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Super tall, super smart | Watkin's Tower

Watkin tower first stage cropped

If a visionary Victorian entrepreneur had had his way, Wembley today would be famous for a structure even more iconic than the national stadium.

In 2003, excavations on the site of the new Wembley Stadium uncovered mysterious concrete foundations. They seemed to have no relationship to the old stadium that had been built there in 1923 and controversially demolished in 2002. Local history soon provided the answer.

These foundations were said to be the last remnants of the London Stump, as it was dubbed back in 1899. They should have supported a grandiose steel structure taller than, and reminiscent of, the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris. Even today it would be the tallest structure in London, topping the Shard by more than 50m. The highest it ever reached, however, was 47m, much to the dismay of its promoter.

Sir Edward William Watkin was a Liberal MP with lofty ambitions. His first great vision was of a railway service connecting Manchester and Paris via a tunnel under the Channel. The Anglo-French Submarine Railway Company he formed actually began work on a pilot tunnel in 1880, and had progressed nearly 2km towards France when populist fears of enemy invasion through any such tunnel caused the government to cancel the project in 1881.

Dismayed but undaunted, Watkin continued to promote and publicise railway projects. He was chairman of no fewer than nine railway companies in the UK and one in France. It was his chairmanship of the Metropolitan Railway – later to become London Underground’s Metropolitan Line – that gave Watkin his next really big idea.

Back then Wembley was a sleepy hamlet to the west of London. Its main feature was Wembley Park, a stately home whose grounds had been laid out by the famous landscape designer Humphry Repton. The Metropolitan Railway had sliced through the Park in 1880 as it headed towards Harrow, and this green oasis, “only 12 minutes from Baker Street Station”, immediately attracted Watkin’s entrepreneurial gaze.

Watkin Tower winning design

Watkin Tower winning design

The winning design featured eight legs, required almost 15,000t of steel and would have cost more than £300M in today’s prices.

He persuaded his fellow directors to acquire 113ha of the Park, and planned a visitor attraction that would bring Londoners flocking out from the city, all travelling on his railway and alighting at a new station. There would be a boating lake, a golf course, football and cricket fields, tearooms and a variety theatre. And at the centre of it all, visible for many miles around, would be the Great Tower of London.

Obviously it had to be significantly taller than the Eiffel Tower, which had opened in 1889. The Tower Company was formed to promote the project, with Watkin inevitably as chairman. Typically of Watkin, he actually asked Gustav Eiffel to design it for him: Eiffel wisely declined, on the grounds that the French would never forgive him. Instead, the company announced a grand international design competition, with a first prize of 500 guineas, and a consolation prize of 250 guineas for the runner-up, more than £50,000 and £25,000 respectively in today’s money.

Entries poured in from all over the world, from the United States, Australia, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Italy and Germany, even one from Turkey, as well as many from the UK. Of the 68 received, most bore more than a passing resemblance to Eiffel’s original design.

Towering heights

  • Height of Watkin’s Tower (planned) 358m
  • Height of Eiffel Tower (1890) 312m
  • Height of Shard 306m

Although the rules of the competition had not expressly required the designs to exceed the Eiffel Tower’s 312m, all did, mostly by 50m or more. What was specified was the need to accommodate “special facilities for pleasure seekers”, such as restaurants, theatres, shops, Turkish baths, promenades and winter gardens.

There were a number of attempts to avoid the Eiffel-style approach. Some were frankly bizarre, such as the screw-like Century Tower, and a glass clad entry from Canada, described as “circumferentially, radially and diagonally bound”, which was essentially a very tall building with more in common with the Shard than the Eiffel Tower.

Watkins 2

Watkins 2

The runner-up prize of 250 Guineas, or £25,000 in today’s money, was awarded to John J Webster, MICE, and T W Haigh of Liverpool.

Perhaps most bizarre of all was the conical entry from Constantinople (now Istanbul). Few details accompanied the entry, not least why it was dubbed “Upas Tree of Java.” Given that the Upas tree was popularly believed to secrete the deadliest vegetable poison on the planet, it seems a strange description.

A wide range of “special facilities” was proposed. These included sanatoriums, housing, “bachelor flats” and hotels as well as those suggested in the specifications. One competitor proposed to suck clean air from the top of the tower and deliver it to nearby housing. Another suggested that a “captive parachute” capable of carrying four thrill seekers would pull in the crowds.

watkinsdesign4 cropped

watkinsdesign4 cropped

The screw-like Century Tower design

Access up the tower was to be by lifts in the majority of cases, be they electric, hydraulic, pneumatic or steam powered. There was even a proposal for a lift large enough to raise a horse and carriage up to the promenade on the first level.

A mystery remains. Some sources report that the foundations were broken up with dynamite, ‘leaving four large holes in the ground’.

Several entries had steam railways or electric trams spiralling around the outside of the tower. In one design, it was hoped that visitors, would ascend to the highest point up an external spiral roadway on the backs of “specially trained mules.”

In the event, the judging panel, headed by Forth Bridge designer Sir Benjamin Baker, opted for a relatively conservative British design. This featured eight legs as opposed to the Eiffel Tower’s four, required nearly 15,000t of steel and was estimated to cost at least £300M at today’s prices.

It very soon became obvious that there was never going to be enough funding to turn the winning design into reality. A cheaper, four legged alternative was reluctantly adopted, and work on the foundations began in 1892.

Ground conditions were marshy and unpredictable. Erection had progressed to the 47m level when it became obvious that they were inadequate.

Work stopped on what was by then known as Watkin’s Folly, the money ran out, and in 1901 Watkin died. The truncated tower at Wembley attracted little attention from the public, and was allowed to deteriorate. In 1902 it closed for safety reasons, and two years later demolition began.

A mystery remains. Some sources report that the foundations were broken up with dynamite, “leaving four large holes in the ground”. So exactly what was discovered in 2003?

Edward William Watkin  Vanity Fair  1875 11 06

Edward William Watkin Vanity Fair 1875 11 06

A caricature of Sir Edward William Watkin, published in Vanity Fair, 1875.

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