Above: The pathway leading to the entrance door of St Bartholomew, Sydenham.
A disaster that is seldom mentioned – even by those who live in Sydenham and know its history – is when a group of workmen fell to their deaths, from high up on the enormous structure, while constructing the Crystal Palace at its new location on Sydenham Hill.
The grave for ten of the 12 workmen who died in the accident on 15 August 1853 remains beside the footpath leading to the entrance door to St Bartholomew’s church, in Westwood Hill. How the accident happened was never discovered and the details are few but the account is to be seen on a plaque beside the large gravestone. The text is reproduced below.
The Kentish Mercury and Home Counties Advertiser carried an account of the ‘frightful accident’:
“On Monday afternoon, shortly after 2 o-clock one of the most frightful and fatal accidents by the falling of scaffolding occurred at the works of the New Crystal Palace and which has resulted in the death of 12 men and several injuries to others.
“A very large mass of frameworks, apparently of great strength had fallen from its position, some 180 feet high, carrying with it part of the girders and several columns of the north side of the nave. The staging had fallen inwards, in the direction of the central nave, carrying with it a vast quantity of iron and woodwork. Six of the poor men were picked up, quite dead, close to each other, the position in which they were found indicating they must have fallen at an angle of something like forty degrees. Three others were found dead at a short distance and one poor fellow lived for a few moments but was not sufficiently collected to give any explanation of how the accident occurred. The precise cause of the disaster will probably never be discovered.”
The funeral for the workmen was an enormous occasion and it was described in florid detail in The Kentish Mercury:
“The funeral took place on Thursday afternoon (18 August 1853) in the churchyard of the New Sydenham Church – an elegant modern structure, embosomed in luxuriant foliage and situated in a most romantic spot. The day was observed as a solemn holiday in the district and there was a total cessation of all work within the Palace.
“The mournful procession formed in the central nave [of the newly constructed framework of Crystal Palace] and, as the clock chimed three, it slowly emerged from the building and wended its way along the beautiful road which conducts to the church. Each coffin was followed by its own particular mourners and at the rear of the last came the whole body of workmen, numbering some thousand persons. In its course the procession was swelled by fresh additions, until when it reached the church there must have been between 2,000 and 3,000 persons following.’
Above: The large gravestone for ten of the men who died in the accident.
The large stone slab in the churchyard, bearing the names of ten of the workmen, was fully restored in 2003 and is surrounded by low railings. A plaque, with the text that has been reproduced above, is mounted nearby.
While lecturing in an Adult Education centre in Sydenham, one of the men in my class told me that his grandfather had worked on the construction of Crystal Palace. His grandfather had told him that man-handling the large panes of glass was very dangerous work. Because of the high winds high up the structure, the panes of glass would sway due to the force of the wind. The workmen were told that, if they could not keep the glass steady, they should let go and let it crash to the ground for fear of the men being carried away by the force on the glass. It is all terrifying to think about and, due to modern machinery on building sites, has made working practices much more safe today.
The contemporary account of the 1853 accident gives an insight into how dangerous the work was on these large Victorian projects was. This work not only included Crystal Palace but similar structures like the roofs of large railway stations – particularly Paddington and St Pancras – with their enormous glass and steel structures.