How London lost its Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: not available in London. Image: Edisonblus/Wikimedia Commons

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.


 

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.