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.


 

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.