Victorian Prophecy: 'Crystal Palace Will Be Destroyed'

M@
By M@ Last edited 6 months ago
Victorian Prophecy: 'Crystal Palace Will Be Destroyed'
Crystal Palace on fire, 30 November 1936. Public domain

London was doomed by its own progress. July 1866 and an anonymous scribe wrote to the Argosy newspaper with his unique vision of apocalypse, brought about by too much tunneling and engineering.

"Can you escape a shuddering thrill of blow-up-iness and collapse-and-smash-iness?," he writes, in the kind of language that would never find its way into The Times.

"I cannot. We pity people who live in volcanic and earthquaky [sic] countries. But what if civilisation is coming to similar complexion. What if London, when the population is, say five millions, and it is engineered all over, above, below, and in the middle, should explode?"

The author has a particular beef about electricity. At the time, electricity was still a novelty. It would be 15 years before the first electric street lighting, on Holborn Viaduct and the Embankment, and nobody had it in their homes.

"Electric agency will probably be more used than it is now, and in ways not anticipated by the vulgar. Now conceive all London electrified; all the gasometers exploding; all the water-pipes bursting; all the plugs up, and the turnkeys gone mad or crushed; all the railway arches falling in, and all the trains smashing down among the omnibuses and cabs and people! What a catastrophe!”

"not anticipated by the vulgar"

And on the raving goes. But, then, we’re offered this choice piece of prophecy:

"The crash would be sure to climb up to Sydenham; the Crystal Palace itself must go, and what a noise all that glass would make, falling in! It would be like the smashing of a kitchen dresser to the falling of a house."

The Crystal Palace was utterly consumed by fire almost exactly 70 years later. On the night of 30 November 1936, a devastating conflagration ripped through the building, and it would indeed have sounded like the smashing of a kitchen dresser. The cause was never established, but an electrical fire — as our Victorian seer suggested — is a strong possibility.

The remains of the Crystal Palace following its destruction by fire in 1936. Public domain.

Eerily prescient? Not really. The Crystal Palace was one of the marvels of its day. It would be natural to choose it for a symbol of destruction in a piece like this — much as you might damn The Shard or London Eye if you were to fantasize about London's destruction today.

In any case, our correspondent immediately renounces all claims of being a reliable prophet with his final prediction. He also has it in for the Victoria Tower, tallest tower in the newly built Houses of Parliament.

One of Rodin's Burghers of Calais helpfully points out the Victoria Tower

"...but one thing will happen in our time. The Victoria Tower will "settle" and fall down. That I do distinctly prophesy. I have watched that tower like a father; and it has most distinctly the physiognomy of an edifice that contemplates self-destruction. Do you laugh? Very well. Stone the prophetic man, do! You will build me a tomb some day."

Based on various cuttings from the British Newspaper Archive.

Last Updated 27 June 2017

Clunking Fist

Hey: an article about my dad in the Londonist! You should've got his opinion on computers, "self-phones", air-conditioned buses and serving rice, other than as a dessert.

I tried to tell him that the chinese invented rice, so would hardly be getting it wrong.
"Pah!"