As the 19th century drew to a close, the Eiffel Tower was considered one of the world’s architectural wonders, as well as being the tallest man-made structure on the planet. This didn’t sit well with some in Britain, who looked across the channel with with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans for a tower that would put the French into second place.
This wasn’t purely a matter of national pride - the Eiffel Tower was making a huge amount of money through entrance fees alone, even before the income from the restaurants and shops incorporated into the structure. The biggest advocate for a London rival was Sir Edward Watkin, an impressively facial-haired MP who had a long history of running train companies, including a failed attempt at a channel tunnel; his most recent endeavour was the Metropolitan Railway (now the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line), and he figured that building a socking great tower at one end of it was one way of getting people onto trains.
After consulting Eiffel, who patriotically declined to better his domestic work in a foreign land, a competition was run to find a design: the major specification being that the tower would stand at minimum 1,200 feet tall, nearly 200 feet taller than the Parisian effort. Entries arrived from around the world, and the results were published in a catalogue, which includes some pleasantly bizarre ideas.
Whilst most stuck to something around the minimum height, one of the wildest suggestions (courtesy of Albert Brunel, Rouen, France) was for a 2,296-foot high tower made out of granite. To give an idea of the scale of that ambition: it would have been the tallest structure in the world until the construction of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010.
Three of the competition entries. Feasibility not necessarily a concern.
A homegrown London effort with the catchy name of "Monument of Hieroglyphics emblematical of British History during Queen Victoria's Reign" clocked in at a mere 2,000 feet, but was a 300,000-ton spiral column with a railway running halfway up it. Practical!
The more sensible designs show Eiffel’s influence, and the winner of the 500 guinea prize was a steel-framed job by engineer A. D. Stewart and architects J. M. Maclaren and W. Dunn, of London. Described as being of “Oriental character” their 1,200-foot design included a hotel, restaurants, a high-altitude sanatorium, an observatory and even Turkish baths.
The winning 8-legged design - later revised to lose 4 legs, and 25 feet. Confusingly.
While 1,200 feet may have been the bare minimum for the competition - and the final plan was revised downwards to 1,175 - if it was standing today it would still be by far the tallest structure in London, towering over the Shard’s pathetic 1,016. And it would have been ten times the height of the next highest building in London at the time, St Paul’s cathedral.
Construction on Watkin’s tower was started, in Wembley Park - the still extant station of the same name was built specifically to bring people to the tower and surrounding attractions. But if you’ve visited the area later, you may have noted the absence of Eiffel tower-beating steel monsters. From the start the project ran into financial difficulties: a shortage of initial investment led to a simplified design that turned out to be less stable than projected. The first stage of the tower went up and was opened to the paying public in 1896, but the 154-foot high platform didn’t prove popular enough to ease the project’s money troubles, and the project went into liquidation.
The only completed section of Watkin's tower: still the tallest structure in London at the time, to be fair.
The tower’s chief champion was by now absent, Watkin having retired after a stroke. He passed away in 1901, and the following year safety concerns over the stability issue finally forced the closure of what could have been his lasting memorial. It was dynamited to bits a few years later. This made way for a more familiar Wembley icon: the original football stadium, constructed on the same site in 1923, in part because of the railway station and other facilities originally built for the tower.
The last traces of the tower were remnants of the concrete foundations, rediscovered and removed in the 2000s when they added yet another delay to the troubled construction of the new Wembley Stadium. But just down the road, the endeavour is commemorated in the name of a local pub: the Watkins' Folly.