, dark room, laboratory and printing press which was exhibited at Crystal Palace in the following year.

Nadar is remembered for organising the balloon postal service out of Paris during the German siege of 1870. Many balloons were flown and a number of very small letters written on very thin paper still exist. In fact, in the same year mail was flown by balloon from the Crystal Palace; there were four flights and six cards are known which were carried on these flights.

Graham-White at the Palace 1910

In 1868 the worlds first Air Show was staged at the Crystal Palace, comprising models of airships and various flying machines, one model actually works. This was made by John Stringfellow and was driven by a small motor along a wire, but was seen to lift off the wire and actually fly.

Other attempts at flying machines seem tohave concentrated at the Crystal Palace; Thomas May built an aerial 'Steamer' which was seen to lift off a track round one of the fountains at Crystal Palace. It could not however be manned.

Sir Hiram Maxim, who lived near the Palace, built what he called a 'Flying Machine' there, which was in fact a free-flying roundabout, the cars could be controlled by rudder and ailerons. The back of a card says that the writer travelled at 100 miles per hour on this contraption. There is no doubt that it must have been very fast, and precarious. The machine was moved to Earls Court, and then to Blackpool and may still be operating there. This was first introduced in 1894.

By the end of the century the Crystal Palace was having difficulty in attracting visitors; a spectacular trapeze act from a balloon by Leona Dare was one of the attractions in about 1890. despite her risky activities she lived to an age of nearly 90.

Firework displays were another attraction and the Brock's Benefit was born. These displays included hot-air balloons, made of Japanese tissue paper on wire frames, some of which carried
postcards asking for the finder to return them to the sender. Although quite a number were despatchedonly about four are now known. Meanwhile Mr. Spencer continued with his balloon ascents. He also flew the first successful airship in Britain, departing from the Palace for St. Pauls and actually landing in Highgate in 1902. The first British military airship, 'Nulli Secondus' built and flown by Captain Cody, flew from Farnborough to St. Pauls but came to grief on the return at Crystal Palace in 1907. It was taken back to Farnborough by road, rebuilt and renamed 'Alpha'.

E. T. Willows at the Palace.

In 1902 balloon post was an attraction at Beckenham Flower Show; cards were dropped from a balloon and posted by passers-by back to the sender, only about seven cards are known. In 1907 the Daily Graphic mammoth balloon flew from the Palace, mail was thrown overboard at Mullerud in Sweden, and returned to the senders. A number of cards exist, some with Swedish stamps and others with 'postage due'. 1907 was a busy year at Sydenham, for the Wright Brothers made the first aeroplane flight in Britain from the cycle track at Crystal Palace. Bleriot's monoplane, which flew across the Channel was exhibited in 1909 and in the following year Claude Grahame-White made flights from there. In that year the unfortunate British airship pioneer, E. T. Willows flew No. II from its building shed at Cardiff to the Palace and subsequently flew off to Paris. Although his airships were quite successful he never achieved any real government support, and his firm foundered before the first World War.

The Festival of Empire in 1911 included at least one aeroplane exhibit. I have a postcard of Mr. Beaumont's aeroplane on show there. In the same year a Miss Alice Honeyman had a balloon flight and has written a vivid account of it. During the first World War the Crystal Palace became a Royal Naval Depot, but after the War in 1920 it was choosen for the Imperial War Museum and Victory Exhibition with a whole section on aviation including Barrage Balloons and a whole range of aeroplanes and seaplanes. During the same year the world's first regular overseas air service was set up from Hounslow to Le Bourget. The Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill was used for navigation as the aircraft regularly flew over it.

Two of the few British airships also flew over the Palace, the R33 when she made her only visit to Croydon Airport in 1921, her sister ship the R34 being the first aircraft to fly both ways
across the Atlantic, and in each crossing had flown almost twice the distance that Alcock and Brown flew to cross the Atlantic the previous year.

Card sent by G. Hale A.C.2. Class 32 R.N.A.S.

from the Crystal Palace 20th September 1917

I have a card of the R100 over Crystal Palace in 1930, she did a number of flights around Britain and like the R34 flew across the Atlantic this time to Canada and back.. Her sister ship, the R101, was lost with nearly all hands in a tragic accident on a hillside in Beauvais on the way to india. The Palace continued to be important from an air navigation point of view; in 1931 the Battle of Britain pilot Douglas Bader, flying a Bristol 'Bulldog' was lost in a fog. He landed in a field and asked a passerby for directions. The passerby directed him to the Palace and from there he knew the route to nearby Kenley Aerodrome.

There is no doubt had the Crystal Palace or even one of its towers survived until the second World War, they would have been an important landmark for the German bombers. It is said this is why the two towers which survived the fire in 1936, were demolished.

Exhibitions in the grounds continue and as recently as 1990 the Transport Spectacular included Model aircraft, model balloon flights etc. Eighty years after the first balloon flight, Kevin Johnson flew a hot -air balloon from the site in 1991 with Tony Stevens and Gill Ridgewell as passengers. This appears to be the end of aviation from Crystal Palace.

We would like to thank the Royal Aeronautical Society for kindly giving permission to use the illustration on our cover of Henry Coxwell's Mammoth balloon over Crystal Palace in 1862.

    © Exhibition Study Group 1994