Wembley tower

10th September 2004 at 01:00
an you imagine sweating in a Turkish bath 1,000 feet above London? Sir Edward Watkin could. The idea came to him when he visited the newly completed Eiffel tower in 1889, and it seemed to make sound business sense.

Watkin was chairman of the Metropolitan Railway and also owned land at Wembley Park. So it stood to reason that a British Eiffel tower, built on his estate and served by his trains, could do him nothing but good.

On returning to England, he set up the Metroplitan Tower Construction Company and launched a design competition. The tower would have to be bigger and better than the Parisian effort, of course, so the judges chose an eight-legged colossus whose platforms would feature restaurants, theatres, ballrooms and, yes, Turkish baths. At 1,200 feet - about 367 metres - high, it would also outdo the French tower by more than 300 feet.

Given the element of national pride involved, it seems surprising that Watkin then asked Gustave Eiffel to take charge. When Eiffel declined on patriotic grounds, Watkin called in Sir Benjamin Baker (pictured above), designer of the stolid Forth Bridge.

With Baker at the helm, work got under way and by the end of 1892 the massive foundations were in place. Somewhere along the way, four of the eight legs were dropped to cut costs. But by September 1895, the structure stood 155 feet high. And then the foundations began moving, because, as it turned out, Watkin's site was more than a little marshy. This obstacle proved insurmountable, and work quickly ground to a halt.

By this time, Wembley Park station had opened, so Watkin, determined to cut his losses, surrounded the tower stump with pleasure gardens and waited for the crowds to arrive. Which to begin with, they did. Before long, however, interest dwindled. The project became known as Watkin's Folly, the construction company went bust, and the great entrepreneur himself became ill. Demolition began in 1904.

Twenty years later, the crowds would return to the tower site when a vast sports stadium, built as part of the British Empire Exhibition, opened its doors at Wembley.

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