Dominating the north west London skyline, Alexandra Palace and its Park stands on ground that once was Tottenham Wood, a vestige of the Great Forest of Middlesex whose deforestation began in earnest in the early thirteenth century. One of the last refuges for boars, stags, and wild bulls in the area, by the time it was enclosed to allow King James I to indulge his passion for hunting, its 4,666 trees covered 388 acres, according to the Earl of Dudley’s survey in 1619.
Unable to withstand the pincer attack from the growing demand for fertile, agricultural land and timber for construction, when it was auctioned as a manorial estate in 1769, 367 acres had been cleared and cultivated and by 1843 just thirty-nine perches of the original Wood remained. The land, now known as Tottenham Wood Farm, was put up for sale in 1856 when its owner, Thomas Rhodes, Cecil Rhodes’ great uncle, died.
One person who had grand designs for the area was designer and architect, Owen Jones. As a Superintendent of Works at the Great Exhibition of 1851, he had responsibility for decorating Paxton’s cast iron and glass palace and for arranging the exhibits inside. He went on to design its décor and layout when it was moved to Sydenham.
There is an old proverb “you shall as easily remove Tottenham Wood”, meaning that something was unachievable, which seems remarkably apposite when considering the early attempts to redevelop the area. Fired by the success of the Crystal Palace south of the river, Owen’s dream was to construct a “Palace of the People” for the enjoyment of north Londoners. Tottenham Wood Farm seemed an ideal location, but despite submitting detailed plans in 1858, his initiative failed to attract support. The North London Park & Land Co’s attempt four years later to create a park and a housing development on the land also came to naught.
The Alexandra Park Company Ltd did, though, succeed in acquiring around 220 acres to build sports and recreational facilities for the area’s burgeoning population. A Tudor-style banqueting hall, later known as The Blandford Hall, was the first major structure to be built there, in 1864, and from 1868 the Park was the home of what for over a century was London’s only racecourse. It was deeply unpopular with jockeys because its layout required horses to run around a tight circle known as “The Frying Pan” and then along a sloping straight. Many riders and horses were injured.
Nevertheless, it was a hit with the public, meetings regularly attracting crowds of up to 30,000. Some visitors were less than savoury. The Scotsman on April 4, 1921, reported on a Peaky Blinders style clash on the course, the latest in a “feud between a Midland gang and another set of men”, with two hospitalised and one arrest. The last meeting was held on September 8, 1970, in front of 2,749 spectators, the course being unable to meet the stiffer safety requirements prevailing at the time.
Work started on “The Palace of the People”, the centrepiece of the park and the manifestation of Jones’ vision, in 1864. Designed by Alfred Meeson, its construction recycled much of the material used to build the International Exhibition held in Kensington in 1862. Even so, financial difficulties blighted the project, and it took nine years to complete the Palace. Its long-anticipated opening, on May 24, 1873, Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday, was celebrated with concerts, recitals, and fireworks.