Early icons

A little bit more about the Victorian ‘tower for London’ competition posted about last week. Flicking through the descriptive illustrated catalogue of the competition and the sheer range and stylistic variety of the entrants is self-evident, from amateur improbabilities to rather cynical ventures from industry. For example, an ironworks would naturally suggest that the city build an iron tower, as is the case with the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. Ltd and their very Eiffel-esque proposal. Famously, the intention was to build London’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, a purely capitalistic exercise to raise revenue. As the catalogue noted:

The popularity of the Eiffel Tower may be fairly guaged (sic) by the receipts in connection with it. During the Exhibition the net takings on the Tower amounted to £260,000, a sum almost equal to its cost. During the period the Tower has been open, since the closing of the Exhibition, the average weekly receipts from entrance charges alone (excluding rents of shops and profits from the restaurants and the resources) amounted to £1,148, and this during very unfavourable weather. The receipts from the shops, restaurants, concerts &c., would very materially raise the above-named weekly average, leaving very large profit over expenses. The Eiffel Tower has already rendered valuable service to science, besides affording special opportunities for for observation and research, which, owing to its altitude, are no otherwise attainable. Taking into consideration the enormous popularity of the Eiffel Tower and the consequent pecuniary benefits conferred on those interested in that undertaking, it is not too much to anticipate that, in the course of a short time, every important country will possess its tall Tower. The project of erecting a great Tower in London soon found the willing support of many capitalists, who felt convinced that if the scheme were properly laid before the public there would be no great difficulty in accomplishing the object.


Unsurprisingly, aping Gustave Eiffel was the preferred strategy of many entrants, including J.H.M Harrison-Vasey’s attempt to solve the problem of tapering floor plates, or even the winner of the competition by the architects Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn. The organisers even approached the Frenchman to persuade him to enter. He apparently replied, ‘If after erecting my tower on French soil, I were to erect one in England, they would not think me so good a Frenchman as I hope I am.’ Other suggestions were more elaborate, like the surprisingly futuristic Skylon-esque construction by by Rendel, Findlay and Ricardo, who also had a crack at a more ornate design. Another especially picturesque design came from the Italian architect Lamont Young. They were also mostly unbuildable, leaving the Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn scheme practically the only option.


The project was ultimately doomed. Although the winning design became known as Watkin’s Tower, named for its instigator, the MP and entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin, it was soon dubbed Watkin’s Folly, as financial woes and construction difficulties led to the scheme being abandoned in 1894, with only the first platform completed. It was eventually demolished in 1907, the Wembley location now the site of Wembley Stadium. The above photo is by cam man.

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