Imperial War Museum at Crystal Palace


On June 9th 1920 King George V performed the opening ceremony of the Imperial War Museum in its first home the Crystal Palace. But the association between the Museum and the Palace would not be an easy one.

The four leading lights behind the museum were Ian Malcolm, Conservative MP for Croydon; Sir Alfred Mond, first commissioner of works (later the ministry of works); Sir Martin Conway, who was appointed director-general in March 1917 and Major Charles ffoulkes.

Conway and ffoulkes had been to France and collected signs such as ‘Hell Fire Corner’ and ‘Piccadilly Circus’. Conway argued that without a national museum future historians would have to use German museums for their research.

At the opening the visitors could see the guns which fired the first shot of the war and the first shot of the naval war, a full size model of the 18 inch B.L. gun the heaviest made for the naval service which was used in the bombardment of the Belgian coast; the gun from HMS Chester where First Class Boy John Cornwell VC died from his wounds; torpedoes, searchlights, depth charges and a coastal motor boat in which just a year before Lt Augustus Agar had breached the Bolshevik defences in Kronstadt harbour and torpedoed the cruiser Oleg.

The army section included shells, bombs and wireless apparatus. The RAF section included German aeroplanes and a German anti-aircraft gun. There were also a veterinary section, army medical section and women’s section, which included a photo of Edith Cavell’s funeral, a prisoner’s section and work done by the Women’s Land Army, Women’s Forestry Corps and others. The original wooden –top of the Cenotaph was also on display.

In the grounds you could still see buildings left over from the Festival of Empire of 1911. The Canada Building housed an oil exhibition as part of a gas, oil and engineering fair. The programme map also shows the India, Australia and New Zealand buildings. Photos in the museum archive appear to show the model of the 18-inch gun arriving at the former Crystal Palace High Level station where it was then loaded onto a W Coldman Ltd lorry in Farquhar Road before being driven across the Parade and into the Palace. Not everything was inside the Palace. One photo in the IWM archive shows a store of naval exhibits in the open. Behind a fence in the background is a sign: “Human Laundry”. Also out in the open was a Friedrichshaven bomber with a 77 ft wingspan.

Sir Henry Buckland was knighted in the New Year honours list 1931. During 1941 work was carried out in preparation for a new Crystal Palace. Rubble estimated at 395,000 tons from the bombed buildings of London was used to fill up the site of the old building and a level surface made for the new floor. At a Crystal Palace Foundation meeting in 1989 Buckland’s daughter Chrystal reminisced on how her father had been deeply disappointed by the decision to site the 1951 Festival of Britain at the South Bank rather than the Crystal Palace.

Buckland died in December 1957. A letter to the Norwood News recalled the dapper frock-coated gentleman with his high silk hat and waxed moustache who had lived at Rockhills at the top of Westwood Hill which had its own private entrance into the Palace grounds where he would tell of the day Queen Victoria sat under ‘that tree’. ffoulkes remained curator and secretary of the museum until 1933, and was a trustee of the museum from 1934 to 1946. He died on 22nd April 1947.

On March 17th 1917 the War Cabinet had approved the formation of a national war museum even though the Great War as it became known was far from over. The museum would collect and preserve trophies, books, maps, posters, works of art and other material connected with the War. Some potential exhibits already existed. A large store of captured enemy material already existed at Croydon under the Ordnance branch.

Representatives of His Majesty’s Government all over the world were being written to, asking them to co-operate and assist in acquiring exhibits. Among the first donations, in August 1917, were a lifebuoy from the Lusitania.

On November 11th 1918 at 11am the Armistice was signed. The Palace had been ‘Hobson’s Choice’. Early suggestions for the museum site included the Chelsea hospital, the waterworks on the south side of the Thames near Victoria station, Hyde Park, Earls Court, White City and a huge site in Bayswater. In March 1919 it was recorded that exhibits planned for the museum were all over the country. In July Dr Conway saw the opportunity of selling “even the most rubbishy war relics” to people visiting the new museum.

In September dead green canvas was chosen for the background to the exhibits as it would be impossible to arrange them against a background of Renaissance, Egyptian, Greek Roman and modern French decorations. There were a variety of teething problems before opening. The British Industries Fair had not removed all its exhibits until the middle of April. Naval guns were delivered before their mountings had arrived. The Royal Air Force section was faced with the difficulty of inadequate technical labour as the ordinary museum attendants, quite able to deal with naval and military weapons, did not have the expert knowledge for the setting up of aeroplanes and other exhibits of a similar nature. The trade unions objected to museum attendants doing work which might be done by unemployed ex-servicemen and when a company of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was drafted in, the trade unions threatened a lightning strike, the company was swiftly withdrawn.

Plans for the opening ceremony were forging ahead. A request from Miss W H Taylor ofthe 2nd Upper Norwood girl guides to form a guard of honour for the King was politely declined.

At the opening ceremony The King told assembled guests: “While fulfilling the requirements of the scientist and historian you have also succeeded in the still greater task of erecting a memorial which speaks to people and to the imagination. There is yet another aspect of this museum which is perhaps unique in history it records faithfully and impartially the efforts of all ranks in the field and all classes at home; the private as well as the commander; the worker in the workshop as well as the statesman in the council chamber.”

ffoulkes would later describe it as “a strange place entirely unfitted for extreme changes of temperature” as the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (who occupied the Palace and its grounds during the Great War) had discovered. There was a legend that its length was once measured during a frost and again during a hot spell of summer with the measurements varying by nine inches.

“We had to provide over a gross of waterproof sheets to protect the objects from the rain which poured through the roof due to the expansion and contraction of the fabric. From the outset our tower of strength was the Palace engineer Mr. Wright who was never wrong. Brought up here from his youth he knew every corner and every secret part of Paxton’s giant greenhouse. We only had to chalk on the floor the position of a gun weighing 10 tons and immediately the floor was strengthened to take the weight.” Great planes and balloons were slung from the roof and the side courts were filled with exhibits of several departments to illustrate the British effort on land, sea or in the air. Nor a move could be made without Wright’s advice for he alone knew what the complicated fabric of the Palace could stand he never failed us.” Attendance figures from June 1920 to March 1921 were 1,433,891 including 94,179 who arrived on the August bank holiday. (Admission was free).

A large number of items were offered to the museum in the wake of its opening. Many of them were paintings, sketches and scale models. A large number of German steel helmets were offered by the army of occupation in Cologne with the suggestion they are sold as ‘souvenirs’ before the War Office stepped in and the helmets disappeared. ffoulkes later heard they had been scattered on a muddy track leading to an army artillery dump near London where they were flattened by a steamroller.

“Let future antiquarians and archaeologists take note for one day some excavator may report the find.” Other offers included a model of a Royal Naval Air service pigeon station purchased for £25; lifebelts from certain ships in the Battle of Jutland which washed up on the coast of Denmark (accepted); the offer of a stuffed head of a goat of the Welsh regiment (refused) and the offer by the Duchesse de Croy of a stuffed dog which had once belonged to nurse Edith Cavell (politely refused).

Some items were sold off including a quantity of toys “of no particular interest”; portions of naval guns with no technical value (10 guineas); and a German tank and broken scrap iron bought by Messrs Moyes (£312).

By February 1921 the physical culture building had been given over to the photographic section. In return, the end of the south nave would be vacated by the RAF and the exhibits removed to the end of the naval section of the nave.

In April 1921 the Air Ministry transferred the entire air force exhibit as a free gift to the museum. Whatever the real problem was – the lease was due to expire on March 31,1924 by October the museum’s board of trustees were already looking to use space at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. The Armistice that year was celebrated in the museum. The silence signaled by the bell of HMS Implacable and ended by a call on the bugle of the 1st Gordons used at Loos in September 1915.

By June 1922 it was “definitely decided” the museum would occupy certain galleries at the Science Museum. These would be handed over in October 1923. The model of the 18-inch gun had been removed. In 1923 the Crystal Palace was almost destroyed by fire, ffoulkes and Captain Mallandain were going round the building when Mallandain noticed a smell of burning. The woodwork of the gallery was smoldering due to the sun through the glass roof converting a mirror into a burning glass. The fire was put out, the mirror removed, ffoulkes highlighted Mallandain’s efforts in a report to the museum’s standing committee, which expressed its appreciation of Mr. Mallandain’s services, which “had undoubtedly saved the Crystal Palace and Imperial War Museum from serious damage and irrevocable loss”.

Towards the end of the museum’s stay a large number of tanks, which had stood in the Palace grounds were sold for scrap. Four years had rendered the tanks and gun carriages well nigh immovable. At one point in the work one of the contractor’s staff asked ffoulkes for a bullet proof shield. Quantities of German ammunition, which had lodged in the crevices of the armour plating, were going off. A bulletproof shield was duly provided.

In his report to the standing committee on December 5th 1923 ffoulkes said the major portion of exhibits had been removed, amounting to more than 200 loads. The removal was completed by mid-February. In all between 700 and 800 tons had been moved. The museum remained in the two galleries adjoining the former Imperial Institute until 1935. The museum’s next move was, literally, Bedlam. On July 7th 1936 the Duke of York, shortly to become King George VI, opened the museum’s new home in the former Bethlem Royal hospital where it remains to this day.

From opening day and for several weeks, the museum lost dozens of magnetos and other appliances from aeroplanes, tanks and guns. ffoulkes recalled: “We could only assume that numbers of our visitors, expert engineers and skilled ‘scroungers’ of the war period had come armed with screwdrivers and spanners. “I had great sympathy for these people for, after all, it was through their efforts and service for four years that the war museum existed as their memorial. But there were others with more ulterior motives who had to be considered. We realised we had numbers of rifles and pistols of all makes and 50 or more German machine guns all more or less in good condition. We therefore stripped all the machine gun locks and rifle bolts and sent them in sealed boxes to the War Office vaults”. The pistols were relegated to a burglar proof safe. On one Monday morning he found the cover of every single machine gun had been opened.

In March 1921 ffoulkes reported the thefts of decorations of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, a brace of bits and a sparking plug. An arrest had been made in the latter case and a fine of 16s 6d imposed. In July he reported the thefts of a 1914 star, 1914-15 star, general service medal, Victory medal and Military Medal from the Edith Cavell shrine and the attempted theft of a compression gun from an aeroplane engine by an engineering student who was handed over to the police and fined 40 shillings. ffoulkes told the standing committee that magistrates had stated they would impose imprisonment if further cases of theft occurred.

Damage to the bilge keels of certain half-block models was also reported. In October ffoulkes reported the theft of two chronometers and a magneto. Attempts had been made to break into several cases.

Thanks to staff at the Dome reading room, photographic archives and museum archives of the Imperial War Museum; Upper Norwood reference library and Bromley local studies library for their help in compiling this article.


Imperial War Museum Archives. Copyright Trustees of the IWM

Arms and the TowerMuseums and the First World War a social history by Gaynor Kavanagh. Leicester University Press London and New York 1994.

Palace of the People. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854 1936 by J R Piggott. Hurst and Co London 2004.

Four Victorians and a museum. An unofficial account of the founding of the Imperial War Museum 1917 1922 by Robert Miller. 1999.

Crystal Palace Matters 32 and 34

Norwood Review No.92 December 1984.

Norwood News December 27 1957

Reluctantly to the Palace by Suzanne Bardgett Despatches. Issue 2, 1989.

Who was Who (vol IV) 1941-1950 Adam and Charles Black London 1958 (reprint)

Imperial War Museum handbook. HMSO London 1972

Main photo copyright IWM

(First published in Palace Mag July 07)

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