Relics of a lost theme park: Christie's is selling a collection of mementoes of Joseph Paxton's great Crystal Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1936. John Windsor reports

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Only bits and pieces are left of Britain's first theme park. Fist-sized chunks of the 1,250,000sq ft of molten glass, which ran in the gutters when the Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, are worth pounds 40- pounds 50 each. Season tickets to the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in the then-new palace, now fetch pounds 120.

Christie's South Kensington is selling a private collection of 200 items of Crystal Palace memorabilia, with others, on 29 October (10.30am). The vendor is Eric Price, a hairdresser whose premises used to lie in the shadow of the great, barrel-vaulted building on the hill in Sydenham, south London.

Mr Price and five other devotees started the Crystal Palace Foundation 14 years ago. It now has 1,000 members and a museum. Members slept on the floor on the eve of the foundation's first exhibition, to protect precious memorabilia.

Theme park? Joseph Paxton's soaring wonder, designed in nine days, pushed iron-and-glass building technology to new limits and came to symbolise Victorian confidence, creativity and industrial might. After the Great Exhibition of the Works of all Nations, the Crystal Palace left Hyde Park, to be reconstructed (and extended) in Sydenham.

It was the original culture palace. Its open-air exhibits charted the evolution of life - including concrete Jurassic monsters, still there - while inside were elevating displays of British technology. Choirs, company outings, temperance supporters, Boy Scouts, bicyclists, balloonists, and bird and dog fanciers rallied there for inspiration.

Today there are birch trees and scrub where the palace stood. On the windswept terraces, with their baleful concrete statues and sphinxes, are sullen rain puddles instead of fountains. Crows perch on the statues. Dogs abound, walked by their owners, piddling against plinths.

The dogs are unknowingly continuing a Crystal Palace tradition. The original building lacked 'conveniences for foreigners, who are not particular when certain calls of nature press, where they stop to relieve themselves', according to the Times, one of the few cynical voices raised against the Great Exhibition.

There is still plenty of broken glass for those with permission to dig in the right places. The head of Christie's South Kensington's jewellery department, David Lancaster, organiser of the Crystal Palace memorabilia sale and official guide on the site, is examining the remains of the north wing with other foundation members. When the north tower was blown up after the fire, it fell across the north wing site, where an aquarium had been built, driving thick bits of plate glass into the earth.

The original north wing was destroyed by fire in 1866 and never rebuilt. Thereafter, ancient wiring and floorboards soaked in creosote gave the fire brigade permanent nightmares.

Mr Lancaster asked: Did I know the Girl Guides were awarded rights to sell glass from the 1936 fire as souvenirs? I did not. Nor did I know that dealers who bought cast-concrete statues from the terraces in the fire sale had difficulty getting them away because the iron reinforcing rods inside were rooted deep into the plinths. A pair of shattered concrete legs with two rusty rods sprouting from them in a V-shape is testimony to the dealers' frustration.

The three bulbous bottle banks at the foot of the central granite stairs might, oddly enough, have won the approval of the Victorians: there was a powerful conservation lobby in 1851, which forced Paxton to enclose Hyde Park's giant elms within the structure instead of cutting them down. The sparrows nesting in them were no better house- trained than those foreign visitors. Poison failed to dislodge them and the problem was put to the Queen. She consulted the Duke of Wellington, whose famous answer was, 'Sparrowhawks, ma'am.'

Mr Price is selling his collection because he no longer has space for it. Among his most cherished items, garnered from junk shops and antique fairs over 35 years, is a letter of 1856, signed by Paxton, cajoling the director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Hooker, into donating plants to Crystal Palace. 'I take the opportunity,' he wrote, 'of mentioning that the Queen and Prince Albert have been good enough to send some plants from Windsor.'

The collection, in 30 lots, is expected to raise pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000. Estimates are modest. A huge fold-out of the Crystal Palace, published by the Illustrated London News in 1851, together with a similar print of the exterior, both linen-backed, are estimated at pounds 80- pounds 120. Among porcelain items, a plate with a central view of the palace with the legend 'Honour Thy Father and Mother In All Thy Days' is expected to sell for under pounds 100. Lot 61, estimated under pounds 100, includes lumps of glass and a fire-fractured piece of Osler's 27ft-high Crystal Fountain, setpiece of the central transept and made from four tons of pure crystal.

Within the next two months, work is expected to begin on a new Crystal Palace, 'glass-faced with transepts, in the spirit of the old one', according to the freeholders, Bromley Council. But this time the culture palace will rise in the form of a 100-bedroom hotel with a 36- lane bowling alley, a multi-screen cinema, night-club and restaurants.

Will the new Crystal Palace capture even an ounce of the ingenuity of Paxton's creation? Will the temporary fencing to protect the site be reused as floorboards? That is what happened in 1851. Will the roof glass be laid by glaziers sitting astride a trolley perched on a railway running along the ridges and furrows? It was for the original Crystal Palace.

One thing is likely: workmen on the site may come across pits of solidified molten glass. These are worth a bob or two, as long as they do not try to sell them all at once.

(Photographs omitted)

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