The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park attracted just over six million visitors to the Crystal Palace between May and October 1851. After closure, the structure was dismantled and in August 1852 the rebuilding began on a site at Sydenham Hill. The intention was to create a winter park and garden and the reconstructed Palace was opened by Queen Victoria in June 1854. To cater for the expected huge influx of visitors, the London Brighton & South Coast Railway (LBSCR) opened a station serving the area on 10th June 1854 but the station was not ideally sited and involved visitors walking along a 720ft glass covered colonnade.
The Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway was authorised on 17.7.1862 to build a line from Peckham Rye to a large covered terminus alongside the Palace with a subway from one end of the station under the road into the grounds.
It was opened on 1.8.1865 from Peckham Rye to a terminus called Crystal Palace High Level despite the terminus being conveniently sited, the branch came too late as the Crystal Palace excursion traffic was already falling as the Palace failed to attract the expected visitors. Despite electrification after WW1, traffic on the branch remained disappointing. On 30th November 1936, the Palace was destroyed by fire attracting crowds far larger than any seen there for very many years; after the fire, pleasure traffic dropped to virtually nothing and when the service was reduced as war time measure in 1940 the remaining passengers began to drift away. From 6th January 1941 the branch was worked as a shuttle to and from Nunhead but due to the wartime manpower shortage the line was closed on 21.5.1944.
After the war, the line reopened on 4.1.1946 but passenger numbers didn’t improve with many trains during the day running almost empty. Closure was announced in January 1954 with the last electric train running on 18th September that year.
The impressive terminus was designed by Edward Middleton Barry and cost £100,000 to build. The station was built on an excavated ridge below Crystal Palace Parade requiring major engineering works and a high retaining wall. The station was an outstanding example of Victorian architecture with high red and terra cotta brick side and end walls and a glass and iron trainshed roof. Square towers were added at each corner, each tower topped with four short spires. The station was divided longitudinally by a series of brick arches with a passenger concourse above the tracks at each end of the station incorporating a booking office, refreshment rooms and waiting rooms.
One half of the station was intended for first class passengers, who were given segregated access in the centre transept of the Palace. The subway under Crystal Palace Parade linked the station directly with the Palace; it consisted of a wide vaulted and tiled chamber resembling a Byzantine crypt and was designed and built by cathedral craftsmen brought over from Italy. The roof was supported by a series of octagonal pillars of red and cream brick interlaced with stone ribs. Steps led down from the main floor of the Palace into a further circulating area, adjacent to the subway.
The subway and adjacent courtyard survived the 1936 fire although the roof of the concourse was destroyed; the subway was used as an air raid shelter during the war. After the war, the station was in a very run down condition, much of the glass trainshed roof had been shattered during relentless bombing and no attempt was made to repair it allowing rain to pour in to the station. As a result the timber platforms were soon covered by vegetation with the rats scurrying under the platforms far outnumbering the passengers.
After closure, the crumbling structure survived until 1961 when the station was demolished leaving only the high retaining wall on the west side of Crystal Palace Parade, the vaulted subway beneath the road and the now roofless concourse at the east end of the subway. For many years the subway and the adjacent concourse were open but in the late 1990’s the subway was securely gated and the concourse fenced to prevent unauthorised access. The subway is now a Grade 2 listed building and is occasionally opened for public visits.
The subway can be viewed from the west side of Crystal Palace Parade where an original bricked up entrance into the station is clearly visible in the low wall. Behind the wall steps lead down to a small concourse on the west side of the subway, from here passengers could walk directly into one of the two booking halls at either end of the station. The four arches of the subway are grilled but easily viewed from this side of the road.
There have been several proposals to renovate the subway. Minor repairs to the adjacent concourse and clearance of vegetation were undertaken in the 1980’s and 1990’s and there is now a proposal for a new building above the now roofless concourse that formed the entrance to the subway. As part of the development the subway would be fully restored to become in effect a basement vault, suitable for a number of potential uses such as a Crystal Palace Museum, art gallery, restaurant or wine-bar.