As Gustav Eiffel was putting the finishing touches to his towering marvel of wrought iron for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, waxed moustaches began to twitch in the drawing rooms of Britain. Here, now, was a manmade structure standing at 1,063ft that dwarfed the tallest monument on British soil, Nelson’s Column and it wasn’t sitting well with the country that single handedly started the industrial revolution.
Mr. Eiffel’s creation started a spate of similar erections(!) across the channel, the most famous and enduring one being Blackpool Tower. I will do a piece on Lancashire’s most famous folly later but for now I want to ressurect the towers of the 1890’s that came to fruition (or not) but sadly had a limited tenure.
The tower was built in 1898 and unlike the Eiffel tower was not a free standing structure. The base of the tower was built into the Tower theatre structure and it’s foundations. The tower stood at 232ft and was demolished at the onset of the First World War, the steel was to be used for munitions to aid the war effort.
New Brighton Tower
Further down the west coast on the Wirral Peninsula in Wallasey was the New Brighton Tower. Constructed 8 years earlier than the Morecambe tower in 1896 and completed 4 years later it stood at 567ft and was nearly 50ft taller than the tower in Blackpool .
The tower comprised of an octagonal lattice work and had a brief and chequered history. According to reports of the day, 6 workmen were killed and 1 seriously injured in it’s construction. Upon opening to the public in 1890 a young man leapt to his death from the balcony from what was then the highest structure in the the country.
The tower was built out of the structure of the Tower Ballroom at a cost of £120,00 with over a 1000 tons of (mild) steel being used in it’s construction. The tower and ballroom stood in the Tower Gardens which covered around 35 acres in all and even had it’s own small police force of 15 officers who patrolled the gardens keeping order. Among all the other attractions on the site was a large Japanese styled cafe at the lakeside which had Venetian Gondolas with ‘real’ Gondoliers.
As the First World War broke out the tower was put off-limits to the public for military reasons and during this period the superstructure with no maintenance began to fall into disrepair. Between 1919 and 1932 the tower was eventually dismantled leaving the building underneath.
The Tower ballroom survived until a fire in 1969 destroyed the building but gave a glimpse of the tower’s legacy in the smouldering ruins of the edifice that once surrounded it.
In 1889 Sir Edward Watkin, MP of the day and the Chairman of London’s Metropolitan Railway picked up the gauntlet that Gustav Eiffel had thrown down with his tower in Paris for the World’s Fair that same year.
He made a vow to construct a British tower that would be taller, bigger and more spectacular than anything the French could build.
Watkin had made his fortune in railways, creating networks in England, India and the Belgian Congo.
Immensely energetic and deeply ambitious, he also happened to be a proud nationalist.
Ever-the-entrepreneur, Watkin also had his eye on increasing his fortune. He reasoned that if the new British mega-tower was built in Wembley Park – a large area of unused land to the north-west of London – then his own Metropolitan Railway could transport the thousands of annual visitors to the site.
Watkin launched a competition to build the British tower within months of the inauguration of Eiffel’s rival tower.
‘Anything Paris can do, London can do better!’ Watkin claimed.
By the end of 1889, architects from across the world were working on designs for a tower that would be taller and more spectacular than Eiffel’s.
The Metropolitan Tower Construction Company was set up to oversee the design and construction and soon became a byword for national pride. The Company offered a prize of 500 guineas for the best designed tower and Watkin even dared to approach Gustav Eiffel and ask if he’d like to submit an entry. Eiffel politely declined.
‘If I,’ he said, ‘after erecting my tower on French soil, were to erect one in England, they would not think me so good a Frenchman as I hope I am.’
Soon the designs began to arrive on Watkin’s desk from all over the globe and Watkin soon realised that most of the designs were outlandish and completely unsuitable. One, named ‘Ye Vegetarian Tower’, was submitted by the London Vegetarian Society. It came complete with hanging vegetable gardens. Another, the so-called Tower of Babel, was so vast in scale that it had a road and railway leading to the top.
Perhaps the most extraordinary design – of a tower far taller than Eiffel’s – was to be built entirely of glass.
Practicality had to prevail if the project was to go ahead and a design was chosen. Standing upon four legs (the original design had six) it was in every respect an exact copy of the Eiffel Tower but it stood 87 feet taller than it’s counterpart of the day, Watkin had his winner.
Work on the tower was begun immediately and by 1891 the huge holes that had been blasted to hold the concrete foundations for the 3000 ton structure had been completed. As the tower rose to 62ft, curious locals began to flock to the site to see Watkin’s tower take shape with Watkin himself vowing that the tower would be completed by 1894.
When the surrounding park was opened to the public in 1894 the tower remained at a paltry 155ft. Some 100,000 people came to see the unfinished tower; most were extremely disappointed to see a partial replica of Eiffel’s French tour-de-force. Only 18,500 bothered to buy a ticket to ascend to the first (and only) level.
At the end of 1894 Watkin’s workmen had downed tools as the concrete foundations where revealed to be unsuitable to take the tower any higher. The Metropolitan Tower Construction Company ran out of money and the public ran out of interest. The tower was abandoned and soon became known as ‘Watkin’s Folly’. For the next 13 years it stood like a rusting stump on the London skyline.
In 1907 the structure was deemed unsafe and an eyesore and was demolished, the steel being used for the war effort with the concrete foundations being finally demolished in a controlled explosion so that the land could be reused.