When the old Wembley Stadium was being demolished, builders came across an unusual structure underneath the Twin Towers. It was part of London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, a near-replica of the Paris original planned and partially built in the late 19th century by the great railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin MP.
Watkin had actually tried to get Gustave Eiffel, architect of the Paris tower – completed and unveiled in 1889 – to build it, but the canny Frenchman rightly thought that to create an even taller version for the British might tarnish his credentials as a true Frenchman.
The Watkin project nevertheless went ahead. The design, the winning entry in a competition which received 68 submissions, was for a tower 46 metres higher than the Eiffel and featuring a cornucopia of attractions, with two observation decks holding a hotel, restaurants, theatres, exhibitions, an observatory and Turkish baths. Many of the unsuccessful submissions were more amazing still, including one with a spiral railway to the top. No kidding.
The Great Tower of London, as it was billed, reached a height of 47 metres – with a lift for visitors installed – before lack of money and structural problems scuppered the project. Part of the problem was that the original design was scaled back from being supported by eight legs on the rather marshy ground to only four.
The tower was to have been the centrepiece of an otherwise successful grand pleasure park with ornamental gardens hosting football and cricket pitches – all connected to the centre of London by the Metropolitan Line, whose company chairman Watkin was. Had the Grand Tower been completed it would have been stunning and it is likely that the first Wembley Stadium would have been built somewhere else.
Of course, the biggest objection to Watkin’s tower was that it was derivative. Unlike London’s pleasure gardens of old – Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Cremorne and so on – which were imitated around the world, the one in Wembley would have been playing catch-up with France. Yet in many ways Watkin was a man way ahead of his time.
Born in Salford, he planned a railway line from the north of England into London and then to Paris and onwards. This, of course, would have needed a Channel Tunnel. Watkin not only knew this but actually started to build one in cooperation with the French. At the UK end, boring reached nearly two miles out to sea before the government, fearful of a theoretical French invasion, put a stop to it. The remains are still there, off the coast of Kent, suitably boarded up.
Another of the numerous ideas of this amazing man was to transform the economy of Ireland by building a tunnel to it from Scotland. Don’t tell you-know-who.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be bought here. Follow Vic on Twitter. Painting depicting Shakespeare at the Mermaid by John Faed, 1851.
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