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Watkin’s Tower

January 17, 2009

Isambard K. Brunel was the Steve Jobs of his day, the businessman who gained public adulation through high-tech. As he lived in the first half of the 19th century, this was railway bridges and steamships, but he tapped into the zeitgeist of contemporary England and its love of engineering megalomania.

This story isn’t about him. Rather it’s about one of the many men who tried to take his place after his untimely death in 1859. Sir Edward Watkin was a railway man himself, though one notably less successful than Brunel. His most famous achievement is his failed attempt to build a Channel Tunnel a hundred years before England and France were successfully joined beneath the Straits of Dover. His company drilled one-and-a-fifth mile from Shakespeare Cliff in Kent, and another mile from Sangatte in France—not bad for the 1880s considering that the strait is only twenty miles across.

Watkin was a mix of psychological impulses typical of England at the time: Grecophilia, as the builder of the railroad between the classically important Athens and port of Piraeus; colonial frenzy, as a proponent of railways in Canada and the Belgian Congo; and simultaneous Francophobia and Anglophilia, which was the base of Watkin’s Tower. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the centenary of the French revolution in 1889, and it’s difficult to overestimate the sensation it caused. Many people don’t realize that it was by far the tallest man-made structure in the world at the time, and in particular was the project that had finally utterly surpassed the Great Pyramid at Giza, which had held the record for 3800 years. True, the pyramid had been beaten in the decades just previous by first the Hamburg, Rouen, and Cologne Cathedrals and then the Washington Monument, but even the latter was a mere 74 feet taller than Khufu’s ancient tomb. Gustave Eiffel’s masterwork exceeded the spire in the United States by 431 feet! All in one shot it was the first building to exceed 600, 700, 800, and 900 feet.

A certain element of British society wasn’t going to stand still for France surpassing them in any way, and Edward Watkin was their champion when it came to tall buildings. He set about trying to build a larger tower on land he owned in the what is now the London neighborhood of Wembley Park; it had the same name in 1889, but was to the north of the city then, and rural. A competition was held for designs, and won by a 1200-foot, eight-legged tower that nevertheless failed to impress Sir Edward. He offered the commission to Gustave Eiffel himself, who turned it down for patriotic reasons. Rebuffed, Watkin returned to the original design and assigned the work to Sir Benjamin Baker, famous for designing the strange custom pontoon in which London’s Cleopatra’s Needle was towed to London from Alexandria and who would one day build the Aswan Low Dam.

The foundations were laid in 1892, and work on the actual tower began the next year. Even as the work progressed, the design was changed to a four-legged one much more like the Parisian tower, then construction halted 155 feet up at the first deck due to money running out and problems with the marshy ground on which the foundations had been poured. Sir Edward surrounded the London Stump, as it was coming to be called when people weren’t calling it Watkin’s Folly, with various park facilities and tea rooms in the hope that crowds from the newly opened Wembley Park Station of the London Underground (a station which Watkin himself owned, as part of his Metropolitan Line) would find it a tourist attraction anyway. But the plan failed, and in 1899 the Metropolitan Tower Construction Company put together to build Watkin’s dream went into bankruptcy. In 1902, the fractional monument was closed to the public, unsafe due to lack of maintenance.

The truncated tower was finally demolished between 1904 and 1907 and the land lay fallow for a while. In 1923 building began again for the upcoming British Empire Exhibition. The foundations of Watkin’s Folly were laid over with the base of a new sporting venue, Empire Stadium. After the exhibition was over, it was given a new name by which it was better known: Wembley Stadium. British readers need no further explanation—to them it would be like explaining what their parents look like—but others will be curious to know that a long series of events such as the 1948 Summer Olympics, and the British portion of Live Aid all took place with the ghost of Watkin’s Tower looking on. When the old Wembley Stadium was torn down in 2003 to make way for its new replacement, the level of the playing pitch was lowered and, in so doing, the last remnants of the tower’s foundation—which had been largely demolished in 1907—were uncovered once more. They’re still under the pitch where some of the world’s most notable soccer matches are played today. Otherwise the only sign of Sir Edward Watkin and his tower is Watkin Road, a nondescript crescent of asphalt barely 500 feet long, north and a bit east of the stadium complex.

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