The Crystal Palace magician: some history

The Crystal Palace under construction. One of those guys is probably John Blake, magician.

Do you like some history with your magic?

This post is for the history-lovers amongst us, for those who want the low-down on the real people and events that inspired the fictitious industrial magician, John Blake, from my just-published book Salt Magic Skin Magic.

The book starts just after the closure of the Crystal Palace (as the Great Exhibition Hall of 1851 was known). The reader soon learns that John’s been at work there. He’s been charming the iron and the glass, protecting the great edifice from leaks and magical attacks alike.

In real life, in 1851 a building made of iron and glass was a truly fantastic idea.

Iron wasn’t generally thought of as a building material at the time, and glass had incurred such high taxes until a few years previously that most architects were relatively sparing with it. The Crystal Palace’s airy beauty represented the most up-to-date technology and radical design of the day. People had never seen anything quite like it.  Punch called it ‘a wonder of beauty that seemed to realise the fiction of fairy-land.’

‘A wonder of beauty’. Millions of people came.

The design for this marvel was famously sketched by Joseph Paxton on a blotter during a railway board meeting. Officially, Paxton was head gardener at Chatsworth (the residence of the Duke of Devonshire). But he was so clever and inventive that he also found the time to chair railway board meetings, start gardening magazines and do a hundred other things. In addition, he wrote to his wife almost every day when they were apart, and sometimes more than once, which is really very sweet.

Joseph Paxton: Inventive, tireless and really quite sweet.


The parts for the Crystal Palace were pre-fabricated. The sections for the huge iron girders were brought, still hot, by train from the Birmingham foundry where they were made, before being put together on-site. The glass panels were made in the traditional manner; a glassblower first blew a long shape like a huge test-tube. This was then cut along one side and put back in the furnace where it opened out like a great glass flower – resulting in a perfectly flat pane of glass.

And the whole thing was absolutely vast. It covered 18 acres in Hyde Park. Three mature elm trees were enclosed within it, with room to grow. There were seven or eight miles of walkways and it housed nearly 14,000 exhibitors showing everything from a cast-iron piano to a ‘tempest prognosticator’ (using live leeches) to the Koh-i-noor diamond.

The transept was 108 feet high, and it was so light and airy, that, the Morning Post reported in January 1851, when a Professor Cowper brought his class ‘composed of very intelligent youths’ from King’s College to view the building (then in an advanced state of construction) ‘some of them asked where was the scaffolding, and others where was the building – and, indeed, the same question has been asked by other visitors’.

The transept, with tree. There’s even room for all those crinolines.

Despite its immense size, the Crystal Palace was built in eight months. The contractors took over the site on 30 August 1850 and the Exhibition opened, on schedule, on 1 May 1851. There were over 2,000 workmen on site, and yet, in an age when health and safety wasn’t even really a thing (think of all those mining disasters, or matchgirls dying horribly of white phosphorus poisoning) I can find no mention of a single fatality during construction.

Plenty of people had doubts about the design of the Crystal Palace. They worried that the sun would heat the interior unbearably (to be fair, the design was based on a hothouse Paxton had built at Chatsworth to house tropical plants) or that moisture would rise from all the visitors, condense on the glass and rain down upon them (which actually does happen in some sweaty modern concert halls and dance tents). Nay-sayers said storms would break the glass, or that rain would leak in and ruin the exhibits. Or that the whole thing would fall down from vibrations once visitors started tramping around inside.

And yet, despite freak storms, millions of visitors, and plenty of the rain for which English summers are famous, everything went smoothly. No deaths, no major delays, no appreciable breakages.

It went, in fact, like magic.

This was thanks to Paxton’s endless ingenuity; he tested everything, and if a problem arose he found a solution. For example, he devised a clever guttering system to catch the condensation, a ventilation system to ensure fresh air, and he hung huge muslin curtains to keep the worst of the sun at bay.

But wouldn’t it be fun if he’d hired a magician as well?

I like to imagine that Paxton did employ one. He’d have kept it quiet of course. Magic, engineering and Christianity would have been uneasy bedfellows in Victorian times. But Paxton was a practical man, and if magic would have given him double assurance that his great design would be a success, then he would certainly have employed a magician.

Not just any magician, of course, but a specialist, one trained for the factories and foundries of the industrial revolution. And, knowing Paxton, who only worked with the best, this magician would have been supremely competent, a quick-thinker with a knack for commanding the inanimate; possibly the best industrial magician of his day…

If you’d like to read more about Paxton’s industrial magician, Salt Magic Skin Magic, a paranormal m/m romance – is out now.  Buy links are here.

And if you’ve read the book, I hope you enjoyed the history too!


    1. Thanks Kara! Yeah – the more you read about it, the more amazing it becomes. And then, after the Exhibition closed, they MOVED it. They took it all down and put it up again on a new site. Actually, that construction didn’t go so smoothly and several workmen died. Obviously, John Blake can’t have been working on it then (no one would have died on his watch). He must have had other things (or people) keeping him occupied elsewhere….


  1. Please, please write about those other things. Soren and John as a team…who knows where that could go? I can only imagine the possibilities that lie in the magic Soren barely knows he holds…

    Liked by 1 person

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