One year to research a subway? That can’t be too hard, can it?
Crystal Palace subway isn’t just any old tunnel under the road – it’s a beautiful piece of Victorian architecture built in a style befitting the lead up to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham: a building that dominated the skyline across a huge sweep of South London for nearly 80 years. It took passengers from the High Level station, under Crystal Palace Parade (the A212) and emerged in the central transept of the palace. It was built specifically to handle the large visitor numbers expected at the Palace, but when the Palace burnt down in 1936, the High Level station was left without a destination and it was eventually demolished in 1961.
So why bother about the subway that remains? Well it turns out that this Victorian underpass has had a varied life and has been the focus of community rumour, fascination and pride since it was first opened on 23rd December 1865. Together with my colleague Sue Giovanni, we were aiming to document the subway’s heritage through archive research and oral history, as part of the ‘Inspired by Subway‘ heritage project.
We knew a trip to the National Railway Museum’s Search Engine would help complete the picture so we planned a day out along with Sue’s niece (9 year old Evie) and her sibling 7 year old twins, Ewan and Charlotte.
We forewarned Search Engine of our visit and arrived impressed when the materials we had expressed an interest in had been retrieved from the archive ready for us to look at. While Sue settled down in the archive, I set off with the kids to see what else the museum had to offer.
We spent the first 90 minutes in Station Hall looking at The Royal Carriages, the post office van, playing games like ticket inspector and talking about how the trains and locos would have been used. When we re-met Sue for lunch it was only then that we realised the existence of Great Hall and another set of exciting locos, carriages and exhibits….
Sue explains in her own words about her research progress:
“In many ways I wasn’t expecting too much from the archive at NRM as project volunteers have found it very difficult to find documents and evidence about the subway so far. However Search Engine staff had run a search through their magazine article database and this came up with two pages of articles related to Crystal Palace so I knew I was going to be busy having a look at all those.
I began with the images, which I knew were related to the Crystal Palace area and while lovely to see were more to do with the low level station. One image was more intriguing. Catalogue number 1978-1925 described as ‘Watercolour. Train passing under footbridge at Norwood with Crystal Palace in the background’ but with no further information. The painting, I guessed, was painted by an amateur artist and depicted a station in the Norwood area. It showed a few architectural landmarks that I recognised within a rural landscape that is greatly changed today. For this reason Ed Bartholomew (Senior Curator, Images and Sound) came out to look at the image and see if he could expand upon the catalogue entry. Very exciting!
In the mean time I want off to look at microfiche and as suspected one of the track plans was indeed CP High Level (hurrah!). I was also handed a bundle of very useful articles from the photocopying team – something to keep our volunteers busy when I got back!
Ed confirmed that there was only a station called Norwood for about 10 years so Ed was certain the watercolour was painted circa 1854 which means it was painted during the very first years of the Crystal palace at Sydenham. Judging by this view it was a sight to inspire any artist and it was a great privilege to witness the dating of this work.
I was very impressed with the experience of using the Search Engine for research as well as with their provision of children’s books and relaxed attitude to young research assistants handling materials and hopefully catching the research bug!”
And I was the most favourite in-law as I relieved parents and grandparents of 3 overexcited under 9’s for a few days in the holidays – thank you NRM!
If you have any memories, info or pictures of the Crystal Palace subway or High Level Station please contact us, via http://www.inspiredbythesubway.org.uk/.